Henri Bonneau, the iconoclastic vigneron whose wines defined the throwback style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a generation, died March 21 due to diabetes complications. He was 77.
Bonneau was a singular presence in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Working from his tiny domaine, he nearly single-handedly produced wines with a distinctive force and presence that most vignerons in the appellation considered the paradigm for old-school Grenache. While Bonneau himself would claim there was no recipe, a few things were certain: low yields, late harvesting and no destemming. The result was wines that were full-throttle in terms of richness and depth, offering vibrant, unbridled notes of garrigue, tobacco and roasted chestnut with often heady power and depth, yet all allied to a remarkably silky and integrated feel that only lengthened and became more refined with age.
He credited his winemaking knowledge to his father and grandfather, and always expressed humility toward their wines, saying he only hoped his wines could equal the quality of his predecessors'.
Part of the Bonneau mystique has been the wines' rarity, and their difficulty to obtain in the United States. The Bonneau & Fils domaine comprises just a small patchwork of vineyard holdings totaling about 15 acres, the largest of which sits on the stony La Crau lieu-dit, with another in Grand Pierre, neighboring a vineyard of Bonneau's old friend and competitor, the late Jacques Reynaud of Château Rayas.
Bonneau's different bottlings were ultimately selected in the cellar, rather than the vineyard, and they became a harbinger of the small production cuvées that have since become de rigueur for many Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers. In most vintages, Henri Bonneau & Fils produces three cuvées, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Marie Beurrier and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins. In 1990 and 1998, Bonneau made a fourth wine, the Cuvée Spéciale; the 1998 earned 98 points.
Bonneau was adored not only for his wines, but his personality. A tasting in the cellars of Bonneau could stretch on for hours, and Bonneau would talk cuisine and politics, offering off-color jokes and clever puns, as much as he would espouse on winemaking.
When Isabel Ferrando arrived in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in late 2002 and founded Domaine St.-Préfert, Bonneau paid her a visit, inviting her into his family's 17th-century cellar to taste his wines. "Henri initiated me into the terroirof Châteauneuf-du-Pape," Ferrando said in 2013. "He helped me create my different cuvées. In particular, Henri offered me his incredible tasting experience." He also offered cuttings from his vineyards so that she could replant the dead vines at St.-Préfert.
“My first visit with Henri was in 2003,” Ferrando told Wine Spectator today. She considers Bonneau a mentor. “He believed in cuisine as much as food—true Provençal cuisine. He could spend as much time talking about his joue de boeuf recipe as anything else. And he was adamant that the best wine made the best sauce.”
Bonneau's cellar was a ramshackle hodgepodge of tiny rooms with gaps amidst the floorboards and stacks of barrels that seemed to teeter. Vats were so cramped into the space, there was barely clearance to draw a sample from their top. Yet amidst all the chaos was a clear sense of order, as Bonneau knew every lot, every barrel, intimately. And while his cellar conditions would often leave winemakers scratching their heads, his wines nonetheless were unique, aided by the long aging they typically underwent before bottling.
“For Henri, it was simple. Respect the fruit. If the good fruit is in the vat, you just need to wait,” said Ferrando. “He would fill the vats then check for the fermentation to start. And then just one rémontage [pump-over], that was it. He could wait forever for it to finish, there was was no rush. He had some barrels that took six or eight years to finish—no one does that today. But for Henri the secret was to do it in the most simple way and with long aging. Because that was the way filtration and stabilization was natural.”
"To Henri, wine was simply one part of a much greater whole that needs to be experienced, discussed, sometimes mocked and ultimately appreciated," read a statement from Alain and John Junguenet, who have imported Bonneau's wines into the U.S. since 1987. "His favorite topics of conversation were fishing, great chefs, cooking, politics and, most of all, his mates and experiences from his service during the Algerian War, the only harvest he missed in over 50 years."
Bonneau vinified the 2015 vintage which, according to those who spoke with him, is one of the best vintages he has made. He is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, and son Marcel.