Thierry Bernard, a daredevil winemaker in Madagascar

” A vocation is having one’s passion as a profession” (Stendhal)

Brat, having a military background and being passionate about rugby, weapons and comics, portrays a non-standard daredevil winemaker.

WINE EXPLORERS : Tell us more about your story.
THIERRY BERNARD : Born in December 1967 in Bergerac, I am the son, grandson and great-great grandson of farmers and wine-growers. Raised as a boy-scout and educated by Sisters in a private school, my strict childhood taught me the true values of life. At the age of 10, I already drove the tractor in the vineyard. But above all I wanted to join the Marines to protect my country.  At age 16, I did my training and a few years later I became first a paratrooper, and later a sniper.

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After serving my country for many years, the need for a new challenge arose. Meeting with a neighbour, Luke Deconti, from Château Tour des Gendres, brought me the desired challenge! During a vintage (1989), I watched and learnt the art of winemaking. I started studying and reading the writings of Emile Peynaud.  Meanwhile my father, who understood my wish, decided to do some restructuring, abandoning livestock …and building a brand new winery. Château Singleyrac was reborne from the ashes. I started with vintage 90, under the watchful eyes of my mentors. The dream.  My dry white, a Sauvignon-Muscadelle, noticed by Pierre Casamayor will be served by Alain Passard at l’Arpege. A first victory. My passion, which became a vocation, would never leave me again.

WE : Where did you get your nickname of “daredevil winemaker” ?
TB : An article about Clos des Terrasses in the “Revue du Vin de France“, for which I worked, appointed me as “the daredevil winemaker of Bergerac”! This was related to my other passions: enduro motorcycling and rugby. At the origin of the creation of the 15 de la Grappe with Regis Lansade (winemaker in Pecharmant), a club of former rugby players and passionate winemakers, playing n°6, I was already named “The Irish” for my combat-like temperament.

WE : Is it right that you made wine for the English writer William Boyd ?
TB : Yes, Château Pécachard 2005, a 100% Cabernet franc, vinified in 1.20m high and 2.80m wide vats, feet crushed and aged in 500 liters barrels! An incredible memory. A nice and crisp wine noticed at the time by Antoine Gerbelle and Bernard Pivot. Also the Pécachard Rosé 2006, loved by the Chelsea football club.

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WE : What lead you to Madagascar ?
TB : After a break in 1998, followed by two difficult years (divorce, a motorcycle accident, reluctance to let go), I returned to vinification for a winery, but without passion…
In 2005 I resigned and went on vacation for three months…to Madagascar . There I discovered a much less stressful way of life! It’s hot, the girls are beautiful and moreover there are vineyards ! I had to do something here. Back in France, my friend Luc Deconti asked me to replace the Head of Culture on a property in Saint-Emilion for a month, because he was sick. I accepted. The collaboration finally lasted four years! Until one day another friend, Jean Charles LUTAUD, wanted me to advise a friend of him newly appointed in Madagascar, on making wine. I accepted without hesitation and helped during my vacation in Mada. In 2009 I started my company in Madagascar, a consulting society in agriculture, agronomy and viticulture named OPEX Mada SARL.
 I was the first winemaker to have produced, vinified and marketed wine made from French noble grapes in Madagascar, with the 2010 vintage of Clos Nomena (owners: Pâquerette et Jean Allimant). An established proof that we can produce – not without efforts –  wine made from noble grapes in Madagascar.
To date, my activity as winemaker focused on Soavita and on agriculture for BIOAGRI (production of potatoes) and Artémésia Annua (artemisinin production for new anti-paludien drugs).

WE : How did you become the viticulterist and winemaker for Soavita ?
TB : Even though Soavita, run by the Verger family since 1973, is one of the most famous vineyards of Madagascar, it was a huge challenge that awaited me: the vineyard was in a very bad state. Wine sales were close to zero. Soavita was only a shadow of itself! Everything needed to be restarted again, the challenge was there! Touched by the story of Natalie, I offered her a hand in teaching her how to make wine. I fully invested myself in the vineyard and in the winery. After a lot of work, 2012 was finally the first correct vintage. The 2013 vintage was promising. Soavita has perked and sales were now increasing.

