Branas Grand Poujeaux 2002-2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 22, 2022
Ask your common-or-garden Bordeaux aficionado to list the Left Bank appellations, and often they omit Moulis and Listrac. “Oh, yes, of course,” they reply, slapping their forehead. “How absent-minded of me.” Inquire whether they have ever stepped foot within those appellations, and they will probably look evasive, scratch their head and mumble, “Hmm. Not that I can remember.” That’s understandable. I mean, there’s no reason to take a time-consuming detour away from the D2 given the abundance of châteaux that line the banks of the Gironde estuary, located upon its most favorable terroirs… right?
Well, not exactly. Although both Listrac and Moulis (or, to give it its full title, Moulis-en-Médoc) lie inland from the estuary, they have their own unique terroirs, the best of which are capable of producing wines equal to Grand Cru Classés.
Among the most consistently impressive has been Branas Grand Poujeaux. When I visited Bordeaux in June 2021, I took that detour off the D2 and headed into Moulis to visit co-proprietor Arjen Pen. Following a vertical covering the last two decades, we toured his parcels in his 4x4. Pen is a garrulous, clear-minded fellow, extremely focused on what he wants to achieve. His replies to my follow-up questions were so informative and insightful that I have left them almost verbatim. There is ample information here, but it should give readers insight into the background of the appellation and its future, as well as detailing the slightly convoluted formation of Branas Grand Poujeaux.
There is little known about the history of the estate. Old editions of Féret refer to the Dubuc family as owners in the 1940s, and Jacques de Pourquéry was its well-regarded proprietor up until 2002. While the background of the château is rather vague, Arjen Pen offered plenty of information about his own career path, and so I began by asking if he was always interested in wine.
Arjen Pen, taken at the château following my tasting.
Jigsaw Pieces Come Together
Arjen Pen: My Dutch father was born in 1945, and he really learned about wine when working for a Belgian company. Belgians have a long culture of wine, more than countries further north, though that has changed, of course. Belgium was an important market for Branas Grand Poujeaux, and [current co-proprietor] Justin Onclin has Belgian roots. When I was an Erasmus student at Université Paris-Dauphine, my parents gave me a wine tasting course as a birthday present. I think it started there. The first wines that I tasted were those my father brought home from Belgium, such as Côte de Buzet, not really from Bordeaux, but not far away. He was an agronomist, and he moved to France with my mother when I went to university. My parents lived for 20 years in Jurançon, close to the city of Pau. Ever since, I’ve had a weakness for Petit and Gros Manseng, and it’s difficult for me to choose between Sauternes and Jurançon sweet wines.
“Later, our house wine was upgraded to Château Haut-Marbuzet, as my father knew the Dubosq family well. They have always been an inspiration for me in terms of their success and wine quality. When I left the airline industry in 2004, I wanted to become a farmer and winemaker. My family roots were in agriculture. My brother is a biology professor at the University of Groningen. So getting my hands dirty in different Bordeaux terroirs was not an alien concept, more a passion. I am certainly one of the few estate managers in Bordeaux who you can find in the vineyards and on the tractor. My philosophy is that 90% of the wine quality is determined by our work in the vineyard. So, when I am not doing administrative and commercial duties, I go into the vineyard blocks.”
Neal Martin: How did you end up at Branas Grand Poujeaux? You had a very interesting backstory that you were telling me as we toured the vineyard.
AP: In 2004, I decided to pursue my passion for wine and agriculture following a first career in the airline industry, where I worked for Lufthansa, Swiss and KLM as head of the commercial division. I remember my favorite meetings in Switzerland were those where I participated in selecting in-flight wines for Business and First Class. When Air France purchased KLM, there was one commercial director too many, and I decided to leave the travel industry.
“After connecting with Cees van Leeuwen, an oenology professor in Bordeaux and at that time chef de culture at Cheval Blanc, and with Stéphan Derenoncourt, who was a rising star at that time and still had his office at Canon La Gaffelière, I raised the money to purchase a Fronsac estate in 2005, Château Richelieu. Five years later, a Chinese investor managed to purchase the estate when a majority of shareholders accepted his financial offer. Contractually, I was obliged to stay on for two more years. During this period, I also managed a second Fronsac estate, Château Arnauton, for a Dutch group, and started to work in South Africa as well.
“Together with a former colleague and some investors, we acquired two farms in South Africa within the Wellington area, near Paarl and Stellenbosch. We did not make wine ourselves but had delivery rights to two cooperatives in Swartland. I helped these wineries to sell more wine in Europe. During the first energy crisis in South Africa, we suddenly had no power during the harvest, and this was problematic, as we had 200 people packing table grapes destined for Europe. As I always had a strong interest in becoming more ecological and improving the carbon footprint of the business I work in, we acquired a 7,000ha sheep farm in the northwestern part of South Africa, close to Namibia. On this land, we started to develop permits for solar power plants.
