Winemaker and manager of the French luxury house’s four estates: “One foot firmly on the ground, the other up in the stars”.
The iconic haute couture house has been producing wine for almost 30 years. At the head of Bordeaux’s Château Berliquet, Château Canon, Château Rauzan-Ségla, and Provence’s Domaine de l’Île, is Managing Director and globetrotter, Nicolas Audebert, who stands at #9 in the rankings.
Appointed head of Chanel’s vineyard properties in 2014, the talented Nicolas Audebert oversees three Bordeaux estates (Châteaux Canon and Berliquet in the Saint-Émilion appellation, Château Rauzan-Ségla in the Margaux appellation), and the Île de Porquerolles estate. With his casual appearance, tousled hair, and sun-kissed complexion, he exudes a rock-star charisma that has propelled him to magazine-cover stardom. The oenologist and agronomic engineer, who honed his skills at Krug before taking charge of winemaking at Cheval des Andes in Argentina, seems to possess the Midas touch, turning everything into gold. Whether it’s a classified Bordeaux Grand Cru or a Côtes de Provence rosé, this virtuoso of the vine knows how to craft excellent wine.
Le Figaro Vin: How does it feel to be crowned a winemaking champion?
Nicolas Audebert: – I’m not even sure that I am a winemaking champion! I’ve been lucky enough to work for some very prestigious names that have helped me to get to where I am today. It’s the brands, the vineyards, the terroirs, and the people I’ve worked with that have brought me to where I am, a position where people might say that I’m some kind of champion, but really I’m not. There are scores of people who are far more competent than me. I take my hat off to all the small-scale winemakers who make fantastic wines for 15 euros a bottle, that nobody knows and who are the real champions, as their job is far more difficult. When you work for a big name, with substantial resources and great terroirs, it’s a whole lot easier.
Have you been training for long?
I don’t see it as training. I do it because it’s a real vocation: my love for grape growing and winemaking is behind everything I do. If we take the example of musicians or sports stars, there are those who achieve with hard graft, and then those who take real pleasure in it, who have a passion for it. Obviously, as winemakers, we’re constantly tasting things, and we probably taste other people’s wines more often than our own, to learn and understand. I’ve been making wine now for 25 years. I didn’t grow up in the wine world. I fell into it, I won’t say by accident, but because I loved nature and wanted to do something that involved being close to the land. Wine seemed an obvious choice: it allows you to transform an agricultural product into an experience that is emotional, sensory, cultural, historical. As winemakers, we have one foot firmly on the ground and the other up in the stars!
Who is your mentor?
We learn daily from everything – and everyone – around us. Whether it’s with a renowned South American oenologist, a Champagne cellar master, a wine connoisseur – I’m constantly discovering new things. I learn from talking to enthusiasts who’ve tasted everything under the sun, I learn from talking to winemakers who’ve been in the game decades. I was lucky enough to work with Rémi and Henri Krug for many years. I also worked with Maggie Henriquez, a rather exceptional woman, and with Philippe Coulon. I worked with Roberto de la Mota, the renowned oenologist from Argentina. I worked for 10 years with Pierre Lurton; he taught me a great deal. And I continue to learn every day with our estate workers.
Is wine a team sport?
Yes, it’s definitely a team sport. First of all, it’s a long-term process. Our team exists outside time – when we take a bottle of 1929 or 1947 Château Canon from the cellar, it’s the same team which made both wines. Great wines are not bound by the limits of time – they capture the essence of a particular place, a path, a destiny. We bear the weight of all that history on our shoulders; we need to write our own part in it.
There are many people in my team: first, the people who work every morning out in the vineyards. I’m not the one out there tending to the vines, pinching them back, tying them up, turning the barrels, racking the wine. After that, we have to blend and taste, with our consultant oenologists, Éric Boissenot and Thomas Duclos, and with our in-house winemakers. Beyond that, there’s also a little bit of Roberto de la Mota and Maggie Henriquez in my Saint-Émilion wines.
What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the winemaker?
Of those two elements, only one of them is indispensable: the terroir. If you don’t have an exceptional terroir or a distinctive winemaking signature, you won’t make good wine. That said, I don’t agree with the current line of thought saying that everything needs to happen by itself. Grapes that jump of their own accord into bottles and suddenly make great wines, without anyone doing anything, simply do not exist. You need someone to work on them, so it’s a union between the team that does that work and the terroir on which the grapes are grown – a bit like a horse and its jockey. It’s the horse that does the running, the winning, that has all the mental and physical qualities needed. But it needs a rider, to say “Go that way!” and to keep its pace steady at the beginning before sprinting to the finish line. That said, the ratio isn’t necessarily the same: it’s perhaps 80% horse and 20% jockey, whereas it’s probably 70% terroir and 30% winemaker.
If there’s nobody there to care for vines, and cut them back, they don’t make grapes, they just create tendrils and exhausted fruit. Without human hands giving them enough stress and direction, they won’t give anything. And without grapes, humans can’t make wine, so it really is the meeting of both, but a meeting where the winemaker’s style must be the expression of the terroir.
To what do you owe your success?
Above all, I owe it to my parents and to the upbringing they gave me. They taught me to be demanding of myself and of those around me, but they also imbued in me a respect for other people, a sense of patience, an ability to listen, boundless energy, and a desire to achieve, which means that I perhaps have certain qualities that make people want to go along with my projects and put their trust in me.
Is your family proud of you?
Yes, my family is proud of me. That said, the word “proud” sounds rather arrogant to me, a bit egocentric. I would like to think that the life that I am lucky enough to lead today – professional, social, and cultural – is something they look up to, rather than feeling pride for me. In my eyes, words like fulfilment, balance, and desire are far more important than pride.
