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Obituaries: Denis Mortet: a tribute

Published:  23 July, 2008

One of Gevrey's leading vignerons, Denis Mortet, sadly cut short his brilliant life last month.

Mortet was born into a family of vignerons in 1957: a nephew of Eric Rousseau, his pedigree was assured. By the time he took over from his father, Charles, in 1991, it was already apparent that his was an unusual sensitivity and talent. To further his perfectionist vision, he felt obliged to split away from his brother Thierry. Then followed a period when he made his best wines, in 1993, and the difficult vintage of 1994. He was, however, never satisfied with himself: already one of Burgundy's leading viticulturists, Denis moved in vinification towards even greater extraction, encouraged in this by journalists from La Revue du Vin de France. Such wines won him critical acclaim from the selfsame magazine and from influential American commentators. Denis would have been inhuman not to have loved the praise and the fame, but, increasingly, as the wines aged, he was less convinced by their style. We had many long, anguished conversations about this.

In 1999, he spent the harvest in hospital, suffering from depression, and he much regretted that he had pass ct d'un grand millsime'. In 2000, there was a change of direction as he sought to make the more elegant, crystalline style that

he himself enjoyed. 2001 and 2002 are impressive vintages, but 2003, with its extreme conditions, did not favour diligent husbandry as practised by Denis, and he had no great affection for the results. This vintage led him to reconsider many things, and he took the decision to blend his five Village lieux-dits into one wine. Both 2004 and 2005 are stunning successes: a return to freshness and minerality, and a sign that this hugely sensitive and intelligent man had come full circle, all of which rather underlines the sense of tragic waste.

Denis's other great passion was hunting, and he was a leading member of the prestigious Chasse des Notaires in the hinterland of the Ctes de Nuits. He also hunted with my partner, Mark Walford, in Spain, once bagging four stags in one day, although his infrared sights raised eyebrows among the more traditional British! On the night of Sunday 29 January, he said goodbye to his fellow hunters. He was his normal, ebullient, cheerful self. By the next morning, he had shot himself outside his cuverie in Gevrey-Chambertin. His son, Arnaud, was inside, racking the wines; it is almost unbearable to consider the effect of this act on such a young man. One can only speculate on why he chose to end his life there, just as one cannot understand why he had lost, exactly then, his battle against the darkness of his own internal demons. He was an intensely likable and convivial man who will be greatly missed.

Denis leaves behind his wife, Laurence, an indefatigable power behind the throne, who supported him unreservedly through times good and bad, and two children, Arnaud, aged 21, and Clmence, 13. We share their grief and extend our sympathy.

Roy Richards