Dive In: Cantenac
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 11, 2022
Boissenot stares at a disused swimming pool. The reclusive yet immensely
influential oenologist, whose counsel is sought by almost every major Médoc
château, the “Brian Eno of Bordeaux,” is transfixed. I understand why. An empty
swimming pool is an inexplicably thought-provoking sight. Devoid of any purpose,
the onlooker imagines those that splashed, swam or dived in its chlorinated
water. It seems bizarrely out of place here, something that I did not
anticipate seeing when I visited the Margaux property.
won’t be here much longer,” head winemaker José Sanfins warns us. “It will be
demolished as part of the reconstruction work.”
heart sinks a little. I think Boissenot’s does too.
“Is there no chance of saving it,” I enquire before desperately asking, “What
if future workers want to swim?”
grins. The decision has already been made.
The Cantenac Brown pool.
been long overdue a morning touring this château. Recent vintages demonstrate an
unequivocal uptick in quality, part of an overall trend within Margaux.
Nowadays, there is a roster of thoroughbreds and less also-rans within the
appellation. Sanfins welcomed me to the estate in the summer of 2021, together
with Boissenot, to undertake a rare vertical and discover more about the
estate traces its roots back to the 16th century when it was known
as Château de Cantenac. The land was owned by the Irish Boyd family, though
there was no château at that time. The story really begins in 1806 when a
majority of the land was bought by Scotsman, John Lewis Brown, who married the
granddaughter of Jacques Boyd. Brown commissioned the construction of a château
in an unorthodox architectural style that draws strongly on a Tudor design. It
is the most grandiloquent, arguably ostentatious château in the vicinity with
some 370 windows and doors. Quoting Sanfins, “there are as many windows as
there are days of the year.” Though with rising energy costs, that’s a lack of
forward thinking. Brown also built a folie, an exterior building for
aesthetic reasons only, in the rear garden that remains standing today.
distinctive front façade at Cantenac Brown.
belonged to the Clan Broun of Colstoun, whose motto was “Floreat Majestas” –
let majesty flourish. He was both a shipper of claret and a renown naturalist
painter that became close friends with Degas, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Those
artists were probably attracted by Brown’s penchant for hosting lavish and
doubtless, bibulous parties at the château. Unfortunately, he was unable to
sustain his hedonistic lifestyle from paintbrushes alone and was forced to sell
the estate in 1843 to avoid bankruptcy.
property was sold in two lots, one part forming Château Boyd-Cantenac. Cantenac
Brown first passed into the hands of a banker, Mon Gromard, who unsurprisingly
was more interested in pecuniary gains instead of looking after the property. In
1855, it still managed to secure ranking as a Third Growth, but five years
later, he sold it on to Armand Lalande, then co-owner of Léoville-Poyferré. Lalande
resolved to restore the 134-hectare estate to its former glory and began to
replace missing vines. The estate was renamed Cantenac Brown in 1884. In the
1898 edition of Féret, the vineyard totals 67-hectares, one of the largest in
Margaux, commending Lalande for noble varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet
Franc and Petit Verdot when in pre-appellation rules, it was perfectly
legitimate to plant whatever you liked. Lalande’s family remained owners until
1968, whereupon it was sold to the du Viviers that ran the Bordeaux merchant A.
de Luze & Fils. The man in charge was Bertrand du Vivier, though he did not
live at the château. Too many windows perhaps? Instead, he rented part of it
the estate was acquired by French insurers AXA-Millésimes. The wines were made
by Jean-Michel Cazes, ‘moonlighting’ from Lynch-Bages. Christian Seely oversaw
the wines between 2000 and 2004 before Sanfins took the helm. “I started with
Jean-Michel Cazes and Daniel Llose in 1989 as a trainee at Lynch Bages,” he
explains. “When Cantenac Brown was integrated to AXA-Millésimes’ portfolio, I had
the luck to follow my internship at Cantenac Brown. I’m still here … my
internship continues. After the purchase of Quinta do Noval by AXA, I had
the opportunity to work there with Christian Seely for several years. My
Portuguese roots helped me a lot.
my spare time, I still make wine on my personal estate of 2.5 hectares in
Haut-Médoc and Margaux. In the last few years, my wife and I bought a little
Quinta in the Douro Valley where we produce olive oil.”
