5 Chateaux To Watch

First published Decanter July 2012

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux

It easy to assume that all classified growths are playing at the top of their game, and that we need to follow their progress less closely than others. But the reality is that quality varies among the top estates also, with some resting on their laurels, and others investing and innovating.

In recent years, Brane Cantenac has been quietly proving the point. Owner Henri Lurton and technical director Christophe Capdeville, together two of the most unshowy characters in the entire Médoc peninsula, have been innovating in numerous areas, from precise experimentation in the use and toasting of oak barrels, to co-inoculation for concurrent alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, laser-optic sorting of the harvest, organic farming and experimentation with forgotten grape varieties.

The real focus, as with all great wines, is in the vines. Organic viticulture is now practised on around 25% of their 75 hectares. To date, 18 hectares is fully organic, and the rest a mix of both organic and conventional viticulture. ‘We like the greater observation that it requires,’ says Capdeville. ‘Our approach is about ensuring the fundamentals are covered. Being organic is not difficult, but demands utter rigour.’

In the sunniest spots, they have begun replanting carmanère, a grape popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century. In 2011, it made up 0.5% of their first wine. Owner Lurton has ascribed its recent success to global warming, which allows this rather difficult grape to ripen fully. ‘We leave it until a few weeks after cabernet sauvignon, to ensure that it has lost any green aromas. When ripe, it adds a wonderful spiciness to the wine.’

Chateau Beauséjour, Saint Emilion

Formerly Beauséjour Duffau Lagarrosse, this 7-hectare Saint Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé B chateau has been in the hands of the Duffau-Lagarrosse family since 1847 – today run by cousins Vincent Duffau Lagarrosse and Christophe Redaud. But it was their appointment in 2009 of Nicolas Thienpont and Stéphane Derenoncourt as director and consultant that brought it back into focus.

It should be noted right up front that this is not a wine for the faint hearted – these are big flavours, rich, textured, and not everyone’s idea of classic Saint Emilion. But the passion, and the attention to detail, is inspiring, and walking through the vines with David Suire, who works as technical director at the estate alongside Thienpont, makes for a lesson in applied viticulture – almost entirely using biodynamic theories.

‘Our vines lie on southern slopes, heading down from the limestone plateau – which is great for ripening sunshine, but less good for wind exposure, and rainwater eroding the soils.’ To deal with these problems, they first closed off a well on the site, and put stones along pathways to capture excess water. At the same time, they planted hedgerows both as windbreaks and to encourage biodiversity, restored the dry stone walls and planted mustard seed between rows. A new double-wire trellising system strengthened the vines against wind, and field-grafting merlot and cabernet franc onto 60-year old cabernet sauvignon rootstock ensured the right grapes (today 77% merlot and 23% cabernet franc) were planted in the right places.

The team then turned its attention to the barrel cellars, moving them back into the traditional limestone cellars, cut out of the rock underneath the chateau itself.

‘These former quarries had been closed off for over 50 years,’ said Suire, walking through the 400 square metres of clean, well-ventilated cellars, sparsely dotted with oak barrels, ‘and were only accessible on hands and knees. We felt it was not only more ecologically sound to reopen them rather than building new cellars above ground, but also the best environment for the wine.’


Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac Leognan

Twenty years have passed since Florence and Daniel Cathiard moved to Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. It took a good decade for this Cru Classé de Graves estate to be taken seriously again, but today is one of the most exciting properties in Pessac Léognan, making serious age-worthy wines that still retain a sense of genuine pleasure in drinking.

The success has come through a series of smart decisions and hard work by technical director Fabien Teitgen, working closely alongside Daniel Cathiard in the vines and cellar. The terroir is complex, on the same vein of gravel that passes through Chateau Haut Bailly and Chateau Haut Brion, and it has richly responded to the conversion organic farming – with 15 hectares now biodynamic.

Technology is employed where necessary, from satellites in the vineyards that track differences in weather patterns and growing cycles across individual plots, to laser-optic sorting tables, and latest-generation wine-presses which use inert gas to ensure slow, gentle, oxygen-free pressing for the white grapes. A new (carbon-neutral) wine cellar intended specifically for the second wine Les Hauts de Smith, and the introduction of a third wine for the reds, Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte, will further refine the winemaking.

In the vineyard management, a ‘less is more’ philosophy is carefully followed. Horses are used to plough the vines, and biodiversity is encouraged through the replanting of hedgerows and trees. Everything is about favouring nature, encouraging the complexity of the soils, and the balance of the ecosystem.

Chateau Cambon La Pelouse, AOC Haut-Medoc

Jean-Pierre Marie bought Cambon la Pelouse in 1996, leaving a successful career in supermarkets. Today it is a rare beacon of sensible pricing and regular quality.

