In the "nineties" Jean-François Julien was a carpenter who knew nothing about viticulture.
His only contact with the wine industry was when he repaired furniture for Count Stephan von Neipperg, owner of Château Canon La Gaffelière.
Today, his little Chateau has the same attribute behind its name as the Count had then: Grand Cru Classé.
But let's take it one step at a time...
In the village of St-Pey-d'Armens, where Jean-François lived from birth, the local council decided to build social housing. On land that Jean-François and his wife Véronique owned. The municipal authorities urged them to give them up. "Never!" said a man with the appearance of a rugby player. "I'd rather plant a vineyard."
And as he said, so he did.
"I knew nothing about wine then," he admits with a smile. To learn how to make wine from grapes, he bought a textbook, Connaissance et travail du vin (Knowing and Making Wine), written by a famous local oenologist, Professor Émile Peynaud. In 1999, in his father-in-law's garage and with the manual in hand, he produced his first 900 bottles of wine.
He had no major technical equipment. So handmade was an understatement for how he made wine. Even the de-stemming was done by hand (!)
But this madness was at the beginning of his success. A photographer from the local newspaper Sud Ouest found out about his "method" and took a picture of his whole crazy family group carefully separating the berries from the stems, even though there are perfect machines for this. This article was spotted by a local negociant, who provided a sample of the 2000 vintage to American merchant Jeffrey Davies, who got La Fleur Morange 2000 to the then all-powerful American wine critic Robert Parker. "I didn't know who Parker was," laughed Julien. "I was just on the tractor when my lawyer called me on my cell phone and told me to sit down. I thought someone had died. The lawyer explained to me the significance of Parker's score of 93 out of 100. I came home that night and my fax was full of messages from négociants..."
Jean-François sold his entire crop in 20 minutes.
"People thought it must be a coincidence, but I got another good score for my 2001 vintage - almost as good as Petrus - and I sold it all again."
That is - when Jean-François began serious research into the local soil types, he discovered that where he has a vineyard in St-Pey-d'Armens there is a very solid concentration of iron-rich clay, virtually identical to that of Petrus in Pomerol.
The story culminates with Jancis Robinson mistaking La Fleur Morange 2005 for Chateau Ausone in a blind tasting and giving it a 19/20. :-)
She says: "I first encountered La Fleur Morange in an extensive blind tasting of 2005 vintage right coast wines in 2008, when Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners and I were convinced that this mystery wine was Ausone or Pavie", two of the top four wineries in the Saint-Émilion appellation.
In 2012, La Fleur Morange was awarded "Grand Cru Classé". However, in the same year they also promoted Count von Neipperg's Canon La Gaffelière one step above La Fleur Morange, to Premier Grand Cru Classé B.
Is this another challenge for Jean-François Julien ...? :-)
When you read this story and you have a trip to Saint-Emilion, you will inevitably long to meet Jean-François Julien in person. Especially since it's the week of En Primeur 2022. :-)
Jean-François lives mainly in the present. When I wrote to him in mid-January asking if we could stop by on April 25, he wrote back: "Sure, feel free to stop by on January 25." After I pointed out that it was April, he wrote back: "Yeah, let me know the day before..."
We arrived almost an hour late (En Primeur week is a busy one). Jean-François and his daughter Mathilde were waiting impatiently for us. No big apologies were needed, and we immediately set off together to the vineyard. At first glance, it was obvious that it was well tended. Right next door, in a small building, we find thermoregulated stainless steel double-sheathed tanks, a classic press and oak barrels. Jean-François doesn't use a pump, he does all his wine transport by gravity alone. Everything around us gives the impression that Chateau La Fleur Morange is literally a meticulous "hand made" winery.
After a short tour we go tasting. We are looking forward to it, because the 2022 vintage is exceptional. And from what we can see on the table, it's going to be challenging. We start with La Fleur Morange blanc 2020 and then reds, from La Marchode 2020 and 2022, through two wines from his Castillon vineyard, Paloma 2020 and 2022 and Paloma 360° 2019 and 2022, to his second wine Mathilde 2022 and of course La Fleur Morange 2022. The mood is getting better and better, Jean-François turns on his DJ mixing desk and doesn't spare his speakers. Lada, as a professional DJ, takes the owner's place behind the console and Jean-François, like the others, is having a great time.
But especially the wine! It is absolutely wonderful and we all know that we will spend a lot of money at this winery for En Primeur 2022.
Using Jancis Robinson's article for the Financial Times entitled 'One Mighty Smallholder'.