Edouard Labruyère is somewhat unusual as a French winemaker, refusing to stick to one region. Jane Anson interviews him and charts how a typical week will see him moving between Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and also Beaujolais.
The fog made it slow going in Pomerol on the morning I went to meet Edouard Labruyère, but in the cellars of Château Rouget it was all action, with a dozen of the 175 barrels produced in 2015 in the process of being emptied by hand.
I was the only one stamping my feet with the cold. Labruyère and his team had wellingtons on, sleeves rolled up, hands bright purple from first tapping the bung out of the barrel, holding it steady as the juice drained into a low, wide bucket below, then loosening the metal hoops and removing the flat head to scoop the skins out for pressing.
You don’t see this in every estate in Bordeaux. Much of the wine is vinified in larger tanks and moved through tubes and pumps. But Labruyère is unafraid of doing things differently.
He is a passionate defender of terroir yet seems to live by the adage, ‘if we were meant to stay in one place, we would have roots instead of feet’. A typical week will see him spend Monday and Tuesday in Burgundy and Beaujolais, Wednesday and Thursday between Pomerol and Champagne, and Friday back in Burgundy, close to his home in Macon.
The Labruyère family owns properties in all four winemaking regions, producing over 400,000 bottles annually across hugely different regions both logistically and philosophically, without the might of an international group behind them (in contrast, for example, to AXA Millésimes or François Pinault’s Groupe Artemis).
‘It’s an amazing opportunity but not always easy,’ Labruyère tells me with some understatement, as we head from the cellars into the tasting room. ‘In Bordeaux, I am called the Burgundian, in Burgundy called the Bordelais. In Beaujolais, even thought I was born there, they say I am never home, while in Champagne they call me the nowhere guy’.
They sound like playground taunts, but in fact reveal the fractured reality of French viticulture.
Wine regions in this country are fiercely proud, rarely work together despite the potential benefits of doing so. Labruyère is doing his best to slowly, slowly chip away at this.
‘I try to remember that there are divisions even within regions themselves – think for example of the gulf between Right Bank and Left Bank Bordeaux. It helps me to not worry too much and focus instead on understanding the specificities of each one, not only in winemaking and terroir but in mindsets’.
You have to give him full credit for his achievements. All the more so because for at least three of the four regions, he has picked the path of most resistance.
Things were, relatively speaking, easy in Burgundy. Who doesn’t respond well to an estate like Château Jacques Prieur in Meursault tightening up its focus on terroir-driven wines? His father had invested in Jacques Prieur as a shareholder in 1988 and when Labruyère took over in 2008 had the majority holding.
‘For a long time, the estate was in a no-man’s land,’ Labruyère admits, ‘with multiple shareholders and a fractured public perception, but the direction is now clear, and we are focused on building its reputation’.
Today, Domaine Jacques Prieur produces nine grands crus, including Musigny, Clos Vougeot, Corton Charlemagne and Montrachet, as well as 15 premier crus. Nadine Gublin has been winemaker since 1990 (she now also oversees Moulin à Vent and Champagne) but since 2009 the estate is farmed biodynamically, new oak has been reduced from 100% to 25%, there is no lees stirring in the whites and increased use of whole bunch fermentation for the reds.
Things are less straightforward elsewhere. What’s evident in Burgundy is not always so clear outside. Over in Pomerol, the 25-hectare Château Rouget was bought by Jean-Pierre Labruyère in 1994 (he remains the only Burgundian to have crossed the divide, although several have gone the other way). At the time it was a fine property but underperforming, and Labruyère Senior brought in Michel Rolland as consultant and got to work. By the time his son arrived, the estate was much improved but still causing few waves among the Pomerol elite.
Edouard Labruyère was determined to change that. He took the size down to 19 hectares by selling off some of the less interesting terroir and buying plots around Trotanoy, La Fleur Pétrus and Le Pin. He stopped all green harvesting from 2010, rethought the entire method of pruning, again reduced new oak from 100% to 25%, and from 2014 began parcel selection from the newly 100% organic vineyard. With this year’s 2015 vintage, every single plot is vinified in individual barrels and kept separate throughout ageing. But there’s a limit to how far he can go.
‘The French administration makes it difficult to do specific climat-style bottlings in Pomerol,’ he admits. ‘But I know from tasting the grapes and the barrels just how different the plots are. Pomerol has a huge potential for its terroir, and it’s a pity to lose that DNA’.
The same struggle for terroir-bottling is taking place in Domaine Labruyère in Champagne (the estate was formed in 2013 after the purchase of Domaine Christian Busin and that of Quenardel et Fils in Verzenay, and has 7.5 hectares of grand cru from 12.3 hectares in total).
Our conversation is feeling more like a confession at this point. ‘I would love to make a Champagne de climat. I have to be humble and take time, and I understand that beyond Jacques Selosses there are very few single vineyard Champagnes, but it is my hope for the future’.
Next year the newly-rebranded Champagne Labruyère will be released (the first entirely made by the family). It will not be a single vineyard, but promises a detailed back label with date and quantity of dosage, dégorgement and size of vineyard plot.
Against all this, the toughest challenge has maybe been in Moulin à Vent, where the family has owned the same property in Romanèche village since 1830. On Edouard’s arrival at Domaine Labruyère, the wine was sold in bulk to Georges Duboeuf. Seven years on, it is all bottled on the estate, from a portfolio of terroirs, including the Le Clos monopole, which previously had been sold along with the rest.
‘By making these changes, I was ending a 45-year business relationship with Dubeouf,’ says Edouard, still clearly finding the memory uncomfortable. ‘It was difficult for my family to understand. But the potential for Moulin à Vent is incredible. In an increasingly global world, terroir is the battleground where France has legitimacy, and we have to protect that’.
See more Anson on Thursday columns:
Anson on Thursday: Tasting wine – a moment and the space between
Anson on Thursday: Discovery of a Barolo monopole
Anson on Thursday: The gentleman from Turin
Anson on Thursday: Listrac-Médoc – spread the word