Who is your most important sponsor?
If we’re talking in purely professional terms, it is Chanel. It’s a wonderful couture house which gives me the freedom to do what I do because it’s an organisation that understands you have to play a long game, and because it is run by people with a huge sense of creativity, who are striving for excellence. They are a truly extraordinary sponsor.
What is your favourite colour?
The colour of the soil, as it has so many different shades. There are ochre soils, red soils, brownish-black soils, sandy soils. It’s this mosaic of colours that allows us to make our great wines and bring complexity to them.
Your favourite grape variety?
I would have to say Malbec, as I hold a particular attachment both to the grape variety and to the wonderful country that is Argentina. It’s a grape variety with quite an extraordinary history, which ended up finding somewhere to call home on the other side of the world, in the most unlikely of places. It left Cahors and came to Bordeaux, where it was planted before disappearing again and going over to South America. It was planted first in Chile, then in Argentina; it crossed the Andes by horse, in the saddlebags of President Sarmiento and a French scientist called Pouget. And then, finally, it found a place in the foothills of the Andes, on the Argentine side, high up on the Altiplano plains, in a continental climate, where it felt at home and was happy.
Your favourite wine?
Amongst the wines that we have here in our cellars and that I have been lucky enough to taste, there are a few that are truly extraordinary, that mark you for life. There are certain vintages of Rauzan and Canon that I won’t ever forget, like 1964, 1955, and 1929, for example. They are all absolutely unbelievable wines. I have memories from all over the place, whether it’s in the Piedmont, in South America, in Burgundy, in Champagne. There are exceptional wines everywhere. However, if I had to keep just one bottle, the one that made the greatest impression on me, it would be Krug 1928, which has an incredible history. Bottles of this vintage had been seized by the Germans to be sold on the British market, but the British didn’t want them because they had been disgorged for a while, and Joseph Krug was able to salvage them. Bottles of Krug 1928 are almost 100 years old, and absolutely extraordinary.
Your favourite vintage?
I wouldn’t pick one that’s too old, or one that’s too young. I would have to say 2001 because, whether it was on the Right or the Left Bank, it made for an extraordinarily precise wine. This isn’t an iconic vintage by any means, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s not a small vintage, the wines it produced are very clear, very precise, they say what they have to say without shouting it from the rooftops, humbly.
If your wine was a person, who would it be?
My wines have a strong identity, they are the mirror of the land from which they were born. People often say that a dog is the reflection of its owner, but a wine must take after the place from which it comes. Today, you could make a wine in Margaux that is modern, solar, Mediterranean, extracted, powerful, and has exotic accents – why not? But this is not what customers are looking for. Similarly, if you’re making, somewhere deep in South America, a wine without colour, that’s austere and cold – something is wrong. Wine reflects a culture, a path, and this path was set by the land, the climate, the people, and the wine needs to resemble this, it needs to be rooted in a very specific place. Take Canon for example, which has a very specific terroir, with clay-limestone soils, on the plateau of Saint-Émilion. This is a terroir that doesn’t lie, it’s a terroir where you couldn’t be doing anything else. When tasting a wine, people often make analogies to refer to its character. They often say: “This one is slightly withdrawn, it’s a little shy, you need to give it time. It needs to grow in confidence”. Or you could have a headstrong wine, that knows what it wants to say, and says it very bluntly and directly. I wouldn’t be able to make a wine if I didn’t have a clear idea of what kind of person it would be.
What are the best circumstances in which to taste your wine?
In good company. You should never drink alone, as wine is designed to be shared, to build bonds between people.
Some people say that you should only open good bottles with people who understand wine, but I think that’s a real shame. In my eyes, you should open those bottles with anyone who wants to drink them, whether they understand or not. The pleasure, the sense of discovery, the satisfaction, and the emotion that great wines afford are within everyone’s grasp: those who know about them and those who don’t. Obviously, you shouldn’t open a great bottle with someone who won’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t make any sense. But if the desire to open it and share it is there, even the greatest bottle can be opened with someone who doesn’t know much about wines, because these moments are about conveying emotion, about passing on this immutable knowledge that exists outside of time.
Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing yourself, or your wine?
I’m lucky enough – or unlucky enough – to be on a natural high all the time. I’d almost prefer for it not to be the case! However, I would never enhance my wine with chemical assistance. There’s this trend for souped-up wines but they bear no interest for me whatsoever. It’s far more interesting when things are full of surprises, when you gradually discover different aspects that bring complexity. This complexity is the opposite of in-your-face showiness. Chemically enhancing wines allows you to achieve a feat one time but, behind that, there’s nothing, because it’s part of a system that’s biased, showy, and short-lived. The point of wine is for it to be always true, and precise.
Who is your worst enemy?
I’m my own enemy – if I weren’t, life would be very dull! The hardest thing is to know yourself and to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s always easy to talk about our strengths. Our weaknesses are much harder to work on. In the wine world, which is a world of pleasure, of shared experiences and emotions, I don’t really see any competition or enemies.
And your greatest achievement?
My only motivation is my family and our life together. I try to pass on to my children a bit of the upbringing that I received – with its values and traditions – but also an openness and willingness to discover the world. I still have so many things to do, places to go, wines to drink, countries to discover, people to meet: it’s this desire to be open to and interested in everything and everyone that I want to pass on to them.
What has been your most innovative strategy in the vineyard and in the cellar?
