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Interview: Stéphane Derenoncourt

Globetrotting consultant Stéphane Derencourt sits down with Kyle Schlachter to discuss why he chose to start making wine in California and how it differs from Bordeaux plus his single most memorable wine and why he hates wine scores.

In 1982, at the age of 19, Stéphane Derenoncourt hitchhiked to Bordeaux from his native Normandy, and found work as a vineyard laborer in Fronsac. For the next decade, Derenoncourt immersed himself in the vineyards of Bordeaux’s Right Bank. He rose to prominence in the early 1990s from his work at Château Pavie Macquin and Chateau Canon-la-Gaffelière, and his company, Derenoncourt Consultants which he set up with his wife Christine, now works with over 60 wineries – including Inglenook in the Napa Valley and Boxwood Winery in Virginia – in a dozen different countries.

Though a critical mass of his clients continue to be in Bordeaux, including Domaine de Chevalier, Clos Fourtet, Clos de l’Oratoire, Pavie-Macquin, Canon-la-Gaffelière,and Smith Haut Lafitte, Derenoncourt also makes wine in Austria, India, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Syria, Turkey and the United States. In addition to his consultant work, he owns Domaine l’A, in the Côtes de Castillon, with his wife. In 2006, Stéphane and Christine started another of their own projects, Derenoncourt California. Released in 2009, Derenoncourt California’s initial 2006 vintage was the first wine he made in the United States. The Derenoncourt California project is based in the Napa Valley, and sources grapes from the Howell Mountain AVA, Coombsville AVA and Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa as well as Sonoma Valley AVA in Sonoma County to the west and the Red Hills Lake County AVA in Lake County to the north.

You were a successful winemaker in France and elsewhere around the world before you started Derenoncourt California. Why did you choose California? Napa?

My first trip to Napa was in 2005. A friend of mine asked me to see an estate. I fell in love with the area; it is such a beautiful place. I decided to come back to improve my wine knowledge about this area. Of course I have tasted a lot of wine and I thought it was not possible for me to have success on this continent because of the style of the wine. There is a lot of big wine with a lot of extraction and a lot of oak. That’s not really my style. That’s why I decided to start this project; because I am totally free. We choose the blocks. It is like vacation just driving the mountains to select the blocks. I take a lot of care on this project. I’ve worked with Hélène Mingot now for six years. She’s French and was living in Italy. When I decided to start the project I asked Hélène to come with me on this adventure and live here in Napa. We are very close to the project; we can be very precise. The goal is to make something we like and to find a good place with good soil and to keep the freshness of the fruit and make wine with balance. All of our wines are very different because of the place. We want to make vin de terroir.

What is the biggest difference between winemaking in California and Bordeaux?

They are opposite worlds. In Bordeaux we always fight against the rain and the cold. In California we have to fight the sun. In Bordeaux the goal is to get the ripeness. Here it is to keep the freshness.

How would you describe your taste in wine?

My focus is balance and elegance. I love to find something different in the aromas from different varieties. That’s what I call identity. That’s why we choose the blocks by the soil.

What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?

For me, it is Cabernet Franc because it is the most complex variety to make. This is the first time in my life I have made varietal Cabernet Franc. I am very proud of the cab franc.

What is the most difficult part of running a winery?

It is more difficult to manage the vineyards than it is the winery. Hélène is here and she is in the cellar every day. It is more difficult to get precision in the vineyard such as with when to green harvest or canopy management and working the soil.

What makes your wines special?

Are you sure my wines are unique? I think since I’ve made wine for 30 years now I am able to experiment. Because I am a self-made man and not an enologist and I spent a lot of time first in the vineyard. For ten years I was a labourer. After that I was a cellar master. As for winemaking, I think I have a global view. I make the wine in the vineyard when I taste the grapes. It is not a recipe. I think I have no style.

Do old vines make better wine?

It depends on the quality of the rootstock and the clone. We can make some very good wines with young vines. Sometimes, if the soil is not very good it is better to take out old vines to put in new ones.

What wines would you choose to drink if you were celebrating?

Depends on what I have to celebrate. Because of my story and as I love the limestone I would probably choose a wine from Saint-Émilion. I love that place because it is so complex and elegant. The limestone is my favourite geology.

What is the single most memorable wine you have ever drunk?

1978 Cros Parantoux from Henri Jayer. It is magic.

Are there any wines you’ve never tasted that you really want to try?

I travel a lot and work in 14 different countries, so I have the opportunity to taste a lot of different wines. Three months ago I would have said China, but I was in China last month. It was a disappointment. There is no good wine from China right now, but I will visit again to consider a new project.

Do you make wine for consumers, critics or yourself?

I think I make the wine for myself. I didn’t choose the job; my professional life is a little like a dream. I had some success in the 1990s and I had a lot of propositions to help wineries. It was not premeditated. I have no goal; I don’t want to be the best. I love wine and I have the opportunity make a lot wine in different countries. I am very happy with that and I don’t want more.

What is the most exciting wine region of the world at the moment?

There are a lot of exciting regions for many different reasons. For me, Bordeaux is the most difficult region to grow grapes and it is the most dynamic in terms of winemaking. Because of the ocean and because it is very wet, and in terms of level of extraction and level of ripeness we have to be very inventive because the vintages are very different. That is not the case in all other regions.

What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see buried?

Scores. They kill the conviviality of the wines and they don’t make people become kind.

What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine?

Something with my hands because I’m not very intelligent. My first job was to make wooden toys for children and it was a good time in my life.

How is your winemaking different now from when you started?

I think when I was younger, and because of a lack of knowledge, I was using too much extraction and too long macerations in my winemaking. I have a better feel for the grapes and the balance of wine now. I now prefer to lose a little power to get more balance in my wines.

What is the worst mistake you’ve ever made?

In 1996, I was starting to work with Stephan von Neipperg of Canon-la-Gaffelière, and it was first vintage of La Mondotte. During the summer we had a problem with oidium and we decided to put some sulphur on the vineyard. Because we were afraid, we put on too much sulphur. I didn’t know about the problem of reduction in wine. To be honest, the first few months of making the wine we didn’t know if the wine would be drinkable. Yet, it is still considered one of the best wines of the vintage. But the sulphur was a mistake.

Written by Kyle Schlachter

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