Stephen Brook finds out how the new generation of energetic young winemakers in Bordeaux is rising to the daily challenges of managing the top estates...
Fortunately, in many other cases the process seems to work smoothly. For Juliette Bécot it must have seemed inevitable that she would eventually run the St-Emilion first growth Beau-Séjour-Bécot.
Below, meet the who’s who of bright, young winemakers forging ahead in Bordeaux and read their profiles on the following pages…
Favourite vintage of Beau-Séjour-Bécot: 1998
Favourite vintage of Clos Fourtet: ‘1945 was magical, but I also love 1964 and 1998’
Favourite vintage of Lafon-Rochet: 1990
Favourite vintage of Ausone: ‘We had little stock, so I haven’t tasted that much, but 1949 was terrific’
Héloise Aubert, Born 1980, Vanessa Aubert Born 1979, Yohann Aubert Born 1985, Favourite vintage of La Couspaude: 2001
Written by Stephen Brook
Bordeaux’s Juliette Bécot of Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot 1GCCB
‘I studied oenology in Bordeaux and part of the course required you to work at a family estate, if you came from one,’ Juliette tells me. ‘So I worked with my father, Gérard, in 2000, and we developed a great relationship in the cellar because we understood each other so well. He decided to look for a property for me. St-Emilion was too pricey, but he found Joanin in Castillon, and I made my first vintage there in 2001.
‘My father was by my side, and when the crop was safely in the vats, he just handed the keys of the cellar to me, just as his father had done with him decades ago. It’s often said that we’re not really owners so much as guardians of our properties, which have to be transmitted from generation to generation.’
Although Juliette’s uncle, Dominique, still runs the family’s vineyards, Gérard retired in 2013 and Juliette has taken his place in the cellar. ‘I really didn’t want my father to retire. I still need his experience to make the right decisions, though of course he’s still around from time to time. But he has other activities that he enjoys and now he has the time to pursue them.’
Bordeaux’s Matthieu Cuvelier of Château Clos Fourtet 1GCCB
Clos Fourtet’s Matthieu Cuvelier and father Philippe
After he bought St-Emilion first-growth Clos Fourtet in 2001, Philippe Cuvelier had no great desire to immerse himself in running the property. His son Matthieu, although the youngest of five siblings, was happy to step in. ‘I arrived here at the same time that he did. I had already done some business studies, and enrolled in Bordeaux University to study oenology. It wasn’t a full degree but it gave me some background. My brothers and sisters were attached to their lives in Paris, and didn’t want to be directly involved. In 2005 I came here full-time, and since 2008 I have been running all our properties. I manage them, travel, meet négociants, and deal with the commercial side.’
The Cuveliers have bought other properties: the fine Moulis estate of Poujeaux, and more recently three classified growths that lie close to Clos Fourtet, no doubt with the long-term goal, authorities permitting, of integrating them into the premier cru. ‘I don’t have a free hand to go out and buy wine estates, though!’ Matthieu says. ‘My father still makes the final decisions, as he has to fund them. When we’re offered the opportunity to buy other properties, I examine the proposals to see what’s feasible. Then my father, if we want to go ahead, brings in his lawyers and finance people to help him make the deal.’
‘Buying Poujeaux was a challenge. At Clos Fourtet I can stand in the vineyards and see almost everybody who works here. It’s similar to a garden tended by a large family. At Poujeaux we have 70 hectares, so there’s a more hierarchical approach to running the properties and everything takes longer, whether it’s treatments or harvesting. In St-Emilion we can move much faster.’
Bordeaux’s Basile Tesseron of Château Lafon-Rochet 4CC
For Basile Tesseron of Lafon-Rochet in St-Estèphe, the path to the family château was more circuitous. He studied marketing and business in Bordeaux, Edinburgh and Germany, and has further degrees in management and winery management. Various jobs followed – running international communications for a luxury brands company in London, working for Zachys in New York, and spending a few months in Argentina with the French-owned Fabre Montmayou estate.
