The voice of Bordeaux
- Thursday 21 August 2008
You get the feeling that Hubert de Boüard, owner of St-Emilion’s Château Angélus, would feel at home among the bright lights of Hollywood. Not just because his 1982 Angélus featured in the last Bond film, Casino Royale, nor because of his perfectly coiffed mane of white hair or unerring charm (although neither would look out of place on Rodeo Drive). It is rather his uncanny ability to pick the plum roles – at last count he was president of the St-Emilion Syndicate, Bordeaux’s regional board of regulatory governing body the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) and the St-Emilion Jurade, partner in Bordeaux négociant BVS, owner of four wine estates in France and abroad, and consultant to 15 high-profile properties including Pauillac’s Château Pichon-Lalande and Château La Pointe in Pomerol. On being asked about him, the majority of people fall over themselves to be positive, not always the case in the small, overheated world of classified Bordeaux. 'He works tirelessly and is dedicated to being an ambassador for the region,’ comes one comment. ‘He keeps his numbers of consultancies small because he likes to be present with every one, and only takes on projects that interest him,’ is another. But one thing keeps recurring – the ruthlessness beneath the charm. ‘You get the feeling he would run you over if he was in a hurry,’ says one keen St-Emilion observer. They also say, and de Boüard would be the first to agree, that he is unmistakably a product of St-Emilion, just as fellow consultant Michel Rolland is a product of Pomerol. Not only was he born in the town, on 1 July, 1956, but he was born 200m from Angélus, in his grandparents’ house. He was seven when he started pruning the family vines. ‘Like Obelix [from the Asterix series],’ he says, ‘I fell into the cauldron.’ The cauldron in this case was full to the brim with wine, in which his family has been working for approaching 200 years. In the late 19th century, Maurice de Boüard de Laforestacquired the 3ha (hectare) plot of Château Angélus, adding it to the adjacent vineyard – Château Mazerat – which had been in the family since 1850. In 1985, Hubert became part-owner of Château de Francs in the Côtes de Francs, and in 1998 purchased Château La Fleur St-Georges in Lalande de Pomerol where he produces La Fleur de Boüard. Today, he runs Angélus alongside his cousin, Jean- Bernard Grenié. Two of his four children work with him, and the other two can’t be far behind. But no one is in any doubt who is ultimately in charge. De Boüard joined the family business in 1980, having graduated from the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology, where he studied under Emile Peynaud and Pascal Ribereau-Gayon. He then started working under his uncle, before taking over as managing director in 1985.
Those five years were versed ‘in family diplomacy’ as he terms it, learning the
ropes but also realising the mistakes that were being made. To increase his own
knowledge, he also worked at Château Thieuley in Entre Deux Mers, and made frequent trips to Burgundy, accompanied by journalist Michel Bettane, ‘who helped me to discover the region’.
When I returned, I didn’t try to blanket apply their methods, but I saw certain things that used to be widespread in Bordeaux, which we had stopped doing, such as lees stirring and ageing on lees, working with whole grapes, respecting individual plots of land. The culture of Burgundy is really that terroir is linked to a piece of land, which encourages the idea of plot-by-plot selection.’ What this meant was that, in 1985, he changed almost everything; introducing stainless steel, new barrels, climate-controlled cellars, malolactic in barrels and ageing
on lees, as well as far closer work in the vineyard. As with many of the new breed of Right Bank winemakers (Jacques Thienpont and Jean-Luc Thunevin among others), de Boüard was criticised for many of his innovations. But these methods are now widespread across Bordeaux, notably on the Left Bank, and de Boüard was among the first to see their potential. He was also among the first, in 1987, to introduce a second wine, Carillon d’Angélus, which freed up only the best grapes for the first wine, and began the ascendancy of the estate through the St-Emilion hierarchy. Ever one to see the bigger picture, this rise was also no doubt helped by his presidency of the Association des Grands Crus Classés de St-Emilion for much of the 1990s. He resigned his post in 1996 to allow for the
promotion of Château Angélus to premier grand cru classé B status, and today is unabashed at talking about his desire for it to join Cheval Blanc and Ausone
as premier grand cru classé A. ‘I am of course working towards becoming premier grand cru classé A. We have a unique terroir here – the only château
