Author: Charlie Geoghegan
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.
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.”
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