Ch. Haut-Bailly: come on up to the house

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Véronique Sanders among the vines at Château Haut-Bailly.
The charming Véronique Sanders has led Château Haut-Bailly for more than 20 years. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Véronique Sanders has been connected to Château Haut-Bailly for as long as she can remember. When her grandfather sold the property to the Wilmers family, it could have been the end of her story. In fact, it was just the beginning. Here, she shares insights from her 20-plus years at the helm of this much-loved Pessac-Léognan estate.

The Sanders family bought Château Haut-Bailly in 1955. Successive generations – Daniel Sanders, then his son Jean Sanders – ran the estate until 1998, when it was acquired by the American banker Robert “Bob” Wilmers. Yet despite the change in ownership, there’s still a Sanders at the helm 25 years later.

“I’ve always been here. It’s in my blood,” Véronique Sanders tells us as we sit down together. Véronique is Jean’s granddaughter; she remembers vividly spending holidays here as a child, “at the boots of my grandfather.” She dreamed of working here one day, perhaps even running the place. Though her career might have gone another way. She studied in Paris and worked abroad before joining what was then the family firm.

“The audacity to trust me”

That she would take over was by no means predestined. “When I started, there were no women in the industry,” she says. “Even in my own family, having a woman at the head of the estate was not obvious.” She credits the late Bob Wilmers with taking a leap of faith in her and her abilities, appointing her as President in 2000. “Bob had the audacity to trust me when I knew nothing and had everything to prove,” she says. “Of course, it was sad that we sold the estate, but it was fabulous to be able to put all my passion and energy into running it.”

Though Bob sadly passed away in 2017, his memory is palpable here. “Every moment was special” with him, Véronique says. “Bob was so sharp. He could see the global picture; the objectives; the challenges. He was always so interested in people. His greatest talent was to ask questions. And he would remember every answer, even six months later. He could have dinner with Hillary Clinton or the most junior person from our company, and he would have interests in common with both. That’s very rare.”

Today, Bob’s son Chris Wilmers is the Chairman. Based in the US, he’s a professor of environmental science and ecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Chris is a reference point in that world,” says Véronique, “which is, of course, what we need today. He reminds me of his dad in many ways.”

The Haut-Bailly story

Véronique is warm, thoughtful and charming. She is also modest – and quick to point out that the Sanders story “is only a little part of the history of Haut-Bailly”. There is documentary evidence of vines here as far back as the 1300s; the estate is in Pessac-Léognan, in the Graves, “the heart of the Bordeaux region, where we’ve been making wine since the Middle Ages.”

The estate’s rich history is well documented in Jane Anson’s Château Haut-Bailly: An Exceptional Terroir. Of the many “great characters” here over the centuries, Véronique highlights Alcide Bellot des Minières, the so-called “Roi des vignerons” (“King of winegrowers”). “He put all his money and investment into Haut-Bailly,” she says. “He pushed it to the level of the First Growths.”

The view from the tasting room at Château Haut-Bailly; glasses are lined up on a table and the château building is visible in the background.
The tasting room at Haut-Bailly offers a view of the 19th-century château

Documents from the 20th century show that Haut-Bailly routinely commanded the same prices as the likes of Ausone, Margaux and Yquem, Véronique says. But despite its proud and colourful history, this is not an estate that needs to rely on past glories. The modern era here, with Véronique and the Wilmers family working hand-in-hand, has been something of a golden age. “My grandfather wouldn’t have sold Haut-Bailly to someone he didn’t trust,” Véronique believes. “He and Bob basically chose each other.”

Being everywhere

Véronique had to roll up her sleeves from day one. “We had so much to do when I arrived,” she recalls. “They were very long days; we had to be everywhere. But I loved it.” There was pressure to make improvements in the cellar to reflect advances in technology. There was also a weighty responsibility not to mess things up.

Her grandfather had been producing excellent wines, and Véronique “had to maintain that quality, not fail, and go even higher if I could.” Being a woman in a male-dominated industry presented its own challenges, too. “For the technical team, having a woman in charge was not easy, but I think we made it.”

