Domaine de l’A: an “estate without limits”

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Photograph: Domaine de l’A

When he’s not advising Bordeaux’s biggest names, winemaking consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt can be found tending Domaine de l’A, his 12-hectare home estate in Castillon.   

In 1999, Stéphane Derenoncourt was on the hunt for a vineyard of his own. “My dream was to buy a first growth in St Emilion,” he recalls. “But the bankers didn’t agree.” Stéphane and his wife, Christine, widened their search. They eventually found what they were looking for not in St Emilion, but over the border in Castillon.

They purchased a four-hectare block in the commune of St Colombe; Domaine de l’A was born.

GETTING STARTED

Stéphane describes himself as “a self-made man”. He arrived in Bordeaux in 1982 from northern France, and effectively learned the wine business from the ground – well, the soil – up. Today, he is well established as one of the world’s leading winemaking consultants. In Bordeaux, Stéphane and his team consult for producers of entry-level Bordeaux all the way up to classified growths. Elsewhere, they cover the rest of France and some 15 other countries.

He established both his consultancy and Domaine de l’A in the same year, ’99; this was not a coincidence. “For me, it was impossible to consult without producing my own wine,” he says. “If you want to help people make wine, you have to make your own.”

Domaine de l’A became Stéphane’s laboratory. Here, he could experiment in ways that were simply not possible when working for somebody else. “You can change things a little bit, but you have some limits,” he says. “You have to respect the history, the family, the soil and so on. My goal was to have my own estate without limits, to produce whatever I want.”

WELCOME TO CASTILLON

It was for reasons of finance and practicality that the Derenoncourts set up in Castillon. Long considered a source of everyday wines, Castillon has seen notable investment from big-name St Emilion producers over the last 20-odd years. Stéphane’s ambition extended far beyond the perceived limitations of the appellation. But he faced naysayers early on.

“I was young, and I didn’t imagine how difficult it would be,” he reflects. “At the beginning, people asked, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t sell this wine at this price because there’s no wine [from Castillon] like that.’” But for Stéphane, it seems that was never the point. “It was a war. But with time, step by step, we have built something very strong.”

Domaine de l’A is, in many ways, an outlier for the appellation. The appellation rulebook here permits yields of up to 55 hl/ha; at Domaine de l’A, it’s typically 25-30 hl/ha. Five people tend the 12-hectare vineyard. “Everything is done by hand,” says Stéphane. “For me, 80% of the quality of the wines is in the vineyard. We take a lot of care to understand the soil.”

LIMESTONE COWBOY

In his consultancy work, Stéphane has a reputation as a limestone specialist. He describes himself as being “totally in love with limestone”. It’s easy, then, to see the appeal of Castillon’s gently rolling hills. The domaine sits on a topographical continuation of St Emilion’s hills and valleys. A short distance away, you’ll find various classified growths, none closer than Ch. Faugères, owned by Swiss entrepreneur Silvio Denz.

Castillon shares many of St Emilion’s desirable characteristics. It also shares some of its flaws. Both have wonderful terroir, Stéphane believes, yet the quality of that terroir is not homogenous. “In St Emilion, 40% of the vineyards are on the hill,” he says. “It’s beautiful terroir. But after phylloxera [devastated vineyard plantings in the late 19th century], they decided to also plant in the valley, down to the river. For me, this isn’t very good soil; you can’t make great St Emilion there. It’s the same in Castillon.”

Two-thirds of his vineyard sits on a south-facing hill; the remainder is on a plateau. Both have abundant limestone. “This is a very good place to make wine with a lot of identity,” Stéphane says.

The hillside vines yield wines that he describes as “large, sensual and sunny”; wines from the plateau are “very straight and very salty.” His grand vin combines the two: “Domaine de l’A, for me, is a blend between roundness, sweetness and sensuality, and something very straight, with very good potential for ageing.”

CHANGES AT DOMAINE DE L’A

The biggest change at Domaine de l’A has been in its size, growing to 12 hectares today. “From the beginning, we wanted to improve the wine,” he explains. “The way to do that was to buy new blocks. Tasting taught us what kind of soil and terroir we had to purchase. This was the big evolution of the domaine”.

