Over the years, the reputation of some estates have waxed and waned. Some underperform and then, perhaps thanks to new investment or a new owner, things begin to change. Some do the opposite, once great estates fading over time due to misconstrued ideas on viticulture or vinification. Just occasionally, though, an estate leaps out of nowhere, rising to stardom in a fashion that can only be described as meteor-like. Château Tertre-Roteboeuf is one such estate. That it did so was down to the work of one man, François Mitjavile. In Grands Vins (University of California Press, 1995), just a decade after Mitjavile’s breakthrough vintage, Clive Coates wrote of the estate, “[w]ho’d heard of it ten years ago? Who hasn’t heard of it today?” It is a good indicator of how François Mitjavile and Tertre-Roteboeuf burst onto the wine scene in the mid-1980s. Here in this profile I give my account of the history of Château Tertre-Roteboeuf, explain the origins of the name, which has nothing to do with roast beef (rôte boeuf), and having met the man in person give some indication of exactly what makes Francois Mitjavile, a remarkable vigneron-philosopher, tick.
Château Tertre-Roteboeuf: A History
The history of Château Tertre-Roteboeuf is really the history of François Mitjavile. The domaine itself, originally named simply Château Tertre, was originally in the possession of his wife, Miloute, and her family, and before the Mitjavile era it was not an estate of great repute. Prior to his taking the reins the small vineyard, located in Saint Laurent des Combes, south and east of the town of St Emilion itself, had been managed by her father. Following his death in 1961 the estate was taken on by Miloute’s cousins, who owned nearby Château Bellefont-Belcier, and they made the wine at their own property. The family domaine was, frankly, going nowhere, the cellars deserted, the vats lying empty.
Meanwhile François and Miloute were working in Paris. He originated from Roussillon – he describes himself as a “Mediterranean man” – and was not born into wine; he was passing the time working for the Paris office of his family’s national haulage company. Miloute was working for a public relations agency; the two had little to do with wine, other than occasional trips to St Emilion to see Miloute’s family.
Sometime in the 1970s, however, the situation changed. François became bored of life in Paris, and was ready to quit the city life, and he and Miloute agreed they would move back to the family residence in Saint Laurent des Combes, and perhaps breathe life into the little vineyard once again. The only stumbling block was that François had absolutely no knowledge or experience of viticulture or winemaking. In Bordeaux, happily, such deficiencies are easy to rectify; there is plenty of experience to be had here! He promptly signed up for a two-year stage at Château Figeac in 1975, and when 1977 arrived he was ready for Château Tertre. One of his first decisions was to add the suffix Roteboeuf, which refers to the lower slopes of the vineyard says François, and which can be found on older maps of the region. The name is a cause of some amusement because it naturally suggests rôte boeuf (roast beef), which seems a rather unusual name for a wine estate. But the verb in question is not rôter (to roast), but roter (literally, to burp), and is said to reflect the exhausted wheezing of the oxen (that’s the boeuf part) that were once used to pull the plough up and down the challenging, sun-baked slope. François’ intent, though, was not to provide a historical lesson, but rather to distinguish his new domaine from other properties also named Tertre, of which there are of course several.