Gina Baksa visits some of Bordeaux’s largest wine producers, to find out how they are leading the way in sustainable practices and environmental management
Sustainability is the mot du jour across many industries – and never more so than in the competitive world of wine making. According to a recent report from just-drinks.com, climate change is the main factor affecting global drinks companies who are fast adapting to unpredictable weather patterns that can decimate their profit margins. A case in point, the spring frosts of 2018 which wiped out some vignerons in the Bordeaux area. As a result, many Bordeaux growers and winemakers are now working together to create a safer and more environmentally sustainable environment.
Crus et Domaines de France is the Bordeaux specialist arm of Groupe Chais de France and one of Bordeaux’s largest producers. It owns 16 châteaux covering 500 hectares of some of Bordeaux’s best terroirs -left and right bank, as well as having exclusive distribution of over 150 other châteaux.
The Grand Chais de France Group is the world’s largest exporter of French wine – UK drinkers will know them from the JP Chenet (80 million bottles sold worldwide in 2017) and Calvet brands. With annual sales of 400 million litres of wine and 35 million bottles of spirits in 173 countries globally, their resources (€1,089 billion in 2017) are sufficient to have acquired 15 properties in Bordeaux, including highly regarded left bank Crus Bourgeois, and some well-known right-bank estates, including St Emilion Grand Cru Classé Château Cantin, and Clos Beauregard in Pomerol. Using the expertise of oenophiles Michel Rolland and Hubert de Boûard the Groupe dominates the Bordeaux region, with exclusive distribution of 11 Bordeaux Grands Crus classé properties. The company is still privately owned by the Helfrich family based in Alsace.
I’m in St Emilion, on the eastern edge of the Bordeaux wine-growing area, to visit premium properties that best embody Les Grands Chais’ commitment to environmental certification and setting the highest standards for sustainable practices across Bordeaux. St Emilion enjoys a favourable microclimate and is blessed with the presence of four rivers, as well as a predominately clay-limestone soil. This is ideal for maintaining the coolness and humidity required to growing Merlot – the premier grape of the region.
My last visit to the region was decades ago. I can remember enjoying a snakebite or two before a Cure concert at Bordeaux University… fast forward and I’m at Château La Dominique in St Emilion, imbibing something altogether more sophisticated – the vineyard’s own Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2011. Over lunch at the trendy La Terrasse Route restaurant (literally in the heart of the vineyards) I chat sustainability with GCF Export Manager Emma Thienpoint.
“Our main goal at Les Grand Chais de France is to help protect the environment,” she tells me. “We have 21 properties covering some 650 hectares that are being managed according to SME and HVE standards. You could say we are leading the way in sustainable production and management.”
Since 1997, the GCF’s goal has been to “produce a healthy grape to produce a quality wine to satisfy our customers while respecting the environment.” As a result, the SME (Environmental Management System) and HVE (xxxx) classifications have been introduced to encourage vignerons to improve their viticultural practices and minimise their impact on the environment through sustainable means.
“It is envisaged that by 2020, every wine grower in the region will subscribe to best practices and then be granted the coveted SME logo on their bottles,” says Emma.
“Our goal is not about prestigious labels but about health, the environment, wine quality and vineyard sustainability.”
Château Cantin, St Emilion Grand Cru
Our first stop on our sustainable wine tour is elegant Château Cantin whose 17th-century outbuildings were built by Benedictine monks. Located on a limestone-clay plateau the vineyard’s 33 hectares are planted to Merlot and overseen by consultant oenologist Michel Rolland since 2009. GCT bought the estate in 2007.
We meet GCF Bordeaux Head Winemaker Vincent Cachau who explains the restructuring that has taken place, including moving the Cabernet and Merlot around the vineyards and extensive replanting. The overall vision is “quality over quantity,” he tells us. Some of the oldest vines here are 40 to 50 years old.
Since 2006 Vincent has overseen the development of all the Grand Chais properties where respect for the environment is key to rehabilitation of vineyards.
“We now manage close to 600 hectares of vine across our properties in the Bordeaux region,” he tell us. “From 35 hectare vineyards such as Château Cantin to a two-hectare vineyard at Margaux and even a 100-hectare Bordeaux Supérieur property.
The main goal of Les Grand Chais de France is to achieve SME (Système de Management Environmental) certification across its Bordeaux portfolio. A commitment to promoting environmentally viticultural practices across the region. Sign up to the SME system you have a consultant allocated who guides you through the process. And can speak to other properties to share information. Learn from each other. Recent change in attitude to consider the others. Societal expectations are changing more collaborative and more environment focused. 10 to 15 years.
