Château Lascombes, Médoc 2nd Grand Cru Classé
Some of them are enthusiasts, others investors; some are just a tiny bit insane whilst others are looking for change of lifestyle or aiming to write another chapter in the family’s history... All of them come from different backgrounds but ultimately their paths cross in the vineyards of Bordeaux. What follows are 5 very different stories with wine as the common theme.
Géraldine Lefebvre-Lopez: The will to succeed
Obviously Bordeaux mostly makes the headlines when a prestigious chateau changes hands. There is, admittedly, a chasm between a vineyard in Entre-deux-Mers and a Médoc Grand Cru Classé, both in terms of financial value and reputation.
The Lopez vineyards now cover 40 hectares in the Bordeaux Supérieur appellation area and have been converted to organic
You would be wrong, though, to think that this could have made Géraldine Lefebvre-Lopez hesitate for one second. The story began in 1963 when the vineyard was established by her grandfather. There were three to four hectares of land used for mixed farming and wines sold in bulk; the first bottles would not be released until 1973. From 1980, the pace of life on the estate fastened with the arrival of Géraldine's father and uncle. The area under vine grew to 50 hectares and 85% of the wines were sold by the tank to negociants. In the early 2000s, Bordeaux was in the throes of recession and 10 hectares had to be uprooted. Géraldine began studying at the Montagne Saint-Emilion viticultural college and graduated with flying colours in 2003. She started her career in Saint-Emilion, but challenging times would mean that she would not be able not settle down. She then left for Spain with her boyfriend, "who is now my husband," she says. They spent 4 years near Alicante developing a business of landscape gardening and installing irrigation systems in the region’s many golf courses.
As the economic situation improved in Bordeaux, they decided to return, spurred on by the arrival of their daughter Jade. The year is 2009 and after taking over the company’s marketing reins and developing exports so that low-paying bulk sales could be reduced, Géraldine was firmly at the helm by 2011. To say that she quickly made her mark on the property is an understatement. Today it sells 100% of its wines in bottles – all 260,000 of them under the Château Lagrugère and Château de l'Hermitage brands – and the 40 hectares of vineyards have been converted to organic. Also, exports account for about 80% of its sales with shipments bound for countries such as Brazil, China, Japan, Germany, Russia and the USA. So what are her secrets? She has two main strengths: unfailing energy and also an above-average sense of commerce and service. For instance, she developed an ingenious system of personalised labels which enables her to supply each of her negociant customers with labels that they will not find amongst rival firms. The only cloud on the horizon is that a staggering 90% of the crop was lost in 2017. But as always, Géraldine showed her mettle and was able to produce 40,000 bottles of wine. She will also be releasing a wine with no added sulphites which she hopes to be able to sell with a higher price tag. She received 90,000 euros in compensation from her insurance company which is far from covering her losses, but most of all, her bank manager has complete faith in her.
In the cellar where Cuvée Jade (after her daughter) is stored in wooden cases like a grand cru
She has no shortage of projects: she aims to hire one or two people who will, as she puts it, “be out on the tractor from the beginning of January to the end of December”; she intends to double the winery’s footprint and to review bottling logistics so that they are more functional. At production level, she has no desire to expand but still needs more wines and is heading towards buying grapes – organic, of course – from 5 to 6 hectares of vines to meet demand. Her objective is to gradually build up inventories in addition to annual rotations, which would give her extra insurance in the event of more adverse weather conditions. As she explains by way of a conclusion: "Obviously nobody wants this, but these extreme phenomena have become more frequent in recent years, so it is better to be prepared”. You wouldn’t expect anything less from the ever-resourceful Géraldine.
Petit Val: A tale of two wine buffs
Petit Val is a completely different story. It is of course the name of a place and vineyard site, but above all it is the story of the type of encounter that can change the destinies of its protagonists. Jean-Louis Alloin, a businessman and epicurean with Beaujolais roots, is passionate about wine, particularly Saint-Emilion. When he and his wife Olivia met consultant and winemaker David Liorit, little did he suspect that it would lead to the discovery of this sleeping terroir, a gem buried in the north of the appellation area. He would, though, fall under its charm and acquire six hectares of vines where the sandy and clay soils produce very elegant wines. From then on, David would take matters in hand and set about creating an environment conducive to a thriving vineyard. This involved using sustainable wine growing techniques, planting cereals, introducing grass cover and preserving biodiversity by planting fruit trees, creating hedges and establishing hives in the vineyard. All of which, of course, had to be coupled with major investments in the cellars and the winery to provide the wine with the best possible conditions. There was also vineyard management by hand (and partly by horse), no insecticides, no weedkillers, manual harvesting, a refrigerated truck to protect the grapes from oxidation, selective sorting and single vineyard fermentations and maturation.
