Ch. L’Évangile: from the ground up
Author: Charlie Geoghegan
L’Évangile, the Pomerol sibling of Ch. Lafite, shows that the great wines of tomorrow start with great terroir today. Here, we speak with Olivier Trégoat and Juliette Couderc, the ambitious new team at the helm
It’s a March morning in Pomerol. Olivier Trégoat and Juliette Couderc sit side-by-side on a Zoom call. They have known each other and worked together for some time, but they are only six months into their latest project – running Ch. L’Évangile.
Olivier is a soil expert whose PhD involved a comprehensive soil study of eight of Bordeaux’s top classified growths. His work as a consultant in the South of France led him to cross paths with the Rothschilds. He consulted on various international projects – including the formative stages of Domaine de Long Dai in China – before joining the company fully in 2015. As Technical Director, he’s responsible for a number of properties including L’Évangile, Rieussec in Sauternes and Long Dai.
Juliette started her new role as L’Évangile’s Technical Manager just in time for the 2020 harvest. She studied agronomy and viticulture in Bordeaux, then in Montpellier; it was in the Languedoc that she and Olivier first met. She went abroad to work harvests in Chile and New Zealand before Olivier recruited her to work at Long Dai. Juliette spent three years in China’s Shandong Province. “The first year, I was a viticulturist,” she says. “It was a big challenge to understand the Chinese terroir and these young vineyards. After that, I was put in charge of winemaking.”
Approaching her 30th birthday, Juliette decided to return to France. As luck would have it, group chair Saskia de Rothschild had also tasked Olivier with finding somebody suitable to run the technical operation at L’Évangile. Juliette was a natural choice: “I like working with her because she has a lot of energy,” he says. “We are completely aligned, and we know each other very well. I consider it a gift for us to manage this property.”
With 22 hectares under vine, L’Évangile is one of the larger estates in Pomerol. The Rothschild family took full ownership in 1998, following nearly a decade of co-ownership with Madame Simone Ducasse, by all accounts a formidable figure. This allowed the Rothschilds to make more sweeping changes than the slow, gradual ones of the preceding years.
“We were free to start a complete renovation,” explains Olivier. This involved rebuilding the winery and considerable replanting of the vineyard. Consequently, the average age of the vineyard today is quite young. “Many of the plots are 15-17 years old. We have only one old plot of Cabernet Franc, located in the north, on very good gravelly soils.”
Cabernet Franc currently accounts for around 20% of plantings at L’Évangile, with the majority being Merlot. But Olivier sees this changing: “Due to climate change, it’s quite difficult to maintain the freshness of Merlot. It depends on the vintage, but 2020 and 2019 were challenging.” The solution – or at least part of it – is to plant more Cabernet Franc. “I would not be surprised if in a couple of years, the ratio becomes 50-50, or close to it.”
Climate change is being felt acutely here. Last week, the team conducted a vertical tasting of 30 vintages, and there’s a clear trend over time. “The alcohol content is increasing systematically,” says Olivier. “Today, L’Évangile is often close to 14.5% or 15% alcohol. That’s a big issue. We’re working in the vineyard to maintain freshness in these wines. We’re running trials relating to water in the soil, management of the leaf canopy and so on.”
The château itself, and the heart of the vineyard, is in the east of the appellation, on the famed plateau: neighbours include Ch. Lafleur and, over the border into St Emilion, Ch. Cheval Blanc and Ch. Figeac. “This is the golden core of Pomerol,” beams Olivier. “The landscape of Bordeaux is very recent, no more than 100,000 years old. The gravel soils here are on the border of this very clayey plateau. The oldest gravel terraces here are from the Quaternary Period. They’re good because of the clay content.”
Later additions to the vineyard include plots in the south and southwest of the appellation. “Those are past the gravelly soils,” explains Olivier. “They are not quite as high quality as the gravel soils on the plateau. But due to climate change, the area is now producing very good wine, because the availability of water is higher compared to the gravel and clay soils [on the plateau].”
The estate is farmed organically and biodynamically. They expect to be certified organic with the 2021 vintage, though there’s no plan for biodynamic certification for now.
In China, Juliette was responsible for a 35-hectare vineyard made up of almost 450 distinct terraces. Bordeaux is a different environment, but her work at L’Évangile is no less precise and intricate: “We see differences between plots, but also within plots,” she explains. “When we tasted the berries in 2020, we could feel these differences, so we wanted to divide each plot further. So a single one-hectare plot could be divided into five parts, with each vinified separately. We like to work in this way: by tasting berries, not with analysis.”
When they determine the characteristics of a given plot, they mark it in the vineyard. The grapes are then harvested accordingly, perhaps days apart. “It’s a ‘Sauternes’ way of picking,” explains Olivier. “This haute-couture way of working is our signature. We aren’t afraid of separating plots. Because our cellar has tanks of very small capacity, it’s quite easy to manage the picking like that.”
Such attention to detail is worth it, explains Juliette: “During the blending, after fermentation and malolactic fermentation, we can still recognise the style of each plot.”
“We were the first in Pomerol to harvest,” says Olivier. They started picking on 2nd September. “I was afraid about the two heatwaves that had been forecast, so we decided to pick quite early.” The early harvest helped to prevent the berries from shrinking and to maintain freshness without any jammy flavours. “When we spoke with the neighbours,” Olivier says, “I think we made the right decision.”
“We wanted to have a blend with tension and good acidity,” Juliette adds, “We have some plots from the plateau with powerful notes: not jammy, more like black fruits and opulence. We blended these with other plots for acidity and vivacity. For purity. I think the word of 2020 is ‘balance’.”
A major figure in the estate’s history was Michel Rolland, for a long time the most influential consultant in Bordeaux. “His first vintage [at L’Évangile] was 1982,” says Olivier. The estate’s terroir, coupled with the consultant’s well-known preference for ripe, full-bodied and extracted wines, brought the style of L’Évangile in that direction.
“The clay [naturally] produces a very deep colour and high tannins,” explains Olivier. “So the wines are quite dense and compact. And the winemaking process and approach was to go on what Michel liked. Today, because of the impact of climate change that can make wines even more dense, Saskia and Jean-Guillaume [Prats, the group CEO] want to evolve that: they’ve asked us to move things more towards elegance, a little bit less oak, working more in the vines and to change the date of the picking.”
But it’s not all change. “We have a team who have spent years and years here,” says Juliette. “I think that’s a strength. The cellar master, the viticulturists, they know the vineyard very well; they know its potential. We are working together to understand it. That’s the way we work together, to change the style a little bit. But we can’t do that without understanding the past.”
Explore the wines of Ch. L’Évangile here.