His Place in the Sun

In the south of France, native vintner Gérard Bertrand stands tall as a champion of Languedoc wines

His Place in the Sun
Bertrand above vineyards at the 2,500-acre Château l'Hospitalet overlooking the Mediterranean, also home to a luxury resort and his company headquarters. (Deepix Studio)
From the May 31, 2023, issue

Whether hiking through his Languedoc vineyards or navigating the cobblestone streets of the medieval city Carcassonne, Gérard Bertrand walks in a relaxed, loping gait. Yet with seemingly little effort he covers a lot of ground. Of course, there’s his size advantage: The former professional rugby player stands at an imposing 6 feet, 5 inches. But there also seems to be a forward momentum pulling him along, the restlessness of a man on a mission.

With his extensive range of wines—from the affordably priced Cote des Roses to single-estate, luxury cuvées such as the Clos d’Ora at $250 a bottle—he is determined to tell the world a different story about Languedoc, a wide swath of land stretching 150 miles along the Mediterranean Coast from the Pyrenees and Spanish border upward north and east to Provence. It’s a breathtakingly gorgeous part of France; a mosaic of beaches, mountains and rolling countryside dotted by ancient medieval cities, crumbling castles and endless vineyards.

“This is the cradle of wine’s origins in France, but we have had to overcome the bad reputation of the recent past and drive a quality revolution,” Bertrand says. “My journey has been more than a career, but a declaration of faith in my region.” After just 15 years in the U.S. market, his wines rank among the top-selling French brands.

In much the same way that his ambling stride belies his actual speed, Bertrand has steadily acquired vineyards and historic châteaus across the Languedoc over the past three decades, building one of the largest independently owned wine empires in France. Even more impressive than the size of his realm—17 estates and 2,200 vineyard acres—is his commitment to biodynamic farming, a practice that goes beyond organic to balance the vineyard with nature and the moon’s cycles. According to the certification organization Demeter, Bertrand is the second-largest biodynamic winegrower in the world.

There is something almost un-French about his boundless ambition and fast ascent. Other winemakers in France view Bertrand with a mix of amazement, some jealousy, but mostly respect. “Gérard’s success is like an American story but made in France,” says 16th generation Northern Rhône winemaker Jean-Louis Chave.

Yet his grandest ambitions still lie ahead. In addition to the recent purchase of an estate in Cahors, in southwest France, Bertrand intends to salvage the sprawling Château de Celeyran, the former home of famed French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Within two years, Bertrand plans to transform the dilapidated estate—its stone buildings covered in graffiti and weeds—into a luxury hotel, winery and biodynamic farm of epic proportions. (See “A New Masterpiece: The Home of Toulouse-Lautrec” below.)

“I’ve always been driven to discover the staggering diversity and potential of the Languedoc,” Bertrand explains. “I only have one life, so I don’t want to be only connected to one estate. Plus, I can’t resist the excitement of a new adventure.”

 The vineyards of Château l’Hospitalet
Since purchasing Château l’Hospitalet in 2002, Bertrand has coaxed fine whites and reds from its expansive vineyards. (Gilles Deschamps)

Bertrand was born in 1965 in Saint-André-de-Roquelongue, a picturesque village in the Corbières region in the heart of the Languedoc.

“The Languedoc is a land for explorers,” Bertrand says. “We have over 70 grapes here and there is enough space for everyone.”

Growing up, Bertrand spoke Occitan at home, an ancient language that can still be occasionally heard throughout southern France. Cultural identity is strong here, and fierce regional pride courses alongside an outsider mentality that Bertrand traces back to the region’s heretical past.

This is the land of the Cathar knights—their fortresses remain, like sentinels—who fought to the death rather than submit to the tyranny of the French monarchy and Roman church in the 13th century. “We are the descendants of very brave men,” Bertrand says proudly.

Gérard’s father, Georges, the youngest of nine children, was a larger-than-life figure who worked as a rugby referee and local wine broker. He pushed to improve wine quality in the Languedoc by introducing modern vinification techniques, Bertrand explains, an effort that made him unpopular with locals who were content to churn out bulk wine.

