Bordeaux and the New World
- Monday 2 August 2010
You can take the winemaker out of Bordeaux, but you can’t take Bordeaux out of the winemaker. There’s Bruno Prats, bringing Bordelais elegance to such places as Alicante in Spain, where elegance has been little more than a rumour; and May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, seeking perfection (as much for the search as for the destination) on the slopes of South Africa’s Simonsberg mountain, from where the first wine from her own vines is released this year.
The Cape is where they coincide, though they reached it via different routes. Both started from the Médoc, where each owned, and then sold, a second growth. Prats sold Cos d’Estournel in 1998 when family divisions made it necessary: his son, Jean-Guillaume, now runs it for owner Michel Reybier.
De Lencquesaing sold Pichon-Lalande in 2007 because none of her children wanted it: they envisaged living in Paris and hiring a manager. ‘They never understood that Mama had to work.’ It was bought by Roederer, who are proving attentive, knowledgeable owners, although selling it, she says, was ‘heartbreaking’.
She walked away and left it all behind: the wines, the furniture, the famous glass collection she’d built up over the years (which she hopes Roederer will dust); yes, she was heartbroken but, she says now, ‘those things are not important’.
What is important? Love, work, humanitarian pursuits, picking yourself up and starting again – and she’s done a lot of that. ‘I made three attempts to create joint ventures,’ she said. ‘I was very innocent. My first idea [back in the early 1980s] was to make things easy.’ She looked at Long Island: six hours from Bordeaux, near to New York, and as close to the water as Bordeaux. But after two years of exploration she discovered that ‘salinity in Long Island means that the vines can never age, and can therefore never make great wines. Well, give up.’
She considered California, but it wasn’t her style, so she tried Washington State. This looked more promising, and after five years’ work – she’d created a blend and designed a label – she was about to sign a deal with Chateau Ste Michelle. But it transpired that American Tobacco, which owned the winery, ‘wanted me to do a certain number of bottles every year. It was a contract based on quantity. ‘I said no. I said never again. I gave up.’
But then in 1993 she joined the board of the International Wine and Spirit Competition. The trophy for best red blend that year went to a South African wine – Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer 1991, a Bordeaux blend – and she invited the winemaker Beyers Truter to visit Pichon. Bit by bit she learned more about South Africa, went there to judge, and in 1998 took seven of her grandchildren there on safari. They stayed at Truter’s house in Stellenbosch and every day the children had to taste: ‘I wanted them to see you can make great wine outside Bordeaux.’
And then she decided to invest – by buying a fruit farm which needed to be planted from scratch, by building a winery, and by starting social programmes for her workers and their families. This year, the year she turned 85, saw the first release of wine from her own vines. vines before phylloxera arrived in the late 19th century. Now 65ha of its 125ha are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the last of which she likes so much she is considering a 100% varietal. There is also some Chardonnay, used for one unoaked and one oaked wine (see box, p47).
The first results are very promising. The vines are young, of course, and this shows in a lack of great weight. But the wines are tight, perfumed, focused and precise, with lovely balance and finesse. She was criticised for releasing wines from bought-in grapes for the first few years she was there, and as a marketing decision perhaps it wasn’t great. But she says it was a way of learning about the region and the terroir. When you’re in your 80s, how long do you want to wait?
She does seem to have got younger. In her Pichon days she could be formidable; now one gets a feeling that she might just be kicking up her heels. ‘Pichon was very heavy for me,’ she agrees; when the photographer asks for a shot of her descending her staircase, she offers to slide down the banister.
But it’s clear she has thrown in her lot with South Africa. Yes, she lives in Switzerland and has a flat in Bordeaux, but when she sold Pichon (‘I gave the money to the children, which was what they wanted’) she also sold her house in Bordeaux and gave her property in the north of France to her older son. ‘I left three houses in the same year.’ She’s clearly invested a lot of money in the winery and the vineyards, and done up the house, and is happy for the moment to continue to fund it. But in the end she wants it to work financially for her grandchildren’s sake. ‘While I’m alive I can pour money in, but when I’m gone, the business must be profitable. I want to live another five years until it’s stable.’