It is, above all, allowing ourselves to be innovative and not being scared of asking questions or implementing new things. In some places, the wine world is defined by a multitude of traditions; in others, it is all about constant innovation. It is quite rare for the two things to coincide. In the places where it’s very traditional, if you do things a bit differently, then it’s often very marginally so, just to be able to say that you do things differently. On the other hand, there are some vineyards, some regions, that aren’t bound by tradition, and are free to innovate. In a traditional vineyard, wanting to do things differently is ultra-modern and innovative in and of itself. When I arrived in Bordeaux, I had never worked in the region before. I had no qualms about implementing new ideas or developing things that didn’t follow the traditional Bordeaux way. You need a mix of both: one eye looking ahead and one eye looking back.
Can you give me an example?
Conducting several harvests within the same plot, for example, according to the exposure of the rows, and then vinifying the grapes separately according to this. Depending on the aspect of the row, some phases get more sunlight than others in the very warm years, with grapes that will be riper, spicier, darker, and more intense than others that will be fresher, more acidic, and have more tension. It’s hard to vinify them all together while staying precise, so in certain years we do several harvests within the same plot and vinify its grapes separately. Another example is the concept of having people taste wines straight from the barrel during en primeur and for the definitive blend, letting them can pick whatever barrel they want to taste from, which allows us to talk about the wine and be completely transparent about what we have in our cellars. There is a highly distinctive approach to tasting in Bordeaux.
Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?
Pierre Lurton. One should always pay honour where honour is due!
France’s 13th best winemaker: “I love drinking fine wines with people who know nothing about them”.
The mere mention of the name of this Grand Cru Classé is enough to send wine-lovers into a frenzy, and even those who have never had the chance to taste it agree that this is a Château destined to go down in history.
For the 38th interview in Le Figaro Vin’s series, we return to the border between Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, and Château Cheval Blanc, which is owned by the LVMH group and the Frère family. In July 2023, Pierre Lurton was appointed President of the Management Board, while Pierre-Olivier Clouet was promoted to Managing Director – arguably one of the most globally envied positions in the Bordelais appellations. Clouet, who describes himself as “incorrigibly hyperactive”, joined the estate as an apprentice but rose through the ranks with the elegance of a cat, gradually gaining the trust of Pierre, his mentor and great friend, who conferred on him the role of technical director at the age of 28. As well as his charm and extraordinary capacity for work, the fact that he did not come from a wine background was a considerable advantage for the young Norman, who very early on dared to “say out loud what others were thinking”. He is a free and rebellious spirit wrapped up in the demeanour of a gentleman farmer and bears a humility that allows him to assert his ideas with great ease.
“When I think about it, it was surreal”, he recalls with a burst of laughter. “At first, the suit seemed much too big for me”. The future proved him wrong, and it was alongside a close-knit team that he succeeded, one by one, in meeting the challenges posed to an estate that had to demonstrate its modernity without ever denying its roots. Creating a white wine from scratch, opting for agroforestry, finding plots of land at the foot of the Andes – all of these challenges have been overcome thanks to “the stability that Pierre has been able to give me for many years, which has allowed me to see each of our developments through in the long-term”.
Le Figaro Vin – How does it feel to be crowned a wine-making champion?
As always, I wonder why I was chosen! It’s something I’m very proud of, and I’m delighted that people come looking for me. 15 years ago, I was a nobody, and I never had a career plan. I feel both very grateful and infinitely small.
Have you been training for long?
Not really, no. Some winemakers made my eyes light up when I was a student, I wanted to “be just like them”, as children say. It’s an environment that allows you to come into contact with so many different disciplines – there’s the agricultural side, the technological side, the emotional side – and you meet people you’d never think you’d meet.
Who is your mentor?
First and foremost, it would have to be Pierre, who gave me a chance at a time when nobody could see what I could bring to the table. He’s always been kind, letting me off the hook as I’ve developed and gained confidence in myself. He supported me, and even though we have different personalities, I owe it all to him.
Is wine a team sport?
Yes, without question. Especially in our maisons, because on a small estate, there is a stronger representation of the winemaker. Here, we have a lot of input from everyone, from all those who have inspired us from near and far, and in particular from the people who have accompanied us through all the transformations we have undertaken. Cheval Blanc is too much for just one person.
What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the winemaker?
What makes a great wine is the terroir, but what ensures that it doesn’t fail is the winemaker. In our vision of a cru, rather than a brand, our task is to convey the taste of the region. Vintage is also of absolute importance.
To what do you owe your success?
Sincerity. I’m not a schemer, I have an ability to get people on board, to unite teams. And I’m hyperactive, so that obviously plays a part too.
Is your family proud of you?
Yes, and I think it’s wonderful that my family isn’t from the wine scene. It takes me out of my microcosm and brings me down to earth. You have to go out into the real world, where you can enjoy simple wines. My parents still marvel at the bottles I open for them from time to time, and that’s fantastic. When I think about it, I love drinking great wines with people who know nothing about them.
Your favourite colour?
Red, even though white wines, which I’m drinking more and more, have a great deal of precision. I think you can read more about the terroir in red wines, particularly through the tannins, which reflect the way in which the vines have been able to draw on what the land has provided.
Your favourite wine variety?
Cabernet Franc, because it is the father of all Bordeaux grape varieties. It has spawned much more popular offspring that itself, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but it has the advantage of being versatile and offering enormous diversity.
Your favourite wine?
I’m a big fan of Mas Jullien (in the Terrasses du Larzac appellation, ed.), which is a wine of tremendous precision, and in particular the Autour de Jonquières cuvée.
Your favourite vintage?
2018, which is a truly spectacular Cheval Blanc.