There are no plans to expand it any further. “Today, we have the estate of our dreams,” Stéphane beams. “It’s perfect. It’s not so big, so it’s easy to manage. We’re like a small family.”

While the vineyard has expanded a little, the approach to winemaking here has remained fairly consistent. “In terms of technology, we haven’t changed a lot,” says Stéphane. “We make the wine in an open oak tank. We’ve done hand extraction by pigeage since the beginning.” Stéphane has toned down the use of new oak in the cellar, too: he uses around 40% new wood now, having started out at around 60%. He has also introduced larger 500-litre barrels, having initially used only 225-litre barriques.

BIODYNAMICS, BIODYNAMICS, BIODYNAMICS

It just so happens that for the first decade of his career, Stéphane worked exclusively with biodynamic viticulture: first with Paul Barre in Fronsac and then at Ch. Pavie Macquin in St Emilion.

“I didn’t know there was something else,” he says of biodynamics, “for me, it was very natural. I fell in love with the method; it was fantastic. For 10 years, I didn’t know anything about chemical products.”

Though he’s a seasoned practitioner of biodynamic (and organic) viticulture, Stéphane seems somewhat ambivalent. “For the last 10 or 15 years, it’s like a fashion,” he says. “Everybody says, ‘Biodynamics, biodynamics, biodynamics’. I’m conflicted, because I want to use biodynamics to make wines; I don’t want to use my wines to practice biodynamics.” Suffice to say, Stéphane has not sought biodynamic certification for his wines.

BEHIND THE LABEL

Biodynamics aside, Stéphane has recently made a concession regarding organics. “A lot of our customers asked for organic certification,” he explains, “so in 2017, we decided to start the process. We have it this year with the 2020 vintage. But I don’t put it on the label.”

There are, however, elements of his label about which Stéphane cares a great deal. Without a doubt, he’s proud of what he has achieved. “On the [front] label you can see ‘Domaine de l’A’, the vintage, ‘Derenoncourt’ and that’s all. On the back label, you see ‘Castillon’ in very small writing. My target was not to make the best wine of Castillon – I don’t care. I wanted to make something at a very high level, the quality of St Emilion classified growths but a bargain for wine lovers.”

You can browse our range of Domaine de l’A wines at bbr.com

Category: Biodynamic Wine,Bordeaux Wine

France and the frosts

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Frost in the vineyards in Bordeaux
With temperatures plummeting across France, the vignerons have been fighting back against the frost. While it’s too early to tell how the vintage will be impacted, Barbara Drew MW talks us through this seasonal peril.

No doubt you have seen some of the evocative images coming out of France in the past week; dark vineyards with rows of candles burning between the vines; dawn breaking on plants encased in ice.

As flurries of snow continue to fall in the UK, it is a reminder that, though spring is here, frosts are still a real risk. Those that have hit French vineyards are some of the most severe for 40 years.

Spring frosts and budbreak

In vinous terms frosts – where air temperatures at ground level dip below zero degrees Celsius – are most dangerous in spring. During the winter, vines are dormant, looking like nothing more than gnarly trunks with dead sticks on them. When dormant, vines can survive temperatures as low as -15oC with minimal damage.

However, once budbreak has happened, temperature becomes much more important. At budbreak, tiny buds, followed by delicate leaves and shoots start to appear on the vine. If temperatures dip below freezing, and stay there for any length of time, the water in the capillaries will freeze, causing huge damage to the tender new growth.

This damage is often magnified by bright sunlight – a freezing night resulting in vines and buds being hit by frost, followed by a cold but sunny morning has an effect similar to a magnifying glass on dry turf, with the ice focusing the sun’s rays, and causing a burning effect on those buds and shoots, normally resulting in complete devastation.

Even without that effect, frost will either damage the buds so much that very little fruit is produced, or destroy the buds completely. If vignerons are lucky, secondary buds may appear after the frost to replace those that have been damaged – but these will be fewer in number, and often there is just not time for them to ripen before Autumn sets in.

How the winemakers fight frost

While weather forecasting is accurate enough to predict frost events, there still remains little that vignerons can do to protect their vines. One approach is to sprinkle water over the vines as temperatures drop, providing an ice “jacket” to each bud, and insulating it from any further temperature drops. However, this requires a ready sprinkler system and vast reserves of water.