 

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard


WE : Which wines are you producing there ?
TB : Kameleon NV (Non Vintage), a dry white 100% Couderc13, at 11.5%. A fresh and friendly wine to enjoy with shellfish or grilled fish. Cellar price: 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). In red, Château VergerNV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, at 12.5%. Aromas of red berries. My favourite wine. To be enjoyed with the local cuisine.  Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). And Domaine ManamisoaNV, a light red 100% Petit Bouschet, perfect as an aperitif. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10). Also a curiosity : OMBILAY, a delicious walnut wine.

WE : We talked about many issues that affect the proper functioning of the Malagasy vineyard. Can you tell us more about these problems ?
TB : There are many viticultural problems in Madagascar. Firstly, the population is poor, but people consume a lot of wine. And you need money to buy wine. Theft is unfortunately commonplace : wire, wooden stakes , grapes, everything gets stolen… Then climate is the second problem :  mainly the total absence of rain during the growing phase of the vines and abundant rainfall and cyclones during the harvest period which greatly damage the grapes.
The vineyard is also very old and it is difficult to produce hybrid cuttings here to replace the old vines and even more complicated to import noble vines (the price and paperwork required is discouraging ). The Malagasy viticulture suffers due to a lack of support by the Government – like the agricultural sector in general.
And on top of it, termites attack the wooden stakes! So it is better to use large diameter stakes if you don’t want to change them every year.  But other than that, you can make wine here – Soavita is proof!

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WE : You welcome a lot of students at Soavita to share your passion with them. How do you see the progress of viticulture in Madagascar since you arrived here for the first time in 2005 ?
TB : I love to share my passion with young people from this country. I welcome a lot of Malagasy students here, but viticulture and wine production doen’t seem to be  their concern… It is not in their culture.  Moreover no school provides wine training in Madagascar, it is a pity. The solution might be to send young people to France to receive a good education. For this however, it is  necessary for the French Embassy to issue them visas. Stay tuned.

Madagascar is a country full of challenges. This is what makes it so attractive. Viticulture is possible, Thierry Bernard has proven this. You simply need to have your passion as a profession, as summarized Stendhal. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Madagascar – behind poverty, great beauty

« Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed »,  said Lavoisier.

If there is one country in the world where the sentence of Lavoisier is applied to the letter, it is Madagascar ! From a pencil to a shower head, through a car wreck or a pair of shoes, each daily object from our western life found here in Madagascar a second, a third, even up to a tenth life.

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Between idyllic nature and permanent recycling, Mada is an affecting country

Look no further for old 2CV Citroën, Renault 5, Volkswagen 4L or other Peugeot 404 and 205 : they are almost all here, converted into a taxi ! A paradise for collectors? Probably, you will say . But here it is rather a survival instinct that we face constantly. A hard fact of life : Madagascar is a country where over 81% of the 23 million citizens live on less than $1.25 a day and 60% of the population is under 24 years old. Imagine…
When we move away from the cities, it is also a wild two-tone campaign where the green of rice fields, forests and vegetation is delightfully contrasted with the red-ocher colour of lands and roads. It is a true master painting which capture the eyes of the traveler. Day and night with the atmosphere of the city.

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However, Madagascar is also and above all, as absurd and unthinkable as it might sound, a wine-producing country. There are a dozen wineries, mainly divided between Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao, two cities about 500km south of the capital, Antananarivo (Tananarive or Tana in Malagasy).

Finding vineyards in Madagascar : a true Exploration

Searching for contacts in the wine industry can sometimes be a way of the cross, like here : very little information is available and no address mentioned on the labels. Not even any vintage on the bottles… A bit complicated then, but far from impossible. Word of Wine Explorers !
We spent a few days in Antananarivo looking for phone numbers. After a lunch at Au Bon Accueil, in the heights of the city – to enjoy a delicious rice with shrimps and vegetables for less than €2.50 – we confronted ourselves to the hardness of the city. It is hot and humid. The atmosphere is unbreathable in some places. Black smoke from exhaust pipes make us cough. The stench from mounds of garbage littering the sidewalks and where children wander in search of some food, is hardly bearable.  Every child we met gripped our hands, begging for some money. Poor kids, how can one blame them? Welcome to the Fourth World. Such a sad and helpless feeling of having made ​​a leap back in time. Our morale took a hit.