The result is two labels: Château Petit Val and Muse du Val. After the first vintage - 2014 - which was very successful, the two men nevertheless felt that the wine needed to be enhanced in terms of complexity. So they embarked on a new quest which was rewarded in 2015 with the acquisition of Château Béard with its limestone hillside vineyard and beautiful 40 to 50 year-old vines. The total area under vine rose from 6 to 12 hectares with a much wider array of soil types to work with.
David could sense the potential of the site, which was highly complementary to the plateau of Petit-Val and worked with his team – most notably Pascal and Joël - to reveal its qualities in order to produce an even more interesting wine. The result is perfectly illustrated in the 2016 vintage which is more fleshy and dense with very elegant tannins. The Château is already extremely charming and the Muse offers enormous potential and promising complexity which could soon earn it a place among the appellation’s leading lights. This is the avowed ambition of Jean-Louis Alloin and his wife. Their next project is to bring wine lovers to Petit Val and they have plenty of ideas about how to achieve it, including permanent exhibitions (photos, paintings, sculptures...); educational workshops for children; and walking tours of the vineyard where each plot is identified by age, grape variety, rootstock, area and number of vines.
David Liorit is constantly on the look-out for new things, like the amphorae he has been using for several years
Château Lascombes: From capitalism to mutualism
A change of scenery now, to the Médoc and one of the most prestigious wine producing villages in the world: Margaux. The director of Château Lascombes (2nd Grand Cru Classé), Dominique Befve, welcomes us to explain the recent history of this Médoc gem. He knew the former owners, Colony Capital, an American pension fund that bought the chateau from the English group Bass Charrington in 2001 and kept it for 10 years: “Colony Capital did not aim to make a living from Lascombes but to make a capital gain, which partly explains the resale after ten years”. Major technical work has thus been carried out since 2001, both in the vineyard and in the vat and barrel cellar. The ultimate objective was to improve the quality of the wine and raise its price tag in the Bordeaux wine market. This pure product of capitalism sold Lascombes to a mutual insurer, MACSF* in 2011 for around 200 million euros. Dominique Befve adds: “This is a very different investor profile. Mutual funds have statutory obligations to own assets and Lascombes is probably a long-term investment. This is a very good thing, both for the employees and for the image of the chateau and above all for the confidence it inspires in the Bordeaux market”. The new owners have kept the same teams and have the same ambition which is to take the wines of Lascombes to ever greater heights.
Dominique Befve, director of Château Lascombes
Probably the biggest change is their intention to open the chateau up much more to the public. The pretty Chartreuse adjacent to the cellars was completely renovated in 2017 and has become a wine tourism centre open 6 days a week, with the ultimate aim of opening every day. As Dominique Befve points out by way of a conclusion: “A large part of the Médoc is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we think it is our duty to play ball and welcome the tourists who make an effort to come and meet us”. And who would complain about that?!
Château Montrose: When the environment takes centre stage
Saint-Estèphe, the northernmost appellation in the Médoc, is home to a few gems from the 1855 classification, including second Grand Cru Classé Château Montrose. We are welcomed by Hervé Berland, manager and director since 2012. The property spent many years in the hands of a famous Médoc family - the Charmolüe - and was acquired in 2006 by Martin and Olivier Bouygues in a personal capacity through their holding company (SCDM), and not by the Bouygues group as is often thought. “This is a small nuance but it is important to specify it”, says Hervé Berland by way of an introduction. “Obviously it is a property asset investment but there is an additional dimension here. Château Montrose was their father Francis' favourite wine and becoming its owner naturally has a special meaning for them”. This wasn’t their only Bordeaux acquisition. The neighbouring property of Tronquoy-Lalande was bought in the process, as well as - more recently - Clos Rougeard from the Foucault brothers in Saumur-Champigny in the Loire Valley in 2017 – and what a gem that is! At the beginning of the year, they even bought about twenty hectares near Barbezieux in Petite Champagne (Cognac) to produce a high quality artisanal brandy.
The ground floor houses a cellar complete with barrels and bottles, particularly large formats
But back to Montrose. At the time of the acquisition in 2006, Martin Bouygues mostly kept the existing teams at the château, but as a wise manager, he intuitively knew that it was best to place a skilled, local figurehead at the helm to establish the chateau’s credibility. His choice of Jean-Bernard Delmas, a leading light in Bordeaux who worked for 40 years at Haut-Brion, was hard to beat and Delmas did indeed bring his credentials to the purchase. But in 2011 he suffered from ill health and had to hand over to none other than Hervé Berland of Mouton-Rothschild fame, a few hundred metres away. The new duo worked well and Martin Bouygues succeeded primarily in getting his message across, which is to produce the finest wines by relying on our own skills but also by looking at the world around us and drawing from it everything that can add a bonus to the business. Present-day issues revolve mainly around the environment and Montrose is aiming to be exemplary in this respect.
