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From Vuitton to Viticulture

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A former LVMH executive and advisor to Bernard Arnault on becoming a biodynamic winemaker at a 900-year-old monastery.

 

Phillipe Pascal is describing some of the methods he uses to keep his biodynamic vines healthy and it is beginning to sound like an apothecary’s wish list. “Valerian [a herb used as a sleeping aid] after a hail storm to heal the plant; thyme, savoury and rosemary made into a tea to warn the plant before the first frost,” he explains over Zoom, from his sunny office in Burgundy. “After a wet summer, we spray the leaves with diluted cow milk to protect against oidium [a powdery mildew that affects vines].”

These, he says with pride, would have been some of the methods of viticulture used by the Cistercian monk-vignerons 900 years ago when they first planted the vines of the Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, the vineyard in Givry, Burgundy. Now, coming full circle, following Pascal and his wife Catherine’s acquisition of the small vineyard, not so much as a drop of chemical fertilisers has passed into the soil in the last five years.

If it sounds unorthodox, these are the lengths taken to protect and support biodynamic winemaking, an increasingly popular practice that sees the vineyard as interconnected to the lunar cycle, eliminating the use of chemicals and employing regenerative agricultural methods. It was, Pascal says proudly, down to pressure from their three children that they turned the vineyard first organic, and then biodynamic.

Pascal acquired the classified first-growth vineyard back in 2005, while holding down a super-high-powered job leading the wine and Champagne business of luxury corporation LVMH, as well as being a personal advisor to its billionaire founder, Bernard Arnault.

It had always been the plan to have a bolthole in Burgundy to decompress after busy weeks in Paris; after all, that is where Catherine’s family hails from. But the Bourgogne vineyards are among the most valuable in the world and for-sale plots are rare. A tip-off from a friend brought the couple to see the Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, and it was love at first sight, recalls Pascal.

“We looked around and we didn’t talk to each other but we both knew we had fallen in love,” he says. “We felt like we were opening a book, starting a new life; it was magic.”

At an opportune moment he took early retirement in 2011 at the age of 56, and became a full-time winemaker, swapping his Aston Martin for a 1967 Citroën 2CV (and, later, an electric Range Rover).

“I was at a point in my life of starting with my wife from scratch again with no secretary, no accountant, no sales team. I barely knew how to use a computer; I was buying my own plane ticket, taking the subway rather than being driven by a chauffeur. Actually, all those simple things I enjoyed, and it turned out to be what I was missing a bit,” he smiles.

Planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and a tiny amount of Aligoté, the modest 10-hectare site is south-facing with views over Mont Blanc. The couple spent the first four years restoring the wine cellar of the monks, which is now under historical protection. Soon after came the full-gravity winery, the first of its kind in Burgundy, which allows every stage from grape sorting to bottling without any pumping at all, making it more energy efficient. Inspired by the simple lines of Cistercian architecture, the four-storey winery fits harmoniously into the landscape, developed under the expert eye of Burgundian architect Gilles Gauvain.

Continuing the family theme, the landscaped setting of the winery was conceived by François Bléhaut, the husband of their eldest daughter Camille who is a landscape architect based in New York. (Their second daughter, Margot, is also involved in the marketing of the business, while their youngest, their son Alex, is in Biarritz, also doing marketing.) They also set about reviving a “forgotten clos”, a very old walled vineyard of 3,000 square metres, where they planted special Clos Pascal vines on échalas, or poles, as in the past.

 

The Domaine du Cellier aux Moines is the first Givry estate to have turned organic and, still in 2022, the only biodynamic estate in the area. “We hope to lead by example; the next generation in some neighbouring estates shows more interest in the matter than their elders, and may dare to take the plunge,” says Pascal. It is not a decision for those hoping to maximise profits, or for the work-shy. Pascal says they spend more time on the vines and farming costs have significantly increased. The grape yield has decreased but Pascal believes the grapes are better quality and the wines have “a more lively expression”.

If Pascal’s 30-year-old self could see what he would be doing today would he have been surprised, I wonder? Probably not, he smiles. Agriculture was always on his horizons, if not in his blood. Growing up as the son of a textiles manufacturer on the rural outskirts of Saint-Etienne near Lyon, Pascal took a Masters in science and agriculture at Dijon university where he met his wife. They married shortly afterwards and, for their honeymoon, embarked on a humanitarian mission to help poor peanut farmers in Africa. It was a rewarding but difficult time — in a very rustic area, Catherine miscarried and Pascal got malaria – and soon after returned to the US where Pascal was hired to help drive sales of French wine.

It was in this profession that he crossed paths with French billionaire Bernard Arnault, who at the time was trying to expand the wine and Champagne business of LVMH. Arnault hired him almost on the spot and for the next 20 years often sought out his opinion. But life is like a succession of circles, he observes, and at the time he needed a new circle. “The corporate world was becoming less attractive to me, I wanted to do simpler things by myself,” says Pascal.

 



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