Olivier Decelle

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With four vineyards in the four corners of France, Olivier Decelle joins the ranks of the great French wine entrepreneurs. With the same will to succeed and the same stubbornness of civilization. The results are there. He tells us so.

After a career as a business manager in the distribution sector, you decided to take an interest in wine. Your first destination was the Mas Amiel estate in the Roussillon, known for producing natural sweet wines. Why here?

Mas Amiel is a special place, with rare landscapes. The winemakers around us are quite exceptional. I bought it on a whim. I discovered this property, somewhat per chance, in 1999. I didn’t know the world of wine, I was coming from the food industry. At the time, I was still the President of Picard Surgelés. I was combining this job with my new life as a winemaker. I quickly realised that I couldn’t do both jobs at the same time. The winegrower’s job is very demanding and requires a lot of time. I had to choose. I left the life that had been mine for twenty years. I had to learn everything. In 2001, I set up the estate.

You have completely transformed the business.

Quite soon after acquiring it, I realised that the natural sweet wines were not enough to make Mas Amiel grow, even though they are exceptional products. Naturally, we decided to create dry wines. It was Jacques Boissenot, a renowned oenologist from the Médoc, who convinced me that the terroirs were suitable. The other person who encouraged me to settle here was François Bouchet. Thanks to his advice, we turned to biodynamics. I have always considered Mas Amiel to be a school in which I was a student trying to learn. At 45, going back to school is not easy. Today, I have an intimate relationship with my vines. I think I understand them better and better. Twenty years is the time it takes to understand a domain like this.

What drives Mas Amiel?

The property has 200 hectares, 140 of which are planted mainly with Grenache. This is the king grape variety of the estate, along with Carignan. We also have a little Syrah. I am more in favour of grape varieties endemic to the region. This is not the case of Syrah, even if the Inao has asked us to plant it.

Yet you continue to make natural sweet wines. Does the market follow?

It’s true, the market was a bit sleepy when I arrived. You had to take your sales briefcase and get people to rediscover this product. The challenge was also to find an entry point for the consumer. For us, it was a food and wine pairing and that’s why I presented my wines at the Salon du Chocolat. Little by little, this wine has become inseparable from chocolate. It is a classic among the pairings and, for us, a simple and effective way to modernize the product. Of course, we have also modernized our marketing, especially our labels. Our wine had always been consumed by amateurs who had become quite old. We had to recruit a younger clientele. To support this approach, we tried to get this message across in all the sommelier schools. Today, I believe that Mas Amiel has a rejuvenated image while continuing to sell natural sweet wines.

Often, we think of Port when we talk about Maury. Because of the mutage (addition of pure alcohol) technique, but not only.

The mutage was discovered by Arnaud de Villeneuve, a Catalan who lived in the 14th century. The culture of fortified wines was born in Roussillon. This method of winemaking was then exported to Portugal. Like the Ports, the Maurys are organized in two families of wines. On the one hand, the vintages matured in a reductive environment. They will age in bottles. On the other hand, tawny wines are oxidative wines. The mutage is a rather simple technique. We stop the fermentation when there is about 80 g/l of sugar left by adding alcohol. This addition kills the yeasts, the natural sugar remains. What defines the aromatic profile of the two categories is the maturation. In our region, tawny wines have the particularity of spending one year in glass tanks and aging between 20 and 40 years in tuns. For this reason, a sweet wine from the Mas Amiel estate is a wine of transmission. The natural sweet tawny wines I make will certainly be drunk and sold by my grandchildren. Since I arrived, I still haven’t put my own production on the market.

So today you sell the wines you didn’t make?

And I am very happy about that. The previous owners made great wines. When I arrived, the stock of sweet wines was important, even frightening for all those who looked at the domain’s file of acquisition. There were 12,000 hectoliters of wine in the aging process. Today, we continue to age wine because we have relaunched the marketing. All over the world, there are lovers of Mas Amiel Maurys. So we must continue to maintain this story. I am only here to pass on the baton.

In 2004, you acquired Château Jean Faure, a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé with illustrious neighbours, such as Châteaux La Dominique and Cheval Blanc. 

At the time, it was Jacques Boissenot who told me about Jean Faure when I was looking to buy a property in Bordeaux. It is a fabulous terroir to which I have given a lot of time, especially the time I gained at Mas Amiel thanks to Nicolas Raffy, the General Manager to whom I entrusted the property. He is the one who manages it today. One day, I will have to step aside for the benefit of the estates. To achieve this, it is necessary to set up permanent structures that can be passed on to future generations. All this has to be prepared well in advance, both to find teams ready to manage these estates and above all to ensure that they are managed in the way I want them to be, in the sense of a certain continuity. Mas Amiel is an important estate in this region. Its social role is important. This small valley of Maury has been reliving for about fifteen years. It is essential that all the players are in good health. In short, I am attached to this continuity and very proud of the incredible work of the team in place.