At Georges’ insistence, and also because it was fun, Bertrand spent childhood summers working in the family vineyard. During harvest he put in long days picking grapes alongside his grandmother, and cleaning fermentation tanks in the winery. “My father told me after my first full harvest at age 10, ‘You know you are lucky, Gérard, because when you are 50 you will have 40 vintages behind you.’”

Georges recognized the potential of the Boutenac subregion in Corbières—where very old Carignan vines thrived in the area’s distinctive red, rocky soils—and purchased Château de Villemajou in the early 1970s. “My father started aging in Bordeaux barrels and experimenting with whole-bunch fermentation,” says Bertrand. “He was really trying to make a terroir wine and was 20 years ahead of his time.” At 16, Bertrand began working alongside his father in blending the Villemajou wines, which were the most high-achieving versions in the region at the time.

 Gérard and Georges Bertrand at a table
Gérard and his father, Georges, dine in the Pyrenees in 1986. Georges' vision of elevating Languedoc wines inspired his son's own efforts. (Courtesy of Gérard Bertrand)

Tragically, Georges died in a car accident when Gérard was just 22, the senior Bertrand’s mission to elevate the Languedoc’s reputation barely begun. Within three months, the son took the reins, and fulfilling his father’s dream became his life’s calling. “The way in which Gérard has charted his path since the death of his father is almost his way of saying thank you,” says Jean-Claude Berrouet, longtime winemaker at Bordeaux’s Pétrus and Bertrand’s early mentor. “In transcending that, he has found his own route to fulfillment and self-expression.” Bertrand is very much his father’s son, says Berrouet, noting they shared two all-consuming passions: “Wine and rugby.”

In southern France, rugby is a religion. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the sport in Bertrand’s identity. “My rugby career started in my village streets,” he recalls, where he would play after school with friends every night until sunset. Because his father was a referee, family weekends were spent traveling to rugby matches. “I got to know all the rugby stadiums of France long before ever playing in them,” he says. Sunday’s ritual began with Catholic Mass and hefty lunches of cassoulet, then off to the stadiums where he watched France’s rugby legends engage in “80 minutes of all-out war.”

Bertrand began training in the sport by age 11 and after playing for his boarding school’s team joined the RC Narbonne team—one of the best in France—and finally Stade Français Paris Rugby, driven by what he characterizes as his intense “stubbornness and hunger for success.”

Bertrand’s rugby career took him all over France and the world, where he racked up impressive victories and countless injuries. In a match against Béziers, he played the second half with two broken ribs after they were intentionally crushed by an opponent. As Bertrand explains it, back in the ’80s and ’90s, the sport was still governed by amateur rules; a blood sport where referees frequently looked the other way when heads or teeth were smashed.

It was also a time when the game was “more of an adventure and less serious than it is today,” Bertrand recalls, nostalgically. Players would often smoke and drink a glass of wine before games, and the focus was on the shared experiences of being “brothers in arms,” working to bring out the best in one another. “Rugby was essential for me. It built me. It was the school of life,” he says.

 Gérard Bertrand playing rugby
Gérard battles it out in a French championship rugby playoff in 1989. (Courtesy of Gérard Bertrand)

After his professional rugby career ended, at age 29, Bertrand devoted himself fully to wine, yet his notoriety in the sport opened many doors. “Rugby shows a certain kind of character,” says Anthony Hill, an Australian rugby player and close friend who Bertrand recruited to play for RC Narbonne.

“In rugby, you can’t cheat or you’ll get hurt. People want to work with you because they feel they can trust you,” says Hill.

Bertrand formed the Rugby Gastronomes, a club of cheese, fruit, foie gras and wine producers who aligned to gain entry to major French supermarket chains, with great success. But global awareness remained elusive, as Languedoc lacked the recognition and pedigree of regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. He was determined to claim its rightful place on the world stage.

“Shortly before my father died, he shared his vision for the future of the region with me,” Bertrand recounts. “He believed the reputation of the Languedoc had to be elevated by family estates committed to quality,” rather than by trying to encourage large regional cooperatives to change course.

