CHÂTEAU LA GAFFELIÈRE – LA VILLA DU PALAT
BEYOND THE MOSAIC OF TIME
Even before I started to arrange what I read, the conversations, impressions and thoughts I had, the colorful little stones forming the mosaic of my future narrative, I had already experienced the scale of the responsibility I had assumed. Before the ones thanks to whom this story exists, before the ones who entrusted it to me as well as to everybody who are entitled to know it.
All stories are almost casual! This May I suddenly found myself holding the keys to the story of a 400-year old French family wine estate situated, quite literally, on the road leading to Saint-Émilion. And with the hard task of telling it to the visitors as part of the tour they are offered. It is about Château La Gaffelière, Ier Grand Cru Classé of Saint-Émilion.
Is there anyone who does not know of Saint-Émilion, is there anyone who has not heard about it?!
From the pilgrims who stop to take a breath and some wine along their tough road to Compostela to the most experienced connoisseurs of its wine nectars…
“What a miniature the signboard designating the beginning of Saint-Émilion is!” I happen to exclaim upon the start of every new tourist season. “It is really microscopic for such a global historical and wine destination!”
“Probably it has something to do with French legislation,” a Japanese tourist who is heading along the road from the railway station to the small village is not less surprised.
In a single file, dozens of times a day, hundreds of visitors climb the peak in quest of some spiritual substance or intoxicated with the glory of its wines. And most often: all of the above together.
“Well,” I reply to him, “it is a bit of French discreteness, pure and simple.” And at this point both of us begin to laugh conspiratorially.
Saint-Émilion with the hermitage of Émilion, the Trinity Chapel and its medieval paintings, the catacombs as well as the underground church and the Cordeliers cloister are yet to reveal its creamy limestone eternity. For the moment the cloak of vines embroidered into small hills and terraces spreads out in front of our eyes; the sound of bells chiming comes from the distance. First, second, third: it takes us back to the mysterious life of the wonder worker Emilion. Fourth, fifth, sixth: even further back, into the heart of a thriving Roman province: the vine, the sciences and the arts striking roots deeper and deeper into the landscape. And here is the Ausonius himself!
A VIEW FROM ABOVE
In many aspects the domain of Château La Gaffelière is really favored: it is phenomenal that it has remained property of the same family, the de Malet Roquefort, for more than 400 years! It is situated harmoniously on both sides of the main road from Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion. To the right, the сhâteau looks with a Gothic glazing eye the fundamental plot of the vineyard located on the other side of the road and called, not by chance, “La Boulangerie” i.e. “The Bakery”. While we are climbing up and going into it our glance sweeps the entire vineyard across, on the hillside. The energy and versatile expression of that terroir are incarnated into every bottle of wine: a sip of the miraculous combination of its Merlots and Cabernet Francs is yet another instant of happiness for the visitor!
LET US PUT THE MOSAIC TOGETHER
It is an enchanting day in May: the sky above Château La Gaffelière shines in the most azure nuances of blue, the hydrangeas are lethargically spreading their rounded forms in the immediate vicinity of the vines, the Japanese maples aside meditate amidst all of that Universal Zen. At this moment I am in the role of a visitor: listening carefully and taking notes so that I can take up myself the narration in a while.
Maybe it is because of the breeze that comes sporadically from the west: some strange shivers run down my neck and my shoulders, my pulse accelerates. We have arrived at the point when we learn about the presence of an Ancient Gallo-Roman villa of exceptional scale and rich decoration dating back to the 4th century AD, which is situated on the territory of the domain and was discovered personally by its owner Monsieur Léo de Malet Roquefort: La Villa du Palat!
I guess your curiosity is now aroused! But let us continue in the spirit of the mosaics: pebble by pebble. Bérangère de Malet, the daughter of Monsieur Léo de Malet, a specialist in Art History and fully dedicated to the project of opening the historic site for visitors, is telling me about its existence during our first meeting and this charges me with a peculiar impulse:
This story should not be forgotten, on the contrary: it must be told! Means and funds must be found to have La Villa du Palat shown to the public!
Several times a day my glance meets the ground with the remains of the villa and yearning for seeing it with my own eyes fills my soul.
Where exactly is it situated? How did Monsieur Léo de Malet discover it? What does it look like and how has it been kept?
All these questions, and hundreds of others, grow inside me, and I get the answers from him in person during our unique visit on the spot in the end of the tourist season, on 27th November 2018.
LA VILLA DU PALAT – THE PALACE AND ITS GARDEN
Five minutes by foot is the distance separating the Reception of Château La Gaffelière and the place where La Villa du Palat is situated: Monsieur Léo de Malet and I cross the road and continue on our way for about a hundred meters in the direction of Saint-Émilion. As we walk we are talking in brief about the Medieval history of the small village of Saint Emilion and the saint after whom it is named but the truth is that what we are both more interested in is the Roman Antiquity, the life and deeds of Ausonius in these lands, and especially the domain that existed as early as in the 2nd century precisely where La Gaffelière is situated.
