It was once one of the most publicity-shy estates in Bordeaux, but today the new owners of this St-Estèphe third growth are laying out the welcome mat. But has this changed the wine? Panos Kakaviatos reports...
Third-growth Château Calon-Ségur has long been considered a hidden jewel of St-Estèphe, in large part because its former owners went out of their way to keep it concealed. As this article went to press, road signs indicating its location had still not been erected. ‘The former owners did not wish to have such signs,’ explained Laurent Dufau, manager since 2013. ‘The château was one of the most discreet in Bordeaux, but we want to open the doors a bit.’
Many wine writers can attest to the aloof nature of Denise de Gasqueton, the last in the line of Gasqueton family owners, and the challenge of scheduling appointments to visit. But ever since the Suravenir company – a subsidiary of the Crédit Mutuel Arkéa group – acquired Calon-Ségur, its second-label Marquis de Calon and the cru bourgeois Capbern-Gasqueton for €170m (£140m) in November 2012, initiatives have been underway to open it up to the outside world.
In addition to road signs indicating its location, the château is expected to have its first online presence (www.calon-segur.fr) ‘before summer’, said château representative Sophie Marc. New guest rooms for journalists and merchants will also be built into the estate as part of a massive €20m renovation project that started this year with a new tasting room. ‘The rooms will be designed for the customers, journalists and trade representatives who do business with us,’ said Dufau.
Much of that money will pay for technical installations, including a new vat room to open in 2016. Tank sizes will be adjusted to correspond precisely to vineyard parcels, Dufau explained.
The exact number of vats and their sizes are still being decided, but the new cellar will use gravity- filling techniques. Between 2015 and 2016, ageing cellars – both first and second year rooms – will be enlarged with temperature and humidity monitors, with all renovations scheduled to be done by 2017.
‘We are conscious that we have inherited an exceptional property,’ Dufau said. ‘Calon-Ségur is one of those places that commands humility and rigour. We are going to put ourselves at its service and do everything to ensure that this great terroir gives the best of itself.’
Heart in the right place
Calon-Ségur has a rich pedigree, once among the properties owned (by marriage) by Nicolas Alexandre, Marquis de Ségur, who also owned Château Latour and Château Lafite (along with Mouton-Rothschild, Pontet-Canet, d’Armailhac and Montrose). Despite his ownership of the first growths, the Marquis said that his ‘heart was with Calon’ and the wine’s label today still refelcts this.
The origins of Calon-Ségur’s name lie in its famous owner, and in the proximity of the Gironde River estuary. Calon is the name of the small boats once used to transport timber along the estuary. The Calon-Ségur vines run right down to the water’s edge, fulfilling the Bordeaux adage that the best châteaux can ‘see’ the river. Its quality was reflected by a level of pricing which led to it being ranked a third growth in the 1855 classification.
More recently, when Georges Gasqueton bought the estate with his uncle Charles Hanappier, he and succeeding generations in the 20th century made legendary vintages in the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s. But from the early 1960s, Philippe Capbern-Gasqueton ran the estate until his death in 1995. One of his more controversial decisions was to expand the percentage of Merlot planted in the vineyards, explained Dufau. By the time he passed away, almost 50% of the estate’s vines were Merlot. He also decreased the vine density of new plantings, prompting professionals, such as noted French wine writer Bernard Burtschy, to criticise the wine for being less intense than it could have been in the 1980s through to the early 2000s.
A few years after Madame de Gasqueton took over, she initiated reform in the vineyard by hiring Vincent Millet in 2006 as technical director. Previously at Château Margaux, Millet immediately focused on the 55ha of the main vineyard to make Calon-Ségur. He discontinued the use of grapes from outside the main vineyard for the first wine and started to increase the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, to the point where the average blend in recent years is about 80% Cabernet to 20% Merlot. In some vintages, such as 2009, Cabernet reaches 90%. Millet also upped the percentage of new oak to 100%: ‘Cabernet can stand up to new oak very well,’ he said during a tasting at the château last year.
In keeping Millet as director, the new owners maintain his vision, which includes increasing vineyard planting density to 10,000 vines per hectare, explained Dufau at a 16-vintage vertical tasting of Calon-Ségur in Washington DC in January. Higher density should improve the quality of the Cabernet grapes by creating more competition between the vines, he explained. ‘We want to go back to the great vintages [of the 1920s to the 1960s],’ stressed Dufau.
Some 30 sommeliers, merchants and wine bloggers from New York to Virginia attended this tasting, which Dufau said was the first by a Calon-Ségur representative in the US in 120 years. Participants were impressed with the new directions taken at the château. New York-based wine critic John Gilman appreciated ‘how open’ Dufau was about the recent past and the estate’s plans for the immediate future. He appreciated honest commentary about ‘mistakes’ that had been made, including the great expansion of Merlot plantations and ‘questionable’ vine-density levels.
While acknowledging a dramatic jump in the quality of the wines since Millet’s arrival, Gilman and many others at the tasting still appreciated the wines from 2005 back to 1982. As Gilman stressed: ‘They are not bad wines by any stretch of the imagination – some vintages are absolutely stellar.’
Dufau plans to increase professional tastings as part of the château’s open-door policy. Just as this article went to press, he was about to embark on the estate’s second only official tour to major markets in Asia, including Singapore, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. Calon-Ségur also plans promotional tours in France, Switzerland, the UK and the US. Signposts to the château are sure to follow soon
Calon-Ségur at a glance
Appellation St-Estèphe, 3rd growth
Vineyard area 55ha
Plantings 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot
Vine age 22 years on average
Annual production 100,000 bottles of Calon-Ségur; 90,000 bottles of Marquis de Calon; and 60,000 bottles of Chapelle de Calon
Owner Since November 2012, Suravenir, a subsidiary of banking group Crédit Mutuel Arkéa. The Videlot group, headed by Jean- François Moueix, owner of Pétrus, has a 5% share
Director Since 2006, Vincent Millet. General manager Laurent Dufau has been at the estate since March 2013
Calon-Ségur: a timeline
Middle Ages Wines of ‘Calon’were being taxed as early as the 12th century
1670-1715 Jeanne de Gascq marries Jacques de Ségur. Son Alexandre de Ségur marries the Latour heir and then buys Lafite
1718-1755 Louis XV nicknames him the Prince of Vines. Château built of Alexandre, buys Mouton. King Nicolas-Alexandre (above), son
1755-1855 Nicolas-Alexandre dies. Calon-Ségur bought by the Dumoulin family then Firmin de Lestapis. The vineyard reaches present size of 55ha
1855 Calon-Ségur ranked as a third growth in the Médoc classification
1894 Georges Gasqueton of Ch Capbern buys Calon-Ségur with his uncle Charles Hanappier
1895-1995 Georges, Edouard and then Philippe Gasqueton run the property
1995 Philippe dies and wife Denise Capbern-Gasqueton (below) takes over, assisted by daughter Hélène de Baritault
2006 Vincent Millet, formerly at Ch Margaux, is hired. He increases Cabernet Sauvignon plantings and new oak for ageing
2011 Denise Capbern- Gasqueton dies
2012 Suravenir company buys Calon-Ségur and Capbern Gasqueton for €170m. The Moueix family’s Videlot company is a minority shareholder
2013 Laurent Dufau hired as general manager