Tom Bove—the man who restored Provence’s now-famed Château Miraval, then sold it a decade ago to celebrity powerhouse then-couple you-know-who—is at it again.
At 79, an age when he might be polishing his pétanque playing or hanging out at the club in St.-Tropez, Bove is running around the site of his latest winery restoration project: Château Bellini, about 6 miles northwest of Miraval, in the Coteaux Varois en Provence appellation, where he makes red and white wines along with rosé.
“You gotta see this!” Bove’s face lights up as he bounds up a dune of dug-up red clay soil and limestone. From the top is a view of a 17-acre vineyard that Team Bove is replanting, first by excavating to a depth of about 13 feet and then breaking up or removing refrigerator-sized boulders that would block future vine roots.
“The vineyard was poorly done; the husbandry of the vines was not good,” Bove explains. “It just needed to be reworked from the start.”
In 2017, Bove bought the centuries-old Domaine de Fontlade, situated along the ancient Roman road Via Aurelia, with about 300 acres of oak forest. An art and opera aficionado, he renamed it after the the family doberman, who is named after Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini and the Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini.
After more than five years, Bellini is in a bustling state of construction. The impressive Italianate farmhouse is being renovated down to its thick stone walls for a 12-room boutique hotel. Bove has already built new offices for himself and the winery, along with a tasting room, into an adjacent hillside. He and his wife, Sally, live 100 yards away in another completely renovated farmhouse that, up until he bought it, had been used as a goat barn.
Like all Bove projects, the new construction and the old flow seamlessly together. He has built a reputation as a perfectionist with a knack for developing beautiful wine estates in his adopted home of Provence.
“My idea is to do everything as high quality as I can without being stupid,” he says, grinning.
He admits he has done stupid things. Or at least one stupid thing. But we’ll get to that later.
For now, understand that, for Bove, wine is a sideline or a “sickness.” Not his livelihood.
Born in Indiana, Bove first made wine at home with his Italian immigrant grandfather. He studied engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy, then traveled to Europe for a civilian job and never went back. He made a fortune after launching the worldwide wastewater treatment systems company Rochem Group in 1973 and remains its CEO.
In 1993, he and his first wife, Jane, found a Provence dream home, surrounded by 1,000 acres of woodlands, for themselves and their five children. “I bought Miraval as a place for us,” he says. “It had vineyards that were out of use, so I said, ‘OK, let’s make some wine.’”
Bove teamed with noted Provence enologist Emmanuel Gaujal and focused largely on a white from Rolle (the local name for Vermentino), but also made red wine and a cheekily named rosé: Pink Floyd, after the band, which recorded some songs from The Wall at a studio on the property in the 1970s.
“Most people thought I was crazy—starting with my father,” he remembers. “But I got the wine bug there, and I saw we could make good wines in this area.”
After Jane died in a 1998 plane crash, he threw himself not only into Miraval but also into buying other properties. Chief among them was nearby Mascaronne (purchased in 1999), 200 acres of hills with vineyards and a 19th-century farmhouse—all of it needing to be restructured and replanted. After the sale of Miraval in 2012, Bove renovated the farmhouse at Mascaronne and moved in with his to-be second wife, Sally.
When I visited Bove there in 2015, I assumed Mascaronne would be his final major development project—along with the small northern Provence estate Château Bomont de Cormeil, where he makes Rhône-style Syrah and Viognier in the Coteaux du Verdon appellation.
At all his properties, Bove sticks to the same principles: organic farming, hand-harvesting and estate grapes.
“In all my vineyards, I try to do red, white and rosé,” he says. “It’s easier to market Provence rosé, but good reds from Provence stick in people’s minds longer.”
He aims for Château Bellini to have roughly 75 acres under vine and to produce about 12,500 cases annually, the most he’s ever made at any one estate. He now produces three Château Bellini bottlings: red from Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon; rosé from Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah, and white dominated by Rolle. “With 150,000 bottles at €10 [about $10] a bottle, you can finance an operation,” he says.
Bellini is about a third of the way to that goal. Currently, it is sold principally to upscale restaurants on the Côte d’Azur, with some stateside distribution, chiefly in Texas and Oregon.
“When I say ‘I make wine,’ it is a multifaceted statement,” Bove explains. “It means that I have found a vineyard worth rehabilitating, then with a team, removing layers of unattractive additions to the original bones, reworking the contours and preparing the soil well to accommodate noble varietals—all leading to an excellent bottle of wine made only from the grapes of our harmonious estate. It is not a matter of smaller proportions. In the end, it is how you treat the grape in the long process to the bottle.”
After Bove sold Miraval for $60 million to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the celebrity couple teamed with the Perrin wine family (of Château de Beaucastel fame) and created a global brand. Miraval now releases three tiers of rosé (and even has a partnership in Champagne), based on estate and purchased grapes and even purchased wines.
Though Miraval is now embroiled in post-divorce legal battles over ownership, production of its mainstay rosé alone has risen to 200,000 cases, making Bove’s “château” approach to winemaking seem quaintly romantic. (In France, the “chateau” label is restricted to wines made exclusively with estate grapes.)
When I ask Bove his opinion on the past decade of Miraval, he responds, “There is nothing attractive to me in the concept of buying grapes from a multitude of vineyards and mixing them in a huge vat, then putting [the wine] on the market in a pretty bottle.”
“I was not disappointed about Miraval’s descent to mélange [blending] and ascent to a super brand,” he adds. “When someone buys your house and paints it purple according to his/her taste, you have to smile and say, ‘That’s his house.’”
Now for Bove’s own “stupid” project: Nine years ago, he and an Italian associate bought a small property with abandoned vineyards along the steep terraces of Italy’s seaside Cinque Terre, plus about 2 acres of surrounding vineyard land from 30 families.
About six years ago, they started planting what amounts to a little over half an acre of three local white varieties: Vermentino, Bosco and Albarola.
“We’re trying to get a crop,” Bove says serenely. The main problem has been wild boar that break through the perimeter fences just before harvest and eat all the grapes. This year, with reinforced gates, he is hoping for enough of a crop to make a small amount of wine with a local winery.
“It was completely stupid,” Bove says of the project. “Let me tell you—to do vines on those hills, that is a bastard.”