Vincent tells us the at the GCF philosophy is “to create the best grapes – and thus the best wine” which is why emphasis here is on viticulture not creating fancy cellars.
“We have 21 châteaux in the Bordeaux portfolio and our first steps are all about restructuring when we purchase a property,” he adds. “Creating the right planting density and good care of the root system. If you want good wine you have to have good fruit. You also have to have the right vegetation for each parcel of land. And use the right clones to achieve complexity of flavour.”
The key challenges to many winegrowers currently are the effects of climate change, with unpredictable weather patterns. As a result many owners have installed heaters in their vineyards, as well as weather stations to record precipitation, the results are then fed through to smartphones. This method also helps to predict frosts.
Traditional techniques alongside modern technology
“For the last three years we have used satellite mapping (Oenoview) of our blocks,” says Vincent. “This helps us to understand the strength of the vine in each block via colour coding. Blue or purple signifies lack of nutrients, while dark and light green signifies good vigour. It’s precise to the metre”
Such accuracy (a photo is taken every two to three years) tells Vincent which grasses should be grown between the rows, and whether or not to increase competition in the rows. Thanks to the Oenoview technology, fertilizers can be added in different measures across the same plot. Instead of using the same amounts across the entire vineyard. A revolutionary concept yielding fruitful results, especially since spreaders are now embedded with GPS.
“The GPS in the spreaders also helps us in winter for weed management, in spring for new plantings and in summer for de-leafing, soil analysis and in autumn to time the harvests.”
The real step change is that quality has taken priority over quantity. And GCF is unafraid to experiment. Previously at Château Cantin, the Cab Sauvignon was in a low-lying area due to frost risk. “Now we have decided to put Merlot in there, knowing the frost risk but it will produce better fruit. It’s all about the quality. Extraction is now better since the grapes are more balanced,” says Vincent.
The fertilizers used at GCF properties are all organic matter. No synthetics are used at all and the tractor is programmed so it gives specific doses in each vineyard parcel. This is more economical financially and also healthier for the vine.
Harvests across the Bordeaux portfolio are decided according to traditional berry tasting, as well as chemical analysis and photo technology. Each harvest is tailored to each château and each block. As a result, Vincent’s harvest begins in August in the Entre deux Mers properties with white wines and finishes in late October with the last blocks of Sauternes.
Are there any farmers with small parcels who are selling now? “Yes, increasingly,” Vincent tells me. “As the average age among the Bordeaux vineyard owners the issues of succession and inheritance arise – especially if the vineyard isn’t profitable.”
Prices for vineyards depends on the appellation. They can start at €20,000 a hectare up to €6,000,000 a hectare in Margaux. Wine is big business.
Objective of harvest is to secure fruitful wines, so extraction is generally soft and delicate during the fermentation and maceration. The group uses Burgundian barrels so not to overpower the fruit. So at Château Cantin 50% are matured in new oak casks and the rest in 1-year old barrels.
SME: Collaboration and respect for the community
SME accreditation means following best practices. Respect vineyard and the people and neighbours. Based on ISO1400 – standards of accreditation. Creating an environment working and living in the safest and healthiest environment possible. Not just about the vineyards getting better production but conscious of who estate impacts. Meet local community. Growers/schools/neighbour. Come and find out how the estate is being managed. Waste water effluent spray regimes and what chemicals if any and when.
As well as pest control. We use sexual confusion (pheromones to confuse the males).
Château Cantin Wine Tasting
Now for the tasting! We are at the table, spittoons and enthusiasm at the ready – eyeing up a wonderful selection of GCF wines – all available to buy in the UK via distributors such as Waitrose, Oxford Wine Company, Ocado and more. I can honestly say they are all superb. Not one that jarred.
Château Soutard Wine Tasting and Overnight
Our tasting complete we head over to Château Soutard just a few meters from the centre of St Emilion village. This stunning château – approached by an avenue of linden trees – dates back to 1513 and is one of the oldest properties on the Right Bank. It first rose to fame as a vineyard in the mid-1800s and is now owned by French insurance company Mondial. The beautiful 30-hectare estate is planted 63% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cab Sauvignon and 1% Malbec. The full-bodied flavours are thanks to the rich limestone plateau the vineyard is planted on.