Things have “moved fast” in her time here: “Since 1999, we’ve never stopped having something under construction, or a new project. It’s a never-ending process.” This march of progress reached its zenith in 2020, with the unveiling of a brand-new cellar by the architect Daniel Romeo. “Everyone sees the cellar,” Véronique acknowledges, “but the first phase of that project was actually a huge study in the vineyard, to see how we can adapt to climate change.”

The state-of-the-art cellar at Château Haut-Bailly, designed by the architect Daniel Romeo.
The new cellar at Haut-Bailly was designed by architect Daniel Romeo

This was not Véronique’s first analytical look at the terroir, but it was the most technologically advanced. It gave them “a very detailed map, showing what we should plant where, in terms of rootstock and grape variety.” The team now have a clearer idea than ever before of the nature of the vineyard. Their 30 hectares of vines extend over a range of soil types, including the appellation’s signature deep gravels as well as clay. It’s a nuanced site, warranting a nuanced approach. In the vineyard, they work “at the level of each single vine. It’s a bit crazy, but I like crazy things.”

There are no “set recipes” for vineyard operations. They grow six grape varieties here, on a range of rootstocks and soils. Decisions about pruning, canopy management and harvesting are made with respect to each individual plot, sub-plot or vine. “We might de-leaf on one side; we might not de-leaf at all; we might de-leaf on both sides,” Véronique says. “Every decision is just an adaptation to the climatic conditions.”

Rethinking the cellar

Embracing the diversity of the vineyard yields a broad spectrum of fruit. “Depending on the grapes we get, we will vinify differently,” Véronique explains. This detailed approach meant they needed to rethink the facilities. Working as precisely as they do here called for more vinification space (as did the Wilmers’ purchase of nearby Château Le Pape in 2012; they make it too at Haut-Bailly). “We wanted a central place at the heart of the estate where everybody could work.”

Haut-Bailly being such an historic vineyard, this presented a slight logistical challenge. “Of course, we were not allowed to pull out a single vine,” smiles Véronique. The solution was to build both downwards and upwards, out of the ground; the cellar is effectively camouflaged by natural foliage. To the naked eye it looks like little more than a garden atop a small hill; the 19th-century château is taller than it. “When you’re in the vineyard you don’t see a building,” Véronique says. “You just see a garden.”

A view from outside the cellar at Château Haut-Bailly
“You just see a garden.” The cellar at Haut-Bailly is well adapted to its surroundings

And though you can’t easily tell from its calm exterior, this is a working winery, with state-of-the-art facilities. Overall, the winemaking approach is “very traditional”, Véronique says. The human touch is a light one; the goal is to coax out the inherent characteristics of the vineyard above all else. “Everything is gentle to preserve the fruit, the tannins and the identity of what the terroir gives us. We are not hiding anything; we are just trying to reveal it.”

For Véronique, the identity of Haut-Bailly is elegance. “Elegance is the opposite of showing off,” she says. “Elegance has to be discreet; but it has to be memorable.”

“In the light for a while”

It’s one thing to lead an estate of Haut-Bailly’s calibre. It’s quite another to do so for over 20 years, to live up to and exceed the high standards set by those that came before you. And to do that consistently is quite remarkable. “It’s easy to make one, two or three good vintages,” Véronique reflects. “It’s easy to be in the light for a while. It’s more difficult to reflect the great characteristics of this terroir in every single vintage. We start each year as if we were starting from scratch: knowing nothing, and with the same enthusiasm as if it were the first time.”

Véronique’s enthusiasm is striking. She’s led an admirable career and is today among the most respected figures in Bordeaux wine. Her tenure here has required considerable determination, perseverance and hard work. Talking to her, walking through the discreet cellar and taking a moment in the calm of the rooftop garden, the image of a swan swimming comes to mind: to the naked eye, it’s just gliding on the water; but underneath it’s paddling powerfully.

Come on up the house

“I think you learn from your experiences,” she reflects. “It’s tough, sometimes, like in 2021, when you lose a lot of your crop. But you should never give up. I’m here today because I truly love the place. I think it’s a treasure. The château itself is not so nice; it’s a big, cubic house. But it’s there. It stands on the top of the hill, majestically. It looks at everything around it.

