Bordeaux’s big names are well known to wine lovers worldwide. But what about the grafters and the schemers behind the scenes? STEPHEN BROOK profiles three of Bordeaux’s invisible faces
Joël Dupuy was born in a house on the Pichon-Longueville estate, surrounded by vineyards. His father was a vigneron, as were his brothers, but at first he wanted to enter the building trade. It didn’t last though, and he soon returned to the family profession at Pichon. In 1989 he became chef de culture, in charge of vineyard management. It’s become a cliché to say that great wine is made in the vineyard, but it remains true. Bordeaux’s chefs de culture are the unsung heroes of the region. Their skills and hard work are paramount in increasing the quality and typicity of the wines. Dupuy’s responsibility is onerous: mess up a procedure and the grapes will suffer. It may be impossible to correct. He runs a team of 17 vignerons and tractor drivers, and at some times of theyear, notably harvest, he has to hire in an additional 80 seasonal workers. ‘I have to keep a constant eye on the vineyards, which is not easy as we have 80ha (hectares). 2007 was probably my most difficult year, because of the mildew. We had to be vigilant all the time, walking through the vines, observing closely then reacting immediately. We get weather information from the Chambre d’Agriculture but there is no substitute for using your eyes and your experience. ‘It’s becoming difficult to find people willing to work in the vineyards. It’s a tough job, especially in winter. And in summer we start at 6.30am, but end at 1.30pm, to avoid the worst of the heat. We have one person whose sole job is to train the workers, and that training is adapted to their individual talents. These days we have to do operations such as leafthinning and green-harvesting, and they need to be done properly by well-trained people. Twenty years ago, such practiceswere rare. We’re also conscious of the health of our workers, one reason why we no longer use insecticides and herbicides.’ I wonder whether there is sometimes a conflict between him and management, which has an interest in producing as much wine as is compatible with maintaining high quality. ‘No, they know that when I suggest green-harvesting to reduce the crop, it’s for a good reason. I and my team have the skills to estimate the eventual crop and to decide whether it needs to be reduced. We all share the same goals.’ The crucial decision is when to beginthe harvest. ‘We taste grapes constantly, and pick berries from different parts of the bunch for analysis. When we have uneven ripening it can be hard to reach a decision, especially if the weather is uncertain. We bus in harvesters from Bordeaux, then take them back at the end of the day. I like to give them at least Sunday off, especially as some have children, but if I think it’s essential to keep harvesting, we’ll organise a team to work the weekend too. ‘The core of our vineyard is the plateau just south of the chateau, where we have vines up to about 80 years old. But there are also some younger vines, so we send our harvesting crew through twice, once to pick the young vines that won’t be used for Pichon, and then the best grapes that will.’ Dupuy also needs to decide when to grub up a parcel and replant it. ‘We let the land lie fallow for two or three years, then use an outside consultant to advise on drainage, or which varieties and rootstocks to plant. We don’t have to accept that advice, but in practice we do.’
Xavier Pallu, maître de chai,
After the chef de culture has done his work the maître de chai moves centre stage. Across the road from Pichon- Longueville at Pichon-Lalande, XavierPallu has completed his tenth vintage. His father was a Bordeaux grower near Ste Foy, so he grew up with wine. After his studies he worked as maître de chai at Château Rahoul in Graves, and at Château Caillou in Barsac, before coming to Pichon-Lalande in 1998. He’s bright, lively, articulate, and, at times, engagingly indiscreet. He works as part of a team. ‘We’re a trio: technical director
Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam, quality director Stéphanie Danglade and myself. During the vinification we meet daily. We’re constantly discussing what to do. Of the three of us, I’m closest to the wine, so my views are listened to. When we reach a
