Jane Anson meets one of the few 1855 Bordeaux château owners who could 'reasonably be described as a farmer' and hears about one of the classification's most improved estates in the past decade.
Château Lafon-Rochet’s Basile Tesseron drives a Volvo hybrid and a classic Fiat 500. He is more often seen in jeans than a tailored suit, necessary as he regularly works in his vineyards alongside the rest of his team.
The 2016 vintage will be the first one where he has farmed 100% organically, but he is more interested in working out what system is best for a sustainable future than chasing media acclaim for it. Oh, and he was the first in Bordeaux to set up a partnership with Google Streetview allowing virtual visits of the winery and cellars.
All of which makes him one of the most refreshing figures in this often buttoned-up region; one of the few 1855 château owners who could reasonably be described as a farmer, even though his estate is a fourth growth in the prestigious appellation of St-Estèphe.
This is the Other Tesseron, cousin of Melanie and nephew of Alfred over at the thumpingly famous Château Pontet Canet in Pauillac. His father’s family came to Bordeaux via their cognac estate in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, bought by his great-grandfather Abel in the 1800s, while his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Raymond Lillet, one of two brothers who invented the aperitif Lillet in 1872.
So between Cognac and Lillet, it wasn’t always clear that Basile Tesseron was going to go into wine. And if he did, he might have been content to stay as a merchant like his father Michel, who spent 40 years at Barton & Guestier négociant before finally taking over from his own father Guy at Lafon-Rochet in 2000. At this point Pontet Canet was just about to take off into the stratosphere, while Lafon Rochet was still one of the more under-the-radar classified estates. And when it was talked about, it was often in critical terms for its austere, overly tannic wines.
Michel started its revolution, both symbolically as well as practically, by painting the exterior walls a startling canary yellow, then changing its label and capsule to match. But even when his son joined him in 2006, aged 27, the estate was still very much in the shadow of Pontet Canet – despite being barely half a mile from its vines, and sandwiched directly between Cos d’Estournel and Lafite Rothschild.
Since then, Lafon-Rochet has slowly but surely become one of the most exciting estates in the Médoc, borrowing some of the holistic, artisan philosophy of Pontet Canet in terms of biodynamic and organic practices and harnessing the enthusiasm of young team that includes, besides Tesseron, Anaïs Maillet as vineyard manager and biodiversity expert and technical director Lucas Leclerq. And it’s with the three of them that I am walking through the vines mid way through the 2016 harvest, a few days before the last of the merlots reach the cellar and the picking of the cabernets gets underway.
We head to several of their favourite plots as they roll the grapes between their fingers to test the skins readiness for harvest (‘see how easily that colour comes away? This is going to be a wonderful year for extractability’), and see at first hand how well they have resisted the exceptionally dry weather of 2016.
Since 2007, Basile Tesseron has been managing director, following his father’s desire to pass on the baton after just seven years at the helm because, he said, he wished he himself had been able to run the estate from a similarly young age, instead of inheriting it at 60. Michel Tesseron still works alongside his son, lending his advice and offering a balance that is also brought by their consultant Jean-Claude Berrouet (his first job in the Médoc).
Tesseron, who speaks almost accent-less English having lived in London in his early 20s, worked for the Moueix-owned négociant company Duclot before heading to Lafon-Rochet. I ask him if this was where he met Berrouet. His reply tells you everything about both his modesty and his open mindedness.
‘I met Jean Claude only once while working at Duclot, and I am quite convinced he won’t remember. But I fell in love with most of the wines that he was producing while there. Including Latour à Pomerol; a wine I am truly in love with’.
Berrouet was drawn to Lafon Rochet, in part, because of the blue clay that is found in part of the vineyard; a similar quality to the one found at Petrus. It gives an unusually rich, concentrated quality to the cabernet sauvignon – that covers more than 65% of the plantings and yet here sits on these clay soils as well as the more usual gravels. He is helping them to redefine the parameters of winemaking, increasing the precision in the blend and smoothing off those angular tannins without losing any of their focus.
With the combination of the Tesseron name and the added pulling power of Berrouet, the temptation to raise prices might just prove too much to resist. But for now, the Other Tesseron remains an exception worth celebrating.
See Jane Anson’s review of Lafon-Rochet:
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