Jean-Michel Arcaute, a highly regarded Bordeaux winemaker whose adventurous nature led him to such diverse wine regions as Hungary and Argentina, died on Saturday, June 30, in a boating accident in Arcachon, a resort town on the Atlantic Ocean south of Bordeaux. He was 53.
Some called him a genius. Others said he was crazy. But Arcaute, the former winemaker of the highly rated Château Clinet in Pomerol, was one of the first to successfully adopt and promote a new style of wine in Bordeaux, France's premier wine region, in the mid-1980s.
"Jean-Michel was a dreamer, a visionary," said Alain Raynaud, the owner of Château Quinault in St.-Emilion and a longtime friend of Arcaute. Together in the 1980s, Arcaute and Raynaud, under the guidance of enologist Michel Rolland, forged the way to make richer, riper and thicker reds in Bordeaux. "Jean-Michel believed that Bordeaux could make more modern wines through picking later, and longer fermentations," Raynaud added.
Château Clinet belonged to the family of Arcaute's first wife, Anne-Marie Audy, when he began managing the estate in the mid-1980s. It had been an underachiever for decades, making light, weedy reds. But after following Rolland's advice, Arcaute quickly turned it into one of the top estates of the region, and it is now somewhat of a cult wine.
"Jean-Michel was my best friend, and we worked together in wine for 25 years," said Rolland. "He was very avant-garde in the 1980s and helped to make red Bordeaux from our generation, which was a divergence from the traditional reds of the region."
At his death, Arcaute was owner and winemaker of Pomerol's Château La Croix du Casse, director and winemaker at Château Sansonnet in St.-Emilion, and a consultant for other Bordeaux estates -- in addition to his involvement in winery and vineyard projects in other countries.
"He represented the new wave of wine producers in Bordeaux," added Raynaud. "But more importantly, he was a great friend. He was a person with lots of ideas, who was always trying to do better, and at the same time, he was like an artist, very creative, with lots of energy."
In 1991, Arcaute was one of the first foreign winemakers to establish a project in Hungary's Tokay region, Château Pajzos. He later turned to Argentina's Mendoza region to create a 250-acre estate called Alta Vista, whose first release was a 1997 Malbec. In 1998 Arcaute's team went to South Africa to start a technical partnership with Hoopenburg winery in Stellenbosch and launched Edonia.
"He had already had success in Argentina and had many exciting plans for the future," said Rolland, who was working with him in the country. "I'm sorry that he will not see them come to fruition."
Arcaute is survived by his second wife, Clara; their baby daughter; and four children from his previous marriage.
Read more about Jean-Michel Arcaute's projects:
D'Aulan Picks Up Grand Cru Estate in St.-Emilion
Château Clinet Sold to Director of Property
Bordeaux Winemaker Focuses on Argentinean Malbec