Bertrand looked to great wine families around the world—Guigal, Antinori, Torres, Mondavi—as inspiration for this model. On a pilgrimage to Napa Valley when he was 23, Bertrand spent a life-changing two hours with the legendary vintner Robert Mondavi.

“He told me to aim high and set huge goals,” Bertrand recalls. “I saw how he aligned wine with art, gastronomy, music and a deep sense of hospitality, and that experience has guided my path. Since that day, I have aimed to recreate that experience in the south of France.”

 Dining tables with a beach in the background at Château l'Hospitalet
In addition to producing an excellent red and white wine, the coastal Château l'Hospitalet boasts a luxury beachside resort and spa. (Florian Vidot)

Bertrand’s office and company headquarters are located at Château l’Hospitalet, a 2,500-acre vineyard and luxury hotel located inside Narbonne’s national park on a rocky outcropping perched above the blue Mediterranean coastline.

He took a big risk when he purchased the property in 2002 for a sum that was much greater than his company’s annual revenue. The former owner had pioneered wine tourism in the region with the initial renovation of the 16th century l’Hospitalet, and he believed Bertrand could build upon what he had started, so pressed upon him to take ownership.

“I really wanted a place to showcase art, gastronomy, music and wine—all the art de vivre Languedoc has to offer—so I agreed to buy it,” Bertrand says.

With his trademark zest, Bertrand wasted no time bringing his vision to life, coaxing top quality wine from l’Hospitalet’s extensive vineyards, upgrading the accommodations to include a spa, a beach club and two restaurants: Chez Paule, named for his grandmother, and—after an additional renovation two years ago—L’Art de Vivre, a modern, Michelin-rated fine dining destination.

L’Hospitalet’s annual summer jazz festival, launched in 2004, has blossomed into an elaborate six-day affair that draws 9,000 people, with past performers such as Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Seal. To Bertrand’s own surprise, his efforts quickly paid off: Within four years, Château l’Hospitalet’s revenue had doubled.

If fortune favors the bold, Bertrand has more proof. He had long dreamed of creating an iconic wine in the Languedoc and was convinced he had the perfect site: an ancient stone wall–enclosed vineyard (and sheep farm) in the Minervois-La Livinière cru appellation he had purchased back in 1997. “I felt the magic of this place as soon as I set foot in the vineyard, but I didn’t know how I wanted to make it. Also, I had no money at the time,” he admits. Fifteen years passed before he made his first vintage.

It’s a hauntingly silent, remote place where only mules are used to work the vineyards, a collection of very old Carignan as well as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, in line with his biodynamic philosophy. He points out the geological fault line visibly running through the vines, dividing the clay from the marl soils. “In this place, I learned to put the ego aside, enjoy the silence and have an open heart to what the land was trying to say,” Bertrand explains.

Christened Clos d’Ora (in Latin, “ora” means to pray), the minimalist winery he eventually built is constructed from 100 tons of stone, and the meditation room above the cellar features Tibetan singing bowls made of glass, which emit rich, low humming tones. The clay-walled cellar has no roof, so the wine is exposed to the “full energy of the cosmos” as it ferments. Because he wants the wines to experience the changing seasons as they age, the barrel hall is not temperature-controlled. “If you lose the connection to nature and the surrounding environment, you miss the footprint of terroir in the wine. We must keep the character of Clos d’Ora and the link of the vintage.”

Some may consider the price of Clos d’Ora audacious: $250 for a bottle of Minervois? Bertrand admits it took a lot of confidence and time to realize his dream of creating a grand cru wine from the south of France. “I waited until I was 47 to make my first vintage at Clos d’Ora. It was the right maturity for me,” he says.

In a vertical tasting going back to the debut 2012 vintage, the wines showcase power, polish, impressive ageability and the distinct terroir of this mystical place. “When we started, we didn’t know how the wine would taste in 10 years. Now, we know. When people can taste the soul of this terroir, that is the dream,” he says.

