Since taking over in the late 1980s, Patrick Maroteaux has quietly improved the vineyards, the cellar and the reputation of this fourth-growth estate. Jane Anson meets him and tastes through the wines
Branaire-Ducru at a glance
Classified St-Julien 4CC
Owner Patrick Maroteaux
Terroir quartenary-era gravel over clay
Size 60ha, producing 300,000-350,000 bottles. Maroteaux has increased size by 10ha since purchase
Viticulture A sustainable system is in place. New vineyards planted with vines produced in estate nursery. Harvest date for each plot based on phenolic analysis and berry tastings
Winemaking 28 stainless steel tanks, size adapted to vineyard plot size, 60hl to 230hl. Fermentation temperature is 26°C- 28°C, with maceration around three weeks. Blending is early, before end of February following harvest. Aged in oak barrels for 16 to 20 months, 60% to 65% new oak, with light toast. Egg white fining
Second wine Duluc du Branaire-Ducru; from vines under 15 years
Consultants Jacques and Eric Boissenot
There have been times recently when Château Branaire-Ducru has seemed out of step, altogether too moderate and understated given the fervour that has engulfed its neighbours in St-Julien at certain points over the past decade. As some were doubling and tripling their ex-château prices in the best vintages, the highest that Branaire-Ducru owner Patrick Maroteaux went to, in 2010, was €40 (£32) a bottle. This year, with the 2013 vintage, he was just over €20 (around £16), giving a price in a London wine shop of maybe £30 for an 1855 fourth growth.
I mention pricing only to show just how much Branaire has stayed out of the fray, despite being on prime, all-lights-flashing, golden triangle St-Julien soil. Stand at the elegant stone gates of branaire, the brooding swell of the Gironde Estuary just 900m away, and you have in a sweeping curve in front of you, within five minutes’ walking distance at most, second growths Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville- Barton and Gruaud-Larose, third growth Langoa-Barton, fourth growths Beychevelle and St Pierre, and Gloria. That’s seven reminders of iconic bordeaux without even stirring from the front door.
Jean Bernard, general director of bordeaux wine merchant Millésima puts it simply. ‘Branaire Ducru is a sure-fire value St-Julien. Less headline-seeking than some, it quietly does what it does, and as a result it sells to people who are actually going to drink it rather than chase after its investment value. Today it is reaping the rewards of that long-held strategy.’
It’s not just the pricing that happens to be on a human scale here either. The wine is the epitome of an elegant, fresh St-Julien. ‘Aromatic integrity is the key,’ says winemaker Jean-Dominique videau, which Maroteaux further clarifies by adding, ‘Wine must bring pleasure and work with food. We want a combination of purity, fruit and freshness in every vintage.’
Pride in moderation
Standing at the centre of the vineyard is a 19th-century château that has just four bedrooms and four reception rooms, pretty much the definition of intimate in the upper reaches of the Médoc peninsula. There are beautiful gardens stretching out to the back, an orangerie that doubles as a breakfast room, and the path to the front gates is lined with apple and pear trees that Maroteaux uses to make compotes for his nine grandchildren.
For the entire 20th century, all of this domesticity was left to gather dust, with the estate being owned by absentee landlords (excepting a brief and unwelcome occupation by German officers during World War II). Even Maroteaux, who bought branaire in 1988 from the Tari-Tapie family (owners at the time, among other things, of Château Giscours), remained in Paris until taking the decision to move full-time to St-Julien in 2000.
Originally from Picardy in northern France, Maroteaux had been successful in two careers before reinventing himself as a winemaker. He made his money first in the banking industry, before heading up the Eurosucre Sugar business owned by his wife’s family, who are now sleeping partners in Branaire. At first, he continued to run both businesses, travelling down to St-Julien at least once a week.
