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Close Up with Chateau Lagrézette’s Iconic Owner

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Cahors, France /  September 17, 2020 –  In recognition of 40 landmark years at the helm of the renowned Chateau Lagrézette wine estate, we sat down with its legendary and visionary owner – Alain Dominique Perrin. Larger-than-life and known for his creative, boundless energy, Alain Dominique Perrin is important not just in the wine world but in many other sectors. From sitting on the board (and previously presiding over) the luxury Richemont Group to acting as president of the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, which he founded in 1984, his expertise is vast, as are his passions.

Alain Dominique Perrin
Alain Dominique Perrin by Isabelle Levistre
and Marc Dantan

What was the decision process like when purchasing Lagrézette? When did you know this ancient and abandoned treasure had to be yours?

The story of Lagrézette and how winemaking came into my life was rather accidental. I came to Cahors in search of a country home. I had been looking throughout France – in pursuit of something ancient – perhaps a monastery or castle. And it had to be a far distance from the social circuits, far from places like St.Tropez. I started looking in 1978 and in 1979 encountered Lagrézette – covered in vines and abandoned. I was immediately drawn to its majesty. (Likely, the last grape harvest there had been in the late 1940s or early 1950s – before the frost of 1956.)

And surprise! On the signing date, the notary informed me that there was an unexpected bonus: “three and a half hectares of plantation rights” for AOP Cahors. Aside from winemakers, no one in France knows that you have to have plantation rights to grow winemaking grapes.

Becoming lord of the manor, I was therefore entitled to grow the grapes. It was never in my plans, but, stumbling upon the possibility, I came to like the idea. Shortly afterward, specialists explained to me that the soil was excellent, and historians that I approached confirmed that the Lagrézette vineyard was highly esteemed in the 19th century, better yet, they found a document citing the harvest of 1503. So, I came to realize that I had one of the oldest vineyards in the region and probably in France.

Next, pen and paper in hand, I quickly saw that planting three and a half hectares was not in the least profitable. I then set about looking for new vines to buy in the surrounding area in order to acquire new plantation rights. Replanting began.

History and winemaking intersect at Lagrézette. What is unique about Lagrézette’s land? 

With some interruptions, grape growing has been ongoing for the last six centuries. We have written proof of the 1503 grape harvest but all indicators point to grape cultivation taking place almost a hundred years earlier. Lagrézette’s history goes back to the Crusades and a succession of famous and powerful families have inhabited the castle notably the de Massauts and de Malegats.

What is something that is challenging at Lagrézette? 

Early on, the most challenging for me was the average reputation that the wines of Cahors endured. Throughout the region archaic practices hampered quality. And the older generation was unmoved to make necessary changes in the vineyard and cellar. I brought new ideas and a global focus to the region. And now, with a new, ambitious generation at the helm, we see perceptions shifting. The wines today are elegant – refined.

What was it like when the first vintage was released? 

The first vintage was in 1983. The vines were too young so we decided not to bottle it. 1984 followed and was disappointing with yielding hardly a sufficient crop. 1985 was the first real vintage and we even received a gold medal at the 1986 VinExpo. I still have bottles of the 1985 vintage in my cellar and although it doesn’t match the wines we make today, it displays impressive character and authenticity.

Chateau Lagrazette by Isabelle Levistre and Marc Dantan

Renowned wine writer Jay McInerney has referred to you as the Robert Mondavi of the Cahors region. As someone deeply committed to the region, with great love for its history and viticulture, how have you seen the region evolve since you began this adventure 40 years ago?

As we discussed, when I arrived in Cahors I saw quickly that ancient and beautiful Cahors needed to change. I brought new ideas, a dynamism and the desire for innovation. And with that, a global perspective – having served on the Mondavi board with Philippine de Rothschild in the 1980s.

Friends like Richard Gere, BB King, Tina Turner, and Elton John among others, came to the Lagrézette estate and became enamored of the Cahors region. I spurred a new chapter here. Working closely with Michel Rolland after meeting him in 1987, we designed the first gravitational wine cellar in the region at Lagrézette and refined our vinification techniques. We developed new practices in the vineyards, reducing yields, and harvesting was timed later for optimum grape maturity. And Cahors took note. Malbec from its ancestral home, has after four decades, become a fashionable grape variety throughout the world – in Europe, the States and now China.

Are there wine producers around the globe you especially admire? 