The journey to biodynamic farming was very personal for Bertrand. It began at Domaine de Cigalus in Corbières, the estate where he has lived with his wife and two children since he bought it in 1995. When in his 20s, Bertrand suffered from a problem with his liver, which depleted his energy and made it difficult for him to function day to day. With the help of a homeopathic doctor and his wife, Ingrid, who is a naturopath and nutritionist, he became well again. He wanted to apply these same principles to certain vines at Cigalus that continued to struggle even after the elimination of all pesticides and herbicides. So he began to experiment with biodynamic practices, which take into account the influence of the moon, sun and stars during a plant’s growth cycle. Within two years, he had eradicated vine disease at Cigalus and was harvesting healthier, riper grapes with a 50% increase in acidity levels. “The wines were fresher, more alive and with more minerality,” he describes. Bertrand soon transitioned all of his estates to biodynamics; the final vineyards should be certified by the end of 2023.

Yet for Bertrand, the technical results are less important than the emotional dimension created through this sacred method of farming. “More than organics, biodynamics introduces a spiritual interconnection between the minerals, plants, animals and people who farm the land,” he explains. “You can feel the way the vineyards and the wines radiate peace, love and harmony.”

Either Bertrand is one of the world’s most deeply spiritual winemakers or the industry’s savviest salesman. It’s not impossible that both are true.

 Gérard Bertrand, Jesse Bongiovi and Jon Bon Jovi tasting rosé wine with steel tanks in the background
Jesse Bongiovi and his father, musician Jon Bon Jovi, formed a partnership with Bertrand in 2018 to introduce Hampton Water, a Languedoc rosé whose popularity skyrocketed. (Corentin Berger)

The business of wine is not something Bertrand finds distasteful to discuss—quite the opposite. “I view sales at the very heart of what we do,” he emphasizes. From the beginning, he knew Languedoc couldn’t simply rely on wine quality, it had to develop strong relationships with distributors. Bertrand spent years on the road, trying to establish new markets. Self-doubt and anxiety resulted in many sleepless nights, but he finally began making some headway outside of France in countries such as Germany and Belgium.

But his sights were set on the U.S. He convinced Mel Dick, who ran America’s largest wine distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, to take a chance on him in the New York market, and he pounded the pavement for six months relentlessly. “You have to fight to be accepted by buyers and consumers, and coming from Languedoc we were swimming against the wave,” Bertrand recalls. More doors were closed than were opened for him initially, but drawing on his rugby grit—“hard work and a refusal to give up”—he kept at it. When people wonder at his success today, he reminds, “It’s no secret; I worked 70 hours a week for decades and I didn’t take a vacation until I was 40.”

Not surprisingly, this sort of work ethic can make a person difficult to work for, as was confirmed by more than a few current and former employees. “Growing up, he always told us to do our best or not at all and always reach for perfection,” says Emma Bertrand, the eldest of his two children, who now works for the company in marketing, sales and product development. “Even on Sunday afternoons, when I am cooking something he will taste it and say ‘it’s good, but it could be better,’ ” she chuckles.

The Gérard Bertrand organization has grown to nearly 400 people, many of them quite young. Guillaume Barraud, now 32, was promoted to co-director of viticulture when he was just 28 years old. “Gérard trusts young people,” Barraud says. The team is also full of many longtime employees, who take on an almost cultlike devotion. “It’s because of the way Gérard leads; he makes his people part of the adventure,” adds Barraud.

In addition to his estate wines, Bertrand has launched a number of larger-volume brands by sourcing grapes from a large network of grapegrowers (whom he is helping convert to organic farming). The Cote des Roses brand, launched in 2014, has become one of the best-selling imported labels in the U.S., led by the ubiquitous rosé with 350,000 cases imported annually.

In 2018, a mutual friend connected Bertrand with Jon Bon Jovi and his son Jesse Bongiovi, and they collaborated on the release of Hampton Water, a Languedoc rosé that aims to “unite the essence of the Hamptons and south of France lifestyle.”