If your wine was a person, who would it be?
Chopin, for its universality, emotion, timelessness and classicism. His first concert took place in Paris in 1832, the year the estate was founded in its current guise.
What’s the best way to enjoy it?
With nice people. It’s such a complex wine. A great wine shouldn’t be tasted for what it is, but because it can provoke great conversations.
Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing yourself, or your wine?
No, never. That’s one of the most important things: we don’t allow ourselves to modify our grapes. Expressing a terroir does not mean upsetting its natural balance. You learn as you get older that you must do as little as possible.
Who is your strongest competition?
The weather, and that’s just for starters. It’s an increasingly tough opponent, and if we win today, it’s doubtful that we’ll win again tomorrow.
Which competition do you dread the most?
Bottling. It’s the last moment we actually see our wines. From that point on, they no longer belong to us. After that, I have no more expertise than a collector. I know how to assess our wines as they are made.
What is your greatest trophy?
Getting the message across that there was a whole other debate going on in the wine world than just about the differences between organic and biodynamic winegrowing. You must understand the life of your soil, the need to get rid of monoculture and bring back diversity. This is the future of winegrowing, but also of humanity. I’m proud to have played my part, rising above the petty arguments that drag the debate down. The battle isn’t over yet, but we’ve made a step in the right direction.
Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?
I don’t know at this stage, perhaps a future former trainee. I’d like it to be a woman because that would be a first. Although we’re not a family estate, our owners have a very family-orientated vision of the vineyard, and the notion of succession through the generations is essential.
Key findings from this year’s first regional report
In anticipation of this year’s en primeur releases, Wine Lister has published Part 1 of its annual in-depth Bordeaux Study. In collaboration with Wine-Searcher, our market overview examines the region’s price performance and comparative popularity progression, and examines the wines that have seen the greatest increase in Wine Lister Quality, Brand, and Economic scores over the last year. Drawing upon valuable insight from 48 leading trade survey respondents, the study also identifies which properties have benefited from a rise in trade confidence over the past year, and explores the key benefits of the en primeur system.
Please see our key findings below, or download the study digest in English: Bordeaux Study Digest Part 1 – 2023 ENG or in French: Bordeaux Study Digest – 2023 FR.
It increasingly looks as though the campaign will be more or less drawing to a close this week, with a further flurry of Bordeaux 2021s released en primeur at the end of last week and into Monday, including key entries from the likes of Beychevelle, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel, and Mouton.
Released on Thursday 9th June at £58.90 per bottle, Beychevelle 2021 entered the market 16% below stocks of the 2020 (which has risen in price by around 15% since last year), and otherwise substantially below all other back vintages. With a consistent track record of post-release price performance and critic speculation of the 2021’s promising potential, this may well be one worth backing en primeur.
Trotte Vieille 2021 – an oft-forgotten Saint-Émilion Classé “B” to get behind – also released on Thursday at £53 per bottle (just below the current market price of 2020 and 6% above the now scarce 2019, and otherwise comfortably below recent back vintages of comparable quality). Following suit, Brane-Cantenac 2021 entered the market at £47 (6% below the 2020 vintage and below the prior five back vintages in the market).
Pichon Comtesse 2021 released on Thursday at £134 (just below last year’s release price and 30% below the current market value of the record-quality 2019). The vintage marks the estate’s first year of organic conversion, with Nicolas Glumineau informing the Wine Lister team that 2021 was ” the worst in France for 74 years in terms of climate”, but excellent for Cabernet. Volume is down 70% in 2021, with the vintage comprising 88% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc – the highest proportion since the 2013 vintage (100% Cabernet Sauvignon). These drastically reduced volumes mean that anyone looking to add Pichon Comtesse 2021 to their cellar likely needs to buy it now.
Friday 10th June saw releases from the likes of Giscours, Pichon Baron, and Lafon-Rochet – the latter marking the last ever vintage tended by the estate’s third-generation owner, Basile Tesseron, and the first blended by its new Managing Director, Christophe Congé (of Lafite fame). Released at £25 per bottle, Lafon-Rochet 2021 enters the market below the price of all available back vintages.
Releases came in thick and fast on Monday 13th June, with first growth Mouton entering at £425 per bottle (11% and 15% below the current availability of the 2020 and 2019 vintages respectively). Its little sibling, Le Petit Mouton 2021 was released at £170 per bottle – it appears in eighth place amongst the wines that have seen the highest relative increase between ex-négociant release prices and current market prices across vintages 2016-2020 (see below – extract from Part I of Wine Lister’s 2022 Bordeaux Study).
Cos d’Estournel also entered the market on Monday at £143 per bottle (5% below current market availability of the 2020, and around 8% above the 2019), followed shortly by Cos d’Estournel Blanc at £105 per bottle. According to Wine Lister’s Quality score (892), the 2021 vintage is the best Cos d’Estournel Blanc ever produced, with Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister calling it “delectable, lingering in the mouth”. Le Gay and La Violette owner, Henri Parent released his 2021s on Monday at £69.50 and £240 per bottle respectively. The latter achieves a higher Quality score in 2021 than in 2020 or 2018, while scarce availability of recent vintages on the UK market may also drive interest in the latest release.
Also released during this period: Chasse-Spleen, Réserve de la Comtesse, Léoville Poyferré, Ausone, Lascombes, Ferrière, Giscours, Pagodes de Cos, Aile d’Argent, Rouget, Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Gruaud-Larose, Larcis-Ducasse, Smith Haut Lafitte.