2006, Cantenac Brown changed hands once again, acquired by the Simon Halabi
family, who appointed Sanfins as estate director. Finally, in 2020, it was
bought by Tristan Le Lous. Le Lous clearly has grand ambitions for the estate
and embarked on a large-scale program of reconstruction. The centerpiece will
be a 5,000m² cellar designed by Philippe Madec, details of which you will find
José Sanfins explaining the new winery currently under construction.
Brown is one estate where to look only at the vineyard is to miss the overall
picture. In fact, there are very few estates on the Left Bank where there is
such polyculture. We spend an hour touring the surrounding woodland populated
by Evergreen oak, Spanish firs and 200-year-old sequoia. The shade ponds are
fed by a running stream, and a magnificent heron keeps watch as we walk past. I
ask Sanfins about the viticulture at Cantenac Brown, which I replicate as a
Martin: What is the exact size of the vineyard and holdings?
Sanfins: For the reds, there are 63 hectares in total spread over the
plateaus of Cantenac and Margaux. In 2022, there are 59 hectares in production. For the whites, there are 5.16 hectares in total of
which 1.8 hectares are in production in 2022. Around 3.4 hectares have been
planted this year and will be in production in 2024.
What are the various soil types and are they matched to
JS: The choice of grape
varieties was dictated by years of observation, by tasting and by an in-depth
study of the nature of the soils. The estate can be divided into three zones:
namely five to six hectares of clay-limestone terroirs, 16 hectares of small
gravel deposits and finally, 34 hectares of deep Günzian gravel on the Margaux
and Cantenac plateau, which form the backbone of Château Cantenac Brown’s
wines, as this is precisely where Cabernet Sauvignon is predominant. This
mosaic of terroirs makes it possible, whatever the impact of the weather, to
produce great wines every year.
The white grape varieties were planted on clay-limestone plots.
NM: How many parcels do you split the vineyard into? Are there different
vineyard is divided into 62 parcels, 60% oriented north-to-south and 40% east-to-west.
NM: What is the composition of grape varieties? Have they changed over the years
and what about future plantings?
JS: Today, the composition is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5%
Cabernet Franc. Our objective is to increase the proportion of Cabernet
Sauvignon for the new plantations in accord with the terroir, to reach around
70% Cabernet Sauvignon. Next year, we will also plant 1.2 hectares of Petit
Verdot. For the whites, we
presently have 90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sémillon. The new plantation of this
year comprises 0.75 hectares and is composed of 90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10%
Sauvignon Gris. So, in 2024, there will be 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 3.5% Sémillon
and 6.5% Sauvignon Gris.
NM: What rootstocks and pruning methods do you use? Pruning has become important in
recent years - do you have a specialised team that undertakes this task?
rootstocks are adapted to the soil and to the grape varieties. We use mainly
3009C and 101-14 MDGT on several clones. For each new plantation, we study the
soil to choose the most adapted rootstock. Pruning is indeed a very
important operation that we realize meticulously with the estate’s team. The
entire team is trained to a “gentle” pruning by respecting as much as possible
the sap waves.
is the vineyard approach - lutte raisonée, organic, biodynamic etc.? How
has it changed over the years, and what about the future?
JS: Our approach to the vineyard has always been sustainable with
a concern for eco-responsibility. Indeed, in 2001 we started our ISO 14001
approach, and the commitments of Cantenac Brown have been rewarded and
formalized since 2019 by obtaining certifications “Operation with High
Environmental Value Level 3” and “ISO 14001 via the Association of the EMS
Bordeaux Wines”. This controls energy consumption and waste recovery,
controls effluents, protects waterways, and we are committed to reducing our
environmental footprint. Preserving the
life of the soil is also a daily challenge for us. A vineyard that is home to a
variety of plant and animal species is an indicator of a healthy and balanced
ecosystem. We have always worked our soils and are committed to implementing
actions that support soil fertility: planting hedges and shrubs of local
species along the vine plots (the first hedges planted in 2008), sowing and flowering
fallow land, maintaining the ditches in a reasoned way and grassing. These are
all good practices favorable to our terroir. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a
20-hectare park with great biodiversity, maintained by eco-grazing, and agroforestry
is at the heart of each new plot development, especially for new white plots. We have therefore
opted for a thoughtful and sustainable culture. We let nature take its course
and only intervene whenever necessary by promoting organic and biocontrol
methods that respect the environment and persons. This commitment to eco-responsibility
will also be reflected in the construction of our new vat room/cellar on a base
of raw earth and raw wood.
NM: Have you adapted practices in the light of global warming? How does a Margaux estate like
Cantenac Brown tackle that?