Most interventions instead aim to warm the air at ground level and around the vines sufficiently that the buds do not freeze. When temperatures are dipping to -1 or -2 degrees for a night or two, this is just about possible, usually by setting up huge candles (bougies) or heaters in the vineyards. In some regions, bales of hay are burnt to generate a little extra warmth for the vines. And of course, if cash isn’t a problem, one can always hire a helicopter. Hovering above a vineyard, the rotor blades stir up the air sufficiently to prevent a frost layer forming.

However, as one might imagine, none of these options (even the candles) is particularly cheap. Once temperatures head down to -7 oC, as they did in Champagne last week, they also start to become less effective. And, of course, none of these solutions is very good for air quality or greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

Climate chaos

Sharp spring frosts have been increasing in frequency in recent years. Even a decade ago, these were rare occurrences. However, we now see each April (and often even later, into the start of May) widespread frost damage in European vineyard areas – and not just those in the north. Vineyards all down the Rhône have been hit this year. Just as with wildfires in California or Australia, what was previously a once-in-a-lifetime severe weather event has become depressingly commonplace, an annual tick on the calendar marking how much weather patterns are changing.  

Unfortunately, despite this devastating start to the growing season for so many growers, we can no longer say with certainty that the worst has passed. The likelihood of severe heat events, in excess of 35oC, drought and violent thunderstorms before the growing season is done is once again higher this year than the last.

Time will tell

It is often said that to make a small fortune from a vineyard, one must start with a large fortune. As weather patterns change rapidly, and vignerons deal with severe frosts every year, even this bleak outlook is starting to seem optimistic… But, for this vintage, it is too early to assess the full impact of the frosts.

Max Lalondrelle, our Managing Director of Fine Wine has been in touch with many of our producers. “While the French government has announced it plans to declare 2021 an ‘agricultural disaster’,” he says. “Many winemakers across the country are keen to emphasise it is too early to tell. They are still assessing the full impact of the frosts which varies depending on grape variety and vineyard site.”

The next few days and weeks will be crucial: we wish all of our producers and winemakers well.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Burgundy Wine,Miscellaneous

Barolo: old vs. new

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Mark Pardoe MW, our Wine Director, explains the traditionalist/modernist debate in Barolo, its key players and ideas, and the state of play today.

Alone among the great European wine regions, Barolo was created, rather than evolving over time. Previously sold only in bulk, the first wines bottled under the name “Barolo” did not appear until the mid-18th century. Its catalyst was Cavour, also the architect of Italian unification: his family owned an estate in Grinzane. He encouraged the monoculture of vines and other French techniques he had observed on his travels. And so the original, or traditional, Barolo was born.

POLARISATION IN BAROLO

But since the early 1990s, there has been the idea that there is a polarisation here. On one side, there are those who cherish the processes that evolved after Cavour’s support for the first innovations. And on the other, those who choose the modern trends of barrique maturation and fruitiness. 

For context, the one constant of Barolo is that it is produced only from the Nebbiolo grape variety. This thin-skinned grape is early to bud and late to ripen. It produces wines high in acidity and, importantly, tannin. It is this component especially that has dictated Barolo’s traditional method of production. Because of the level of extraction necessary to achieve the required colour and body, an extended period of maturation in large barrels was also required to allow the resulting harsh tannins to resolve. 

Those who challenged this mantra argued that: too much tannin was being extracted, and that a shorter but more rapid extraction (usually with the dreaded rotofermenter, blasphemy for the traditionalist) made a wine that was more accessible; and that ageing in small barrels lessened the impact of oxidation, whilst replacing some of the missing tannic structure. This also chimed with a shift in wine-drinking tastes towards more accessible and earlier-drinking wine styles.

EVOLUTION OF STYLE

Rereading those last two paragraphs shows how much the region and its wine have evolved since then. Overly traditional winemaking can produce wines that remain too tannic, and with fruit that has faded well before the tannins. Equally, Nebbiolo’s extraordinary and unique aromas, famously summarised as “tar and roses”, are diminished by faster extraction, and can be overwhelmed by new oak barrels. 

If the essence of the debate was around how to best create a wine that preserved Nebbiolo’s unique greatness but moderated its tannic footprint, then neither argument was definitive. And the proof was evident in the unreliability of wines from the old school, and the frequent early oxidation of those from barrique.