While this year’s en primeur releases are yet to kick into full gear, the past week has seen key entries from the likes of Berliquet, Pontet-Canet, Palmer, Haut-Batailley, Lafleur, and more. Reporting on a shorter week of releases than usual due to the French bank holiday on Thursday 26th May, we examine the latest 2021s to market.
Released on Tuesday 24th May at £38.15 per bottle, Berliquet achieves its highest-ever combined score from Wine Lister partner critics, Antonio Galloni and Neal Martin (Vinous), who both award 91-93 points. While up on the last two years’ release prices, one top UK merchant has informed us that this is understandable at this stage in Berliquet’s progression, especially considering the comparable rise in quality and pricing from its Chanel siblings, Rauzan-Ségla and Canon.
This was followed shortly by Pontet-Canet 2021, which is so far being offered at around £74.17 per bottle. While slightly up on last year’s release price, it still poses as a good-value pick relative to its appellation, especially considering its status as the sixth-highest scoring Pauillac according to WL score (see here).
Also entering the market on Tuesday, Palmer’s 2021 vintage is another stand-out offering from the estate, reminding the Wine Lister team of a Palmer from the 1990s, but with more energy and ripeness. At £237 per bottle, the 2021 opens 1% below the 2020 release price, while volume released is down 30% this year. This, alongside strong critics’ scores and a propitious renovation programme currently underway, should no doubt encourage the success of the latest release.
This week saw releases from Palmer – tasted by the Wine Lister team in the cellar
Released on Wednesday 25th May, Haut-Batailley 2021 is so far being offered at around £39 per bottle (slightly down on the 2020 release price). As with the other Cazes properties, mildew pressure has impacted the yields in 2021, and volume produced is down 10% compared to the 2020. Its sibling in Saint-Estèphe, Les Ormes de Pez 2021 followed suit, and is so far being offered at around £18 per bottle – also fractionally down on last year’s release.
Finishing the week with a bang, Lafleur 2021 was released on Friday 27th May through its UK agent, Justerini & Brooks at £542.33 per bottle. While entering the market 3% and 12% up on the 2020 and 2019 release prices respectively, there is no remaining availability of last year’s release on the market, and the 2019 has more than doubled in price since its release. As the second-best Quality performer of red Bordeaux in 2021 (after Cheval Blanc), and with a history of consistent and impressive price performance post-release, this will be one of the best buys of the campaign for those lucky enough to get their hands on it.
Also released during this period: Sociando-Mallet, Laroque, Alter Ego, Clos du Marquis, and Nénin.
Keeping it in the family with the best value second wine picks
Further informing your Bordeaux 2020 purchases, we look at the top 20 second wines of the vintage by Wine Lister’s value score. The score is calculated based on the quality to price ratio of a wine and vintage, while still allowing room for higher-priced wines to feature.
The top 20 leading sibling wines by Wine Lister value score
Which second wines provide the greatest value?
Often lurking in the shadows of their Grand Vin counterpart, sibling wines offer a high quality, more accessible alternative to Bordeaux’s long-ageing elite. While some are the product of grapes remaining from the Grand Vin, other producers prefer to give a sibling wine its own dedicated plots, often of slightly younger vines. In either case, these wines made at the hands of some of the world’s greatest winemakers should be considered seriously. Below we look at our top picks of sibling wines for value, based on the latest offerings from the Bordeaux 2020 en primeur campaign.
Left Bank legacies
All major Bordeaux appellations across both banks are well-represented amongst the top 20 value picks, with Margaux property, d’Issan achieving the greatest value score for the 2020 vintage. First produced in 1985, Blason d’Issan bears a greater proportion of Merlot than its Grand Vin sibling (57% compared to 39%), but as noted by its maker, Emmanuel Cruse, is still very much a “baby d’Issan”, sporting the château’s perennial style. The second wine of 2020’s wine of the vintage (according to Wine Lister partner critics), Margaux, has been a permanent feature of the estate since the 17th century; christened Pavillon Rogue in 1908, it is 2020’s only top 20 second wine from a First Growth property. Margaux comrade, Giscours, is also represented, by its Sirène de Giscours, which enjoys the same winemaking attention and ageing as the Grand Vin, but with grapes sourced from younger vines. Finally, Margaux majesty, Palmer is featured with Alter Ego. Its 2020 release was well sought-after, particularly after no second wine was produced in 2018.
Pessac-Léognan royalty, Haut-Brion’s Clarence de Haut-Brion ranks among the top 20 sibling wines for value. It is joined by L’Espirit de Chevalier – the red counterpart of Domaine de Chevalier’s sibling series – and Haut-Bailly’s Haut-Bailly II. The latter was renamed (from La Parde de Haut-Bailly) in 2019 to symbolise the second generation of owners, the Wilmers family. Finally, Chapelle de La Mission Haut Brion comes from the same vineyard as the Grand Vin, grown and harvested in the same way, with the introduction of grapes from the older parcels of La Tour Haut-Brion since the 2006 vintage.
Saint-Julien has three properties represented by their second wines, including Croix de Beaucaillou, which ranks in second place. This sibling wine is produced using grapes hailing from its own distinct vineyard, lying to the west of the château. Completing the top five rankings is Fiefs de Lagrange, which bears familiarity to its Grand Vin sibling, but is more suited for earlier drinking. Finally, Léoville Las Cases’ le Petit Lion celebrates its 13th vintage with the release of the 2020, produced from a blend of replanted vines that are now between 15 and 18 years of age.
In neighbouring Saint-Estèphe, Le Marquis de Calon Ségur and Pagodes de Cos occupy 10th and 11th place respectively, with the former taking very different form from their first wine as an alternative interpretation of the Calon terroir. The latter is produced from a separate, dedicated plot of 40-year-old vines.
