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Thierry Bernard: Daredevil winemaker

“A vocation is having one’s passion as a profession” – Stendhal.

Soavita, one of the most famous wineries of Madagascar, has been held by the Verger family since 1973 and has seen its vineyard improve in quality in recent years to reach the top of Malagasy wines. Thierry Bernard, an oenologist from Bergerac and a vinifier in St- Emilion, has restored the vineyard of Soavita to its pedigree.

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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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 number 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 litre 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.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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 lasted four years. Until one day another friend, Jean Charles LUTAUD, wanted me to advise a friend of his, newly appointed in Madagascar, on making wine. I accepted without hesitation. 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. The vineyard was in a very bad state and wine sales were close to zero. Soavita was a shadow of itself. Everything needed to be restarted again. 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 increasing.

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard
Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard – Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

WE : Which wines are you producing there ?

TB : Kameleon NV, a dry white 100% Couderc13 at 11.5%, is a fresh and friendly wine to enjoy with shellfish or grilled fish. Its cellar price is 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). In red, Château Verger NV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, at 12.5%, has an aroma of red berries and is my favourite wine and should be enjoyed with the local cuisine. Its cellar price is 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). Domaine Manamisoa NV is a light red 100% Petit Bouschet, perfect as an aperitif. Its cellar price is 10000 Ariary (about €3.10). We also make 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. 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. On top of that, 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!

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

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 doesn’t seem to be their concern, it is not in their culture. Moreover no school provides wine training in Madagascar which 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.

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