Martin Flageul has sauntered across the vineyards and wineries of a dozen nations, quaffed bottles with its eminent and flamboyant sons, and cherished a miscellany of experience along the way. Last year saw him step down as MD of Victor Hugo Wines, rescinding his role in order to enjoy the good life a little more. I met the man to discover, amongst many other things, just what induced him to this fruitful ferment.
As a young chap of sixteen Martin joined G Origin company, working in the cellars and warehouse during a time when wine was still imported into the island in bulk and bottled locally. Pivotally, during these early days Martin was invited to taste wine. His inchoate appetite was evidently roused and what sprung forth was the seed of an illustrious and enthused career in wine. In the obscurity of these manual operations Martin quickly impressed, and progressed: becoming office manager and general manager until 1973 when the company was sold. He then joined the board and became Managing Director of G Origin. A series of visits to the renowned wine regions of the Loire, Champagne and Bordeaux then set a career in blossom.
To contextualise a little, Martin recalled for me an instance of wine revelation that occurred in his formative years. He was taken to an Italian restaurant in St Helier fifty years ago. His companion ordered a bottle of Saint Emilion to accompany the Jersey Bass that rested so pure upon their plates. Horrified, Martin watched his acquaintance immerse the bottle in iced water, chilling it down. Needless to say it proved an exquisite match- it is now commonplace- and the realm of possibility was for Martin fully glimpsed. I treasure my own, more conventional experience; as a young boy I was proffered foie grois with a glass of Sauternes and a similarly gorgeous sensation abounded; two such seemingly incongruous components in perfect unison, it is an elusive harmony desperately sought and rarely achieved in life. Anyway, such instances do more to explain a passion.
Martin then started the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Jersey, to put something back to the trade. The likes of Colonel Crosby began lecturing at Highlands and Martin furthered an expansive study into all aspects of wine. He graduated with a diploma in 1980, the same year G Origin was sold to Les Riches despite an expected sale to Ann Street Brewery. Themselves in want of a wine arm, Martin went to see Ian Stevens of Ann Street and joined them. They applied for twenty wine agencies and secured seventeen, including Louis Latour of Burgundy and Laurent Perrier; Victor Hugo Wines was born. Years later and with a hugely successful business behind him, Martin is now learning to enjoy the luxuries of time to himself.
Having learnt the stepladder of his career, I wished to expound from the man the impressions and attitudes, the cherished relics afforded by a life in wine. Martin is a self-confessed Francophile. He explained to me the underlying focus on locality that makes French wine great. Travel to Burgundy and they sell only their wine, as they do in Chablis. He drifts into a brief reverie over the busty, leafy smells and vegetal undertones of old Burgundy… This is a good thing according to Martin, but variety feeds passion. Outside of Europe he finds New Zealand fascinating, he was there at the embryonic stage of their wine industry, which has now vastly expanded, producing some fantastic aromatics and Pinot Noir. I inquire about New World wines and the trends and vogues that seem to accompany them. Martin accords their success to the simplification of the grape varietal on the bottle; if you know you like Sauvignon then it conveniently glares at you, whereas in France you have to delve a little deeper to discover that Pouilly Fume is made from that very grape. It is becoming more positive though, he says; the brash sweetness of much new world wine is being tempered by an appreciation for subtlety and seductiveness
Next I ask in what direction he sees the wine industry going. He talks of Chile and Argentina, both countries that are taking great strides to nurture their wine toward a more refined product. Emulating the French concept of terroir and planting certain grapes in suitable plots: a correlation between grape and environment is proven vital. For example, the granitic soil that fosters Beaujolais and the chalky earth of Champagne both engender a wine with an automatic tendency to sparkle. Finally, wine snobbery. A little knowledge is a bad thing. And Martin has never stopped learning. To supersede such a drab bunch that they are… Martin explains how viniculture is both progressive and steeped in history. This is what makes it such a fascinating and rewarding sphere of work. Indeed, like all arts, what is sought is a delicate balance between progression and tradition. On the topic, I ask for a progressive match of food and wine, he muses and responds with the fine suggestion of an old white Burgundy with cheese, quite.
Boiled down, Martin cites the most distinct pleasures of his career, such as dining with Bernard de Nonancourt, whom he describes as larger than life, a man that exudes and instils enthusiasm. Like Martin, distinction has been gained through a sheer love of the work. Retired now, Martin is free to visit and reflect upon such resplendent characters, without the pressure to buy. Martin finds in wine that effervescence, freshness, and bit of magic that we all seek. But he is keen to stress what makes it; the full panorama of the industry’s colourful souls, the full collaboration of history, climate, geology and culture. Like all exceptional things, Martin tells me, great wine is not just made it is nurtured.