The answer lay in achieving phenolic ripeness at harvest, and not manipulation of the fruit in the winery. Two factors have been key. Firstly, intelligent and sustainable vineyard management has brought the vines more in line with nature, and the vines mature their fruit more effectively. The old mentality sought high yields; Nebbiolo, slow to ripen, was often harvested with green tannin. 

Add to this the more recent impact of warmer summers, and growers now have the luxury of choosing when to harvest, instead of praying for favourable conditions until the end of October. The 2017 vintage is a perfect example of this, with the harvest straddling the end of September and into October; growers chose, unforced, to pick earlier, and with phenolic ripeness.

MODERN MODERNISM

To illustrate this, we can look at some producers who come from contrasting backgrounds. Alessandro Veglio joined his uncle Mauro in ’17. They share their courtyard with Elio Altare, a renowned proponent of the “new”. Altare was a major influence on Mauro. The Veglio cellar has the rotofermenter and barriques from French coopers like Taransaud, Boutes and François Frères.

But Alessandro has overseen a transition to what he calls being a “modern modernist”, using these tools where he feels they are appropriate. But for his Barolo, Alessandro now only wants to use the traditional vertical wood fermentation tanks. The rotofermenter is no longer used for his crus. In the vineyard, only natural treatments are employed, and Alessandro chooses his harvest date on taste, by the ripeness of the pips. 

COME UNA VOLTA

By contrast, Mario Fontana proudly declares that he does things come una volta: as it used to be. But on inspection, this statement refers to respect for the soil and the personality of Nebbiolo. Here, you will find 2,500-litre botte of Slavonian oak, the signature of traditionalism. Yet Mario has his little tricks and adaptations. It is doubtful whether his grandfather Saverio used fibreglass. But Mario finds it the best material for fermenting his grapes from Castiglione Falletto. Its wines are more structured, and fibreglass allows a faster heat dispersal.

And you will also find barriques in the tiny, low-slung cellar – but only for the Barbera, and in moderation. But it is in the vineyard that Mario, like every wine genius, weaves his magic. The vineyards are organic (but not certified – too expensive and bureaucratic) and the soil is lovingly attended with careful maintenance of oxygen levels, to ensure stress-free vine growth and development. Even the manure for fertilising is individually sourced from one herd of cows, exclusively grass-fed on mountain pastures. 

COMPROMISE

The iconic Sandrone cantina is the benchmark for all these developments, taking the best from all philosophies. In the vineyard, they constantly monitor the soil for levels of microbiological activity and have seen a huge increase over the years of their stewardship. In the winery, there are still long extractions and regular pumping over, but maturation is in 500-litre French oak barrels: not barriques, but not botti either, with about one-quarter new each year. Sandrone has never been a “modernist”, and there has never been a barrique or rotofermenter anywhere near the cantina. But Luciano did break the mould, although for all the right reasons. 

In retrospect, it is clear that this was never a “war”, despite the media’s wish to stoke it. It was more an obvious and necessary evolution in a region that had to wake up to the challenges of the modern wine market. Barolo is a small region, with less than 2,000 hectares under vine and about 1,000 growers. So some views will have been more entrenched than others. But there are few now who have been untouched by the ripples of the old-versus-new debate of the 1990s, and now it’s time to move on. Barolo is on a different, more aligned and genuinely exciting trajectory and guess what? It’s really just all about the quality of the fruit at harvest. 

Our Barolo 2017 offer is now live.

Category: Italian Wine

Reflecting on South African whisky with Andy Watts

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Andy Watts at James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, South Africa
Photo credit: Andy Watts

Andy Watts is Master Distiller of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky at James Sedgwick Distillery in South Africa. Ahead of our virtual event on 29th April, we speak to him about the past, present and future of South African whisky.  

“I grew up in the north of England in a small town called Penistone,” begins Andy Watts. “All the way through school, all I wanted to be was a professional footballer. England had won the World Cup in the mid 1960s, and everybody wanted to be Bobby Charlton or Geoff Hurst.  

“But when it became clear I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer, I became a professional cricketer instead. And that’s what got me to South Africa for the first time in September 1982.”  

