This is a longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times. See also the accompanying tasting notes.
In the 1990s Jean-François Julien was a carpenter who knew nothing about wine but used to mend furniture for the aristocratic owner of Château Canon La Gaffelière, Graf Stephan von Neipperg. Today his own small wine property in St-Émilion enjoys exactly the same status as the count's did then. Château La Fleur Morange was promoted to Grand Cru Classé in 2012.
There is nothing of the well-tailored suaveness of the moustachioed count about Julien. With his ruddy face and gruff, ready laugh, he still looks like a carpenter or rugbyman (he sponsors the Libourne rugby team), but he has certainly transformed his practical qualities into gold.
Julien fell into wine by accident. He planted vines on some land he owned in his native village St-Pey-d'Armens in the far south-east corner of the St-Émilion appellation purely as a defensive measure to stop the local council insisting he gave it up for social housing. 'I knew nothing about wine then', he readily admits. 'I hadn't heard of garage wine. But I profited from it, I must admit.'
He is far from the only right-bank garagiste and certainly wasn't the only smallholder on Bordeaux's right bank to be inspired by the commercial success of Jean-Luc Thunevin, whose Château de Valandraud was initially made on such a small scale that it could be made in a garage. (Today Valandraud has its own handsome château building and a selling price many times more than that of Canon La Gaffelière.)
His first vintage was 1999, 900 bottles made, aspiring right-bank vigneron-style, in his father-in-law's garage, with a copy of the celebrated local oenologist Professor Émile Peynaud's textbook in his hand. His wife Véronique's father had long owned some vineyard but used to send all his grapes to the local co-op.
Julien did some serious research into local soil types and on my visit to his immaculate miniature cellar last spring, he was particularly keen to show me a geological map of St-Émilion demonstrating in his quarter of St-Pey-d'Armens an impressive concentration of the sort of water-retaining iron-rich clay on which Petrus in Pomerol, the most famous right-bank wine of all, is based. I couldn't help wondering why no one else had noticed this, but then in Bordeaux it is relatively difficult to go prospecting for vineyard land; unless you are one of France's richest men, you more or less end up with what you or your spouse were born with.
By dint of land swaps within the village, Julien and his wife Véronique now own 3.8 hectares of vines, of which 2 hectares comprise some of the oldest Merlot vines in St-Émilion, said to be 100 years old. They also grow the other classic right-bank variety Cabernet Franc.
Hands-on is perhaps an understatement for his wine-production techniques. In 2000 he designed and constructed a tiny but mould-breaking winery next to the sandier vineyard that supplies his second wine Mathilde, called after their daughter. (I took this photograph of Julien in his little vine-decorated winery kitchen with computer panel monitoring the vats set into the wall.) The grapes are destemmed by hand, a most luxurious, time-consuming process. Fermentation takes place in special temperature-controlled, double-walled vats shaped like truncated cones – a shape beloved by Italian winemakers but prototypes so unloved in Bordeaux at the time that Julien was able to take them off the hands of their maker at a bargain price. The press is one of the old-fashioned basket presses that have since become so fashionable.
Everything is kept high so that no pumping is required – with typical ebullience Julien claims his is Bordeaux's first gravity-fed winery. His carefully selected new barrels are hoisted into the rafters where it's warm enough to encourage the softening malolactic conversion. As for the vineyard, 'I have a little collection of my own vine selections - just like Haut-Brion', he laughs at his comparison with the vine nursery at the first-growth property mentioned by Samuel Pepys.
It was the hand-sorting that won him, via local publicity, his first customers. A photographer from the local paper the Sud Ouest came and took pictures of this crazy family crew painstakingly separating grapes from their stems when there are perfectly good machines designed to do just that.
The photographs drew the attention of a local wine broker who came and tasted the wine. 'He said "this is crazy". He thought someone had helped me and could hardly believe that all I'd done was read Émile Peynaud's book.' The broker showed a sample to the American right-bank wine broker Jeffrey Davies, who was then developing a stable of garagistes to feed the American market with their concentrated, modernist wines. Davies thought Julien would benefit from some extra finesse and in 2002 introduced him to the Narbonne-based consultant Claude Gros. When I interviewed Gros in 2008 about his work throughout southern France, northern Spain and Slovenia, he volunteered that 'the Juliens love their vines so much, they practically have a name for each of them'.
By this time, Julien had seen a television programme about the sort of prices Thunevin was achieving for Valandraud, so when Davies asked him what sort of price Julien thought La Fleur Morange was worth, he suggested a crazy sum, adding airily that he could always drink the wine with his friends if it didn't sell. 'I knew perfectly well there was something unique about this terroir - and my unique winemaking techniques', was his robust justification. He says his vines are often two weeks ahead of the rest of St-Émilion because it faces south east and is particularly sheltered. The spring frost risk is high.
Davies got a sample of La Fleur Morange 2000 to the then-omnipotent American wine critic Robert Parker. 'I didn't know who he was', said Julien with another laugh. 'I was on the tractor cutting wood in a field when the first calls from the brokers came through to our answering machine. My lawyer in Castillon [the nearest town] called my mobile and told me to sit down. I thought someone had died.' The lawyer then explained the significance of a Parker score of 93 out of 100, although he hardly needed to. Julien sold his entire crop, at a more reasonable but still extremely bold price, in 20 minutes.
'I got home and my fax was stuffed with messages from négociants', Julien gurgled in the little winery kitchen he designed, the vine tendrils on the walls curling round a computer panel for the vats (see my rather excitedly blurred picture above). 'People thought it must be a fluke, but I got another good note for my 2001 – almost as good as Petrus - and I sold it all again.'
But it was not all plain sailing. The Juliens failed to pay taxes on this delightfully sudden income stream. And garage wines in general have since fallen seriously out of fashion. But according to Nick Stephen of Interest in Wine, Julien's UK importer, he never has any difficulty selling either Le Fleur Morange (total production about 5,500 bottles a year) nor the more approachable Mathilde (12,000 bottles) that is particularly popular in the US. 'It has a cult following', I was assured, even in China.
I first came across La Fleur Morange in an extensive blind tasting of right bank 2005s in 2008 when Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners and I were respectively convinced that this mystery wine was Ausone and Pavie, two or the four estates now in the rarefied rank two notches above Grand Cru Classé (see my 2008 article). In 2012 Graf von Neipperg's Canon La Gaffelière was promoted one notch above La Fleur Morange – something to aim for?
See also the accompanying tasting notes.