‘I have never worked so hard in my life as I did in Mendoza –19 hours a day. But it was a wonderful place and a great experience,’ says Basile. ‘Still, it wasn’t really my intention to make a career in wine and I had always been more involved in marketing.‘My father had never had much confidence in France and in the future of the wine business, and fully expected that at some point Lafon-Rochet would have to be sold. I wasn’t discouraged. I just accepted that’s the way things were. I was happy to forge my own career.’
There followed a spell working in the export department with the famous Bordeaux négociant house Duclot. It was a chance encounter in London with a bottle of 1990 Burgundy – Romanée-St Vivant from Domaine Leroy – that all of a sudden sparked a wish to return to the family estate. So in 2007 he joined his father Michel as general manager.
After his father retired in 2011 Basile took over, although Michel steps in temporarily when his son is travelling. ‘He doesn’t interfere but I know I can always turn to him or my uncle Alfred at Pontet- Canet for advice at any time. I’m not just occupied by sales and administration. I adore the whole business of winemaking, so I’m closely involved in that aspect of it, too.’
Bordeaux’s Pauline Vauthier of Chateau Ausone 1GCCA
Pauline Vauthier, in contrast, is one of Alain Vauthier’s four children, but the only one with a strong desire to be involved in the family estate, which is somewhat surprising when you consider it happens to be (premier grand cru clasé A) Château Ausone in St-Emilion.
You might expect Pauline Vauthier to be something of a princess. Instead you find someone who is altogether more self-effacing, though her self-confidence certainly seems to grow from year to year. She studied oenology and viticulture at the local college in Montagne St-Emilion, but isn’t a qualified oenologist.
‘I’m not very academic,’ says Pauline. ‘After my studies I went to South Africa to learn English, and when I returned, my father Alain said to me: “If you’re not going to study, you may as well get to work”.’ So at the age of 20 she started at Ausone. Today she controls all the production at the family estates in St-Emilion, but prefers vineyard to cellar work. ‘Cellar work is more technical and repetitive, whereas vineyards offer different challenges every year. We have 80ha in all, so there’s a lot to look after, but it’s all close to here.’
Bordeaux’s Héloise, Vanessa and Yohann Aubert of Vignobles Aubert
From left to right: Vanessa and Héloise Aubert
The set-up at Vignobles Aubert is very different. The family’s prize possession is classed growth La Couspaude in St-Emilion, but it owns a total of 350ha in Bordeaux. With ownership in the hands of three brothers, the involvement of the next generation, the eighth, could have been a nightmare. Yet it has been brilliantly handled. One child of each brother today forms a troika: Vanessa, Héloïse, and Yohann.
The cousins have had impeccable training, being dispatched to different countries after their studies: Héloïse went to Morgenster in South Africa, Vanessa to Japan, Yohann to Mission Hill in the Okanagan. The formidable Héloïse breezily notes: ‘I studied viticulture and oenology, and have a degree in business studies and a master’s in agriculture.’
‘We three cousins are autonomous but of course we work together, too,’ she says. ‘The three brothers help us with the production of high-volume wines, which is an entirely different business from a grand cru classé. It’s a system that works well. We all have production responsibilities, but also take care of different markets. For example, Yohann makes the wine at La Couspaude and the St-Emilion satellite appellations, but also takes care of the American market, while I am the maître de chai for the satellites, but spend half my time in Paris taking care of the French, North European and Asian markets. The three brothers are still very much involved and we tend to meet up every two weeks or so.’ The Auberts have also bought land in Mendoza, but have yet to decide which cousin will be sent to get that business up and running.
‘It’s a huge advantage that each of us is involved in commerce as well as production,’ says Héloïse. ‘It means that when we’re selling our wines worldwide we really know what we’re talking about. And when we’re making the wines, we have a good idea about what consumers will be expecting. Too many properties just make wines and then tell their sales team to go out and sell them. Each of us combines the two professions.’
Bordeaux’s bright young winemakers: A view on the future
With about 30 working years ahead of them, one would expect these young proprietors and heirs to take a view on the future. For Pauline Vauthier, it’s a sufficient challenge to keep the jewel-like Ausone and their other estates at the top of their game. ‘I’m happy to stay here. We’ve talked about expanding or buying property abroad, but we realise we wouldn’t have the same control. I don’t even like to travel very much, apart from one week in Asia every year that the négociants insist upon. My father has never travelled, and we’ve never publicised the wine. Occasionally there’s a dinner in a European city. Remember that at Ausone we have an average production of 18,000 bottles and hold back about 1,000 bottles per vintage. So if we organise a dinner, we don’t have that much wine to pour.’