“To date, we have converted 65% of our vineyards to organic and our aim is to be 100% organic in two years’ time”, confirms Hervé Berland. This is not just idle banter or a marketing gimmick but hard facts. “At the moment, for example, there is strong pressure from mildew due to very wet weather, but we will not go backwards and use systemic spraying, even if we are not yet in the process of applying for certification. Our overall approach can be summarized as follows: ensuring that the environmental footprint of our business is as small as possible”.
Hervé Berland and his team are taking Château Montrose in a new direction
Preserving an irreplaceable terroir by using environmentally-friendly techniques – and producing top quality wines in the process – may seem self-evident. But despite this, mentalities are slow to change and awareness is far from being embraced by all. So Montrose's courageous decision should be hailed. Hervé Berland adds: “Recognition of the terroir will also make our wine unique and identify our genetic make-up which, by definition, is also unique. Ultimately, our approach is about anti-globalisation and anti-uniformity”. It is also one that Martin Bouygues “supports 1,000%” Hervé Berland reveals to us.
Château de Rouillac: A lifestyle project
Laurent Cisneros is a real character. Spanish by origin, Charentais by adoption, he was born in Bordeaux and was an apprentice footballer poised to become professional at AS Cannes where he met a certain Zinedine Zidane. He finally became an entrepreneur and winemaker. As he says mischievously: “I didn't follow any curriculum - it followed me! I ended up with a two-year university diploma which was nothing outstanding but it allowed me to bounce back when the doors to professional football closed in front of me”. He then joined the family company offering after-sales service on heating appliances created by his parents in 1963 while continuing to make an appearance on football pitches at weekends, particularly with the club at Angoulême which trained him and where he moved up into the national division.
Laurent Cisneros at Château de Rouillac, surrounded by his wife and three daugthers
As he was about to turn thirty, he bought his father's company and never looked back. From around ten employees he rose to 90 in 9 years with regional coverage across Poitou-Charentes and a view to going national. The European industry leader then contacted him and bought his company, which is when he rekindled the tiny flame inside him that was lit by his great-grandfather Tomas Cisneros, formerly a wine grower near Madrid.
“I've had this desire buried somewhere for a long time, if not forever, and it was an opportunity to set off in search of a third life at last”, he admits. He therefore went off to look for a winery in Bordeaux and after many ups and downs visited Rouillac. The deal was complicated, but he’d fallen in love with the property. "I said to myself almost immediately: this is where I want to be”, he confides rather emotionally.
Titan, the percheron at Rouillac tasked with tillage
This is how the Cisneros family - Laurent, his wife and 3 daughters - moved to Château de Rouillac in July 2010. The work needed to restore, transform and re-energise the estate was colossal but the tireless contractor was not daunted. He wholeheartedly embraced his new life and committed himself with lorry loads of determination. From the start, he set up a seminar room to bring in companies, whilst also creating a shop and hiring qualified wine tourism help which he viewed as essential when you are lucky enough to be a stone's throw away from Bordeaux.
Laurent Cisneros and his eldest daughter Mélanie who works with him at the Château
In the vineyard, he recruited a technical director - Jean-Christophe Baron, still with him today - in order to regenerate the vines, which had been neglected. “We have planted more than 10 hectares in 5 years, with bearing hectareage now totalling 27 which is a viable economic model”, Laurent tells us. "I have also committed the estate to environmentally-friendly viticulture as much as possible. We use 100% tillage, some of it with draught horses, in order to preserve soil life and we use grass cover. Rouillac now holds the HVE** level III standard as part of nationwide environmental recommendations. We are on the cusp of organic certification”.
The beautiful viewpoint from the barrel cellar at Château de Rouillac
In terms of terroir, with its gravel from the Tertiary period, Rouillac is clearly focused on finesse. “That’s a good thing”, adds Laurent, “I don't like over-wooded wines and our winemaker Eric Boissenot is of a similar mind, just like Sophie Burguet, our cellar master, from Burgundy”.
So much has been achieved since 2010 and it's not over yet. Laurent has his sights set on the long term. As he likes to say, he is building a lifestyle project and not just making an investment. There is no shortage of projects, but as close to his heart as Rouillac are his origins, and he is seriously considering a return to his roots in the future, to the homeland of his ancestors. In fact, he has just reached the first step of what he had aimed for, and that is to produce a Spanish wine (from Rioja), which he will soon present with equal amounts of pride and emotion to his father. But it's still a secret, so don't let on!
*MACSF: Mutuelle d’Assurance du Corps de Santé Français
**HVE: Haute Valeur Environnementale/ High environmental value
Photographs: Courtesy of the estates