We have just exchanged cards, and are sitting together at a festive Diner d’accueil at Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere in Saint-Emilion. It is Monday night – the kickoff night for En Primeur 2013 – and over a hundred journalists, winemakers, and members of the Grand Crus de Bordeaux are happily saying hello to old friends.
Of course, everyone is envious that I am lucky enough to sit next to Jose, as he has come prepared with an excellent bottle of 2005 Chateau Cantenac-Brown!
Before my visit, I do some research into the Chateau and learn its intriguing history, from its acquisition by the Irish Jacques Boyd (followed by John Lewis Brown) to its acquisition in 1860 by Armand Lalande, who also owned Leoville-Poyferre. Lalande restored the name “Cantenac-Brown” (the name had changed over the years due to different owners) and also oversaw the reconstruction of the Chateau, one of the most distinctive of the area with its brown brick façade.
For the next several decades the Chateau survived war, phylloxera, oidium, and depression … until finally acquired by the du Vivier family in 1968. The family tried to improve the deteriorating estate and vineyard yet the expenses proved enormous. The French insurance company AXA Millesimes acquired the property in 1989, with Jean-Michel Cazes, Daniel Llose, and Christian Seely working to turn the estate around. The blossoming estate soon caught the eye of British businessman Simon Halabi, who used his fortune to turn the estate into the showcase it is today.
So when I arrived that Wednesday at the estate, I was pretty amazed how gorgeous it was. Absolutely eye popping!
Of course, it’s one thing to have a showcase estate, it is quite different to have vineyards that produce good wine. Over the centuries the chateau has had its moments – and today the man responsible for its success is Technical Director Jose Sarfins.
The vineyard covers 42 hectares (104 acres) and has the gravel soils typical of the Medoc. These stones reflect the sun’s rays onto the fruit in daytime and radiate the heat retained during the day at night to keep the vines warm.
Jose has changed things up – the vineyard is managed in a more environmentally friendly way, and the vines are carefully tended throughout the year … pruning, removal of buds, leaves, and secondary shoots thinned out.
Plant-based fertilizers are applied and balanced in tune with the needs of the plants. The 2012 vintage needed this “tender loving care” more than other vintages, as chateaux with the know-how (as well as financial resources) were able to avoid some of the problems that plagued lesser estates.
“The 2012 vintage was difficult. We worked diligently in the vineyards the entire season,” Jose said, adding that they performed a “green harvest” in August to remove green or slightly colored grapes and only keep the best ones.”
During harvest, grapes were hand-picked as usual and screened on site before being transported in shallow trays to stainless steel temperature controlled vats. Between the destemming and crushing, the grapes are screened once again on a vibrating table before being taken into the vat house.
Alcoholic fermentation lasts for ten days and is followed by malolactic fermentation in barrels and vats. The plots are vinified separately according to grape variety and age, which allows for greater precision in selection when the grand vin is finally blended.
After blending, the wine is aged for 12 -15 months in oak barrels, with 50% new and 50% a year old. The wine is racked 3 to 4 times a year, separating the clear wine from the lees.
Once aged, the wine is returned to vats in preparation for bottling. An assembling operation is carried out. The fining process uses egg whites to clarify and stabilize the wine. Any particles precipitate to form a deposit, preventing the sediment from being transferred to the bottle.
ENJOYING CANTENAC BROWN WITH DINNER
Dinner in Bordeaux is always at 8:00 – though 7:30 is the time for cocktails.
Ringing the door to the mansion I was greeted by Jose, who always appears so laid-back, relaxed, and cool, and his friend Bruno Lemoine, CEO and Winemaker from Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion.
Earlier that day, I had blind tasted the 2012 vintage of Mr. Lemoine’s wine and it received one of my highest scores in a blind group of wines from Pessac-Leognan.
Also joining us for dinner was Charles Curtis MW, a fellow Manhattanite and Christelle Terrasse who is in charge of many things – publicity, exports, and is Jose’s right hand.
As you can imagine by just looking at the house, dinner was quite grand and very intimate. Jose, Bruno, and Christelle speak excellent English, and during the meal (everything kicked off with Jacquesson Champagne 735) we talked about the amazing history of the Chateau.
Of course, during dinner we had some very nice wine from the Chateau, beginning with Alto de Cantenac Brown 2011, a white wine made from 90% Savignon Blanc and 10% Semillon fermented in barrel (perfectly paired with the Vol au Vent de Homard et St Jacques) and then the Chateau Cantenac Brown 2002 and crowning glory, Chateau Cantenac Brown 1990. These last two vintages showed how incredibly well this wine can age! The 2002 was paired with the supreme de Volaille a la Truffe, and the 1990 with fromage affine.
The next night, the same magnificent venue but aside from Jose, Christelle, and the guests included an Asian journalist and a lovely couple, Eric Perrin and his wife Isabel, who are friends of the owner of Cantenac-Brown and also the owners of Chateau Carbonnieux in Pessac-Leognan. Eric is also the president of the Pessac-Leognan syndicate and talked about some of the exciting marketing events he created to showcase the wines around the globe. During the tasting of Pessac-Leognan (blind) I experienced the day before, it received some of my highest ratings. That night at dinner we kicked everything off with Dom Perignon 2002, followed by Monts Damnes de G. Boulay 2011, and the 2008 Chateau Carbonnieux white to go with the Carpaccio de Noix de St. Jacques, and the BriO de Cantenac Brown 2005 to go with the Agneau de 7 heures.
What is Bri0, you may ask?
BriO de Cantenac Brown was “born” in 2001 and designed to showcase the modernity of the Chateau. It’s not quite a “second label” — from what I understand, it’s a different style of wine made from lots designed to showcase the terroir. The plots used for BriO (that large, capital ‘O’ is important) need more work – more leaf pruning, some green harvest, etc.
The wine is elegant, with nuances of many flavors. The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, but the amount varies with each vintage. The wine is aged for 12 months in 20 – 25 % new oak, and racked every three months.
At any rate, the meal continued with Chateau Cantenac Brown 2000 to go with the Plateau de Fromages. I could not believe the velvet smooth tannins and blue fruit of that 2000! It was so fabulously silky and elegant!
Jose is a terrific winemaker and incredible host!