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Bending Rules: Les Carmes Haut-Brion 1955-2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 25, 2022
Bordeaux châteaux tend to take years to change direction. Dismantle an entrenched and outdated modus operandi and reconfigure so that a new vision is realised. But once in a while, a change is so radical that it’s as if someone snapped their fingers, et voilà! An estate is reborn, almost unrecognisable from its previous incarnation. I remember visiting Les Carmes Haut-Brion 1.0 in the late Nineties. It was just another Pessac-Léognan, quirky and quaint, a Lesser Spotted Haut-Brion that had survived urban sprawl, whose wines had a penchant to charm and yet rarely quickened the pulse. I visited out of curiosity more than anything. A few years later, I recall setting eyes on Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2.0 for the first time. They almost popped out of my head. It was as if a giant submarine had surfaced in the city’s suburbs, a dazzling architectural overhaul commensurate with a startling re-invention of the wine.
This article thoroughly examines those changes, from out in the vines to deep inside that “submarine.” I look at the anatomy of a sui generis and its thinking outside the box, how despite all this reinvention, there are common threads binding past, present and future.
It turned out to be one of the most fascinating visits in recent years.
I would not have expected anything less.
The original château was built in the 19th century.
The clue is in the name. Les Carmes Haut-Brion was originally part of the estate of Haut-Brion. In 1584, its owner, Jean de Pontac, donated a parcel of meadow and chucked in a few rows of vines to the Carmelites, a religious Order based in Langon. The name appropriately derives from Mount Carmel and translates as “God’s vineyard.” This munificent act was purportedly in return for the monks praying for the Pontac family, though it was not their first tract of vines since they owned land that ultimately begat Rieussec in Sauternes. For two centuries, the Order tended the land for ecclesiastical purposes and no doubt a drop of post-prayer libation.
The French Revolution saw the estate confiscated. Léon Colin eventually acquired it in 1840. His descendants were the Chantecaille family, merchants that vinified and aged wine in their cellars in Bordeaux since no facilities existed at the estate. Despite this, the family oversaw the construction of an ornate château that overlooks the vineyards. When I first visited Les Carmes Haut-Brion, it was like visiting a small, local jardin de publique. All that was missing was a children’s playground. A gentleman named Didier Furt, who married into the Chantecailles and had run the estate since 1987, came out to greet me. Furt had already overseen improvements, cutting out herbicides and installing a long overdue winery and barrel cellar, enabling greater use of new oak and the introduction of a Deuxième Vin.
A new chapter opened in 2010 when Patrice Pichet purchased the estate. He had met the Chantecailles several years earlier and would often walk on neighbouring land, gaze over and fall under the spell of Les Carmes. Pichet was not short of a “few bobs” and instigated a long-term investment program, sums that might be considered extravagant for such a bijou estate with a modest reputation. But it paid dividends since Les Carmes Haut-Brion became a hotbed of new ideas and an alternate way of thinking.
That is thanks, in no small part, to the appointment of Guillaume Pouthier. Pouthier is a dynamo, a man who doesn’t sit still and talks like a runaway train to such an extent that when discussing aspects of viticulture and winemaking, my fingers can barely keep up. Ironically, a hitherto soporific château has such an energetic manager at its helm. Pouthier graduated as an agricultural engineer from Toulouse, whose alumni include Olivier Berrouet (Petrus) and Jean-Michel Laporte (Talbot). For ten years, Pouthier was the technical manager of the Bordeaux négociant CVBG. After this, he upped sticks to the Rhône where he worked for the only person I can think of with as much energy as Pouthier - Michel Chapoutier. Having looked after Chapoutier’s portfolio, he returned to Bordeaux in 2012 to join Les Carmes Haut-Brion. In his spare time, Pouthier enjoys mountain climbing. “It’s good for your health,” he tells me, “and it clears your head.”
Guillaume Pouthier, where he’s happiest, out in the vines.
Arriving on a crisp May morning, with vines speckled with dew, I spent a couple of hours inspecting the vineyard with Pouthier.
“The vineyard covers 7.8 hectares in total with an average vine age of 53 years,” Pouthier explains. There is another plot, once part of Château Le Thil, owned by the Cathiards of Smith Haut-Lafitte, though this is used for the Deuxième Vin. “Planting density is 10,000 vines per hectare. Some 45% is planted with Cabernet Franc, many of the vines are 82 years old and some surpass the century mark. There is more limestone towards the top of the incline. This tends to retain water when dry. As you go down the slope, there is more gravel in the soil, Mindel not Günzian, mixed with more free-draining clay. There is less clay and limestone here than at Haut-Brion, which is why we have more Cabernet Franc, their gravel meaning they have more Cabernet Sauvignon. [This was later confirmed by winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas when I visited the First Growth.] Here it is a calcisol [a soil type that is free-draining and rich in calcium carbonate] like at Ausone, which is ideal for Cabernet Franc that needs hydric stress.”
