France: How Emmanuel Cruse saved Chateau d'Issan

  • Tuesday 14 October 2008

Emmanuel Cruse has degrees in law and oenology, is managing director
of Château d’Issan and the new Grand Master of the august club of the
Commanderie. FIONA MORRISON MW meets Bordeaux’s quiet achiever

For years, the sleeping beauty château, with its moat and its swans gliding through the water had a rather forlorn air about it. Hidden behind its ancient walls, the misfortunes of the family that once ranked among the top echelons of Bordeaux, hovered like ghosts over the estate.

All this was the stuff of story books and, like any good fairy tale, it needed a Prince Charming to bring Château d’Issan back to life. The Margaux estate dates back to the 12th century – allegedly the wine of Issan was served at the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet in 1152.

The current château dates from the 17th century and was classified as a third growth in the 1855 classification. However, by the time the Cruse family purchased the château in 1945, only 2ha (hectares) of vines were still in production.

The Cruses had come to Bordeaux as Danish merchants at the beginning of the 19th century, building up an impressive wine business and owning or managing famous estates such as Pontet-Canet, Rauzan-Ségla and Giscours. Disaster struck in the 1970s when the Cruses were found guilty of blending outside wine with their Bordeaux estates’ – a practise that was widely carried out at that time.

The family wine business collapsed, bringing with it a region-wide slump. It has taken 30 years, and the arrival of a new generation, to restore the family fortunes.

Born in 1968, Emmanuel Cruse was groomed for a career in the wine business, studying law and oenology in Bordeaux before arriving at the château when his father was suffering health problems in 1995. He took over as managing director in 1998. A lot had to be done.

During the previous decade, when many Bordeaux châteaux had upgraded their installations, Issan lay dormant. By the mid 1990s the estate and the wine had almost faded into oblivion, no longer capturing the interest of Bordeaux wine merchants, nor indeed of the wine drinking public.

Since 1995, Emmanuel Cruse has overseen a €10 million (£8 million) investment project. First the vineyards were completely redrained and new ditches dug, vines pulled out or grafted onto better rootstocks and 4ha of Margaux land in Arsac added to the estate. A new cellar was inaugurated in 2002 with additional stainless steel vats.

Sorting tables were introduced, a new pneumatic press added and a building to receive the grapes erected. In the barrel cellar there is now a more regular investment project with at least 50% new oak being used for the top wine; a second barrel cellar was added in 2000.

Cruse is also more selective with his coopers, working with five major suppliers. His arrival at the château coincided with the appointment of legendary winemaking consultant Jacques Boissonot as the estate’s winemaker, as well as the changing of the château’s technical team which is headed by Eric Pellon; he is the same age as Cruse and the complicity between the two is evident.

D’Issan redefined

Today Château d’Issan is almost restored to its former glory. By luck and much lobbying, the château had 10ha of vines upgraded from Haut-Médoc to Margaux in the 2007 land revision.

Of its 120ha, 53ha are under vine, 45ha of which are in the Margaux appellation. The heart of the estate, however, has always been the lovely walled enclos which encompasses 20ha next to the château. There are now four wines produced: Château d’Issan, Blason d’Issan (the second wine),

Haut-Médoc d’Issan made from the 2ha that remain in this appellation and an AC Bordeaux, Le Moulin d’Issan.

Due to the high percentage of younger vines from newly added vineyards, the 2007 vintage saw 60% of the Margaux grapes pass into the second wine. In time Cruse hopes to restore production to the 60:40 ratio in the opposite proportion. How have these changes manifested themselves in the wine?

There is certainly much more precision and fruit in Issan these days. The Cabernet, which has always done well on these deep gravel soils, shines out much more in the blend and there is now a purity and a clean definition that was missing in the past. This corresponds to the style of wines Cruse is looking for: ‘I aim to make elegant wines, not monsters,’ he says.

If, technically, Cruse had brought the wine up to speed, there was still an image problem with Issan. As the Bordeaux négociants reminded him ‘your wine is not Parkerised’. He knew that his job was to launch out on the wine circuit. Yet the naturally shy Cruse, despite speaking decent English, was a bit daunted by the prospect.

A chance meeting with Marcel Ducasse, director of Château Lagrange, would provide the boost he needed. Ducasse invited Cruse to come and see the work he had done at Lagrange and shortly afterwards asked him to join a tasting trip to New York.

Many miles on, the professional contact having evolved into a lasting friendship, Cruse is quick to acknowledge the debt he owes Ducasse. ‘He gave me a certain serenity, calmed my more impulsive ways. Marcel has been everywhere and seen everything – he gave me the taste of travelling and passed on a degree of level-headedness.’

Ducasse has now retired to the Arcachon Basin but it is probably true to say that without his influence, Cruse would not have become as well-known abroad and as respected in Bordeaux.

The Grand Master

Cruse’s higher profile prompted Jean-Michel Cazes, the outgoing Grand Master of the Commanderie de Bontemps of the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac, an august order which dedicates itself to the promoion of Bordeaux wines, to suggest he put himself forward as the new Grand Master. Cruse was excited by the challenge and was duly elected.

The Commanderie had always been an important part of his family’s life – he remembers the old photos of the Commanderie’s foundation in 1949 hanging in Château Pontet-Canet – and believes it is an excellent organisation for promoting the magic of Bordeaux.

If he feels that filling Cazes’ shoes will be hard, he is ready to make some changes within the illustrious organisation. Among his priorities is to construct a team of young people around him, changing the almost solitary management style of Cazes, while keeping a few of the older generation ‘to stop me making mistakes’.

One of the key strengths of the Commanderie is that it represents Bordeaux top to bottom, from cooperatives through merchants to petits châteaux and first growths. Cruse believes that not enough is made of this allen compassing structure and, for a start, wants to see négociants take a more active role in the organisation. He also believes the administration should move from Pauillac to emphasise that the group is not just a Médoc-based organisation.

Abroad, the Commanderie is an amazing promotional tool but this too is underexploited. ‘Many people know us for the Fête de la Fleur and our velvet robes,’ he explains, ‘but we should be doing much more to associate the magic of Bordeaux with other key international events such as the Cannes Film Festival or by holding the annual party abroad in non-Vinexpo [the bi-annual trade show] years.’

Cruse believes that the Commanderie should reflect the reality of Bordeaux today, where 60% to 70% of the local economy revolves around wine. It needs to become more of a team player, uniting the various strands of the Bordeaux business.

How will Cruse balance his work at Issan with that of the Commanderie? He acknowledges that his role as Grand Master will help his château to become better known but feels that there is also the need for more separation between the two jobs.

Sporty, young and active, he does not seem afraid of hard work. The 40-year-old bachelor has much to be proud of. He has laid the foundations for Château d’Issan’s renaissance, turning the page from the family’s problems in the 1970s.

He has taken over the mantel of the Commanderie and has some far reaching plans for its evolution. Above all, he is one of the young generation of Bordeaux owners who will surely give new lustre to their wines in the 21st century. You will be hearing more of this name in the future.

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