Youmna and Tony were born meters away from each other in Beirut… in different vintages!
Life brought them together in 1977, but due to the war in Lebanon (1975 – 1991), the path ahead was never going to be easy, with Tony going and coming from London to Beirut via rickety boats from Cyprus when the Beirut airport was closed, and Youmna holding the fort in London to raise the children.
Eventually, they discovered the beauty of the Bordeaux region during several summers spent in a lovely Chartreuse 6 km away from Biac!
However, never in their wildest dreams did they think that “retirement” would translate into owning Biac itself.
They now divide their time between Beirut, where Tony’s main office remains, and Biac, where their hearts lie.
Last summer I had the opportunity to meet Youmna at a Chateau Biac wine dinner at the Pour Wine Bar and Bistro in Otsego. At the end of the dinner, we sat down for a short chat. It was fun to learn we have some mutual friends, Pierre Seillan of Verite (Sonoma California) and Jill Boutros of Chateau Belle-Vue (Lebanon) and her Minnesota connection.
What was the draw for you and your husband to purchase a vineyard and winery in Bordeaux?
It was never our intention to acquire a vineyard!!! We were looking for a holiday home we could enjoy, as we were based in London at the time.
Both Tony and I are Lebanese. During Lebanon ‘s recent war (1975-1991), we had found a house very close to Biac which we rented for 10 successive summers. During that time, Tony had opened an office in London as operating out of Beirut was more and more dangerous. He had quite a serious collection of Bordeaux wines since the 70s, so we explored the area visiting the Chateaux relevant to the wines he had bought: we fell in love with the region and the quality of life in the Gironde.
As Beirut returned to some normality, we already “commuted” between there and London where our children were still based. As there are many flights between London and Bordeaux, the original idea was to have a “holiday” home we reach quickly, but never envisaged such an ambitious project as a vineyard as we knew the kind of responsibility and commitment it entailed.
However, having rented the guesthouses in Biac one summer, and discovering the exceptional position of the property over the river, all the other properties we visited paled in comparison. Biac was a “small “ vineyard in comparison to the average Bordeaux properties; our local friends told us that it would be very easy to manage!!! (that’s when you know your real friends!!! )…
Eventually, the beauty of the property was too much of a pull! So we jumped in!!!
How old is your Chateau and when did you purchase it?
2. There are records which show that Biac has been known as a working vineyard as far as 600 years ago. We have discovered a medieval watchtower hidden under the overgrowth which points to the strategic importance of Biac’s position over the river Garonne. The property is close to what was a major Roman crossroad; we know that when the Romans came to the Bordeaux region, it is in our area ( Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux) that they planted the first vines they brought with them.
We purchased Biac on August 9, 2006.
Are there particular features of your Chateau you admire?
3. As you enter the property, one cannot but have a heart–stopping moment when one discovers the view: Biac is hidden from onlookers by a hedge, so as a visitor, the surprise of what you see once you have passed the gates is total and breathtaking.
The astonishing view is just the beginning: Biac slowly reveals its secrets to you as you spend more time there…the combination of its amphitheater shape rolling down toward the Garonne river, coupled with the ever-changing light and weather movement over the river, is a feast for the eyes …then the terroir reveals itself as a mosaic of both right and left bank soils, enabling us to create wines which really have their own identity…
Pierre Seillan, technical director of Verite (Sonoma, California) once told me that Biac was a property one should keep forever…
I understand you have a Minnesota connection. Do you mind sharing what that is?
4. My first ever visit the USA was to …Minnesota in 1974!! My parents had wonderful friends living on Lake Minnetonka and the reward for me passing my French baccalaureate with good grades was to spend the month of August with them. I totally fell in love with my Minnesotan experience: weekends on the lake up north, Shakespeare in the Guthrie theater, discovering wild rice and sweetcorn, watching Northern lights appear in the sky at night …it was so magical that I applied to the University of Minnesota for a degree in fine arts, which was accepted! Unfortunately, the unexpected and difficult situation created by the start of the long war in Lebanon put paid to my plans…I have been trying to come back to Minnesota ever since…33 years later, destiny made it possible with Diane and Phil Lutgen coming with friends to stay in Biac, liking the wines and wanting to list them in their shop!!!
What are your estimated case production and the wines you offer?
5. We are a small vineyard and our production varies according to the vintage of course…we can produce up to 3500 cases all wines included but that depends very much on what the year will dictate. We blend up to three red wines: Chateau Biac, B de Biac, and Felix; one sweet wine, Secret de Chateau Biac, and one dry white wine Felicie de Biac. however, Felicie is only sold at the property as only two barrels are produced!!!
When drinking wine, do you gravitate towards a white, red or certain style? With that said, is there a region in the world you prefer?
6. Always a difficult question to answer!. Personally, I approach wine very much like music: it depends on my mood…the style of the wines I prefer is the wines we make at Biac, however, I bow respectfully in front of other wines be they from the new or old world as I now appreciate what work goes into producing them…
How many hectares/acres of land do you have planted and what are the varietals?
7. We have 9.5 hectares/27 acres of land planted in vines: because of the unique diversity of our soils on such a small vineyard, we were able to match all the traditional Bordeaux varietals to their most perfect environment: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot for the reds; Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites.
I understand you have guest houses? Are they available year around? How do we learn more?
8. The guesthouses are available from the beginning of April to the beginning of December: they are in fact three “maisonettes” under one roof sleeping 4, 4 and 2. Our website www.chateaubiac.com gives details of their layouts and facilities.
We also have an adjacent large sitting/dining room with lovely fireplace which can be used as “meeting room” either for private meals or little seminar.
When are you not working in the winery or vineyard what are your interests?
9. Before Biac entered our lives, I had made a relatively good name as a watercolorist with exhibitions in London and Beirut! (remember I had applied for fine arts at Minnesota University!!!). Building up the property with my husband Tony and daughter Yasmina has considerably reduced the amount of time I could dedicate to painting, but they have directed my creative energies into looking after the graphic image of Biac!! (labels, brochures, and items in our shop).I also love cooking: with Yasmina, we constantly look for and imagine recipes to pair with our wines ..so if I am not dabbling with paints, I dabble in spices!!!
I also look after my father’s archives: his family is one of the oldest Lebanese aristocratic families whose history is intertwined with that of Lebanon and his own personal story is quite fascinating…!
Your wines are all blends. Do you have a philosophy as for why you prefer blends of single varietal wines?
10. The amazing diversity of soils on this small land surface offers us the palate we use, according to the vintage, to reveal the various expressions of this unique terroir. We do not use the same blending “recipe” year in, year out, seeking instead to “listen” to what the year’s vintage wants to express; by blending the varietals, we bring them together in what we hope is a true reflection of the Biac terroir.
If you were to compare a multi–varietal vineyard to a music performance, you could liken one varietal wine to a single instrument recital which is very pleasing; however, blends offer the power and complexity of large symphonic orchestras and if you have good musicians, isn’t it a shame not to bring them together to perform?
Life is too short to drink crappy wine. Expand your palate and keep trying.