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Finally, after 5 hours of walking, we found Royal Spirits, the wine and spirits distributor in the city. We gained some valuable information regarding local wineries and learned  simultaneously that there is a third wine region, Antsirabe, 18Okm south. Perfect, it will be our first stop.
We had one last stop to rent a car, which came with an unexpected surprise – in Madagascar one is allocated a driver! With such misery around us it seemed unthinkable and extremely annoying to have someone to take us wherever we wanted to go, but it was unavoidable. We were told that this is nessecary because the roads are bad and dangerous, it is a safety measure. In the end I must confess that it was a great help for us to be accompanied by Mr Kiady Ramaroson, our driver, throughout the 500km drive on the N7, the famous road to the south.  In addition to being an expert on controlling the countless hairpin turns, narrow pavements, zebu walking on the road, huge holes in the asphalt and passing trucks of goods in the rises, Kiady had to ask his way several times, and in Malagasy…

Kiady, our driver

Kiady, our driver


Antsirabe – hybrid grapes and non-vintages bottles

We arrived in Antsirabe, where Stephan Chan Fao Tong, owner-winemaker at Andranomanelatra winery was waiting for us. He is the last survivor in the region. “ We were up to seven wineries here in the 70s – he told us – but they all closed one after the other, some were unable to sell their wine, others sold their land to plant fodder to feed zebus“. He fears for his own fields as well because his children live in France and none consider to take over the winery .
His philosophy : to make single varietal wines to keep the identity of each vinified variety. “Hybrid grapes – by definition grape varieties crossed with at least two viti species – adapt better to Madagascar : they require less water and are more resistant to diseases, which is why the vast majority of the wineries are using them“, Stephan explained.

Stephan in his cellar

Stephan in his cellar


Two wines which we particularly enjoyed : Seyve Villard and Rouge Viala.
Grand Cru d’Antsirabe Seyve Villard NV, (non- vintage). A red wine made from the hybrid grape Seyve Villard and aged in concrete tank to keep the freshness and crunchiness of the fruit. Nose quite similar to a Côtes du Rhône. On the palate a taste of currants and violets, with a little pepper. A wine to combine with a carpaccio of zebu. Cellar price : 9000 Ariary (about €2.80).
Grand Cru d’Antsirabe Rouge Viala NV. A red wine made from the hybrid grape Viala, also aged in concrete tank. Nose of gooseberry and candy. Morello cherry on the palate. Very fresh wine giving immediate pleasure. Goes well with spicy dishes like coconut curry chicken or pork chops with paprika. Cellar price : 9000 Ariary (about 2.80€).
Other wines from the Estate : Rouge Alicante NV (9000 Ariary, about €2.80) ; Rose Viala NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20) ; Gris de Gris NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20) ; Blanc Couderc NV (7000 Ariary, about €2.20)

Fianarantsoa – between sacramental wine and gray wine

We are 200km south of Antsirabe. To visit the Clos Malaza, in the region of Fianarantsoa, forget the GPS, it will not find the way. An address ? There is none. We left the main road to go into the bush, creaking dampers on narrow and potholed roads,  crossing ravines by way of precarious wooden bridges, going through muddy stretches that seemed endless, to finally find Clos Malaza, lost in the wilderness. This hidden wilderness property once belonged to the King Betsileo. Ce n’est qu’au début du XXème siècles que des pères jésuites y établirent l’un des premiers vignobles de Madagascar. Depuis 1987, c’est le groupe qui depuis perpétue son exploitation.