Completing the Left Bank selection are four Pauillac value picks, of which two hail from the same property. Pichon Baron is the only property to see its two additional wines feature – Les Griffons de Pichon Baron and Tourelles de Longueville. Lynch-Bages’ Echo joins them within the top 10 picks by value score. Finally, Pichon Comtesse’s Réserve de la Comtesse – first sold in 1973 – is a top feature for en primeur 2020. This well-established sibling wine represents between 20% to 50% of Pichon Comtesse’s total production.
Right Bank relatives
One the Right Bank, and particularly in Pomerol, sibling wines have been slower to catch on, simply due to lower production levels per property. Two Saint Emilion Classés A properties nonetheless stand out for sibling value picks– Pavie and Angélus – featuring Arômes de Pavie and Carillon d’Angélus, respectively. The latter is increasingly becoming a “cousin” rather than a sibling, since the property has recently invested heavily in new plots for Carillon alone. Amongst this top pick hoard is Pomerol estate, Pensées de Lafleur, which takes 13th place amongst the top value picks with a limited-production of 500 cases.
Change and adaptation on the banks of Bordeaux
Unpicking the challenges of the 2020 growing season, we talk to seven top Bordeaux producers to understand more about how climate change continues to impact the region’s fine wine industry.
Haut-Bailly harvest under the scorching September sun
How is Bordeaux adapting to climate change?
Bordeaux has been no stranger to extreme climatic conditions in recent years, culminating in what some may describe as climatological confusion for many châteaux last year. While witnessing 15% more rainfall between March and September 2020 than its 30-year average for this period, Bordeaux also saw 54 days of excessive drought during the summer. It would appear that now, more than ever, adaptation and innovation are key to the successes of the region’s releases.
Dealing with drought
- Extensive dry spells have become a common phenomenon in Bordeaux, with Margaux’s Business Development Director, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, sharing with us his concerns that the vines “could end up with wilting” leaves, leading to “a loss in terms of yields but also eventually in terms of quality”. Despite also being one of the wettest years on record, 2020 was no exception with its pattern of heatwaves and ensuing drought.
- Saint-Émilion’s Cheval Blanc experienced its driest vintage since 1959, though Technical Director Pierre-Olivier Clouet explains the humid spring fortunately allowed the vines to accumulate “water and nutrients much needed later in the season”. He elaborates that despite the drought, this allowed vines to “grow calmly and homogenously”.
- Across the Gironde, Haut-Bailly’s Véronique Sanders tells us that “work in the vineyards has evolved enormously”, and that “the fundamental process of pruning has been re-examined” as part of a wider series of viticultural practices that have been changed to adapt to climate change, enabling Haut-Bailly to make the most out of the varied conditions.
Coping with concentration
- Several properties such as Larrivet Haut-Brion saw small and concentrated berries as a result of high temperatures and persistent drought in 2020. The estate’s Cellar Master, Charlotte Mignon tells us that it has had to adapt its winemaking in recent years, opting for punching down versus pumping over in order “to control light and elegant extractions” in such hot years.
- Alexis similarly tells us of Margaux’s recent investment in more highly advanced phenolic analysis equipment, which reports the levels of tannin and pigment in the individually-vinified lots and allows the team to “precisely plan extraction with lower temperatures, fewer and gentler pump-overs, and limited maceration time”.
- Increasingly concentrated grapes have also reduced yields across the region, as told to us by Calon Ségur’s Managing Director, Vincent Millet, whose volumes in 2020 fell to 33hl/ha (down from 40hl/ha in 2019) due to the heat.
Larrivet Haut-Brion incorporating recently harvested whole bunches into their blend
A move away from Merlot
- With global warming affecting the evolution of certain grape varieties, Palmer CEO, Thomas Duroux tells us that the “classic complex finish of Merlot” is particularly threatened by rapid ripening induced by hot summers.
- This concern was shared amongst several properties, with Charlotte finding Larrivet Haut-Brion’s Merlot grapes to be heavier, with greater sugar levels and thus a higher alcohol potential. To regain freshness in their Merlot juice, she now “incorporates the whole grape bunch, including the stalk”, to add more structure and tannins. In the long term, the estate is planning to replant more plots to Cabernet Sauvignon due to the varietal’s slower ripening, while Margaux is similarly including “more and more” Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in their blend, and “even thinking of perhaps experimenting with a few rows of Carménère”, to study how it reacts to high temperatures.
- In similar vein, Claire Villars-Lurton of Ferrière remarks on the advantage of less Merlot in the changing climate: “We have prioritised replanting of Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than Merlot, as even young the latter variety is more sensitive to water stress”.
- Several of the châteaux we spoke to highlighted their aim of counteracting the effects of climate change by enriching the natural environment and the soil. Thomas emphasises the importance of having a “living soil” in the face of ecological stress, noting that biological compost and plant growth amongst the vines offers “greater stability, root resilience, and nourishment” in increasingly hot and dry years.
- The benefits of a living soil are echoed by Vincent, who tells us that at Calon Ségur they plant grass cover in the vine rows maintains “some moisture in the soil during dry periods”.
- Claire notes that cover crops help to maintain soil biodiversity, but the approach she takes goes beyond this purpose: “we adopt a minimal intervention approach in the vines. We plant cover crops between the rows, that we fold over or cut so as to have a natural mulch – this protects the soil from the damaging effects of strong sunlight, allows the soil to keep a good level of humidity, and means any rain that falls can seep deeper into the subsoils”.
