Michel Bettane, one of the most influential French wine critics, is opinionated and does not shy away from controversies.
For 20 years, he worked at French wine publication La Revue du Vin de France. Later he launched his own wine guide, Bettane + Desseauve, with his colleague Thierry Desseauve. One of the most influential wine writers in France, he was among the first wine critics along with Robert Parker who firmly threw their weight behind 1982 Bordeaux. He was also vocal in challenging Bordeaux’s century-old system, coining a new term of “Super Bordeaux” that could redefine the relevance of the 1855 classification.
In our interview, Bettane shares his unfiltered thoughts on having alcohol-free days, calling official prohibition of alcohol “puritanism at its worst”. As a career wine critic, he swipes at fellow critics who are described by him as being “consumerist” and gave only high scores. Instead he explains the intricate art of wine review that takes education and tremendous knowledge, and why he refuses to reduce wine rating to only “best-buy” or “must-have”.
How many years have you been aged so far?
My birth year is 1952.
What led you to wine?
My first love for wine came from….reading labels and poetic names from Burgundy as Chambolle Musigny Amoureuses or Meursault Charmes or Volnay clos des Chênes from bottles in my father’s cellar. I decided to be a wine critic because of a lack of confidence in most other wine specialties from anywhere. To know by myself as much as possible about the complex world of wine was a long and difficult trip.
What’s your pet peeves about wine?
I was helped by the best books and many great wine producers or agronomists or oenologists. Because of the knowledge accumulated I cannot simplify answer to naive questions even if many wine lovers are curious about them.
Describe what’s an alcohol-free day like for you?
A day without alcoholic beverage is normal for me. I share many of them but I hate any obligation about that or any official prohibition of one week or one month: puritanism at its worst!
What makes a good tasting note?
A good tasting note or descriptive comment is one giving desire to taste the wine. Education or explanation are needed to understand complex wines expressing their origin and vintage. This is the reverse of only saying ‘this is a best or a must buy’ as so many consumerist wine critics do nowadays. Or giving high marks – a necessity to be popular and listed on wine websites, books or commercial links as a great expert.
What makes you happy?
One of the happiest moments for a wine lover is to share with friends a bottle of wine that gives emotions.
If you can only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Impossible to say there is one wine or one vintage or one grower or one wine style I prefer. I love any good wine – wine expressing a true sense of place or origin with impeccable and natural balance. Because of my education and nationality I drink a large proportion of french wines but to my experiment they have more complexity and best pairing with food than most foreign wines except Italian ones. My intimate preference is Chablis or good Riesling for white wines and great Médoc made with a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds. And of course wonderful Port wines or Sauternes.