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It wasn’t until the early twentieth century when Jesuits established one of the first vineyards in Madagascar in this location.   Since 1987, the Mac & Frères group perpetuates its operation.
Their Rouge NV, a blend of Petit Bouschet (90%), Villard, Chambourcin (parent of Pinot noir), Villardin and Varousset seduced us with its aromas of crushed strawberries and blackberries. Fine tannins on the palate and crisp fruit. To be paired with sautéed beef and vegetables. Cellar price : 10300 Ariary (about €3.20).
Vin Gris NV, (or gray wine), another wine of the Estate, is a specialty of the country. It is a blend of white wine in majority (here 90% Couderc13) and red wine (10% de Petit Bouschet). Une curiosité. A nice curiosity. With an almond nose and a very strong bitterness in mouth. A wine to drink chilled as an aperitif, with samosas for example. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10).
Other wines from Clos Malaza : a Blanc Sec NV and a Blanc Doux NV, a Rosé NV and a delicious dry Vin d’Ananas NM (pineapple wine).

We are going to taste the wines of Maromby Monastery, founded in 1958 by a dozen monks of the Abbey of Mont Des Cats, in Lille, which features a 7 hectares winery providing the monks their unique source of income through wine sales. 50% is planted in Courdec13, the rest in Petit Bouschet.

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Two white wines and two red wines are produced – both dry and sweet), and a gray wine, a sacramental wine, and two orange wines. Cellar price : between 6000 and 7000 Ariary (about €1.90 et €2.20). Des vins de méditation, sans aucun doute…

Ambalavao –noble cultivars and capital of wine

We visited Soavita, one of the most famous wineries of Madagascar and held by the Verger family since 1973 and which has seen its vineyard improve in quality in recent years to reach the top of the Malagasy wines nowedays. Thierry Bernard, an oenologist from Bergerac and a vinifier in St- Emilion, has restored the vineyard of Soavita to its pedigree.
In white, Kameleon NV, a dry white 100% Couderc13. One finds an almond nose and a palate with a nice bitterness and a little oiled side. Fresh finish with notes of pear. 11.5 % alcohol for a wine to enjoy with grilled fish. Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (about €3.70).
In red, Château Verger NV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, perfectly balanced and grading 12.5 %. structure on the red fruit (blackberry). To enjoy with a chicken mushroom risotto.  Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (about €3.70).
Also Domaine Manamisoa NV, a lighter red 100% Petit Bouschet, ideal for the beginning of the meal. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10).

We learn that casi all wine bottles are recycled in Madagascar (take off the old labels, bottles washed, rinsed, dried in the open air… and voila!

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Not far away is Clos Nomena, the only vineyard in Madagascar to use noble grape varieties. The wines we had the chance to taste date from the 2010 harvest and are at the moment the only vintage produced by Clos Nomena: 2011 and 2012 weren’t produced due to too capricious weather conditions .  However, 2010 is a delight and the two wines that we tasted will remain a great memory. Interesting : they were also vinified by Thierry Bernard.
Blanc Moelleux NV, a blend of 90% Chenin Blanc and 10% Riesling, is of great finesse. The wine has lost its sweetness but got notes of honey, spices and petrol. Delicious. “Boy, a chocolate cake with this wine please”.
Rouge NV, a blend of Syrah and Malbec displays a surprising freshness with notes of mocha, spices and leather with notes of blackberry and violet on the finish. I want a roasted lamb…

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Our journey ends here. Madagascar has surprised and moved us in more ways than one. We will remember the beauty of its countryside and the hospitality of the locals. One thing is sure : Antananarivo is not what we will remember about this country. This is a bubble separate from, and not representative of the country. A bit like New York and the USA if you want a comparison point.
One last espresso in the gardens of Café de la Gare, – a must to go for a business lunch –  and it is already time to hit the road again to our next destination.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


NB : other areas exist in Madagascar : Lazan ‘I Betsilio S.A., a cooperative of Fianarantsoa ; S.A. Chan Foui et Fils in Ambalavao, which produces Côteaux d’Ambalavao wines or Domaine Lovasoa, Cave de Fianarantsoa. Next time.

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