The modest author who chronicles the great French winegrowers
On a sunny April afternoon in the city of Bordeaux half a dozen years ago, I walked into a book festival and picked up a volume from a table. It was the French winemaker Denis Dubourdieu. Immediately, the publisher and author politely introduced themselves behind a counter. Hearing my accent, the author reached for a box and pulled out an English translation of the same book.
It was a first meeting with Gilles Berdin.
Berdin interviewed winegrowers from more than 20 French estates. He wrote 15 books in a series called “Sharing a Bottle with …” (Around a Bottle …), published by Elytis Editions. Each contains a series of interviews between Berdin and a winegrower (or cellar owner or merchant); during each meeting, the writer and the subject (s) share a bottle of wine related to the story. Three of his books have been translated into English.
Over the past few years, Gilles introduced me to a range of French winegrowers and cellar owners, including Hubert de Boüard from Château Ángelus in Saint-Émilion, Philippe Raoux from Château d’Arsac in Margaux in the Médoc, Nicolas Joly – Loire Valley biodynamic guru, Henri Duboscq from Château Haut-Marbuzet in Saint-Estèphe in the Médoc, Florence and Daniel Cathiard from Château Smith Haut Lafitte, and Murielle Andraud and Jean-Luc Thunevin, the first “ winegrowers’ garages ” on the right bank of Bordeaux.
Berdin’s story is intriguing in that his full-time profession is that of a teacher, and he grew up with no interest in wine.
We recently met in the house where Berdin and his wife of over 20 years – Christine – live in the Talence region of Bordeaux. In 2013, he opened a bottle of sweet wine from the Doisy Daëne de Barsac estate, produced by the late owner of the estate, renowned oenologist and professor Denis Dubourdieu (who died prematurely in 2016). While sipping this blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, Berdin shared his story.
“I was born in Bordeaux and have been a specialist teacher for almost 40 years. My students are between 17 and 20 years old.
“When I was young, I didn’t drink wine, except sometimes a glass of Sauternes – sweet wine. But red? I was not interested. By chance, one day in 1989, I went to visit friends who live in the Bourg region – wine châteaux of Plaisance, Belair-Coubet and Hondarribia – who had set up a market stall at Vinexpo [a renowned annual international wine and spirits trade show, formerly based in Bordeaux city].
“When I saw all these colorful and beautiful wine exhibits, I was amazed and thought – I have to do something! It was as if Bacchus descended on me and never left. From that day on, my goal was to understand wine. I looked for information and found the DUAD course (diploma from the University of Bordeaux in wine appreciation and tasting). It was in 1991. There were about 40 students in the class and I was the only one who had no professional attachment to the subject. There were oenologists, owners of large wine estates, cellar masters, chemists, ampelographers [who study and classify grape varieties], wine geographers, wine historians. The course covered everything from bottle labels to grape roots. It was a fantastic one year course, but difficult. It was Mondays and Saturdays. I was happy to get the diploma because I didn’t know anything about wine before.
Berdin also hosted a radio show around this time and quickly had the idea of writing books about winemakers. He had already written for magazines, in particular for a free publication widely distributed in the city of Bordeaux called “Confetti”.
He quickly found a publisher.
“The publisher told me to write four little books at the same time. So I did it. It took a year and a half. Then I called him in 2009 and he said no – he couldn’t publish them, because of the economic crisis.
” The Cathiard family, owners of Château Smith Haut Lafitte [subjects of one book] wanted to have these books in time to give them as Christmas presents. For the first time in my life, at 46, I picked up the phone and contacted editors from Bordeaux and required they publish the books! But thanks to my wife’s friend Christine – who knew the publishing world well – I was told about Elytis editions and I called. The next day I had a meeting. It was a Wednesday. Friday we had an agreement. I have now written and published 15 books, and three have been translated into English.
“To understand wine, I had to interview people. Some interviews took place over two years for a single book. I met the winemaker or the subject eight or 12 times. It bonded, as each interview was about two hours long, and we also talked a lot on the phone. This link was essential for writing each book. During each meeting, we shared a bottle of wine, the bottle being the common thread of each book, as well as of the entire collection.
Most of Berdin’s books focus on one person or on a married couple. He has also written a book on a dozen winegrowers of the Irouleguy appellation in the Basque region of southern France, and another on several renowned wine merchants.traders. He meets subjects through personal contacts, as well as from suggestions from his DUAD cohort.
Berdin is excited about the future.
“My research is to understand wine in all its aspects. It’s complex. Each region, each bottle is unique. Today’s wine will be different from tomorrow’s. It is a constant evolution.
“I would love to do books everywhere – in South Africa, in the United States. Even Mars! In the meantime, I will continue in France, Alsace, the south and all appellations, even the smallest.
Berdin’s relationship with the Elytis Editions publishing house remains excellent. By accepting Berdin’s original proposal, the brother owners of Elytis also expanded their portfolio of subjects – which was originally primarily based on travel.
When Berdin met his wife Christine, she was not interested in wines, even though her grandfather was cellar master at Château Carbonnieux in the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux. Today, the couple are sharing ideas and traveling together. For her book on Burgundian winegrower Véronique Boss-Drouhin, the two visited the Burgundy region in east-central France on four occasions, the last for a book launch party.
In his introduction to these books, Berdin writes [translated from French]:
“As the charm of the conversation also resides in its imperfections, digressions, silences or onomatopoeias, I show you the words as they are, without decanting them, airing them or dressing them in a jug.
Berdin and I met for the first time in Bordeaux because of his book on winemaker Denis Dubourdieu; it is also the Dubourdieu wine that Berdin opened when we met at his home. He recounted how, after the launch of his book, but before the iconic winemaker passed away, Berdin asked the professor if there was a wine he had never tasted before, but wanted. Referring to a singular and renowned South African sweet wine, Dubourdieu replied: “Klein Constantia”.
A few days later, Gilles telephoned the South African producer and had a bottle shipped to France, which he presented to Dubourdieu during their last meeting.
This act largely sums up what is appealing about Berdin’s calling – which fuses books, wine, and people. He constantly meets exploratory personalities and shares insights and ideas – as well as wit and humor – about well-crafted vintages.
In doing so, Berdin has created his own attractive niche, based on the intersection of books, bottles, and a rich mix of diverse, even sometimes complex and elegant characters.