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The Vinarchiste of Bergerac

Why would a formidable Frenchman shift from reds to whites?
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Luc de Conti is pulling up his red-wine grapevines and replacing them with Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties.

Posted: Jan 26, 2015 11:00am ET

There was a memo that never made it to Luc de Conti in Ribagnac, France: the one that said If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

At 53, after nearly 30 vintages, de Conti is considered a leader for both quality wines and organic farming in southwest France's red-dominated Bergerac region.

But he isn't satisfied.

"Yes, we can make good red wines here, but great red wines are difficult," says de Conti, standing amid his vines on a limestone plateau about 50 miles east of Bordeaux. "Here it's easy to make great whites with character."

Hence, de Conti's latest mission: replacing his Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. His family's 120 acres of estate vineyards are now 60 percent white varieties, and he is going to plant more.

"For me, the greatest potential for a grand vin is Sauvignon," says de Conti, his green eyes full of evangelical fervor.

De Conti is a restless perfectionist, stubborn individualist and self-taught winemaker who doesn't use enologists or consultants. In France, he's been called a "vinarchiste."  But he's more than another eccentric vigneron with an attitude.

"Luc has all the assets to be one of the greatest makers of white wine in France,"says de Conti's friend Stéphane Derenoncourt, the renowned Bordeaux winemaker and consultant. Derononcourt goes so far as to hail the 1996 vintage of de Conti's top white, called Anthologia, as "by far the greatest white of the southwest—including Bordeaux—ever vinified."

In the gorgeous, historic Dordogne region, with its rich cuisine of duck and foie gras, de Conti's wines—under the Château Tour des Gendres or Famille de Conti labels—top the best lists. His red Famille de Conti Côtes de Bergerac Moulin des Dames (2008, 86 points, $38) is a deep, dark Bergerac benchmark.

But de Conti thinks Bergerac made a big mistake long ago: Following the outbreak of phylloxera here in the 1870s, locals replanted most vineyards with red grapes rather than historic white varieties.

"From the 11th century to the 19th century, it was 100 percent white!" de Conti says. "We have an enormous potential here that hasn't been realized."

Bergerac has a relatively short growing season, with a late-arriving spring. That, says de Conti, is best-suited for complex dry whites like his two powerful, mineral-rich Sauvignons, which he ferments in oak barrels: Famille de Conti Bergerac Sec Moulin des Dames (2010, 87 points, $43) and Anthologia.

De Conti, whose grandfather arrived from northeastern Italy, represents the third generation of his family to farm in the Bergerac hills. In 1981, he and his wife, Martine, bought the 12th-century farm next to the family's vineyards, initially planning to develop an equestrian club. When that plan failed, he and his brother Jean turned to the vineyards, which had been used to produce bulk-wine grapes and began replanting.

Soon they were producing their own wines to compete with Bordeaux. The de Contis drastically cut vineyard yields, converted to organic agriculture and bought new barriques, the small oak barrels that, in France outside Bordeaux, had primarily been reserved for elite wines.

"No one in Bergerac had wanted to make high-end wines," de Conti shakes his head.

De Conti's wine journey has been one of continuous revolutions. In recent years, he has replaced the barriques for aging reds with large casks and has begun experimenting with large, spherical clay amphorae.

Though one-fourth of his family's vineyards are cultivated biodynamically, which is very labor intensive, de Conti has moved in the past decade to machine harvesters."For whites, the machine harvest is 100 percent better," de Conti says. "The period of maturity is very short, and the key to the harvest is picking in two to three days."

Keeping up with de Conti requires a flow chart. He changes winemaking techniques and blends with nearly every vintage, and in recent years he has been moving to varietal bottlings that he says better express his terroir.

As for the future, de Conti's son Gilles, 29, trained as an enologist and has been groomed to take over. That may one day happen. But in 2013, the younger de Conti was snared by a different muse and started a local microbrewery called Lapépie. Few were surprised he hadn't gotten the memo either.

 

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