JS: We adapt ourselves
gradually to global warming. The trend is to increase the proportion of
Cabernet Sauvignon. With global warming, they give very beautiful ripeness. Also, the plots’
orientation, evolution of rootstocks, light or later leaf-removal, and lower
trimming will allow us to produce high quality wines and, in the meantime, to
preserve our typicity.
NM: Can you give details about the harvest? Where do you recruit pickers
from? How do you decide when to begin? What sorting methods do you use?
JS: We scientifically
analyze maturity, alcoholic degree, acidity, pH, tannins, anthocyanin and
berries’ weight. We have used this [accumulated] database of information since 1993.
Every day we walk in the vineyard to taste and analyze each grape. The
team has worked at the estate for many years, and they know what to expect from
each plot and how far they can go.
One hundred percent of the harvest is made by hand, then we
sort the grapes and at the end we use an optical sorting table. The young vines are harvested and vinified separately,
sometimes dividing plots into different zones. We can have until 120 pickers
divided into two or three teams.
The present barrel cellar and vat-room at Cantenac Brown that is all about to change.
NM: Can you give specifics about the current winery? Will this change with the new
winery under construction?
JS: In the actual
cellar, we have 29 190hL-tanks , two of 100hL and four of 50hL. They are
thermo-regulated stainless-steel tanks.
new cellar, we will have 70 tanks from 50hL to 120hL in order to go further in
terms of precision, elegancy, fineness and raciness. They will be truncated
stainless-steel tanks with double coating. We will also add elevating vats in
order to not use anymore pumps. Foudres will be also added for the
ageing of BriO de Cantenac Brown.
NM: How is the construction of the new cellar progressing?
JS: Work started last
November. For the new winery to blend into its ecosystem, it will be fully
integrated within the current buildings. The triple objective is to make use of
existing infrastructures, preserve unspoiled landscapes and maintain the
quality of soil. All the materials, which are bio-based, natural and untreated,
will be sourced from the Aquitaine region with the objective of achieving a
zero-carbon footprint. There will be no use of cement. The cellar walls
will be built using the rammed earth technique, an age-old construction method.
The raw earth, consisting of clay and sand, will be compressed directly at the château
to build the walls of this unique construction. The thermal inertia of the
winery, induced by the use of raw earth for its construction, will provide a
perfect atmosphere for the stability and ageing of the wines without
air-conditioning and therefore without energy consumption. The architectural
project is above all, a model of ecologically responsible construction, adapted
to climate change over the coming decades. At the cutting edge of technology,
the winery will also be entirely gravity fed, allowing the grapes to be handled
gently with full control of the process. The vat room will be filled with a
large number of small vats, allowing for high-precision blending. Completion of the winery is scheduled for the 2023
you give details on the élevage?
JS: An ageing of two
years will be possible in the new building. For Cantenac Brown in new and one-year-old
oak barrels, for BriO de Cantenac
Brown it will be in oak barrels and foudres and for Alto, the white of
Cantenac Brown, 90% in one-year-old barrels and 10% new oak barrels.
tasting began with the 2018 vintage and worked back towards the nineties.
Unfortunately, library vintages are very thin on the ground, though Sanfins
kindly opened the 1978 and 1990 Cantenac Brown, as well as pouring blind a 1994
Quinta do Noval Naçional that I have added as a little extra.
a couple of older texts describe Cantenac Brown as a very tannic wine that took
many years to come around. Perusing my own notes over the years, I have rarely
encountered any ancient vintages, so I do not know the veracity of that.
Tasting the wines from the nineties, the headline is that there is a definite
improvement from around 2009 and particularly an impressive 2010, which set the
standard for future releases. Cantenac Brown is quintessential Margaux on the
nose, quite floral, fuller than Brane-Cantenac, perhaps more sensual in its
youth. The palate is often framed by pliant tannins and a smooth veneer that
makes it seductive at an early stage. Yet there is substance to suggest that
recent releases will repay cellaring for 15 to 20 years. Older vintages are a
little hit and miss, though not without surprises. Sanfins served the 1999 Cantenac
Brown blind against other châteaux, and it performed strongly, an undiscovered
gem from the end of that decade. I bet you can find bottles for a very
had been an instructive visit to Cantenac Brown, a château that is too often
overlooked. Sanfins has improved the wine in recent years, and I feel that this
has not been fully recognised by the market. It will be fascinating to see what
he can do once the new winery is built. Finally, I must ask Sanfins whether the
swimming pool was demolished after my visit.
“Yes indeed,” he
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