« We have evidence that it was a huge agricultural estate having area of more than 1000 ha, where any kinds of cereals were grown and special attention was paid to vines. » Actually, it is precisely here, in Saint Emilion, that vine cultivation was introduced by the Romans in the first century AD and although it ultimately settled as a monoculture in the 18th century as early as in the 4th century Ausonius praised the wines made of its fruit. « An important testimony that speaks of vine’s presence here is one of the mosaics found in the villa,” my host says.
We pass along the two columns designating the terrain called « du Palat ». Behind our backs, right on the opposite side of the road a small road cuts the boundary between the two vineyards: Château La Gaffelière’s and Château Ausone’s.
And here we are now, in front of the meadow! Just thick layers of soil and sand separate us from the remains of La Villa du Palat; covered by a carpet of tender grass: their contours are so clearly outlined!
« In 1969, I had decided to clear this meadow and plant some new vines. It was almost 1ha big and this is not at lot small for a place like Saint Emilion. Near the road, there was a row of poplars that we cut down because they would cast a shadow on the new plantations. However, I had to find an appropriate place to preserve their strains. I hired a man to do the job but I warned him to be careful because I had written data that some tesseraes dating back to Roman times had been found there. Half an hour later appeared the first signs of the existence of an Ancient site that we are now walking on.«
The first test and rescue excavations were carried out in 1970 and 1971 and revealed a mosaic covering the floor of a huge Gallo-Roman villa.
In addition to the motives typical of the region such as vine lianas with clusters of grapes and olive twigs, mosaics were found in the villa’s aula depicting some exceptional figurative elements: a lion, a warthog, a tiger, a rider, a hunter and a dog. Small ponds with terracotta bottoms served as home fresheners. In front of the villa, there was another pond, 70 meters long and 6 meters wide. The complex unfolds an exceptional richness of detail and monumental size. In this case, there is talk, yet unproven, that this is one of the villas of the poet consul Ausonius.
I ask Monsieur de Malet if he remembers the exact place where the most beautiful, at least for me, mosaic was found: the vine stylized as the Tree of Life in the center of a laurel wreath. “Of course, it was right here! ”
I seize the moment in a photo: today the Sun is shining quite brightly and makes his face glow… Almost 50 years later the man who discovered to the world the existence of the invaluable Ancient finds is standing at the very same spot.
« After all steps taken to preserve the site and the refusal of the Ministry of Culture because of its inability to subvent its opening to the public, we had no option but to cover it in order to preserve it against the barbarian assault of the weather. But Bérangère (de Malet) revived the association we established in the 1970s under a new name, « Cépages & Tesselles, la villa gallo-romaine du Palat à Saint Emilion » and fights by all possible means to spread our conviction that La Villa du Palat must be re-discovered because this cultural patrimony belongs to mankind. »
We pass again in front of the 17th-century bourgeoisie house.
« Here is where we found two of the mosaics that we restored after the first archaeological excavations because of their poor condition. Here is where the villa’s thermae used to be and it is precisely the water that damaged some of them. »
One of them adorns La Gaffelière’s Professional Tasting Hall, the other one is kept in the huge space of Monsieur de Malet’s garage.
Many times I have experienced the strong desire to touch it and when I was alone with it for the first time I put my hand on one of the figures. It emanates some strange energy: carried in time thanks to some human hands that recreated the forms of another world, one pebble at a time. I measure up one of them by the tip of my fingers: it is as big or as small as the berry of the grape.
As we say good-bye I thank Monsieur de Malet for the time he took for this trip. “I am yet to tell about it,” I smile. However, before I head back to Bordeaux I go back to La Villa du Palat. In this moment, another garden shows in front of it: the hillside of the vineyard with its priceless tesseraes of terroir. I go further and get to the brook that used to irrigate the palace’s garden and supply water for the pond.
This is a peculiar state: in the distance, the chimes resound a familiar story:
“And every morning the eyes of the locals paint the lines of the landscapes they travel over. During the day they touch the clusters of that Earthly blessing with the tips of their fingers and count one by one the pearls that shape them. When the night falls they start to arrange the stars of the clear sky in mosaics of fantastic forms. The breeze flies from the Ocean, fondling the hands and the hearts of those people: earthly and unearthly. Now it is time for them to sip the Wine: for their bodies and souls to retire to rest.”
I would love to thank the family De MALET ROQUEFORT for all information shared and in particular Monsieur Léo de MALET ROQUEFORT for the time and the attention devoted to this visit!
For all who wish to support the actions undertaken by the association in order to preserve the site and to subvent its opening to the public, please contact:
Tel: 00 33 (5) 58 42 90 90 //
Tel: 00 33 (5) 57 24 72 15