“Everybody knows that you are ‘going up to Haut-Bailly’ or ‘coming down from Haut-Bailly’. Everybody who comes here feels this authenticity. It’s a true vineyard, a true place. We don’t pretend to be something else.”

Find out more about Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Ch. Cheval Blanc: a league of its own

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The vineyard at Cheval Blanc, a true reference point in fine wine.
Vines at Château Cheval Blanc in March 2022. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Pierre Lurton has led this singular estate for 30 years. In this exclusive interview, his senior team tell us just what it takes to make this iconic wine today – and for the decades to come.

There are a handful of reference-point wines in the world. Château Cheval Blanc is one of them. Both the wine and the place from which it comes are unique – at once typical and atypical. The wine is typical in that it reflects its origin; it’s atypical in that both place and wine seem to defy categorisation.

It’s arguably the most famous St Emilion estate, yet in many ways it’s not like a St Emilion at all. It was considered a First Growth long before there was a classification here; and the recent decision to withdraw from that classification has done nothing to diminish its legendary status.

The boss

Not everybody gets to come here, and not everybody gets to taste the wine. To savour one or the other is something special. “It’s cashmere,” offers Pierre Lurton, the estate’s CEO. “It’s elegance persisting in time.” He’s talking about the wine, but Pierre himself has led a charmed career here since 1991.

He considers himself lucky; his friends sometimes ask him if it’s a job at all. For the record, it is – Pierre is a busy man. His responsibilities extend to the other side of Bordeaux at Château d’Yquem, and to the other side of the world at Cheval des Andes. And he somehow finds the time to oversee his own estate, Château Marjosse.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Pierre Lurton and Arnaud de Laforcade in the cellars of Cheval Blanc.
Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Pierre Lurton and Arnaud de Laforcade, the senior team at Cheval Blanc

But to take up any post here feels like a significant thing; there is weight attached to it. Pierre Lurton’s appointment at Yquem in 2004 marked a turning point at Cheval Blanc, he says. He had inherited a good team in St Emilion, he explains, but his increased responsibility elsewhere meant it was “time for a restructure, to build a younger team.”

The winemaker

Pierre-Olivier Clouet was in his early twenties when he was appointed Technical Director here 15 years ago. “I feel like I’m still young, like I’ve just arrived,” he says. Born in Normandy and without a background in wine, Pierre-Olivier was not necessarily the obvious choice for the job. “Nobody knew me, which is exactly what Pierre Lurton was looking for: new eyes; new blood; a new way of managing the vineyard.”

Pierre-Olivier had to fill the sizeable shoes of Olivier Berrouet – who left to succeed his father at nearby Petrus. “I was nervous,” Pierre-Olivier admits. “I was under pressure. I’m still under pressure. Every single morning, I ask myself what I can do for the estate. The history; the quality of the place: it makes you feel very small.”

The keeper of the keys

Arnaud de Laforcade holds the keys to Cheval Blanc’s cellars. As both Chief Financial Officer and Commercial Director, he decides exactly when, and how much, Cheval Blanc is released to the world. His job, as he sees it, is ensuring that the wine ends up in the collections of those that will best appreciate it.

Demand for Cheval Blanc far outstrips supply; ensuring that collectors can actually get their hands on the wine is no mean feat. Most of the wine is released En Primeur, but Arnaud holds back up to 40% each vintage to release as small parcels years – or even decades – later.

He, too, feels the gravity of the task at hand. “We’ve spent so much effort producing this wine,” he says. “It’s a big responsibility to determine when it reaches the customer – when we should release the last 3,000 bottles of 2006, or when to release the new vintage.”

“Playing on a different field”

Cheval Blanc’s decision to withdraw from the St Emilion classification was big news in fine-wine circles. Recent iterations of the classification have been the source of some controversy.

For Arnaud, changes to the criteria upon which châteaux are assessed were becoming hard to abide. Some relate to the vineyard and the wine; others to more peripheral matters, including parking facilities and social media metrics.