Soon enough, Andy began to escape the cold English winters for six months a time, to play cricket in the warm climes of South Africa. He took up a position at the Wellington Cricket Club, supplemented by a part-time job at a liquor company called the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery to make ends meet. And so, he would play cricket in South Africa for six months, before returning to England for another six.  

The pattern was broken in September 1984, when the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery offered Andy a permanent position. At the same time, he was released from a contract with Derbyshire County Cricket Club. 

Now, over three decades on, Andy is a renowned figure in the international whisky industry, with a handful of accolades to his name. In 2018, he was awarded Master Blender of the Year by Icons of Whisky; in 2020, he clinched the title of World Whisky Ambassador of the Year; and in 2021, he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine’s “Whisky Hall of Fame”.  

From Yorkshire to Wellington  

Andy’s illustrious career in the South African whisky industry reached an important milestone when he was made manager of James Sedgwick Distillery in 1991. Today, it’s still the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa. It’s here that Andy is Master Distiller of Three Ships Whisky and Founder Distiller of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. 

The distillery traces its history back to the mid-19th century, to an English seafaring captain named James Sedgwick. “He used to sail on a tea clipper around the Cape, on his way to the East to do business,” says Andy. “They’d stop off at Cape Town to replenish the stocks on their ships, but in 1850, he decided to stay.”  

In 1859, the captain began selling tobacco and fine wines; following his death, his sons developed the business and began distilling spirits in his name. Over the course of the 20th century, the distillery primarily produced brandy. Andy arrived at James Sedwick Distillery in the 1990s, having returned from stints in Scotland with Morrison Bowmore Distillers. He was tasked with transforming it into a whisky distillery and was appointed manager in 1991. Today, the distillery is an iconic part of Wellington.  

“I don’t really believe in coincidences,” says Andy, “I believe things happen for a reason. When I was looking into the name ‘James Sedgwick’, I discovered that he originated from Yorkshire – the same county where I was born and grew up. So, I thought it was quite strange that my path led me to this distillery on the other side of the world.”  

Fresh footprints in the sand  

The South African whisky industry is still relatively young; naturally, the country’s whisky-makers looked to Scotland for inspiration, inspired by the better elements of Scotch traditions while eschewing its restrictiveness.  

“Scotch whisky has a rich history, with traditions going back over 500 years. With respect, I think tradition has sometimes held Scotch back. Things are still done in the same way they’ve always been done,” says Andy.  

“We had the opportunity to put fresh footprints in the sand – to create our own future, our own destiny. When we launched Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky in 2009, grain whisky wasn’t fashionable. But no one was going to turn around and say, ‘you can’t do that’.” 

Taking the helm at James Sedgwick Distillery gave Andy the opportunity to shape a new direction for South African whisky.  

“In the early days, if I’m being really honest, if anyone else in South Africa had known anything about whisky, I’d probably have been fired,” he confesses. “Because I was the only one who knew much about whisky, it worked. We’re still the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa, out of 54 countries. It’s been a really interesting journey.”  

A new dawn  

With disposable income growing across Africa, the continent offers a huge opportunity for the future of whisky. “A lot of people look past Africa, but there are some pretty big markets here,” says Andy.  

In South Africa, more specifically, whisky has kept growing in popularity since 1994. This was the year the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, won the first democratic election and South Africa was re-admitted to the United Nations. “All the whiskies which had stayed away from South Africa started to come back,” says Andy.  

Since the ’90s, a rise in disposable income across a wider demographic of the population has made whisky ever more popular and mainstream. Andy credits this rise to the “myriad ways” in which whisky can be enjoyed and its versatility in cocktails.  

“We actually have quite a young whisky-drinking community here: the majority are between 25 and 45 years old. A very large proportion are women, which is fantastic, because whisky is perceived to be this very middle-aged, male drink. In fact, it’s anything but.”  

These shifts away from traditional perceptions of whisky – from its “maleness” to ideas of where it should be made – suggest a bright future for the spirit, chiming with the values of a younger generation 

“I’m 37 years in the industry now, in the twilight of my career – but I like to think that our whisky is just in its dawn. It seems to be getting better and better. Whoever takes over this role from me will have some amazing building blocks to work with.”  

Join Andy and Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, on 29th April for a virtual tasting of Andy’s whiskies. Find out the details here. 

Category: Spirits