At what point did you feel you were becoming a winemaker?

Even if I am proud of what my family and I have done at Picard, after ten years in this new life, I found it a bit simplistic to keep talking to me about Picard when I was doing everything I could to make my mark in this new profession. The experience of Château Jean Faure was ultimately more difficult than that of Mas Amiel. In Bordeaux, it was more complicated to find the right teams. I remember that in 2006, due to a number of personnel problems, I found myself alone in the vinification process, with no Director, no Cellar Master, and no one from the trade to help me. Until then, I had always had this kind of modesty that made me not dare to take the production in hand. Now, from one day to the next, I had no choice. It was really the first time I had my hands in the grapes. And at Jean Faure, I didn’t stop taking care of the vinification until the 2019 vintage. I don’t want people to talk about me necessarily as a winemaker, but rather to stop highlighting my former life to the detriment of today’s. In twenty years, I have worked with a number of consultants. Claude Bourguignon, Francois Bouchet, Michel Rolland, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Hubert de Boüard and Jacques Boissenot. In the business, it can be interpreted as if I had ended up kicking all these people out of the house. That’s not the case at all and I have great respect for these people who taught me so many things. The fact is that I had a different vision of the expert advice than what I sometimes observed in Bordeaux. At Picard, when I took external advice, it was always with the aim of confronting my ideas. It was more to challenge myself. And to learn.

What led you to acquire the Boisseyt estate on the banks of the Northern Rhône and to confront these very difficult terroirs?

It was a bit of a folly. In general, you’d think I’d go into debt to buy problems. I really like Rhône wines. I met Didier Chol, the former owner of the Boisseyt estate, who wanted to sell. I knew that this domain was mythical. Alone, I would never have done it. At my side was my son, Romain. Even though he has been with me for ten years in my life as a winegrower, he has always been so discreet that few people knew that he worked so much with me. I never imagined him in Bordeaux. On a human level, the Rhône Valley is closer to his style, his way of being and his way of life. When the sale of the estate became clear, we never thought we would be able to buy it. A lot of French investors were involved in this project. I saw the owner, we talked and, as he liked me, he offered to sell it to me if I wanted to buy it. Today, my son is in charge of it. I wouldn’t know how to. I think Romain is doing pretty well. I’m happy to visit him and my grandson. He has set a difficult goal for himself by wanting to be an organic farmer one day. What he’s looking for most of all is a kind of communion with this environment. He loves the wines of this place and the men and women of the region. Now I hope this vineyard will be a good thing for the family and that it will reflect a happy and fulfilled son in a difficult context. Most of the winegrowing families in Côte-Rôtie are in the process of changing generations. The good thing is that young people are not concerned with the parochial squabbles of my generation. I am proud of the vision he has, he has the courage to take risks. I am happy to taste Romain’s wines. It’s his job, I don’t interfere.

And as if Roussillon, Saint-Émilion and Côte-Rôtie were not enough, one day you arrived in Burgundy.

When you start out in Burgundy, you have to tell yourself that there is nothing more difficult than Pinot Noir. I first settled there for my own wine culture. Today, the wines of Mas Amiel and Jean Faure are very much influenced by what I learned in Burgundy, especially in terms of freshness and tension. Burgundy taught me to trust the terroir. Since then, we are less interventionist in the cellar. Burgundy was a real revelation to me about the way I wanted to make wines. If today I have a transversal approach to winemaking at all my estates, I owe it to Burgundy. I don’t have seven hectares of Musigny. We have acquired parcels in smaller appellations so that they correspond both to the clientele of the Mas Amiel estate and to what I am. There is a strong demand for good value medium Burgundies that are vinified like Grand Crus and are representative of their appellations. The aim of Decelle et Fils is to offer this kind of wine. We have set up a distribution company that sells our wines. It allows us to create a certain number of synergies between our entities. That said, I do not wish to federate my four vineyards under the Decelle brand. The specialists know that they belong to me, the consumer is not necessarily aware of this. Each estate has its own strategy and must be autonomous, responsible for the marketing of its wines, while relying on our distribution company, with perhaps one day a common logistics.

 

 

“The culture of muted wines was born in Roussillon. This method of vinification was then exported to Portugal. Like the Port wines, the Maurys are organized in two families of wines. On the one hand, the vintages raised in a reductive environment. They will age in bottles. On the other hand, the tawny wines which are oxidative wines.”

 

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