Completely renovated – both inside the château and all the wine-making facilities – by architect Fabien Pedelaborde the state-of-the art cellars are magnificent with chandeliers the centrepiece to steel vats, and a very Bond-like cave tasting room. Inside the mansion house the exquisite public rooms are warm and inviting and include four bedrooms, two seminar rooms, a library, reception rooms and beautiful gardens to explore. Château Cantin has received prizes for its wine tourism programme – highly recommended.
We are staying overnight and my bedroom on the first floor is something out of Versailles. Wide canopied, high four poster, wonderful fabrics and prints and such bucolic and timeless views from the windows over the estate.
Over a superb dinner I chat with Jean-Marc Dulong, the Director of Crus et Domaines de France, along with Adeline Tanguay Brand Ambassador of Château Cantin. Both share how wine tourism is opening up the once-private and often secretive Bordeaux wine estates to a wider public and the resultant beneficial effects. More visibility for the estates and greater awareness from the public.
We tasted the following wines that evening:
• Château Fonroque 2012 Saint Emillion Grand Cru classe:
• Château Soutard 2015:
• Château Grand Corbin Despagne 2011:
• SO Sauternes 2017:
Château Cadet Bon
Replete from a fine petit dejeuner in the old kitchen at Château Soutard, we drive – literally around the corner in St Emilion – to Château Cadet Bon. This Saint-Emilion Grand Crus wine has received many plaudits from the industry and critics alike, and the vineyard has been in production since 1867. Planted 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, on a chalky-clay soil, the estate’s south-facing slopes occupy 7 hectares. With 5ha of Grand Cru Classé and 2ha of Grand Cru. In 2003 the Château stopped using all weed killer and herbicides as they could see it stopped oxygen from reaching the root system. Roots grow up not down when soil is compacted.
Head winemaker Antoine tells us the vineyard is following SME guidelines and plans to become fully biodynamic – their first organic label will be in 2012, since it takes five to seven years for the root system to regenerate. The vinification procedure involves storage in small capacity gravity-fed thermoregulated tanks, with authentic soft and low fermentation of between five and ten days to ensure good ripeness and flavour. The grapes are blended for the very best complexity. And that I can attest having tasted the following here:
Château Soutard: Saint Emilllion Grand Cru 2010, 2011 and 2016:
Château Fleur de Lisse – St Emilion Grand Cru 2015:
Château Fonroque Saint Emillion Grand Cru classe:
Chateau Larmande Saint Emillion Grand
We also tasted superb vintages for their sister vineyard Château Bastor La Montagne 76, 89 and 97.
And so it was that we continued to the home of these great vintages with their focus on expression and balance. Located in Preignac, one of five communes in the Sauternes appellation, Château Bastor La Montagne has 52 hectares planted to 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc with a hit of Gris producing rich, full-bodied wines. The estate – on a landscape of sand, limestone, gravel and clay has royal connections having been owned by both the King of France and English royalty during the Middle Ages.
Tragically, during the great frost of 2017 almost half of this organic vineyard was lost to mildew. As a result special precautions are now being taken, including the installation of a weather station, and the chateau is confident of a great harvest for 2019. Located between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, humidity can get trapped on the land in between. There are no mechanical harvests here – the vines are all cut by hand – usually by the same crew each vendage.
The last of our tastings, the wines we enjoyed included Les Remparts de Bastor-Lamontagne and Chateau Bastor Lamontagne Bordeaux Sec and Chateau Bastor Lamontgne??? All beautifully nuanced and refined. Perfect to drink on their own as well as an accompaniment to fish and meat.
A worthy and refined finale to our whirlwind tour of some of the very best Bordeaux vineyards. I found it encouraging to see the collaboration between the estates, as well as the use of sustainable best practices to ensure the survival of one of the world’s greatest, most noble and most profitable businesses. The respect given by the growers to the land is tangible – they understand that the terroir and the vines are living organisms with a sensitivity to match.
Today more than half of all winegrowers in the St Emilion area have SME status. The aim is that by 2023 all growers will be involved in the process. Otherwise they will not be able to market themselves with the St Emilion brand. A UNESCO Heritage site, St Emilion celebrates its 10 years of UNESCO status with a festival celebration between June 28 and 30. There will be grand party with wine tasting, concerts, pop-up food stalls and the chance to meet the talented men and women who run the region’s fabulous vineyards. Long live the grape!
“To drink wine is to drink genius,” Baudelaire once said. I couldn’t agree more…