However stringent her search for perfection in the wines, humanitarianism is, she says, her driving force in South Africa. Farm workers used to live in rented houses; now each has a bank loan, secured by the Glenelly estate, and in time they will all own their houses outright. Their children are sponsored at school and there’s an after-school care centre where they’re fed and do their homework until their parents have finished work. (‘Their school marks are improving,’ she adds.) Healthcare is paid for by the estate, and there are literacy programmes for the workers. She loves the place and loves the people. When I ask about safety she shrugs and says she was burgled three times in France. ‘France is dangerous, Europe is dangerous.’
If South Africa has become a home for de Lencquesaing, for Prats it’s more of a perch, along with his others in Chile, Portugal and Spain. Like her, he started searching for vineyards abroad long before he sold his château, but found something faster. He started making wine in Chile in the late 1980s, in partnership with Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux and Chilean oenologist Felipe de Solminihac at Viña Aquitania. Ghislain de Montgolfier of Bollinger Champagne came on board later. But there were problems. Trying to impose Bordelais techniques on Chile – the idea was that this would produce the sort of elegance that had so far eluded the country – didn’t work, and a lot of rethinking was needed. The first vintage with which Prats and Pontallier were really happy was 2002.
In 1998 Prats teamed up with the Symingtons in Portugal’s Douro to make Chryseia (‘James Symington was not sure of the potential when we started. It was brave of him to use part of his grapes for table wine, knowing they would have made great Port.’) and in 2005 created Anwilka in South Africa, along with Hubert de Boüard of Château Angélus, and South African Lowell Jooste. Prats is involved with the blending and in major decisions, but not day-to-day issues.
Prats’ latest – and, he says, last – project is in Spain, where he’s working with Monastrell, Syrah, Cabernet and Petit Verdot in seven plots of old vines in Alicante. Apart from some similarity in grapes it’s difficult to see what all these ventures have in common; but Prats says it’s quite simple. ‘The basic idea is to go to places where we can still pretend to be among the very best of the country or region. That’s not feasible in France.’ Not even in St-Emilion, source of some interesting wines from little-known plots? ‘St-Emilion garage wine is never as great as a first-growth Médoc. The game is played in France: we know the winners. But the game is still open in other places, and we might know the rules better than the other players.’
He’s looked at possible ventures at other times, of course. ‘I had an offer to do Syrah in the Valais, in Switzerland, but there are very precise winemakers in Switzerland, and I’m not convinced I could do better than the best of them…. I would like to make wine in New Zealand, but it’s not feasible, it’s too far…. I need a local partner who is a wine man. I need a culture I can understand, and I want to deal only with people who are wine people. I’ve looked at Georgia and Greece, but life is complicated enough. Access has to be possible, too.’ (He keeps a berth for his boat in Alicante, for when he gets tired of collecting airmiles.) China is out. ‘China is so big; to find the right places will take years. And you need a wine culture. Without a wine culture you won’t find a terroir. In China nobody knows about wine; it will take years. In France there is not a single village that was not planted with vines once. What is left is where the wines were good.’
His main idea now is not to impose Bordeaux on different terroirs and conditions, but to import Bordelais philosophy – balance, terroir expression, minerality, and all those qualities of which elegance is a part. ‘You can apply a Bordelais philosophy in search of balance, but it has to be achieved differently.’ Even so, he doesn’t love all his wines equally: ‘Chryseia and Viña Aquitania are more my style than Anwilka.’ Anwilka is far more New World in character, but nevertheless has focus and precision, and no overripeness. And Armonyal, the first fruits of the Alicante project, is dense, tight and compelling; a big wine, certainly, but with signs of complexity to come.
‘That’s enough now,’ he says. Enough travelling, enough balls to keep in the air. Terroir is addictive: it calls out across the world to those with ears to hear. Once a terroiriste, always a terroiriste.