“It felt to us like we were playing on a different field,” Arnaud says. They had been “marathon runners”, he says, making consistent improvements for the long term. As the criteria developed, they would “now also need to jump hurdles every 100 metres. We are very bad at that. So we got away from the competition.”

There are hundreds of producers in St Emilion. Only a privileged few are part of the classification; fewer still have the clout and resources to voluntarily withdraw. To become a Classified Growth, or to be promoted to the next tier, can make an estate’s fortune; a demotion can break it.

Though Cheval Blanc is in the enviable position not to have to worry about such considerations, their decision was a measured one – albeit one that wasn’t “easy or happy”, says Arnaud. Historical documents demonstrated that Cheval Blanc “was already in the family of First Growths decades before the classification,” he says. “The classification did not make Cheval Blanc.”

Embracing complexity

Cheval Blanc sits in the north-west of the St Emilion appellation. To the south is Château Figeac, of which Cheval Blanc was a part until 1832. The vineyard holding has largely remained the same since, explains Pierre Lurton, and has changed hands only once. Today, it’s part of the LVMH Vins d’Exception stable, along with Yquem, Domaine des Lambrays and Colgin Cellars.

In more ways than one, Cheval Blanc is a lot closer to Pomerol than it is to St Emilion. The medieval village is almost five kilometres away; the Pomerol boundary is just a short walk through the vines. And the soils here, though varied, have more in common with the gravels of the Pomerol plateau than St Emilion’s limestone.

The 39-hectare vineyard is divided into 53 plots covering three soil types. There are three grape varieties, with vines of varying ages. “The terroir is very complex,” says Pierre Lurton. “It’s an incredible mosaic.” Despite its neighbours being Merlot-dominant, Cheval Blanc is planted to 52% Cabernet Franc – including genetically diverse plantings from a long-term massal selection project.

A marker at the end of a vine row at Cheval Blanc.
Markers at the end of a vine row signify when these Merlot vines were planted

Cabernet Franc is a signature of the estate, but it alone doesn’t define the property: complexity and diversity are the order of the day here. It’s this wide range of natural factors, and more besides, that the team are charged with transmitting into the wine. For Pierre Lurton, “the notion of terroir is not just soil. It’s also the people and the climate. We’re lucky to have this terroir, and it’s our responsibility to take care of it. We shouldn’t lose the complexity of the place; we shouldn’t simplify it.”

Telling the complete story

This desire to tell the complete story manifests itself most obviously in the approach to selection here. “People think the less grand vin you produce, the better it is. The stricter the selection, the better quality the wine,” says Pierre-Olivier. “I believe the opposite.” At Cheval Blanc, the grand vin accounts for 75% of the production on average. “Since 1991, we’ve gone against the fatalism of saying ‘this parcel makes the grand vin, this one makes the second wine,” adds Pierre Lurton.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet tastes the estate’s white wine

Here, each plot has the potential to produce the grand vin, Pierre-Olivier says. He considers it not a question of quality, but rather one of “identity”. Quality is a given. “If we want to deliver our identity, we need to use all the diversity of the vineyard.”

Until the new cellar was completed in 2011, he didn’t have the capacity to vinify plots individually. “We had to put three, four or five plots into each vat,” he recalls. “So we lost the link between the wine and the identity of the plot.” The new facilities afford him the space to work at the level of plots and sub-plots. And it has become something of a virtuous circle: “it has completely changed the way we manage the vineyard, because we know each plot a lot better.”

Blending Cheval Blanc

It’s rare that Pierre-Olivier can actually use each plot in the grand vin. The 2015 vintage is a recent example. This approach is a relatively unusual one in Bordeaux. He and his counterparts at other châteaux “discuss it”, Pierre-Olivier says, but the conviction of his belief is clear.

A greater proportion of second wine would be appropriate if they were regularly expanding the vineyard with new plots or planting lots of young vines, he concedes. “But Cheval Blanc hasn’t moved for many years. It’s a vin de lieu – a wine from a place. We aren’t perfumers; we are viticulturists. If the grapes are good enough, they’ll be in the grand vin.”

