‘Why won’t anyone talk to me?’ Jonathan Maltus asked a friend when he first came to St-Emilion in the mid-1990s. ‘It’s because you’re in Vignonet,’ the friend replied, naming the very unfashionable end of St-Emilion, where the Englishman had started making wine.
It’s a nice little anecdote which Maltus likes to tell, neatly capturing the snobbery of the Right Bank’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed town, and giving a flavour of the man. He’s an OBE (awarded in 2016); he’s just built a €14m, Norman Foster-designed winery slap bang in the middle of some of the world’s most expensive vineland – it’s next door to Château Angelus. He’s hoping that his flagship wine produced there, Le Dôme, will be promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé in St-Emilion’s rancorous ten-year classification, to be announced in September.
He produces a dozen wines, with the Cabernet Franc-dominant Le Dôme, Château Teyssier, La Forge, and Vieux Château Mazerat at the top of the pyramid. In all, he owns some 60ha of vineyard and is St-Emilion’s second-biggest landowner after Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. Jane Anson, among other key critics, considers Le Dôme 2021 one of the best wines of that vintage.
Maltus, though – maverick, garagiste, entrepreneur – still seems something of an outsider. He grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where his parents both worked for the Standard Chartered bank. As a young man he was headstrong. He came to the UK aged 20, originally intending to take up a place at Manchester University. But he stayed in London as he’d met a girl – he thought ‘being with her would be far more interesting than uni.’ His father was so annoyed he didn’t speak to him for three years.
He took a while to settle. He worked in a bank, and as drayman’s mate at Fuller’s brewery (he was fired for not tying down the barrels properly). He got a job with a company involved in North Sea oil and gas and ‘went up the ladder a bit’, moving around between companies and getting a feel for the oil and gas business in the 1980s, which he describes as ‘a gold rush.’ By the age of 21 he was running his own petrochemicals company, which he sold for £1.5m in the early 1990s.
Knocking around Cahors with a million and a half quid in his pocket, Maltus offered to sell a neighbour’s wine for him in exchange for learning how to make it
The rest is history, as they say. Knocking around Cahors with a million and a half quid in his pocket, Maltus offered to sell a neighbour’s wine for him in exchange for learning how to make it. He got the bug and started looking for somewhere to buy. He finally landed at Château Teyssier, 5.5ha of vines and a grand-though-decrepit property in Vignonet, just outside St-Emilion. It cost him £1.2m, ‘with the renovations.’ Then in 1996 he bought the three hectares that is now Le Dôme, on the Côtes, the limestone hillsides surrounding the town. That’s where he built his astonishing new winery, which he opened last year.
Back in the ’90s, it was a conversation with a wine merchant – Huw Blair of Justerini & Brooks – that set him on the path that was to bring him a certain fame. ‘Huw had just taken delivery of his six-bottle allocation of Le Pin [the legendarily expensive Pomerol produced in minute quantities by Jacques Thienpont], and I asked him if there was anything in this microcuvée business.’ Indeed there is, Blair replied. Maltus went for it.
Le Dôme was vinified after rigorous selection, barrel fermented and matured for 18 months and more in new oak. The wine was rich, dark and extravagantly fruited. Blair called the 1996 the wine of the vintage, and Robert Parker soon took notice, doling out scores in the high 90s with enthusiasm. The French critic Michel Bettane slightingly said these were wines that could have been made in someone’s garage, and the term garagiste took hold.
Sitting in his airy tasting room, with 360-degree views of the vineyard (you can see the bell tower of Angelus through the trees to the north) Maltus sums up the garagiste era as ‘a lot of fun’, but notes that many innovations that seemed so outlandish at the time – rigorous sorting, for example, or vinifying in smaller and smaller tanks – are now standard practice.
How much does he really want to belong? His easy manner conceals a keen appetite for a deal. He’s got an operation in Napa – World’s End Wine – for which he sources grapes from some of California’s most sought-after vineyards. He likes to boast that Norman Foster himself asked to meet him. His ego is obviously healthy: at the entrance of Le Dôme there’s a full-size photo of him looking suave in a tux, by the celebrity snapper Gérard Rancinan (with transparent self-deprecation – rather a charming trait – Maltus claims that Rancinan insisted he put it there).
As for his reputation as a maverick, he only applied for promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé on the insistence of his business partner and majority shareholder Patrik Tkáč of the Czech J&T Finance Group, he claims. But then, if he belongs anywhere, it’s St-Emilion. ‘I’ve been here most of my life – it’s where my ashes will be scattered.’ But at the same time, he doesn’t seem to like it all that much. ‘It’s pretty dysfunctional, and the town itself is completely dead in the evenings.’ He’s also scathing about the Bordeaux establishment, refusing to have anything to do with the Place (the central Bordeaux broking system), instead selling all his wines via a team of six full-time salespeople based at Teyssier.
‘I’ve been here most of my life – it’s where my ashes will be scattered.’
For all that, Maltus is popular. There might have been some notorious fallings-out with his neighbours, but he has many loyal friends and is known for his generosity and thoughtfulness. Fellow Englishman Gavin Quinney, who owns Château Bauduc in Entre-deux-Mers and has been a friend for 20 years, jokes that when he invites Maltus round he tells him he’s had to widen the doorways so he can get his head in – but he also recounts the story of how Maltus organised for a tractor to be sent when his broke down (‘That was very kind’).
Above all, he has that most valued of commodities, a sense of humour. He’s a big man, and he used to be very much bigger, until he was told to lose weight or face life-threatening consequences. It was around then that I compared him to ‘late-period Elvis’. He’s a music lover, so he didn’t take offence.
In any case, one of his latest ventures gave me the opportunity to redress that lèse-majesté. He recently recorded an album at Abbey Road studios in London, with the veteran session musician Mark Brenner. It’s called AND (Now), and features Maltus on guitar and vocals playing songs he wrote over the last 40 years. His voice isn’t at all bad. The cover art has a picture of a teenage Maltus, looking rather like a young Nick Cave, I note. He laughs shortly at that. ‘It was a vanity project, but it was a lot of fun.’