‘I eventually realised that I had to make a choice and commit full time to Branaire. When we bought the château, it was an interesting time in the Médoc, with a lot of châteaux engaged in a two- horse race in terms of who [either] had the money to invest in restoring their châteaux and vineyards, and who was overseeing land that had been neglected since the petrol crisis in the 1970s. It meant that there were some good opportunities to buy undervalued terroir. I always wanted to invest in classified, elite châteaux, and had been looking since 1986 before this came up. There are just 20 producers in St-Julien, with 11 classified châteaux and 88% classified vines. It’s a special place and we were lucky to find this. I first visited on a Saturday, and had signed to buy by the following Friday.’
Branaire was once part of the neighbouring Château Beychevelle, before it was broken up in the mid-17th century to pay the debts of then-owner Bernard Nogaret de la Valette. It was bought by Jean-Baptiste Braneyre in 1680, who left his name behind, together eventually with that of 19th- century owner Gustave Ducru (whose mark can also be seen with Ducru-Beaucaillou next door). Together, these men and others that followed established a fine property that was rewarded as a fourth growth in 1855, but it has taken the enthusiasm and passion of Maroteaux to nudge it closer to its super-second neighbours.
From the moment Maroteaux moved full-time to Bordeaux, he made an impact, becoming president of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) between 2001 and 2008 – no mean feat to take on this highly political position, steering the hugely differing personalities of Right and Left Bank classified châteaux. He is now president of the St-Julien appellation and vice president of the UGC.
But even while he was in Paris, work began almost immediately on restoring the vineyards and the château. One of the best decisions Maroteaux made was hiring a young Philippe Dhalluin as technical director within three months of arriving. He stayed until 2002, before moving to Mouton Rothschild, and he was replaced by Videau.
At the same time, pretty much every aspect was streamlined, from drastic yield reduction to the introduction of a gravity-fed winery in 1991 – the first in the Médoc to reintroduce this old-fashioned way of making wine – followed by an entirely new winery, constructed between 2007 and 2010.
There has been less to change in the plantings, which have remained around 70% Cabernet Sauvignon due to the deep gravelly soil, although the density of the vines has been increased and six hectares were replanted within the first few years of Maroteaux’s arrival. Some of the vines have reached over 100 years old, with the average age being around 40. The younger vines are used for the second wine, Duluc de Branaire Ducru, introduced on Maroteaux’ arrival in 1998.
Even this gesture of a second wine, which mirrored so many Bordeaux châteaux at the time as they raced to make an impact on the world stage, is on closer examination a reflection of the steady hand of Maroteaux, and of the quiet understatement of the château itself.
‘I felt a second wine was essential, particularly as we were replanting some of the vineyard,’ he says. ‘But we have no third wine here, and never will. It is not our intention to supercharge our main wine and push prices high through scarcity. And everything that doesn’t make it to the first wine goes into Duluc – I have never sold even a single litre as bulk wine to merchants. I believe in this piece of land, and it doesn’t need me to interfere too much in what is produced here. I just have to let it speak for itself.’
Château Branaire-Ducru: a timeline
Jean-Baptiste Braneyre buys vines from the Duc d’Epernon’s vast Beychevelle estate, which had been broken up piecemeal since his death in 1642
Marie Braneyre marries Pierre Du Luc, and the property becomes known as Branaire Duluc
First winery is created in a small house that Marie de Chillaud, granddaughter of Marie and Pierre Braneyre, bought in Bourdieu, a hamlet close to Château Beychevelle. The oldest parts of the building date back to 1730
Current château built by Marie de Chillaud’s children, a country manor house and orangerie in the directoire style by architects Rieutord and Laciotte, with further parts added in 1836
Estate is classified as a fourth growth under the name Branaire Duluc
Then-owner Gustave Ducru (a distant relative of the Duluc family) added his name to the label, and it becomes Château Branaire-Ducru
Gustave dies and the estate is passed to his sister, the Countessa Duluc
The château is bequeathed to three nephews, the Marquis de Carbonnier de Marzac, Comte Ravez and Comte du Perrier de Larsan. Their aunt, the Countessa, and the three nephews are represented today by the four crowns on the Branaire-Ducru label
Jean-Michel Tapie takes over at Branaire
The Tari-Tapie family sells to Patrick Maroteaux