“Good enough” doesn’t mean “perfect”, it would appear. “What an extraordinary thing blending is,” says Pierre Lurton. “Blending isn’t about the best parcels, the best day or the best conditions. The best of the best has some imperfections. Perfection is boring; imperfections bring charm and excitement.”

Identifying Cheval Blanc

The result of it all is a wine with its own distinct identity, Arnaud believes. He compares Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Figeac: “Each has a different taste for identifiable reasons,” he says. “The pleasure you get from one wine, you won’t necessarily get from another. You want this one in your cellar, not its neighbour.”

But what is Cheval Blanc if not complex? Even this distinct wine shows distinctive characteristics from one vintage to the next, Arnaud argues. This is something to be embraced. “The quantity, quality and characteristics of our production depend hugely on the vintage,” he says. “We can’t control it. We love this vintage effect [and] we want every bottle to bear the signature of its vintage.” (The team can usually spot 2010 in blind tastings, he says; and ’09 and ’11 are confused more often than you might think.)

A line-up of wines from Cheval Blanc, including Le Petit Cheval and the grand vin.
A line-up of Cheval Blanc’s iconic wines

Some common markers set Cheval Blanc apart, Arnaud believes. “There’s a very particular aromatic palette. There are always floral aromas, no matter the age and no matter the vintage. There’s also the Cabernet Franc, bringing fresh mint, liquorice and eucalyptus. You can spot all of that, even in a young wine.”

“Classical”?

The youngest Cheval Blanc, the 2021 vintage, is still in barrel. Discussions of vintages in Bordeaux, particularly less celebrated ones, often involve euphemisms. You’ll rarely hear that a vintage was “bad” or anything like it; instead, you’ll hear that this was “a winemaker’s vintage” or that was “a classical vintage”.

On this point, Pierre-Olivier is refreshingly blunt. The 2021 vintage “was very difficult in the vineyard”, he says. “It was difficult to manage, and the wines are not exceptional.” He calls it “classical”, well aware of the connotation in Bordeaux. “At Cheval Blanc, ‘classical’ means ‘classical’ and ‘bad’ means ‘bad’; 2013 was a ‘bad’ vintage, 2021 is not,” he says. “It’s ‘classical’ because it has very nice acidity and a huge quantity of tannins. It’s tight and firm on the palate, and aromatically it’s very fresh. There are more red-fruit aromas than black, and a lot of floral aromas.”

“At Cheval Blanc, ‘classical’ means ‘classical’ and ‘bad’ means ‘bad’; 2013 was a ‘bad’ vintage, 2021 is not.”

Pierre-Olivier Clouet

This vintage follows three back-to-back great ones. It’s more in the mould of 2004, ’06, ’08 and ’14, Pierre-Olivier says – and that’s no bad thing, for the winemaker or the collector. “It’s boring to just produce warm and dry vintages. Collectors should absolutely stop buying Bordeaux only in top vintages,” he says.

Tasting only the best vintages won’t reveal the full picture of the estate, he believes. “Cheval Blanc is also the delicate vintages, the fresher vintages,” he says. “If you like the work of Picasso, you can’t just look at one painting. The diversity of what he painted is a unique way to understand his world and his philosophy. This is the same with Cheval Blanc. Sometimes you want to open an outstanding vintage. But believe me, if you open a 1983, ’93 or 2001 today, you’ll get huge pleasure. Never forget ‘classical’ vintages.”

A delicate balance

Vintages are becoming more difficult to predict here. Pierre, Pierre-Olivier and Arnaud are concerned about the future. The identity of Cheval Blanc is very much at the mercy of Mother Nature. There’s a delicate balance, and climate change is threatening it.

They are fighting back with an approach to sustainable viticulture tailored to the estate. It’s neither organic nor biodynamic. In fact, it doesn’t quite fit any one model or certification. They have planted thousands of trees and hedges on the property. Agroecology, which “promotes the natural fertility of soil by following nature’s cycles”, according to their recently published “manifesto”, is a key part of the approach – but not the only one.