Shading from the sun
- Like several châteaux adapting viticultural practices vintage-by-vintage, Larrivet Haut-Brion withheld leaf removal until later in the 2020 growing season, to shelter grapes from the scorching sun.
- A similar strategy has been adopted at Haut-Bailly, who revise their canopy management every year to reflect the concurrent needs of vines.
- At Calon-Ségur, Vincent explains they are “careful about thinning out the leaves in order to avoid burns”, and are considering “adjusting the height of the trellis” to provide shade from one row to another. Opting for a more permanent solution, Margaux have gone so far as to “change the orientation of the vine rows” in order to “expose each side of the vine to the heat equally and minimize sunscald”.
New additions from this year’s offerings
With the Bordeaux 2020 en primeur campaign now concluded, Wine Lister’s latest MUST BUY update includes 13 new picks from the latest vintage, covering a range of different appellations and price points.
New 13 MUST BUY additions from Bordeaux 2020
What are the MUST BUYs from Bordeaux 2020?
Wine Lister’s MUST BUY algorithm takes into account a wine’s quality and value within its vintage and appellation to produce initial recommendations. These results are then filtered through an intelligence-based, human overlay, which identifies MUST BUY wines based on our tasting of Bordeaux 2020, and observation of the reception of each release in the market.
Right Bank insights
Highlighting the success of the Right Bank in 2020, Saint-Emilion houses five of our 13 Bordeaux 2020 MUST BUYs. Amongst the selection is one of Wine Lister partner critic, Antonio Galloni’s (Vinous) “wines of the year”, Pavie 2020, which he scores 97-99, noting “All the elements are well balanced.” The first key release out of the gate this year, Cheval Blanc also gains MUST BUY status. With a score of 96-98 from Neal Martin (Vinous), who calls it “finely proportioned and multi-layered” with a “mineral-driven finish”, the 2020 can be purchased en primeur from Petersham Cellars for £388 per bottle (in-bond).
Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau Lagarrosse, Laroque, and Canon also join the Saint-Emilion entries – the latter gaining praise from Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, who describes it as “Full-to-bursting with salivating fruit, just ‘à point’, with impeccable balance”. Canon 2020 can be bought en primeur from £96 per bottle (in-bond) from Honest Grapes.
The Right Bank is represented further by prized Pomerol property, La Conseillante, which retains MUST BUY status for the second vintage in a row. Released at £156 per bottle (in-bond), the 2020 receives a score of 96-98 from Neal Martin, who calls it a “deeply impressive and quite profound La Conseillante”, and is available to purchase en primeur from Goedhuis & Co.
Left Bank investments
Over on the Left Bank, the latest Margaux MUST BUYs comprise 2020s from Brane-Cantenac, d’Issan, and Durfort-Vivens – all of which are available on the market for £50 per bottle (in-bond) or less. d’Issan performs notably well, taking new shape with the introduction of Petit Verdot and Malbec in the latest blend, hailing from new plots purchased by the estate in March 2020. It earns a score of 93-95 from Antonio Galloni, who notes that “Issan is shaping up to be a jewel of a wine.” Appearing in the rankings for most-improved Wine Lister Quality score for a third consecutive year (see our recent blog here), Durfort-Vivens also achieves MUST BUY status in 2020. The estate has seen impressive post-en primeur price performance in recent years, and shows future promise in its upward quality trajectory. Durfort-Vivens’s latest release can be bought en primeur from Justerini & Brooks at £44 per bottle (in-bond).
Pauillac’s Haut-Bages Libéral 2020 receives some of the highest scores ever achieved by the property, including a score of 17 from James Lawther for JancisRobinson.com, who calls it “pure and precise” with “silky and refined” tannins. In neighbouring Saint-Estèphe, Lafon-Rochet also features in the latest MUST BUY haul, with a vintage that marks the inaugural merging of two of the most revered minds in Bordeaux (see our recent blog here). Jean-Claude Berrouet and Eric Boissenot’s joint efforts in 2020 were praised by critics, with Jancis Robinson calling it “a very successful 2020.” Released from £27 per bottle (in-bond), Lafon-Rochet 2020 also gains Value Pick status, and can be purchased at Jeroboams.
Pessac-Léognan provides two MUST BUYs in 2020, with Malartic-Lagravière receiving a score of 93-95 from Antonio Galloni, who describes it as having “An extra kick of energy and vibrancy that is quite attractive”. Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2020 earns 95-97+ from the critic, and can be acquired from Jeroboams for £79 per bottle (in-bond).
Explore all Wine Lister MUST BUYs here, or discover more Bordeaux 2020s here.
Bordeaux en primeur 2020 saw mixed pricing decisions throughout the campaign. To help those still looking to purchase en primeur this year, we examine some of the best offerings from the latest vintage at five different price points. (All prices are quoted in-bond per bottle when purchasing by the case).
Click here to view all Bordeaux 2020 releases, or read more below.
Under £20 – Laroque
Attesting to the estate’s sustained step-up in quality since its 2018 vintage, Laroque receives strong critical praise in 2020. Antonio Galloni and Neal Martin (Vinous) both award 93-95, with the latter calling it, “Possibly the best Laroque that winemaker Suire has overseen to date.” Having worked at fellow Saint-Émilion estates, Bellevue, Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau Lagarrosse, and Larcis Ducasse over the past 15 years, winemaker David Suire joined Laroque in 2015. He has since invested in making significant quality improvements, changing the winemaking process of the Grand Vin to now consist solely of free-run juice and no press wine. The third Laroque release in a row to achieve Value Pick status, the 2020 vintage can be bought from Justerini & Brooks for £18.92 per bottle (in-bond).