“We have identified 13 different soil types in the vineyard. A seam of crasse de fer between 1 and 1.5 meters below the surface differentiates Pessac from Léognan. This tends to impart a scent like an ‘âtre de cheminée’ [fireside hearth]. I find that there are distinct grape maturity levels due to water retention. The water naturally flows down the incline where there is more organic matter. It makes a large difference. There can be ten days difference in grape maturity.”
The vineyard comprises of 41% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. “We have replanted from our massal selection program for the last ten years. Some parent material comes from the Loire, for example, Clos Rougeard. [This will change the composition of the vineyard to 43% Cabernet Franc, 37% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.] The bunches are heavier, 120gm per bunch instead of 80gm, with more natural acidity. We have around five bunches per vine that are pruned taille Bordelaise. Cover crops include fern and alfalfa. I find that grasses can reduce surface temperatures by up to 1.5° Celsius [obviously important considering recent hot summers]. We pulled out the 0.7-hectare parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2021 as there was too much virus, and we will replant in five or six years from the massal selection.”
This prompts me to ask about changes in the blend in recent years. Pouthier tells me that before 2010 there was more Merlot. Intriguingly, he tells me that Furt died in 2020, at the ripe old age of 103, and made the wines during the Second World War. At that time, up until around 1960, there was no Merlot in the vineyard. Furt informed Pouthier that there was no de-stemming in bygone times, and the blend could contain up to 80% Cabernet Franc. So in many ways, Pouthier is returning to the style of wines from the post-war period until the Sixties, which, as you will gauge from my more ancient tasting notes, is no bad thing.
The exterior of the Les Carmes Haut-Brion winery.
We then discuss the harvest. “The upper part of the vineyard is picked first, which is usually blended with the Cabernet Sauvignon planted in front of the château. I never use one variety in a vat. I want to express the typicity of the soil in the vat, even if the fruit is at different stages of maturity. The yield averages around 40hL/ha, which is what you need to make a great wine. The picking for Les Carmes Haut-Brion takes around four days, and 12 days for the C des Carmes. We don’t use students [something that I assumed they did, being in proximity to the university]. The pickers come through a company that specialises in harvests. We sort manually to determine which of the bunches are ripe or not and then use optical sorting after that.”
gravity-fed winery was constructed between 2013 and 2015. I remember visiting
just before the opening in 2016 and being asked not to take photos of the new
winery courtesy of Philippe Starck and Luc Arsène-Henry. As I mentioned in my
introduction, it was as if a submarine had surfaced in the River Peugue that
traverses the estate. However, the official line is that a ship’s bow inspires
it as a reminder of Bordeaux’s seafaring past. The stream water is not just aesthetically
pleasing as it helps maintain a constant ambient temperature – crucial in the context
of the hot summers and urban location. The reception and vat room are at ground
level. The barrel cellar underneath and divided into two, one for the
malolactic fermentation and the other for the élevage so that temperatures can
be set appropriately. The tasting-cum-dining room with an adjoining kitchen is installed
upstairs that could have been ripped out of a millionaire’s superyacht. At the
same time, roof decking makes it an ideal place for a barbecue and/or sunbathing.
The Les Carmes Haut-Brion vat room.
The use of stems distinguishes Les Carmes Haut-Brion from every other Bordeaux estate. Commonplace in Burgundy and elsewhere, it has long been anathema in this region. However, in bygone times, I have no doubt stems were added as they were crudely and laboriously detached using an iron grill. I ask how Pouthier approaches this facet of winemaking per grape variety. “Choice of what bunches [are included in the double-skinned vat] is made when the stems are ripe. Much of the proportion comes from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, around 70% [of the volume], and the rest is Cabernet Sauvignon [around 15%]. The average is between 40% to 55%, but it depends on the vintage. We practice the millefeuille technique [layering the de-stemmed part of the blend with those with stems intact]. The use of stems decreases alcohol by around 0.5% on average. This is because some water in the bunches is retained after alcoholic fermentation through osmosis.”
“Every year, we cut some grapes a pied de cuve [using early picked grapes to prepare a culture of indigenous live yeast in a small volume of wine that is then dispersed across vats to help get the fermentation going and minimize the use of cultured yeasts and, through the production of CO2, prevent spoilage]. We do one pigeage for the juice and one remontage to mix it up before closing the vat for the alcoholic fermentation that lasts for five to ten days, checking temperatures constantly. We maintain a very low fermentation temperature between 26° and 28° Celsius for four to five weeks. We usually have around 50% free juice instead of 80%. The tannins in the skins have more polyphenols than in the pips, so it is important to maintain contact between the juice and the skins. We once used a kind of rubber ring for maceration and increasing skin contact, but now we use the pressure inside the vat for punching down the cap. Blending is done around the end of November after the alcoholic fermentation.”