Number one for me is Guigal (La Turque) – one of the best in the world, and Romanée Conti and Latour, which after Francois Pinault purchased it 20 years ago, is now the best Bordeaux – better than Petrus. I also love Masseto, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estates.

What wines do you gravitate towards for the everyday? 

I tend to select a Rhone wine – perhaps a Côte-Rôtie, Cornas or Châteauneuf-du-Pape like Beaucastel or Rayas. Or perhaps a Burgundy. And 5-6 times a year enjoy a top Bordeaux, like Figeac or Chateau Pape Clément or one of Michel Rolland’s wines like Chateau Le Bon Pasteur. 

Is there a favorite restaurant in Paris, in Cahors that stand out? What was or were the most memorable meal(s) you had at Lagrézette? 

Right now, for me in Paris, I would say Helen. Best fish in the world after Le Bernardin in New York City. The John Dory and red mullet are perfection.

In the Cahors region, there are two standouts – Le Gindreau and Le Domaine de Saint-Gery which is very remote and surrounded by truffle oaks, olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields and farmland. Everything on the menu is sourced from Saint-Gery itself. 

One very beautiful memory was taking Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, Herb Ritts and Bruce Roberts there by horseback. From Lagrézette, it took us about 4 to 5 hours to arrive, taking a route deep in the countryside. We had a spectacular meal with our estate wines and spent a wonderful night there as it also serves as an inn with 7 rooms. I also took Tina Turner and Elton John there: they loved it.

Although you started your career as an antiques dealer, your path as an art collector has centered on contemporary art – especially Arte Povera. Can you tell us more about what attracts your eye?

Yes, I am deeply drawn to contemporary art, painting and sculpture – but lesser known is my passion for collecting antique furniture from time periods of the chateau – notably 15th, 16th and 17th-century pieces. I have searched all over Europe and in America for the rare and unique. In Santa Fe I encountered a Baroque style piece from the early 16th century that is now at Lagrézette – a religious carved and gilt pair of columns displaying grapes. Seven years ago, I purchased a religious coffer in the north of England dating from 1420-1430 and a bed from Scotland that dates to 1633, which is now in my bedroom at Lagrézette. And a unique door from Spain that dates from the early 17th century.

It was after 4-5 years into the restoration of Lagrézette (which took 12 years) that I started acquiring these pieces. Several pieces at the chateau have been there for hundreds of years – original to the chateau. 

And I have sought and purchased numerous pieces (over 30) that have the grape motif in carved form – such as on the doors of a Flemish armoire that dates from the 1400s, which is reproduced in many books. And a long English table (six meters in length) from the 17th century.

I have also sought out over 150 antique silver chalices, which are now in my collection at Lagrézette. 

There is great joy in mixing the ancient with contemporary art and the interplay is endlessly fascinating.

Your story as vigneron began in 1980 and shortly thereafter, in 1984, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art was founded. How do these two worlds and passions intersect?

The Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art was 3-4 years after I purchased Lagrézette. I have been an important force in supporting and developing contemporary art, but the two worlds don’t necessarily intersect.

How did the emerging artist label series evolve?  

Every year I ask a young artist, either through painting or photography, to capture the main façade of Chateau Lagrézette.

Your family is involved in the wine estate and the creation of new wines. I understand a new wine is being released created by Sonia Perrin. Can you tell me more about this project and the philanthropic side to this project? 

This wine will not be launched till 2021 but it will benefit Sonia’s philanthropic work in Madagascar. It will be a Malbec with a very special blend. My son Clement is now considering a signature wine as well.

2020 marks the 40th year since you purchased Lagrézette —in what ways have things changed and in what ways have they stayed the same? What can we expect by the 50th anniversary?  

The chateau and the vineyards have been saved and perfectly and carefully restored…needless to say, with some millions! And a dedicated team of artisans. Now we must keep it alive and still progress with our outstanding Malbec wine and replant several more acres in Rocamadour and Landiech – in order to reach a total of 100 hectares of vines. And I’m eager to try and find more exceptional pieces of early furniture.

The beautifully restored 500-year-old Chateau Lagrézette will now be available for
luxurious stays for the first time ever. This unbelievable opportunity gives visitors a chance to experience the calm of the French countryside, the history of the ancient chateau, the museum-quality art collection, the elegant Lagrézette wines, and the delights of local gastronomy,
all in one place.

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