Basile Tesseron also is focused for the moment on Lafon-Rochet alone. ‘There’s been no revolution since I arrived, just an evolution. The terroir doesn’t change. We are cultivating 10ha biodynamically, but I’m not wholly convinced. If there are products that benefit the vines and do no damage to the soils or to our workers’ health, I see no problem. The essential thing is to taste and taste and taste. Our technical director Lucas Leclercq has worked at Romanée-Conti and at properties in Pomerol, and we keep an open mind about everything.’
It’s much the same for Matthieu Cuvelier, but he is keen to develop Clos Fourtet’s image. ‘I’m just trying to maintain standards at our properties by increasing vine densities and making improvements in the winery. We’re also doing trials of organic and biodynamic farming. But I’m also concerned to work on our image. Angélus, for example, is an excellent wine but I’m not always convinced that in every vintage it’s better than ours. But Hubert de Boüard, as well as being a brilliant winemaker, has worked hard to keep Angélus in the public eye and sustain its image, and that’s surely contributed to its promotion in the recent classification.’
Juliette Bécot takes a long-term view. ‘It’s important at a family estate that each generation makes its own contribution. One of mine has been to improve our commercial operation by reducing the number of négociants to around 20, so we could have better control of how and where our wine was sold. I’m also keen to improve our public relations. We’re creating a better reception area for visitors and developing wine tourism by offering tours and wine and food tastings. I love being involved in all this, as I meet such a great range of people.’
Her sentimental attachment to the property is strong. ‘I don’t earn a salary at Beau-Séjour. I refuse, as it’s always been part of my life. From my office I look out onto the lawn where I learned to walk. And now I hope my baby son Félix will do the same.’
The buck stops here
Whatever the formal legal ownership at each property may be, there are clearly varying degrees of independence. The Auberts form a collective, Basile Tesseron and Juliette Bécot seem more or less autonomous, while Matthieu Cuvelier requires his father’s approval to proceed with major decisions.
Most surprisingly, Pauline Vauthier has control of the estates’ production – an onerous responsibility – while her father takes care of commercial matters. This rather private young woman has the final say on such crucial matters as when to harvest. ‘As for the blends, we work as a team, but again I have the last word. In 2013 we’ve spent two months working on the blend, and still aren’t entirely certain.’
Surely it’s a bit frightening to run so famous a property? ‘I’m not afraid, but I am anxious. 2013 was a complicated year. It helps that my father is obsessive about continuously making improvements. We’re essentially organic but not certified, and I don’t want to be. We have all the latest technical equipment. I have few disagreements with my father, and when we disagree it’s over minor matters. He’s always in the office – it’s his life – whereas I have my horses and a private life. He will never retire.’
Matthieu Cuvelier has to take more of a back seat. ‘Of course I participate in decisions such as the harvest date and the blends. I work alongside our winemaker Tony Ballu and the vineyard manager, but we also have Stéphane Derenoncourt and Jean-Claude Berrouet as consultants, so I don’t push my views. But with every year that goes by I am gaining in experience.’
The new generation is not unduly modest, and admits to few mistakes, other than winemaking experiments that have not worked out. Basile Tesseron was more willing to confess: ‘My biggest mistake was to have faith in everyone. I foolishly promoted a vineyard worker to be chef de culture. When he kept telling me everything was fine in the vineyard, I should have known he was in the wrong job. The chef de culture’s role is to see what’s not right in the vineyard and to try to fix it.’ Matthieu Cuvelier admits that producing a rosé at Clos Fourtet was not the best idea, and he has stopped its production.
With a new generation of this calibre – and one would add names such as Caroline Frey at La Lagune, Mélanie Tesseron at Pontet-Canet, Véronique Sanders at Haut-Bailly, Bérénice Lurton at Climens, and many others – no one need fear for the future of Bordeaux wines.