A view from the rooftop of the cellar at Cheval Blanc.
Biodiversity is hugely important across the property, including on the rooftops

They have stopped ploughing the soils, which they believe upsets life underground. They have made concerted efforts to introduce (or re-introduce) a greater variety of plant and animal life here beyond Vitis vinifera. And they have a “multi-crop view of the vineyard”, explains Pierre-Olivier – as they did in the past before the rise of monoculture.

Pierre-Olivier hesitates to draw direct comparisons between these efforts and the quality of the wine. “Since we can’t say ‘I’m biodynamic; my wine is better’, we also can’t say ‘I planted some trees; my wine is better’.” But these practices are crucial to preserving this vineyard for the future, he believes.

The biggest challenge

“The biggest challenge for the next generation is to find a way to preserve Cheval Blanc in the face of global warming,” he says. “Six or seven years ago, I’d have told you that yes, we see the weather changing, but it’s good news for vignerons. The better the weather – the higher the temperatures and the lower the rain – the better the wine.” But the string of vintages from 2015 to ’20 is a cause for concern, he says. “The wines are brilliant. But if the climate continues like that, the profile of our wines will change: more alcohol; less acidity; more black fruits; a sweeter mid-palate. That’s not what you have in mind when you think of Cheval Blanc.”

As climate change looms, the team at Cheval Blanc are putting up a fight. “We’ve got trees; cover crops; and good Cabernet Franc, which is one of the biggest advantages against global warming,” says Pierre-Olivier. “But we don’t know what will happen in 20 years. We’re preparing all the tools for the next generation to deal with it. The challenge is changing everything to preserve Cheval Blanc.”

Discover more from Château Cheval Blanc in our behind-the-scenes video featuring Pierre-Olivier Clouet

Find out more about Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Understanding Champagne co-operatives

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Illustrations: Stephen Collins

The wine co-operative is often seen as an old-fashioned or low-quality way of making wine. But, in regions such as Champagne, co-ops are an essential way of life, discovers Hannah Crosbie.

When you think of Champagne, the first thing that springs to mind is the luxurious Grandes Marques. The likes of Krug, Pol Roger, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart – brands whose sumptuous wines need little introduction. Then, beyond these big names, curious Champagne consumers will no doubt have encountered Growers’ wines: those cuvées made on an artisanal scale by vignerons.

But the role of the wine co-operative (co-op) in the Champagne region is perhaps less understood – and it’s well worth a closer look.

It’s fair to say that, in the UK, co-op-made wines have a reputation of being lower-quality products. In reality, this just isn’t so. Co-op winemaking in Champagne is complex, covering everything from the Coopérative-Manipulant, where the co-op oversees all aspects of production, and then sells the wine under its own brand, to the individual growers who work together with co-ops in order to share equipment. The truth is that, amongst co-ops, the quality spectrum is broad and the marketing is complex. But often these wines represent both value and quality. For proof, look no further than the demand for co-op-made wine in France, where it accounts for 45% of the market.

But, aside from the question of quality, co-op-made wine represents something more: an older way of doing things, rooted in community. In the post-war struggle, co-ops offered a framework which helped small, agricultural villages to survive. Many co-ops have gone on and become successful international enterprises.

It may be that the winemaking co-op is the answer to one of the wine industry’s most pressing ethical questions of the last few years: social sustainability.

In winemaking, social sustainability looks beyond the treatment of the vines, soil and terroir. On top of this, the workers, families and communities that depend on the winery become the focus. This can certainly be said of winemaking co-operatives today, but it wasn’t always the case. Davy Żyw, Champagne Buyer at Berry Bros. & Rudd, explains how – and why – the first winemaking co-ops came to be.

“Because of the Napoleonic laws of inheritance in France, everything is shared through the generations,” he explains. “Inheritance is split equally between the descendants – which means after every generation each bit of land gets smaller and smaller. This has had a huge impact on the wine industry in France: there are many very small vineyard holdings owned by people who don’t even live in the region.”

On top of this, the investment needed to create wine fit for sale is huge. Even those fortunate enough to have a plot of vines here can struggle. Few wines are as labour-, cash- and time-intensive to produce as Champagne. That’s where co-ops come in.

PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST

The co-op model helps the owners of these small plots of land in two ways. They can either buy the grapes from them to make their own wine with, or they can farm the land on behalf of the owners – taking care of the whole vinification process. Costing up to €7.20 per kilo, grapes grown in Champagne fetch some of the highest prices in the world – it’s quite the lucrative operation for even the smaller co-ops.

But Champagne Mailly – the co-op which makes our Own Selection Champagne – takes a different approach, one that prioritises its workers above all else.

“Community is the essence of Mailly,” says Xavier Millard, the co-op’s director. “Yes, we are named after our Grand Cru village of Mailly, but it’s also a way of recognising the 25 families that either live or grow vines in our village.”

Davy agrees: “What makes Mailly different is that they don’t buy grapes to fulfil commercial demands or growth targets,” he tells me. “For all intents are purposes, the town and the co-op are one and the same. “All their shareholders are the historic families of the town, meaning each family member who owns land has got a stake in the operation. There’s very much a shared mentality there: they want to produce the best grapes possible so that the best Champagne can be made. That way, the whole community benefits.”

This sense of community is the very foundation on which Champagne Mailly was born. The co-op first came into existence over 90 years ago in the Montagne de Reims. The families who started the co-op have been supported for decades; you only need to descend the winery stairs to feel this connection between the generations. There, you’ll find yourself in the cellars which were hand-built by the grandfathers of the people who are picking the grapes today.

“It’s an incredible full-circle story of how important family is there,” Davy acknowledges. “Grandes Marques buy in grapes and often don’t own their own vineyards. They operate like co-ops to a certain extent. But Mailly’s different: they have an investment in the quality of the Champagne, as well as a deep understanding of their families. There’s this really great focus on social sustainability.”

SOCIAL VERSUS ECOLOGICAL

Social sustainability is a relatively unexplored issue in the wine industry. Ecological sustainability is – quite rightly – the focus of the moment, but Xavier insists that they are one and the same:

“Social sustainability and ecological sustainability go together,” says Xavier. “Both are linked to the wellbeing of our people, so it’s important to have strong commitments as a winemaking co-op.

“By definition, co-ops have always placed people at the heart of their economic development.”

And it’s not just the right thing to do. Consumer demand for socially conscious wine has never been higher, says Davy.

“People are engaging in social awareness like never before: they care about sustainability and going organic, but also about fair treatment, transparency within the production line and the wider agricultural community.”

There’s a slow but steady trend towards favouring producers which prioritise social sustainability, Davy believes. This poses a challenge to larger brands to demonstrate their commitment to community. “I think a lot of people are looking away from the larger, faceless brands. They’re looking for something with a little bit more meaning behind it, where they can be sure of the provenance and transparency in the supply chain.”

A MODEL FOR SUCCESS

There’s a tendency for winemaking co-ops to be viewed as something rather antiquated. But this is a way of life that should be celebrated, Davy says, not least due to the transformative effect co-ops have had on the region. Champagne Mailly was founded in 1929, the very same year the world was shaken by the Great Depression. Co-ops like this provided a much-needed lifeline for the families that depended on growing grapes.

“The main co-ops first came to be when the financial and economic situation in the region was dire,” Davy explains. “Many people forget that, historically, Champagne was one of the poorest places in France – it had two World Wars fought in its vineyards.

“Without the work of co-ops, a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to put food on the table. They made sure vignerons could grow their grapes, sell them at a good price and make sure they had cash coming in.”

Co-ops have played an invaluable role in the success that Champagne now enjoys internationally. But because they’re often viewed as a way to make wine in a mass-produced way, they rarely receive the credit they deserve.

“In actuality, co-ops have the same sensitivities to their workers and the environment as many of the smaller growers,” Davy tells me. “They can make wine which is of equal quality to the Grower Champagne producers. When people think of co-ops, they think of old-fashioned, mass-produced winemaking. But this idea of shared work, a shared vision, a shared life – there’s something very romantic about that.”

