There is something inspiring and satisfying about meeting people who are living their dreams. While most of us defer our ambitions, Graham Nutter went to the Minervois region of Languedoc in the south of France, and bought a vineyard. There he settled in to refurbish and reinvent Domaine St. Jacques D’Albas.
Jean-Pierre Riou, of Gifted Grapes in New York City, who distributes the Chateau’s wines, introduced us to Graham. An energetic Englishman, he radiates dynamism and enthusiasm both physically and intellectually. Forward seems the only gear engaged.
Luck played a big part in Graham’s introduction to wine. While a student at Cambridge, a powerful dean took him under his wing. “I had a fortnightly dinner invitation and each time he raided the college’s wine cellar for the very best claret.” So, at a tender age, Graham was exposed to the most expensive classified French Bordeaux.
His interest in wine transformed into an interest in winemaking when he was 26 years old. “I was in St. Emilion, randomly knocked on the door of Chateau Figeac and Monsieur Thierry Manoncourt (the owner, who died this past August) spent all afternoon with me. He took me into his library, opened bottles of Figeac ’64 and ’66. I’ll remember the ’64 until the day I die.” Manoncourt’s graciousness, enthusiasm and desire to educate all had a profound effect on Graham, who decided this was a lifestyle worth having.
A career in global money management and finance took Graham all over the world, allowing him to indulge his passion for drinking and collecting wine. Also, it introduced him to the man at the next desk, Nicolas Joly, now a leader in the Biodynamic wine world. Graham recalls that Joly trod barefoot around the stuffy Morgan Guarantee offices drinking cup after cup of hot tea, a habit he developed while in India.
Talking to Graham, it is obvious that he has a keen mind and has chosen to wrap it around the complexities of wine. You may have met someone like this before: they study countries, regions and sub regions; they learn all about grape types; they delve into the mysteries of winemakers, chateaus, vintages and aging. They challenge themselves to master one of the most esoteric of all trades. Then, when they are ready, when their knowledge barrel overflows, they need to make their own wine.
Graham knows the world is awash in wine, he knows how hard it is to make and sell good wine, yet he had to try it. So, a la A Year In Provence, he moved to Minervois in 2001, an area his long-time French wife, Beatrice, selected. They purchased Chateau St. Jacques, 180 acres, 40% of it vineyards.
The property came complete with working Roman roads, 7th century Visigoth tombs, and an 11th century chapel. Unlike Peter Mayle, he did not just observe and criticize his neighbors and tradesman. He formed strong bonds with them as they helped uproot vines, laboriously alter the substrate and replant. He hired experts to help him with everything from organic farming to the winemaking, modernized the facilities (including sleekly styled stainless steel tanks) and developed new markets from Brooklyn to Hong Kong.
Along the way, he and Beatrice rebuilt and added a catering kitchen, concert hall and tasting room to their centuries-old farmhouse. They even designed an outdoor amphitheater for al fresco concerts.
And, 10 years on, these efforts are being rewarded. Now, the grape crop, which consists of primarily reds (30% syrah, 35% Carignan, 25% Grenache, and 5% Mouvedre) with a much smaller planting – 1.5 hectares — of whites (Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino) is healthy. The Chateau’s wines sell out and have won awards in many European countries. Distribution is in 14 countries and counting. An example of Graham’s forward thinking is his efforts in India. Due to its huge population and low wine consumption, he sees great opportunity. “On a recent visit there, I was treated like a Maharaja.”
One of the hallmarks of Graham and Beatrice’s Minervois world is hospitality. They seem to love being surrounded by people and playing off their energy. They have two gites (apartments) for rent and it is not unusual for them to befriend their paying guests. While we were there, a few ex-pat chums came by, so their houseguest, renowned pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff, could practice on the Chateaus’ antique baby grand. Wine dinners, jazz concerts and Irish weddings all receive Beatrice and Graham’s welcome. Even migrating birds are invited. Graham keeps a field of sunflowers specifically for them to feed on as they pass by.
But what of the wine? The Minervois, like much of the Languedoc, was growing and producing a vin du table of low quality that was sold in bulk to blend for the diminished legions of blue-collar drinkers. Wine consumption has plummeted; younger Frenchman often have a beer after work. The only hope for Graham’s and other vineyards was to upgrade to a name brand domaine and make really great wine that could be exported.
To accomplish this, Graham reached out to master planter and grower, Jean-Pierre Cousinie, whose Cousinie Methode is built on the Steiner’s Biodynamics but incorporates proprietary laboratory analysis that was not available in Steiner’s day. To facilitate ripening and allow for manual harvesting, an aggressive pruning program to restrict yield to 35hl/hectare and re-establish the shape of the vines was undertaken.
These harvested grapes produce 4 AOC wines: 1) a large volume “Clos de Garric of young Syrah, Carignan, and Grenache vines; 2) an aged in the tank Domaine of Grenache/Syrah; 3) a Chateau wine of Syrah/Grenache, the Syrah aged in oak barrels; and 4) the limited release (4,500 bottles) Chapelle, which Graham calls his Super cuvee of predominantly Syrah. He also produces 3 vin de pays d’Oc wines: rose, red, and white. Total release is approximately 9,000 cases.
We ended our stay where we started it – at their dining table, sharing conversation, delicious food and wine, and a commonality of values and interests. Our hosts went an extra mile, well, literally, an extra 100 feet, down to their extensive, electronic ID-access-only, subterranean wine cellar, to share with us their incredible library wines, one a Figeac (in honor of our conversation of the day before) and the other a biodynamic beauty, Domaine Leflaive, made by Madame Anne-Claude Leflaive, one of Graham’s winemaking inspirations.
For our departure, early the next morning, our consummate host arose to give us a smile and a final send of. We left knowing that his day would be filled improving and enjoying everything that bears the Chateau Saint-Jacques d’Albas label.
Vin de Pays d’OC
2007 Le Petite St Jacques Red (50/50 Cab/Grenache)
A fresh and agreeable wine, smooth and berry red. This unusual blend is very fruity, ultra low tannins. Hints of mocha and leather. An authoritative French wine guide says, “A serious wine for non-serious moments.”
Chateau St Jacques d’Albas
Silky smooth and chewy. Bright and sun-kissed, fruit forward yet dry finish, this is a winner. A great expression of the best of the “new” Minervois. The Syrah’s 12 months on oak gives the wine depth and complexity. Hints of anise and pepper.
La Chapelle St. Jacques d’Albas
2006 (Old vine Syrah with 4% Carignan or Grenache)
This pride and joy of the estate has a deep bouquet of dark fruit with strong flavors of spice and incense. Elegant, rich, 1st class. Simply delicious. Hand punched down. Limited release of 5,500 bottles