Everbody needs a hobby, even top winemakers. ALAN SPENCER finds out what drives Bordeaux oenologists' personal winemaking projects

Everbody needs a hobby, even top winemakers. ALAN SPENCER finds out what drives Bordeaux oenologists’ personal winemaking projects

Decanter magazine, December 2000

If you are responsible for making Pétrus, Dominus and Trotanoy, or Cheval Blanc, or Margaux, or Cos d’Estournel, there’s a good chance you will be successful at making wines in other situations. In 1984, two highly reputed oenologists, Bruno Prats, the man who gave Cos d’Estournel its present-day eminence, and Paul Pontallier, technical manager at Margaux, set out to find a great terroir in Chile where they could create a vineyard. They called on a Chilean colleague of French origin who studied oenology with them in Bordeaux, Felipe de Solminihac, and together created Viña Aquitania, Domaine Paul Bruno, an 18-hectare (ha) vineyard in the Quebrada de Macul on the foothills of the Andes by Santiago.

Jean-Claude Berrouet studied at the Institut Oenologie in Bordeaux under the professor Emile Peynaud, dubbed the Father of Modern Oenology. In 1964, Peynaud, who was consultant oenologist for the Jean-Pierre Moueix organisation which makes and markets a range of wines such as Pétrus, Trotanoy and La Madeleine, plus Dominus in the Napa Valley, recommended the recently qualified Berrouet as his successor. Berrouet has now been part of the Moueix organisation, making its wines, for 36 years. In 1980, to give expression to his personal convictions, he bought six hectares of prime vineyard in the satellite appellation of Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Vieux Château Saint-André. Berrouet is originally from the Basque country and his much cherished enterprise is a two-hectare vineyard on the foothills of the Pyrenees called Herri Mina (meaning homeland-sick) in the appellation of Irouléguy.

Pierre Lurton is general manager for Cheval Blanc, the top growth in Saint-Emilion, ranked among the top few wines in Bordeaux. The various branches of the vast Lurton clan own a number of Bordeaux châteaux, including La Louvière, Bouscaut, Clos Fourtet (Saint-Emilion) and Climens (Barsac). Pierre is the only one working for a non-family estate, but wine runs in the blood and in 1995 he bought Château Marjosse, a six-hectare vineyard in the Entre-Deux-Mers, not far from the original 75ha family estate of Château Bonnet, owned by uncle André, in Grézillac. They say the best way to make a small fortune in winegrowing is to start with a large fortune. So why do the great winemakers get involved in other activities?

‘For me, making my own wines, right through from the vine to the glass, is an exercise in style,’ Berrouet declares. ‘This personal undertaking is part of the notion of liberty and independence.’

He points out that, professionally, he has means at his disposal that are incomparably greater than the simple methods he uses in his own vineyards and cellars. And there lies the challenge. He can make wines of a different quality, experimenting without fear or favour. This involves expressing the terroir in the most natural way without using the usual technical artifices designed to appeal to world-famous critics.

Such devices might involve excessive de-leafing, overthinning in August, ageing in new barrels with burnt staves, using hot extraction or micro-bullage. Methods which might de-nature the tannins or eradicate the aromatic elements in the wine contradict his winemaking philosophy.

Lurton of Cheval Blanc agrees. ‘I know it would be impossible to make a wine at Marjosse with the subtlety of Cheval Blanc, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start body building in the chai,’ he joked. ‘That would obliterate any elegance and style in my wine.’

Pontallier at Margaux also suffers from the frustration of being responsible for a world-famous wine. ‘A great estate like Margaux has been worked for three centuries by generations of devoted experts,’ he points out. ‘The technical decisions were taken ages ago. My contribution today might be described as fine-tuning, which tends to create intellectual frustration.’

‘Being responsible for wines of renown which allow no margin for error is a stress,’ Berrouet complains. ‘I suffer from terrible constraints, like not having a choice because my professional activity must be based on a common philosophy.’

Lurton at Cheval Blanc described his own, similar motives with a quirk of humour. ‘I have, as you know, a dual personality,’ he quips. ‘During the day I am manager of one of the world’s top wines but in my time off, I’m a simple country boy with his roots in the soil. This duality helps me lead a properly balanced life.’