Browse our complete range of Champagne Mailly here.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Meet the artist: Tom Frost

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A print by artist Tom Frost is pegged up to dry
Artist Tom Frost has created an original screen-print for our Good Ordinary Claret

Tom Frost is the artist and printmaker behind our new Good Ordinary Claret limited-edition label. Here we speak to him about his work, his inspiration and why embracing the handmade is a philosophy he lives by

Artist Tom Frost sits against the whitewashed walls of his studio in West Wales; a space which he has lovingly renovated. The building embodies his philosophy as an artist: it’s handmade, and it’s filled with simple, everyday things which he has made beautiful through care. It’s a place to think and to create. Tom works here alongside Teresa, his partner and fellow artist, and – on occasion – with their two young children, Harry and Poppy.

You may well already be familiar with Tom’s art. His stylish, graphic screen-prints are to be found on oversized matchboxes and artisan gin bottles. Elsewhere, his delicate, detailed illustrations bring to life rainbows and refraction in the pages of his Ladybird children’s book, The Weather. And, at the more erudite end of the spectrum, his works adorn the walls of galleries and art shows. Back in 2014, he held a solo exhibition, The Wild Collection, at the world-class Yorkshire Sculpture Park. He assembled more than 50 pieces inspired by the UK’s native birds, plants and wildlife for the show.

Going back to nature

Nature is a recurring theme for Tom – one which runs throughout his craft. It’s what pulled him out here, to this remote spot in West Wales; and it’s what pushed him from the creative bustle of life in Bristol almost a decade ago. “Nobody needs to come out here; no roads lead here,” Tom says. “We’re surrounded by fields and farmland, but we’re not somewhere you’d classically call a beauty spot. But walk out from the door, and you’re right in it – amongst sheep and cows, red kites and woodpeckers. There’s an immediate connection.”

And there’s plenty more inspiration to be found on his doorstep. “There’s so much to draw from,” says Tom. “Architecture, folk art, my children, our house, being in cities, being away from them. I take lots of photographs and I have a good memory for recalling things I think will be interesting for work.”

Working with Berry Bros. & Rudd

What, then, attracted him to the idea of collaborating with Berry Bros. & Rudd? “I get approached for all sorts of commissions,” Tom says. “They’re not all a good fit; but working with the oldest wine merchant in the country, for The Queen’s Green Canopy? It was impossible to say no.” Tom’s artwork, created to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, is for a charity bottling of Good Ordinary Claret. We will give a percentage of profits to the “plant a tree for the Jubilee” campaign or, as it’s more properly known, The Queen’s Green Canopy. But it wasn’t just the charity aspect, or working with Berry Bros. & Rudd, that appealed to Tom. He is interested in the idea of the bottle label itself: art in the everyday. Making useful things beautiful

“When I work as an illustrator and have an image in – say – The Guardian, somebody would see it for a day or two. And then it would be in the bin. But, with a wine label, there’s a chance that my art will play a part in someone’s home; that it will be at the centre of this lovely convivial atmosphere, where they’re enjoying their wine. I like that side of it.

“I also liked the fact that I could create a physical screen-print for this project, not just a digital image; something I could make and photograph. People might see it as just an image on a wine label. But I know it’s handmade.”

Finding inspiration

There was only one possible route for the design: “Naturally, it had to have a tree on it. And I liked the idea of combining growth and the trunk of the tree coming through the stem of the glass and essentially filling up the glass.”

To the uninitiated, screen-printed artworks – with their bold shapes and layers of colour – look simple to create. But the reality is that this process is a labour of love (and a time-consuming one at that). “It is the same with every print,” Tom explains. “I work it up as a sketch, then break it apart into different layers for each colour, then expose the screen and finally print it. It’s lovely and simple when you know how it works, but there are a lot of processes that get to a point where ink goes on paper.”

Though the technique involves plenty of skill, it doesn’t call for elaborate equipment. Tom’s studio set up – rather charmingly – comprises a £30 light bulb, a glass screen, a couple of dining chairs and a Welsh blanket. He likes the shadows and texture that can come from this rustic arrangement, rather than the precision results of a smart London editioning house.

“I’m not striving for perfection in my art,” he says. “I like to embrace the handmade, the qualities you get from not having perfect kit. The art of imperfection.”

Our limited-edition Claret by Tom Frost is available now.

Category: Miscellaneous