Amphore at Les Carmes Haut-Brion.
the subject of alcohol levels, Pouthier opines: “If a wine has a higher alcohol
level, then it permeates the wood deeper, maybe 1.2mm to 1.5mm, and therefore
it picks up more wood tannins. This is why we mature part of the wine in
concrete. Regarding barrel maturation, the biggest change has been the duration
of élevage, now two years. We use 80% new oak [which utilises the OXYLINE
system so that barrels can be rotated] plus 10% in foudres, mostly
Taransaud, Stockinger and Rousseau and 10% in amphora.” It is interesting to
peruse the website to see the make-up of vessels that mature the wine: 50% new
oak and 50% used (2010), 74% mainly new oak, 16% in foudres and 10% in
500-liter barrels (2014), 75% new oak, 16% foudres and 9% amphorae in
2018. There has been a prevailing sense of tweaking the modus operandi over the
previous decade. However, by 2022, I feel Pouthier is settling upon a more
consistent approach for future vintages.
more about the use of amphorae. “There are two types of amphora. There is clay
that has some oxygen ingress. Since 2016, we have used concrete amphora that
has no ingress. Bottling is important, and the cork must be more than 150gm in
density. You need a lot of reduction in the bottle because the wine gradually
oxidizes in bottle, and the best wines last 50 years.”
“The Le C de Carmes Haut-Brion comes from a 30-hectare vineyard in the commune of Martillac between Haut-Bailly, Smith Haut-Lafitte and Carbonnieux and is made in a different cellar. It is a different wine. There is less whole bunch, between 25% and 30%. The blend is also different; the vineyard is planted with 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot with an average vine age of 13 years. It is usually matured in around 30% new oak.”
This is an instance where I feel that the tasting notes do the talking. The vertical conducted with Pouthier at the château was limited to the last decade, a short period that has seen numerous changes. Within this restricted purview, you can easily see the melioration most marked with the 2016 vintage; the wines achieve greater complexity and precision. You feel like prior vintages represent Les Carmes Haut-Brion questioning itself, asking, “So how are we going to do this?” You only need to examine the somewhat subpar 2010 to see how far the wines have travelled.
is one fundamental question: Can you taste the stems? I believe this is one of
the keys to Les Carmes Haut-Brion’s success because, like all great wines from Burgundy
or the Rhône, the presence of stems is only detectable once you become aware the
wines contain them. Stems lend a bit of spiciness, perhaps, certainly
freshness, though they are the secret ingredient that can steer the wine in an
intriguing direction with maturity.
Otherwise, Pouthier manages to assimilate whole clusters beautifully, prudently steering away from adding 100% and keeping them proportionate to the fruit concentration. Naturally, Pouthier’s stem addition has caught the interest of other growers, though the addition of stems in Bordeaux remains a strict “No-no,” something that only Burgundy winemakers do. Interestingly, when I asked why a couple of other winemakers have not even experimented with stem addition, they opined that it would both detract from the terroir and be distasteful in the wines’ youth, which is not desirable given they are sold en primeur when they are unfinished. That’s a pity because it is their contribution to bottle maturity where stem addition can enhance a wine. One other reason is that stems can increase pH levels, which might deter those that fear warm summers will make acidity more challenging to achieve, even though the flipside is that stems can impart freshness.
tasted a handful of older vintages. Quoting Didier Furt, Stephen Brook says,
“These are no especially long-lived wines.” Perhaps that pertains to those
produced at the turn of the millennium, certainly not to the post-war period up
to the early seventies. I have had several enjoyable encounters with the 1989
Les Carmes Haut-Brion though others were remarkably preserved. Pouthier
served blind two vintages that attest to high quality in the past. The 1971
Les Carmes Haut-Brion is delightful, and it would not surprise me if it
surpassed the First Growth in a face-off. (As an aside, the best Haut-Brion I
have encountered before this is the 1971 La Tour Haut-Brion). But the 1955
Les Carmes Haut-Brion was revelatory when Pouthier poured it blind. Defying
its antiquity, this was utterly sublime on the nose and conveyed real panache
on the palate, holding a torch to the legendary La Mission Haut-Brion that
year. Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to find bottles, but you never know
what might crop up in an auction.
Les Carmes Haut-Brion is charting a singular course in its upturned silver hull. Its ascent has been rapid. Given the money invested, you could argue that this is no remarkable feat. Yet, it’s the thinking behind it that intrigues me and bolsters the reputation of Pessac-Léognan. I know a few other reputed châteaux dabbling with stem addition behind closed doors. I suspect a few inquisitive winemakers may well follow. However, I feel that it works at this address because it is part of Pouthier’s holistic approach to viticulture, the leading role played by Cabernet Franc and the winemaking process. Of course, all that would be irrelevant if the wine did not deliver the goods, and unquestionably it does. It will be fascinating to see how current vintages will age in bottle and if they reach the level of the ethereal 1955. Only time will reveal what is possible.
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