A self-taught winemaker and one of the world’s most sought-after consultants, Stéphane Derenoncourt has built his reputation by shaping the wines of more than 140 clients in Bordeaux, the Rhône and Loire, as well as Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the US. With his wife Christine, he runs Derenoncourt Consultants and owns Domaine de l’A in Côtes de Castillon and Derenoncourt California in Napa.
You arrived in Bordeaux aged 18, by hitchhiking – that’s pretty unusual…
I grew up in northern France and I decided very early on to change my life. I had no idea what I wanted to do but the job centre said I could go to Bordeaux to pick grapes, so I thought ‘why not?’ – I sold everything I had, went to start the harvest, and ended up staying.
How did you find your first job?
I didn’t have a diploma, so my only option was to work in the vineyards. Then a government initiative to find young people work by reducing the tax employers had to pay gave me a chance. Paul Barre in Fronsac became my first real boss. My first experience of winemaking, in 1985, was a revelation.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I have travelled a lot but I’m always excited to see different projects and experience new cultures. Also, I love blending because it’s full of creativity.
Is there one project that stands out?
For the moment my love story is in Greece on the island of Tinos, where I make the wines for Clos Stegasta. It’s a strange and special place for me, full of energy, and I love to be there. Every vintage is a challenge, because of the wind conditions and lack of water – every grape you harvest is like a victory!
Any mistakes or regrets?
Maybe my first foray into winemaking in Spain, in 2003. I wasn’t happy with the results – I felt I had made something close to Bordeaux in Spain which was ridiculous. That’s why now, I always try to understand more about a place, its culture, its gastronomy. I had to become a bit Spanish before making the wine.
What challenges do you face?
Climate change. We need to first adapt the management of the soil and the canopy of the vineyard before we think about new varieties. In Bordeaux, for example, they now allow grapes from Portugal – for me it’s a mistake, as we will lose centuries of tradition.
What is the most common misconception about your job?
People think that I only work in the cellar, whereas I am almost always in the vineyard. Like with a chef, I need to know the products I have to work with. Winemaking is easy; what’s difficult is picking very good grapes with good ripeness, density, acidity and balance.
What wines do you like to drink?
What would you choose to drink today?
A Right Bank Bordeaux wine from 1998, my favourite vintage of the last century. It was a perfect year – very ripe and fresh, and great for the long term.
What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Have passion, a sense of observation, and be ready to work hard. I wake up every morning raring to go because I have the passion. Being a consultant is a special job – you have to be strong but also sensitive, to listen to your clients, and a project manager. But first is the passion and also, maybe, in French we say audace – to have a daring spirit.