besides Cheval Blanc to use so much Cabernet Franc [almost 50% is usual], and are in an uncontested position where we do not have to rely so heavilyon individual notes each year, thanks to a loyal customer base. But my aim is to take Angélus to the next level of recognition.’ The more pressing question right now, however, is how the 2007 vintage will be received – not so much the quality (Angélus has been praised as one of the best wines of a difficult vintage), but the financial climate in which it is being released. ‘The exchange rate issue, the global economic crisis and the US elections all contribute to an instability that we can’t ignore. If enough of the buyers are constrained by global conditions, the Bordelais will have to take note. ‘I believe this year in particular, the usual buyers (the négociants and to a large extent the UK merchants) may be less willing to bankroll the châteaux. ‘The pool of serious brands that will be able to sell easily this year may shrink toaround 30 who can sell at prices close to, or the same as, 2006. But I believe others will release too high, then find merchants saying, “at that price, I’m not buying”. ‘I don’t think consumers will be prepared to spend as much this year, and at the end of the day, it’s easy to forget that these are the people who count.’ De Boüard has yet to be convinced about the long-term viability of the emerging Chinese market, expressing bewilderment over the fashion-led demand for his wine when it appeared in Casino Royale. He travels widely, though, and has done so
since the 1980s. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that his focus has been slowly but surely turning away from St-Emilion to a wider stage. His consultancies take him to a variety of appellations across Bordeaux, and he tries not to bring a Right Bank sensibility to his consultancy work in other regions: ‘I bring rather my own personal preference for wine that respects its terroir.’ Other consultancies are in Spain and Lebanon. In 2006 he and Bruno Prats bought a 50% stake in the 42ha South African winery Anwilka, and he does not rule out the possibility of future international purchases. ‘I am not in a period of buying at the moment, but perhaps I will be in a few years, and I would buy in South America; more precisely in Argentina. In Chile so much has already been done, but Argentina is full of potential for growth. Maybe in a few years it would be interesting to invest in China, but now I will concentrate on selling there, rather than buying vines.’
Fingers in pies
In 2007, he was named regional president of France’s wine regulatory body, the INAO, covering Bordeaux, Bergerac and the Lot et Garonne. This has meant that he is finally stepping down from his presidency of the St-Emilion Syndicate. He appears to have been trying to do this for a few years, but other members have been less than keen to let him go. His new role at INAO, however, is clearly one he relishes, and intends to focus on more. Working as a consultant across Bordeaux has given him an overview of the different appellations and quality levels, and made him aware of what each area needs in terms of amended rules and regulations. ‘I enjoy the intellectual challenge of INAO,’ he says, ‘and the scope of the task. The ACs need updating. I believe we should keep one
family [former president René Renou talked about splitting them up], but within this there should be differences for different appellations. We make 25 million hl of AC wine in France; we need exacting rules for some, less exacting for
others, and a more supple compromise between the two for the rest.’ De Boüard has thrown his weight behind the idea of allowing new techniques at certain levels, such as reverse osmosis, wood chips, increasing residual sugar to make the taste profile more ‘internationally appealing’, or taking out sugar in hot years to keep alcohol levels down. This last point is in response to the future threats to Bordeaux wine in theform of global warming. ‘This is perhaps
the most pressing issue facing Bordeaux. Many rules were made years ago, well
before climate change and global warming. We need to be able to respond to change.’ Wherever INAO takes him, he is never going to leave the few square kilometres of St-Emilion entirely behind. Not only is there Angélus, but also his own project, La Fleur de Boüard. ‘Angélus has been in my family for centuries, but La Fleur de Boüard is the Hubert de Boüard family.’ Typically, there are no small ambitions. ‘It is not in the most prestigious appellation, but we are focused on quality. First my daughter Coralie was working there, and now my son Matthieu is about to start. If we could become the Sociando Mallet of the Right Bank, I would be very happy.’ Any other pretenders may as well step aside.