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The next generation Bordeaux winemakers

Jane Anson
April 22, 2024
7 min

In the 1980s, Bordeaux was finally getting a break from 40 years of more hits than misses. Pretty much since the 1930s, you could count the truly great vintages on one hand (even if they did include the legendary 1945, 1947 and 1961). The region’s famously oceanic climate meant the traditional winemaking practices of high yields and early picking translated into wines that only got ripe in the very best years. There’s a good reason that green pepper was one of the flavours most commonly associated with Médoc wines at the time. Up stepped winemakers like Michel Rolland, Alain Raynaud, Hubert de Boüard and Jean-Luc Thunevin. They introduced smarter winemaking measures like lowering yields and ensuring maximum sunlight on the bunches to help ripeness. In the cellar a healthy dose of new oak added sweetness and body to the resulting wines. Couple that with the centuries-old history of Bordeaux, and the world sat up and took notice.

Fast-forward to today, and the idea of chasing after low yields and high alcohols provokes smirks not applause. Estates ensure maximum leaf cover around the bunches rather than stripping it away, and everyone is looking for ways to naturally lower alcohols. This isn’t simply because fashion’s change, but because the climate is changing faster. Oceanic today means chaotic, with regular frosts, extended periods of heat and drought, and a whole lot of rain falling at inconvenient times.

Alongside this, the idea of luxury is no longer about attaining the highest price but about authenticity, craftsmanship, transmission, respecting the land that gives these wines to the world, and the teams that work them. Luxury is giving people a wine that encourages them to slow down, share the moment with friends, feel good about the money they are spending. It means that the winemakers to watch today need a different set of skills. These are some of the names that understand exactly what that means.

© Château L’Eglise Clinet

Noemie Durantou-Reilhac, Château l’Eglise Clinet

There are big shoes to fill at Château L’Eglise Clinet. Noémie is the daughter of the late Denis Durantou, and has succeeded her father since 2020 in Pomerol, and at the family’s four other estates in neighbouring appellations of Lalande-de-Pomerol, Castillon and St Emilion. All eyes are on her, as this is a group of châteaux renowned for their meticulously-crafted and highly sought-after bottles and they are in safe hands with Noémie. She is a trained oenologist and worked alongside her father and cellar master Olivier Gautrat for years honing her craft. She has inherited much of Denis’ precise, intuitive and confident winemaking techniques (and, she says, “he left reams and reams of notes for any time that I have questions”).

“Our father never defined us by gender, either as winemakers or as people,” she says. “He just encouraged us to be our best. Our approach to winemaking is that it is about character, belief, and philosophy.”

Her emphasis is on purity of fruit, and expressing each property’s respective site. Oak barrels are used only to bring texture – rather than flavour – to the wine. “We want the pure flavour of the bunches of the vines," Durantou says. "And so we double toast our barrels to avoid a vanillin character." Part of the brilliance of the Durantou wines lies in their contradictions - they have concentration and power while being subtle and nuanced. In other words, they are the perfect vehicle for a next generation winemaker.

Corinne and Jean-Michel Come, Comme Consulting

Hardly next generation, as Jean-Michel Comme spent 31 years of his career at the 1855 classified Château Pontet Canet in Pauillac, and his wife Corinne has been working on their home estate of Champ des Treilles for even longer, as well as consulting with a range of starry clients across Bordeaux. However, the Commes are among the leading biodynamic practitioners in France, and are having an oversized influence on the next generation of producers as they grow their consultancy business. While at Pontet Canet, Comme and owner Alfred Tesseron were pioneers in committing to entirely biodynamic farming, and sent a signal to other classified châteaux that the idea of capturing terroir in a glass, and charging handsomely for the privilege of tasting these centuries-old estates, simply isn’t compatible with harmful viticultural practices. By the time he left in May 2020, they had started a movement towards environmentally-concious viticulture that continues to grow.

Their new consultancy includes top Bordeaux names such as Domaine de Chevalier, Château Brane Cantenac and Domaines Henri Martin, along with producers in Burgundy, California and Armenia. All are either working in, or converting to, biodynamics. It’s not a business that will never grow too big, as they believe in being present with everyone they work with, but there’ll be regular turnover of clients. “We want to give people the skills and the knowledge to do this for themselves,” they say, “and we will know we have done a great job when they don’t need us any more”.

© Liber Pater

Loic Pascquet, Liber Pater

Love him or hate him, Loic Pasquet represents a new breed of Bordeaux winemakers, who take inspiration from the history of the region but then throw most of its rules out of the window. Pasquet created Liber Pater in 2006 in a forgotten corner of the Graves region, then preceded to create wines from ancient Bordeaux varieties grown on ungrafted (also known as own-rotted) vines, meaning not planted on American rootstocks, as has been the case for almost every European vine since the late 19th century, in response to a devastating vineyard insect that destroyed the roots of European vitis vinifera vines.

These were, he stated, capturing the true taste of Bordeaux as it was at the time of the famous 1855 classification. Studying texts from the 1850s and earlier, he planted various ancient varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon (he refers to it under its old name of Petite Vidure), Petit Verdot, Carmanère, Castets, Mancin, Prunelard, Pardotte and St Macaire. Today he bottles under Vin de France, and uses no oak for ageing, preferring amphoras and earthenware vats.

Plenty of people have reacted with cynicism at his claims, but his flagship wine today sells for somewhere close to €30,000 per bottle. How many exactly are sold at that price remains unclear (he suggests no more than 500 per year, with the same amount again kept back at the property), but he has successfully created a debate over what fine wine really means, and whether ungrafted vines really do provide a more authentic reflection of terroir and site.

The jury is out, but Pasquet has started a movement that has culminated in an ungrafted vine association that is bringing together leading winemakers from across Europe, including Thibault Liger-Belair from Burgundy and Egon Müller from the Mosel. They are currently applying for UNESCO World Heritage Status for this traditional method of viticulture – and in doing so ensuring that Loic Pasquet’s legend continues to grow.