Commercial successes like these have funded additional estate acquisitions and even grander architectural projects, most remarkably Clos du Temple. A remote, majestic site accessed by a winding road through Mediterranean scrubland and the green, rolling hills of Cabrières, the original clos was gifted in 1224 to the order of the Templars, who gave their name to the vineyard. Rosé production here dates back thousands of years, Bertrand has discovered.

Five years in the making, the property’s templelike winery honors 2,000 years of Roman, Visigoth and Cathar history. With its planted roof and jutting, triangular cement overhangs, it appears somehow pulled from the earth; a stone, glass and metal structure embedded in the ridge where it sits, overlooking the valley. Fashioned from limestone rock, the unusual cellar holds 11 black, pyramid-shaped fermentation vats topped with golden crowns, while Gregorian chants echo throughout the stark space. Rosé is taken very seriously here. The winery is entirely dedicated to the creation of a single prestige wine: the Clos du Temple ($200), a rosé made from a blend of five different grapes, packaged in a weighty bottle with a temple-inspired shape.

“With each of the properties Gérard has acquired, you’d think you were at the end of the world,” Berrouet says. “He has this ability to ‘sense’ a place, to feel its magnetism. Every one of them has a history, a religious past, an almost mystical aura. And he makes the connection between this aura and the quality of the wine.”

Even Bertrand’s more commercial wines are imbued with an authentic sense of place and history. There’s Hérésie, a red blend from Corbières named for the story of the Cathar knights in the 8th century. The Gérard Bertrand Héritage series includes wines such as Corbières 806, a reference to the year in which the Cathar castle of Peyrepertuse was named, and Languedoc 462, the date marking the beginning of the Visigoths’ reign. “I can still feel the power of these people,” Bertrand says.

Another piece of regional history Bertrand has committed to saving is the tradition of long-lived, fortified sweet wines from the Maury, Rivesaltes and Banyuls appellations. For 20 years, he has been buying up old stocks of these underappreciated wines from small owners and selling them through his library collection, Legend Vintage. He says it’s more of a cultural preserve than a money-making endeavor: “My goal is to sell only half of this collection in my lifetime.” His collection of vintages dates from 1875 to 2010. “Think of it: a Rivesaltes from 1875 when Napoleon III was in power!”

 The Bertrand family having lunch at a table outside
The Bertrand family takes time for a lunch together: Gérard and his wife, Ingrid, with their son Matias and daughter Emma. (Deepix Studio)

One night last December, Bertrand takes his team for a celebratory dinner in Carcassonne, the largest surviving medieval walled city in Europe (Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner was filmed here). He’s somewhat of a celebrity in these parts, and because of his size, he’s hard to miss.

But tonight everyone is staring at their phones, focused on the World Cup quarter-finals pitting France (“Allez Les Bleus!”) against England, and Bertrand grows reflective of his own sports career. For years after he retired from rugby, he was haunted by dreams of playing in the stadium, he admits: “I didn’t want to be focused on the past, so I forced myself to stop having those dreams. I really enjoyed that life, but I want to enjoy my life now.”

Now, Bertrand is energized by the beauty and spirituality he finds in nature. “People see him as a businessman, but they don’t understand he is in the vineyards all the time—that is where he is really himself, the real Gérard,” says his daughter Emma.

Under the tranquil exterior, Bertrand is still very much in forward motion; age has done little to slow his pace. The transformation at Château de Celeyran has only just begun, while his quest to achieve his father’s Languedoc dream is ongoing. “There is still so much unrealized potential here and we can’t stay in the comfort zone,” he says. “If you don’t take risks, you can’t make great wine.”

A New Masterpiece: The Home Of Toulouse-Lautrec

 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Famed artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lived and painted at his family’s Château de Celeyran in the 1880s. (Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)

The magnificent Château de Celeyran was once the residence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and where the celebrated artist painted many of his famous canvases in the 1880s (his mother’s maiden name was Celeyran). Yet the château’s history dates back much further; Julius Caesar even resided here for a few years during a military campaign. The estate’s next chapter is now being written by Bertrand, in what he calls his “final masterpiece.”