“My home base remained Libourne, as my three daughters were schooled here. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Justin Onclin, who was the successful founder of a Bordeaux wine merchant [Sovex, later sold to Ballande & Meneret] and also the general manager of Château Prieuré-Lichine. During this time, Justin learned that a few kilometers north of Margaux, there is a plateau called Grand Poujeaux that consists of Günzian deep gravel mixed with clay, limestone and sandy layers, terroir identical to the First Growths that occupy the same vein. Most of this plateau, which is roughly 25% of the Moulis-en-Médoc appellation, was divided among two very large estates, Château Chasse Spleen and Château Poujeaux. Justin Onclin had the opportunity to purchase the six hectares of Branas Grand Poujeaux in 2002.”
Onclin purchased the old chai of Branas, the vineyards, and two small buildings for the machines. The château building itself was occupied by the former owner’s mother, and years later, it was purchased by Thomas Burke, commercial manager at Château Margaux. A few years after the purchase of Branas, Justin Onclin bought the old estate house located next to the chai that had been owned by the former proprietors of Poujeaux. The building dates from 1777 and the winery from 1778 – evidence of the farming history on the Grand Poujeaux plateau. It is said that the Moulis appellation was home to the first historical vineyards in the Médoc, long before Dutch engineers helped drain the famous gravel plateaus of Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Moulis and Margaux.
During the first vintages of Branas Grand Poujeaux, Michel Rolland was the consultant oenologist. Renovation was carried out on the winery buildings in 2004 and 2005, inspired by the works that had been done at Prieuré-Lichine. The first vintage [under the present owners] of Branas was 2002, cropped at only 30hl/ha and made with 100% new oak. In 2006, Justin Onclin purchased the vineyard blocks of Château Peyrabon La Gravette within the Moulis appellation, while its parcels in Listrac, its buildings and the château name were sold to a third party. This comprised four hectares of the finest vineyards that the gravel plateau of Grand Poujeaux has to offer, planted with one meter between rows instead of 1.5 meters.
Until the 2020 vintage, Branas Grand Poujeaux remained at 12 hectares after two hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon were taken out of production in 2017. Derenoncourt took over as oenologist consultant in 2006, staying through to the 2011 vintage, and was then replaced by Hubert de Boüard from 2012.
“In 2018, I started looking for an investment in a promising vineyard, pushed by a friend and former shareholder of Château Richelieu, Hindrik Gommer. I was introduced to Justin Onclin, who had accepted that his children were not interested in taking over the wine estates on the Left and Right banks of Bordeaux. Hindrik and I had the opportunity to become a partner in Branas Grand Poujeaux, and at the same time we brought in and merged the neighboring Château Granins Grand Poujeaux. This estate had belonged to the Bodin-Batailley family, whose only son was living in Amsterdam with no desire to return to France and take over the family business.
“For the 2020 vintage, we added the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot blocks, all in prime locations on the Grand Poujeaux plateau, with some of the blocks touching Branas. In 2021, we added the seven hectares of Merlot on the clay and limestone that border the Listrac vineyards of Château Clark. As we do not wish to grow too fast, we sold four hectares of Merlot grapes to a Grand Cru Classé via SAFER. My first real action at Branas was finalizing the assemblage of the 2018 vintage when I took over the gérance of the estate.”
Arjen Pen down among the vines during our tour of their parcels within the appellation. Notice the clear blue skies; this was taken during probably the most clement spell of weather during the otherwise challenging 2021 growing season.
NM: Tell me about the vineyard composition – size, parcels, rootstock, planting density, vineyard husbandry.
AP: The vineyards are planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot grapes. The identity of Branas is that it has always had more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, a bit like Haut-Marbuzet and Palmer in their respective appellations. In 2016, the blend was 50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. In the subsequent three vintages, the Merlot increased to 75% after two Cabernet Sauvignon blocks were taken out in 2017 and replanted this spring. From 2020 onward, we will see some more Cabernet Sauvignon in the final blend as we incorporate some Cabernet blocks following the merger with Granins Grand Poujeaux. Our vineyard blocks are located in 12 different spots within the Moulis-en-Médoc appellations, ten on the Grand Poujeaux plateau and two at the beginning of the clay limestone plain.
“Twenty-five percent of the vineyard is planted with 1.50 meters between rows, like in Saint-Émilion, and 75% is planted at one meter between rows. We replanted the vineyards at a high density, roughly 9,000 vines per hectare or, to be exact, 9,090, since we plant at 1.10 meters between the rows. We prune Guyot-double, and in the high-density blocks we leave three buds on each side. In the medium-density blocks, we prune to four buds on each side. For the new Cabernet Sauvignon blocks that we planted in April, I use the same nursery supplier as Château Margaux and also the same rootstock and clones (3309 for the rootstock and the two Cabernet Sauvignon clones, 412 and 169). Branas Grand Poujeaux has not used pesticides since 2002 and has worked the soils mechanically since that time. The sustainable agricultural philosophy resulted in a certification of the highest level in France, HVE 3 in 2016.”
NM: Can you talk me through the vinification process? Has it changed over the years?
