DIRK VERMEERSCH, rally racer turned wine producer, explains his drive for viticultural perfection to GERRIE LIM
BELGIAN WAFFLES DON’T exist in Belgium and perhaps neither should winemakers, but Dirk Vermeersch claims exception. Previously a rally driver until serious injury intervened, he says he lives for fresh challenges and thus throws me a gauntlet when we meet at Gonpachi in Causeway Bay, as if to ascertain my own mettle.
It comes in the form of a bottle of his 2011 LePlan-Vermeersch GTS, what he calls his “Grand Terroir Syrah,” which scored 89 points in The Wine Advocate. I find it an intense wine with a percolating depth and stunning balance, its predominantly dark fruit flavours and chocolaty finish almost obscuring its whopping 16-percent alcohol level. It’s a fine effort indeed from someone who’d begun winemaking a mere decade earlier.
His start wasn’t auspicious, since his second harvest nearly obliterated him – the weather in 2002 was so bad in his southern Rhône commune of Suze-la-Rousse that he made no wine at all – but things have since improved vastly, best defined by how the ever-influential Robert Parker has invoked the petrol-head vernacular to laud him a producer of “sexy, full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal wines”.
“That’s confirmation you’re doing well,” says Vermeersch. “And I like this competition style, the points and the stars. When we get a silver or a bronze medal, I wonder why we didn’t get a gold. I get a little disappointed with a silver, but with a bronze I get really pissed off – yet I know that bronze is good, you know, it means you made it to the top three!”
It was essentially his chance to start life anew after a 1986 rally in his native Belgium landed him, as he recalls, “not in a coma but four weeks in a really dark room, no lights, just waiting. I was 36 years old and in the worst place I’d ever been in. But I didn’t want to stop right after the accident – I wanted to prove to myself that I could be fast again and I did – I won three more races that year. And then I decided it was enough and I quit.”
He morphed into a used-car dealer, then sold up and moved to the Provençal hamlet of Tulette, running a bed and breakfast and then working a small vineyard on his property for fun. “It was just two hectares, all Carignan,” he says. “I told my wife I was going to try to make some wine and she said, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s good.’ ” He rolls his eyes, and then discloses how her scepticism was thwarted when his 2003 GT-S scored two stars in the Guide Hachette wine bible. Following that shot in the arm everything changed dramatically – to the extent that Vermeersch now has several awards for his wines and 25 hectares blessed with good limestone clay soils currently under vine. All his wines are organically made and matured in a mix of French and American oak.
“Our production now is 50,000 bottles a year for the premium GT series and 150,000 for our other Classic wines series,” he tells me. “We’re about 99 percent Côtesdu-Rhône-Villages, and then we have 0.16 hectares in Châteauneufdu-Pape, and also a little parcel of Aramon and Alicante.” His daughter Ann went off to oenology school and returned with a husband, Sebastien, and both joined his winemaking team in 2005. Their portfolio now includes the LePlan-Vermeersch GT-G (the G stands for Grenache), GT-C (Carignan), GT-V (Viognier), and Mediterranée GT-A (Aramon and Alicante). True to Vermeersch’s wicked sense of whimsy, despite a chequered flag design adorning his company logo, the GT itself stands not for Gran Turismo but rather for Grand Terroir.
I ask whether it’s intimidating being surrounded by the legendary producers of the Rhône Valley – the Chapoutiers, the Guigals, the Perrins. “Well, I’m a thousand times smaller, to start with,” he chuckles. “These are families making wine for 100 or 200 years, and we’re just 10 years in. When my two stars happened, Michel Chapoutier phoned me and he wanted to buy my wine – buy everything. And I said no! But Pierre Perrin helped me a lot. In the first years, we went to visit these guys, just knocked on their doors and said we’re from Belgium and wanted to make wine. We were the new kid on the block, but that’s my style. In 2001, when I was pruning, they were laughing at me, but after a couple of years they were laughing a bit less.“
That was most certainly the case when he won the award he most treasures, last year’s Best Red Winemaker 2013 at the Japan Wine Challenge, where he also won Best French Red Wine for his Le Plan GT-X 2011. “This wine is a blend of seven or eight grapes, of which there are at least two grapes that we can’t officially do in Côtes du Rhone,” he discloses of his flagship coup de coeur.
“When we first made it, I said, ‘OK, fuck the system, we’ll make something we really want, and we’ll see.’ In the jury, there were the two most famous wine journalists in France, Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, who never gave me good points in France. In Japan, the judging is done by blind tasting, and we got the best French wine, and they were shocked, like: ‘It’s from that Belgian guy?’ ”
Perhaps in a mocking toast to his own maverick nature, he then raises his glass to me. “Last year, 2013, the weather wasn’t so good so we’ll be making less wine. At the beginning of the year, the temperature was below zero, so there was a lot of damage and in the summer we had hail and that damaged another five percent, so we lost eight percent total. But that’s nature. In winemaking, you have no excuses except the weather. In car racing you’re depending on the car and your team, and you have a lot of excuses. If you have good weather and you make bad wine, it’s your fault. If you have a good season with good climate, you have to make good wine. There’s no excuse. It’s all or nothing. And I like that.”
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