The most striking feature of elderly French vignerons is their hands. Calloused fingers, thickened by years of hard, manual labor, attached to meaty, strong hands that envelop your (by comparison) puny hands that haven’t been driving a tractor, pruning vines, or maneuvering heavy equipment and oak barrels for the past few decades. Experience has taught me to make certain, when shaking their hands, to thrust my entire hand vigorously into their grip. If not, and they get ahold of the ends of your fingers, it’s like they’re caught in a vice, and typing for the next few days is painful.
Francis Dèche, a 5th-generation winemaker and owner of the Bas-Armagnac Château de Millet, has such hands. But if he placed those ham-like appendages in his pockets, and you dressed the wire-rimmed-glass-wearing, slightly rotund Dèche in a tweed jacket, the elderly gentleman might be mistaken for a university professor. He has a distinctly intellectual air about him, and the Château de Millet reflects this.
An example is the second floor of the building used as a tasting room. One entire wall is a diorama that he built to explain the soils in the three Armagnac regions (Bas-Armagnac—clay-silt and sand (boulbènes is the term used to describe this acidic, yellow-or-grey soil found in southwestern France), Ténarèze—clay and limestone, and Haut-Armagnac—mostly limestone). There’s also a detailed explanation of field grafting, where the top of an established grapevine is cut off and a new vine, of a different variety, is grafted on. The original vine continues as the root system and lower trunk, while the new variety becomes the upper trunk and the fruiting portion of the vine. It’s a technique, he explains, that he used to improve several parcels of vines on the 80-ha estate.
Apart from educating people about Armagnac terroir, Dèche is a fervent backer of local artists. Regular exhibitions of paintings, sculpture and composite artwork are held at the domaine. Most of these are wine-related, but some, like the one that was on display when I visited in early December, are abstract in nature. He explained that the elaborate wall hangings on display, representations of ferns, flowers and other natural objects made from cloth, string, beads, shells and bits of material, were made by a woman, a friend of one of his four daughters, with failing eyesight. A soil diorama and delicate, wall hangings that wouldn’t look out of place in a Paris, London or New York City art gallery might sound incongruent, but they work well together.
The same is true of his wine and Armagnac. Along with his daughter Florence, who began working with him in 2009, Dèche makes a nice selection of Côtes de Gascogne whites from Colombard, Ugni-Blanc, Gros-Manseng, Chardonnay and Sauvignon vines.
And if his wine is interesting, his Armagnac is sublime. The 1974 Château de Millet Bas-Armagnac that I tasted at a dinner hosted by another of Millet’s four daughters—Hélène, who runs along with her French-Canadian husband Jean, the charming Les Bruhasses Bed & Breakfast in nearby Condom—was one of the best Armagnacs that I’ve ever tasted. This light-amber-colored brandy, with the distinctive prune and licorice aromas of well-aged Armagnac made from Baco grapes (the grape variety that Dèche prefers to use for his Armagnac millésimes), has a beautiful spicy, peppery, orange-flavored finish. This particular millésime took the Prix du Président de la République at the 1998 Concours National des Grandes Eaux-de-vie d’Armagnac in Paris.
In another life Francis Dèche might have been a Richard-Dreyfuss-look-alike university professor. Fortunately, for Armagnac enthusiasts, he’s only a part-time teacher, and his main classroom is his chai, where he patiently forms, not minds, but eau-de-vie into some of France’s finest brandies.