AP: Branas Grand Poujeaux is the only estate among its neighbors that hand-picks 100% of the vineyard blocks and all in small crates. Picking in small crates is a logistical effort during harvest but very important for the purity and precision of the wines. Through the years, the percentage of new wood has been reduced and a more balanced production quantity has been achieved in the vineyards, with an average of 42hl/ha over the last four vintages, the appellation limit being 57hl/ha.
“The real difference with Branas Grand Poujeaux is that we are relatively small for a Médoc estate. We can work very precisely in terms of the vineyard blocks, and thanks to our many small fermentation vats, mostly 60 hectoliters, we can really extract the terroir identity from each single block and keep these isolated during barrel aging and only make blending decisions in terms of selecting first-, second- and third-quality blends at the very end.
“The vinification style has evolved. Now there is minimum intervention and delicate extraction to highlight the purity of the fruit and juice. The malolactic fermentation is done entirely in oak barrel, which in my experience is quite important, as it adds a natural fatness and more aromatic complexity. Our barrel-aging cellar has two levels for two vintages, so we can heat the upper level to start the malolactic fermentation, while keeping the older vintage in the lower level at 14°C. The wines are aged for 16–18 months in French oak from six different coopers, the main three being Darnajou, Demptos and Taransaud, with some Saint Martin, Sylvain and Radoux. For the first wine, we aim now for roughly 50% new wood and the remaining 50% consisting of second- and third-fill (only for the pressed wine). The wines are filtered once as part of our zero-brettanomyces-tolerance policy, and fining is done only when needed after analyzing the wine with our oenology team. In terms of our vineyard work, harvest reception and vinification, we try to go beyond the precision of most Grand Cru Classé wines in Bordeaux.”
NM: What are your plans for the future? How do you see the role of Moulis-en-Médoc within Bordeaux, and what do its wines offer consumers?
AP: I have deep respect for my neighbors Poujeaux and Chasse Spleen, whose combined production comprises one-third of the entire Moulis-en-Médoc appellation. Thanks to their great terroir-based wines, these estates are considered by most wine lovers to be Grand Cru Classés. Thanks to their efforts and also thanks to Château Maucaillou, which is successful in a different price/quality category, the Moulis-en-Médoc appellation could build its reputation, despite its small size and being the smallest communal appellation in the Médoc.
“Nevertheless, in my eyes, Moulis-en-Médoc is still a real insider appellation for wine lovers in the Médoc. It is 25% smaller than Pomerol with 600 hectares in production and only 42 wine producers. The top producers from the appellation can compare themselves in terms of wine quality with 1,855 classified growths, but the ‘brand recognition’ of the Moulis appellation is quite low due to its [small] size.
“There is a project to merge the Listrac and Moulis appellations and to incorporate the communities of Arcins and Lamarque into a large Moulis-en-Médoc appellation. I am in favor of such a project, but it will take several years to co-develop with the INAO and the appellations. The result would be an appellation that is about the size of Margaux and will touch the Gironde, like the other larger communal appellations. There would be more communication around the appellation, and also there would be many high-quality estates that would be part of the larger appellation, be it from Listrac or from the Haut-Médoc communities of Arcins and Lamarque. Also, within our appellation, we would have the best white wines from the Médoc, which historically are from the Listrac region. Next year, we plan to plant around two hectares of white [vines] on a very nice clay-limestone vineyard. We still need to decide whether to plant traditional Bordeaux grapes or Chardonnay or even more exotic varietals.”
I tasted a complete vertical of Branas Grand Poujeaux at the château from 2002 onward. Stylistically, if you have not tasted the wine before, think more of a Merlot-driven blend than Cabernet; Pen’s comparison to Haut-Marbuzet is a very astute one. It is not Right Bank in style, but the Merlot lends it sumptuousness and an almost gamy quality that can be very seductive.
As readers know, I always call it like I see it. Though it was fascinating to taste these early vintages of Branas Grand Poujeaux, the wines feel rather long in the tooth and rustic compared to recent offerings, the fruit having departed some time ago. The turnaround seems to be with the 2006 vintage, the first that really gives notice that this is a Moulis destined to go places. This coincides with the acquisition of the parcels from Château Peyrabon La Gravette, which clearly made a tangible difference. Then, post-2009, the wine achieves more purity and finesse and greater terroir expression, and becomes far more consistent. Even the 2013 Branas Grand Poujeaux has more to offer than many of its peers. In terms of buying, I would seek out vintages since 2012 and cellar them for five or six years if possible.
The final point I will raise is the idea of combining the two appellations of Listrac and Moulis-en-Médoc. This was the first time I had heard of the proposal. My immediate reaction was that it is a good idea, and I still believe that as a single entity, perhaps it will not escape the attention of that forgetful wine lover mentioned in my introduction. A vast majority of even the most ardent claret lovers probably lump the two appellations together anyway, and with one or two exceptions, would be unable to tell you which châteaux lie in either Moulis or Listrac. I am certain that more people would take notice of a combined appellation’s wines and, in particular, the potential of its terroir, too often given short shrift because it lies inland from the estuary. While the authorities weigh the decision, there are plenty of wines from Branas Grand Poujeaux out there to enjoy.
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