Since Lurton bought Château Marjosse in 1994, the estate has improved beyond recognition. More recently his father, Dominique Lurton, made over a further 30ha so that, under the Château Marjosse label, Lurton now exploits 42ha of vineyard, six hectares of white and 36ha of Bordeaux red – a total of 300,000 bottles a year. He insists his wine is Bordeaux and not Bordeaux Supérieur because ‘my wine is only supérieur in the bottle’. His objectives are ambitious. As the quality of the terroir with clay-limestone soil is similar to some of the better areas in Saint-Emilion, he hopes to prove that wines from this area can rival those from more prestigious regions.

But Lurton’s extra activities extend way beyond the confines of Bordeaux. Like Pontallier and Berrouet, he felt the need to step back and look at Bordeaux from a different perspective. He is now a partner, regular consultant and member of the board for Morgenster, a South African winery created by 75-year old Julio Bertrand, an Italian who made his fortune in top-quality textiles. Morgenster lies in Somerset West, on the steep slopes dominated by Table Mountain, and Lurton takes an active part in all the quality decisions, plus the final assemblage before bottling.

‘This is a magic environment,’ Lurton says, ‘endowed with a climatology and terroir consistent with the production of top quality red wines. Using Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as in Bordeaux, the resulting blend appears to produce a wine of striking similarity to the Bordeaux style. Furthermore, we have built a magnificent ultra-modern winery which blends harmoniously into the environment.’

Oddly, Pontallier made the same point about their vineyard in Quebrada de Macul, the historic heart of the Maipo valley, a country with a long-standing French-style cultural tradition. Bordeaux grapes were planted in Chile way back and, according to Pontallier, conditions there produce a style of wine which displays the finesse and balance typical of Bordeaux. ‘Chile has a number of advantages,’ he says. ‘Land prices and labour costs are low, and there are virtually no vine diseases due to protection by the Andes mountains.’ But these advantages are inevitably offset by handicaps. Bordeaux is often plagued by rain, causing rot. In Chile, where it hardly ever rains, the problem is irrigation – getting it right is hard. ‘Conditions are entirely different from the Médoc so the venture is very exciting,’ Pontallier says. ‘One problem eliminated only seems to create another.’

In some ways, Berrouet considers his vineyard in the Pyrenees his personal

paradise; in that spot he feels he has gone back to his origins, cultivating the difference and defending a cause. At Herri-Mina he can demonstrate his personal philosophy by expressing the terroir exclusively from the products of nature, without technical device.

‘What I most enjoy in this world,’ he adds, ‘is being able to make a wine of top quality which tells the story of the land with sincerity and authenticity. As master in my own vineyard I can afford the luxury of doing what I believe is best for the wine and the consumer. Getting good ratings at international tastings is of no interest to me.’

Lurton has his own ‘secret garden’. His pride and joy is his new chai at Marjosse, completed in time for the 2000 vintage. An L-shaped building with an Italian-style frontage of sienna, the construction has been carefully designed so each phase of winemaking can be executed rationally. Scorning stainless-steel, the new vathouse contains two lines of built-in medium-sized concrete vats which allow each parcel of vines to be fermented separately, a technique usually reserved for top châteaux.

Similarly, producing a top quality wine through selection by parcel is the latest improvement by Prats and Pontallier in Chile. The vineyards were planted in 1991 and are now reaching maturity, so improving quality rather than expansion is their option. Through selection of the best parcels, they hope to produce a top quality cuvée over and above the regular wine which represents some 90,000 bottles a year. But applying Bordeaux quality wine growing methods in Chile can cause consternation. In March, prior to the harvest, Pontallier explained to the vineyard workers how to de-leaf and cut out every other bunch of grapes the way it is done at Margaux. The Chilean staff was aghast but, once convinced, executed the task with great efficiency.

But their intention has never been to make a Médoc in Chile. On the contrary, like the wines of Berrouet in the Pyrenees, they merely express the specific qualities of the country. Made from the same grapes as Margaux with roughly the same mix, the wines of Domaine Paul Bruno are bursting with fruit and vivacity, a far cry from the majesty – some might say the austerity – of the great Médocs. Calling a wine by the name of the grape (varietal) in this context has no meaning and Pontallier suggests the grape and terroir are complementary factors. ‘Wines are like people. There is the genetic factor which decides what a person will be, but these inherent characteristics are modified by the environment.’

Bordeaux is as Bordeaux does. When top châteaux export their expertise, there is no question of trying to reproduce Pétrus or Margaux or Cheval Blanc elsewhere.

Written by ALAN SPENCER