Under £50 – Cantenac Brown
The recent acquisition of Margaux Third Growth, Cantenac Brown, by agro-engineer, Tristan Le Lous, brought about a buzz of excitement for his first full vintage at the estate. Under its new ownership, the estate has expanded its vineyards by 9.5ha to incorporate high-quality vines from neighbouring estates, La Galiane and Charmant on the iconic Margaux plateau. Efforts to improve their blend, through the introduction of 70% of the grapes harvested on these new parcels, are reflected in top scores for the 2020 vintage, which receives its highest ever score from Antonio Galloni (94-97). Tasted by Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, she calls it, “A very successful Cantenac Brown.” Cantenac Brown 2020 can be purchased en primeur from Goedhuis for £34.33 per bottle (in-bond).
Under £100 – Clinet
Pomerol’s rising star, Clinet once again provides good value within its appellation in 2020. With traces of the vineyard dating back to 1595, one of Pomerol’s oldest estates is managed under the watchful eyes of a small team, co-headed by President of the UGCB, Ronan Laborde. Receiving a score of 94-96 from Neal Martin, he notes, “This is a Pomerol that really wants to make an impression.” Ella found the 2020 vintage to be, “Seamless and languorous. A triumph.” Clinet 2020 is available en primeur at IG Wines for £66.50 per bottle (in-bond).
Under £200 – Figeac
Completing a trilogy of top-scoring vintages, Figeac 2020 highlights the estate’s skilled adaptation to the extreme climate conditions it faced in the year. The team recently reflected on the challenges brought about by “mild winter temperatures, summer heat-waves, and unusually variable rainfall” in 2020, which nonetheless produced one of Ella’s favourite wines from the vintage. Tasting in Bordeaux, she notes a “Trademark Figeac texture. The harmony is mind-blowing.” This Saint-Émilion star can be purchased en primeur from Farr Vinters for £156 per bottle (in-bond).
Over £300 – Margaux
Margaux is one of Wine Lister’s top picks at the premium end of the en primeur spectrum. The highest-scoring wine of the vintage, Margaux is the only 2020 to receive a WL score of 98 (an average combining all Wine Lister’s partner critics on a 100-point scale). According to the Margaux team, the success of the vintage is down to the amalgamation of “homogenous flowering, summer conditions that favoured small berries, and excellent harvesting conditions.” Indeed, the 2020 receives a score of 19 from James Lawther for JancisRobinson.com, who describes it as the “Perfect pitch”, while Ella was “Wowed”, stating “This will age into eternity, and yet the texture is already soft now.” For those looking to find this First Growth, Margaux 2020 can be reserved for £433 per bottle (in-bond) via Petersham Nurseries.
Part II of Wine Lister’s annual Bordeaux Study, “Going the (quality distance)”, explores the outperformers of the latest vintage – the top 15 wines whose Wine Lister Quality score (part of our Pro rating system) in 2020 most exceeded their wine-level average.
Read on below to find out more, or head to our analysis page to download the Bordeaux Study here.
Margaux is well-represented in the 2020 outperformers chart, with five wines showing significant improvements this year. Appearing in fourth place of quality outperformers for 2019, Ferrière now tops the chart. Gaining a score of 94-96 from Wine Lister’s partner critic, Antonio Galloni (Vinous), he describes the latest release as a “powerhouse” that shows, “the more virile side of Margaux off to great effect.” Appearing in the top spot in 2018 and 2019, Durfort-Vivens ranks second place this year, while fellow Margaux châteaux, Cantenac-Brown, Brane-Cantenac, and d’Issan take 10th, 14th, and 15th place, respectively.
La Lagune appears third in the list of outperformers for the second year running, having been described by Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, as having, “Exquisite texture” in 2020. Also hailing from the Haut-Médoc, Poujeaux appears in eighth place, with Antonio Galloni (Vinous) calling the latest release “Plush, engaging, and flat-out delicious.”
In neighbouring Pauillac, Haut-Bages Libéral returns for a second year to rank fifth amongst the top outperformers in 2020. Awarding 17 points, James Lawther for JancisRobinson.com found the latest vintage to be, “Pure and precise with plenty of energy and drive.”
On either side of Pauillac’s parameters, two châteaux from Saint-Julien feature in the list, with Talbot and Gruaud-Larose showing strong improvements in Quality score in 2020, while Saint-Estèphe is represented by Lafon-Rochet. Awarding a score of 93-95, Antonio Galloni (Vinous) describes Lafon-Rochet 2020 as, “Silky, elegant and so pure […] shaping up to be one of the real under the radar gems of 2020.”
Alongside Les Carmes Haut-Brion – who appears in seventh place amongst top outperformers in 2020 – the Pessac-Léognan picks comprise the only Bordeaux white to feature in the ranking. Carbonnieux Blanc receives a score of 90-92 from both Antonio Galloni and Neal Martin (Vinous), with the latter noting, “A fragrant, well-defined bouquet of Braeburn apples, pear and wild mint”.
Two wines from Saint-Émilion made significant advancements in this year’s ranking, with La Dominique ranking fourth, and La Gaffelière appearing in 11th place. The latter features for the second year in a row, receiving 96-98 from Neal Martin in 2020, who calls it a “magnificent prospect”.
Part II of Wine Lister’s annual Bordeaux Study also explores evaluating the leading Bordeaux bottles for long-term price performance and presence at auction. Check out the Study Digest for some key findings here, or purchase the full report on our Analysis page. Pro subscribers can access their free copy here.