decision, I organise my team in the winery.’ The task is complicated by the fact that, as at many other châteaux, an expensive consultant oenologist has been hired to offer advice. Pallu laughs: ‘We’re slightly unusual in that we have three. We’ve worked for ages with Jacques Boissenot, but since Roederer bought the property in 2006, we also have Hubert de Boüard (see p66) and Denis Dubourdieu. Naturally they don’t always see eye to eye. They each give their view, which we listen to carefully. But it’s the home team that decides. The visit of a consultant is a bit of a nuisance and can be time-consuming. And when you have three of them…’ Making wine remains a hands-on task. ‘We’ve got all the latest equipment, but we use it only to confirm our hunches.We’ve tried all the new techniques: coldsoaks, micro-oxygenation… But in the end we remain very traditional.’ There are more decisions to be made in the chai, such as the choice of coopersand barrel toasts. ‘We tend to stay faithful to the five coopers we’ve worked with for years, but we’ll do barrel trials in an effort to improve our wines further.’ Blending is a crucial process, when all the lots and parcels must be assessed and assembled. This they do in January. ‘Again, the trio works at this, but we are often joined by a consultant, or by (Frédéric) Rouzaud from Roederer. In 2007 we produced three blends, one using each consultant, and a fourth that we did on our own. We all tasted the four blends blind, and our blend was chosen as the best. The exercise was repeated in Reims with theRoederer team and Michel Rolland – and again our home blend won out. A consultanthas just three hours to put the blend together, while we’ve known the wines for months. They’re our babies.’Once the blend is complete, it’s soon time for the en primeur tastings, so Pallu spends a lot of time preparing samples. As a sceptic of en primeur, I ask if it’s possible to fix the samples. ‘It’s possible but it would be stupid. I make sure the samples are representative of the varietalmix, the coopers we use, the toasts we prefer. But it worries me that snap judgments are made on the basis of these very young wines, as they change a good deal. One year we got a poor Parker score, and Madame de Lencquesaing, the formerowner, was incensed – with us. But when the wine was in bottle, we all realised how good it really was. Even important critics can make a wrong call. A great wine needs time to express itself.
The money man
Yann Jestin, courtier
The rules of the Bordeaux marketplace discourage growers from selling the finished wines directly to the négociants. So, since the 18th century, deals have passed through intermediaries known as courtiers, who relieve the purchaser of 2% of the sale price once the deal is finalised. For those courtiers specialising in classified growths, it can be easy money. It’s said that one courtier’s commission from selling a parcel of 2005 Cheval Blanc came to more than a vineyard worker earns in a year, though it’s hard to verify the story.
Courtier Yann Jestin trained initially as an oenologist. When I ask whether courtiers are really necessary, he replies, with exquisite French logic: ‘If we weren’t necessary, we wouldn’t be here.’ Slightly evasive, since the rules of the local marketplace require their existence. Jestin explains that there are about 120 courtiers in Bordeaux and, unlike vineyard owners or négociants, their profession is regulated: they must pass an exam, and cannot simultaneously work as journalists or merchants. ‘Our job is to help the two sides – producers and merchants – reach an agreement. Our world is the small town of Bordeaux and our job is to know everybody in the business.’ Courtiers – the conscientious ones at least – visit the major estates frequently to taste the wines and talk to the owners about their needs. More familiar with the state of the international market than most owners, they can also advise on pricing. I suggest to Jestin that their advice doesn’t seem to be taken very often. ‘If the négociants are telling me the market won’t accept the wines in a certain vintage without a 20% reduction in price, then I will pass that view on to the owners. But in the end it’s the owner who makes the decision. The correct price for a wine is that which enables the grower to sell his crop, though I admit there have been vintages such as 1997 when the ownersand négociants sold the wines at a high price, only to see them getting stuck in the warehouses of importers or retailers.’ Courtiers are often criticised for being parochial and less aware of the global market than they would like us to think. Jestin acknowledges there is some truth in that. ‘The nature of our business requires us to be in Bordeaux. I try to travel once or twice a year, but I need to keep my ears to the ground here. That doesn’t stop me from having a general sense of who is competent in which fields. If a large château wants to enter, say, the Australian market, I can advise on which négociants are active there, then discuss, between thetwo parties, such details as stock, quantities and prices. ‘We are negotiators, but we’re also diplomats. We can act as go-betweens, allowing owners and merchants to work together, if they wish to, without ever having to argue
directly about terms or conditions. Or if an owner is unhappy with a négociant’s effectiveness, we can convey that to the merchant.’ Some courtiers may, as is often claimed, be bent on cashing in when the opportunity arises. But the best probably do perform a service for both parties in a deal. The question remains whether the ancient system that created them, adding 2% to the cost of every bottle sold via the Bordeaux market, could or should be reformed so as to make their services superfluous.
Written by Stephen Brook