Within the first few years, the Marie’s concentrated on improving the basics – new drainage channels in the vines, and a new vat room. A further section to the cellar is being unveiled for the 2012 harvest, with small stainless steel vats ensuring the 44 plots are worked carefully across 31 vats. Outside, intense replanting is continuing.

‘When I arrived,’ says Marie, ‘we had 300,000 vines across the property. Today we have closer to 400,000. So I have upped the pickers also, and am doubling the harvest space in the cellars, to ensure I can still get the grapes into the vats as quickly as before.’ Besides this, they have been field-grafting cabernet sauvignon onto former cabernet franc vines, taking advantage of their gravelly soils. ‘The quality of a Medoc wine is rightly judged upon its ability to age, and that is important to us.’

The wine consultant here, Claude Gros, consults at La Fleur Morange in Saint Emilion, and further afield in Burgundy and Ribero del Duero. He now consults at Chateau Labégorce also, another local estate that has undergone serious improvements in recent years. ‘We were his first client in the Medoc,’ says Marie’s son Nicolas, who works full time at the property, ‘and we welcomed the fresh mindset that he brought. He’s also a winemaker himself, and understands the cost implications of each change. He ensures we do things for the right reasons.’

Eco-winemaking and fastidious recycling are taken seriously – since 2001, a water treatment station was installed, and since 2009 the vineyard is going organic, with hedgerows to ensure biodiversity. Even the barrels are only 30 to 40% new each year – with the one-year old barrels coming straight from Sociando Mallet.

Chateau du Parc, Saint Emilion

Alain Raynaud has shed three high-profile properties in recent years – first Chateau Quinault in Saint Emilion, which was bought by Bernard Arnault and Albert Frère of Chateau Cheval Blanc, and then his two family estates in Pomerol, Chateau La Fleur de Gay and Chateau La Croix de Gay.

He has continued throughout as wine consultant for, among others, Colgin Estates in California and Chateau Clos L’Eglise in Pomerol, but the chateau that he has chosen to buy in a personal capacity is a small, unassuming estate in the Saint Emilion commune of St Sulpice de Faleyrans. The village is also the location of Chateau Monbusquet, but the property itself was little known to anyone besides its neighbours. 

‘That’s exactly what I was looking for,’ says Raynaud, ‘a small estate with great possibilities.’ Since purchasing du Parc in 2011, originally with 2.5 hectares of merlot on gravel and sand soils, he has doubled it in size, securing a plot of higher quality clay-limestone terroir in Saint Christophe de Bardes. ‘I was very keen to ensure I could plant cabernet franc, as it is a grape that I love, and which I strongly believe in.’

Today the wine is 80% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, with one-fifth produced by integral fermentation in oak barrels, a technique he began back in Quinault. The rest is vinified in small cement tanks of 40 hectolitres, then transferred into 500-litre barrels for ageing, 50% new, 50% one year old. Current plans include building a new barrel storage cellar under the existing house.

‘This is not a garage wine,’ says Raynaud, conscious of the reputation he once gained, ‘this is a small-production, high quality estate making a balanced, fresh and gourmet wine to be drunk at the table.’

Wines To Try:

Chateau Brane Cantenac 2008

Lovely ripe colour, with already a touch of brick around the rim. 70% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 2% cabernet franc. There is a lovely silky texture, and the tannins are already well integrated. Real delicacy to the aromas. 13.5%ABV. 4 stars. Fine & Rare £30


Chateau Beausjour 2009
The purity of the fruit stands out, and the clean freshness of the central core, stopping the overall effect from being too much of a blockbuster, despite 14.5%ABV. 4.5 stars
(Berry Bros have 2008 for £52, out of stock of the 2009)

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2007
An exceptional wine that ably proves how well white Pessac Léogan can age. This has exotic mango and apricot fruits, a fresh seam of acidity, and savoury herbs that add complexity and depth. 100% sauvignon blanc. 13.5%ABV. 4.5 stars
Interest In Wine £549 case of 12

Chateau Cambon La Pelouse 2006
A lovely wine, well defined blackberry fruits, 60% merlot, 36% cabernet sauvignon, 4% petit verdot. It's not got huge staying power, but is a classically enjoyable claret, 13%ABV, 3.5 stars. Approx £15, Lea and Sandermans, Fine & Rare

Chateau du Parc 2011
Good nose, expressive, a touch smoky. Really enjoyable, with a light touch that shows smart extraction. Very pretty finish, some gentle violet notes wafting in to lift the palate. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet franc. 13%ABV. 3.5 stars. Expected price approx €20.