“I want to create the largest and most exciting biodynamic vegetable farm, hotel, spa and education center; a place for learning and meditation and farm-to-table cuisine,” Bertrand says. Located just outside Narbonne, Celeyran is a 400-acre expanse, with a regal entrance lined by 120-year-old plantain trees.

Covered in graffiti and overgrown with weeds, Celeyran is an enormous undertaking to restore. While the hotel and restaurants won’t be complete for two years, Bertrand has already begun replanting the abandoned vineyards and installing a massive garden, including 150 varieties of tomatoes. Open fields and a large greenhouse will be home to citrus, fig and pomegranate trees and vegetables to supply local restaurants, including his own. Ancient grains will head to the on-site mill and bakery for bread, and sheep, cows and poultry will provide fresh meat and cheese. There will be honey and essential oils made from aromatic plants. “When you have a place with this kind of history, and you can connect the Roman era to the time of Toulouse-Lautrec, this is something I want to celebrate,” Bertrand says.

Recent Releases from Gérard Bertrand

WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews of Bertrand’s wines using the online Wine Ratings search. Wines are listed alongside their score, price on release and number of cases imported.

Minervois La Livinière Clos d’Ora 2019 (93, $250, 100)

La Clape White Château l’Hospitalet 2021 (92, $46, 1,500)

Languedoc Villa Soleilla 2021 (92, $195, 300)

Languedoc White Château La Sauvageonne 2021 (92, $40, 200)

Languedoc-Cabrières Rosé Clos du Temple 2021 (92, $195, 200)

Corbières Boutenac La Forge 2020 (91, $NA, NA)

La Clape Château l’Hospitalet 2020 (91, $46, 600)

Languedoc Rosé Château La Sauvageonne La Villa 2021 (91, $60, 200)

Aude Hauterive Red Cigalus 2020 (90, $50, 1,200)

Corbières White Château de Villemajou 2021 (90, $40, 400)

Haute Vallée de l’Aude Aigle Royal 2020 (90, $80, 150)

Limoux Aigle Royal 2021 (90, $NA, 200)

Pays d’Oc White Cigalus 2021 (90, $50, 1,200)

Terrasses du Larzac Château La Sauvageonne 2019 (90, $40, 400)

Corbières Heresie White 2021 (89, $20, NA)

Grenache-Syrah-Carignan Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Tautavel An 560 2020 (89, $20, 12,000)

Languedoc Kosmos 888 2020 (89, $23, 10,000)

Vin de France White Orange Gold 2021 (89, $25, 5,000)

Corbières Heresie 2020 (88, $20, 50,000)

Sauvignon Blanc Pays d’Oc Cote des Roses 2021 (88, $17, 30,000)

People Red Wines White Wines Rosé languedoc-roussillon France

You Might Also Like

Sommelier Roundtable: What’s Your Bucket List Wine Region?

Sommelier Roundtable: What’s Your Bucket List Wine Region?

10 wine pros dish on the destinations they’re dreaming of visiting

May 25, 2023
Thinking <em>Other</em>-wise in Napa and Sonoma

Thinking Other-wise in Napa and Sonoma

With their hunt for alternative grapes, Steve Matthiasson and like-minded winemakers show …

May 22, 2023
Wine Talk: Pablo Sáinz-Villegas

Wine Talk: Pablo Sáinz-Villegas

The Spanish guitarist, who will join Carrie Underwood and others at Festival Napa Valley in …

May 19, 2023
The Wizard of All

The Wizard of All

California grocer Darrell Corti has had a quiet global influence on wine, gourmet foods and …

May 2, 2023
Sommelier Roundtable: What’s Your Favorite Supermarket Wine?

Sommelier Roundtable: What’s Your Favorite Supermarket Wine?

11 wine pros from Grand Award–winning restaurants shared which bottles they pick up from …

May 2, 2023
Wine Talk: The Man Behind the World’s Largest Cork Producer

Wine Talk: The Man Behind the World’s Largest Cork Producer

How have natural corks stayed on top of the wine world? Antonio Amorim’s efforts to make …

Apr 21, 2023