In Good Taste: Branaire-Ducru 1928-2013 


Tales of the Unexpected scarred me for life. This television series, with its unforgettable waltzing fairground theme tune and silhouetted lady dancing pagan-like against a backdrop of burning flames, put the heebie-jeebies up this impressionable 10-year-old. Episodes were not frightening but sinister; something nasty always happened before the credits rolled. I was a victim of author Roald Dahl’s vivid and wonderful yet twisted imagination. Even his children’s classics, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, have their dark undertones.

Many episodes of Tales of the Unexpected were adapted from Dahl’s short stories. One of the better known is “Taste,” first published in 1945, which later gained popularity after it was reprinted in The New Yorker magazine in 1951. This particular tale mined Dahl’s expertise in fine wine. I encourage you to read the original; simply search for “Roald Dahl Taste” on the web, where you can find it for free, and revel in Dahl’s impeccable storytelling and pinpoint wine references.

Now, if you don’t want spoilers, skip down to the History section...

The narrator recounts a private family dinner party. The host plans to outwit his guest, a famous and supercilious gourmet aptly named Richard Pratt, by serving an obscure wine and challenging him to identify it blind. (Hmm – that sounds familiar!) Relishing the challenge, the insufferably pompous wine expert goads his host and raises the stakes until the host agrees to wager his 18-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage. The daughter is a bit miffed but reluctantly agrees. In a drawn-out deduction for his audience, the gourmet comments that the wine must be from “one of those small vineyards around Beychevelle,” and then goes on to correctly identify the wine and vintage, to the horror of those watching. Just as Pratt invites his host to discuss nuptials in the kitchen, the maid appears and returns the expert’s spectacles, which he had carelessly left next to the bottle in the study where it had been allowed to breathe. (It’s that old truism of a glance at the label being worth 25 years of experience.) The story is left open-ended, the furious host rising from his chair and his wife begging her husband not to do anything stupid.

And the wine that almost condemned the daughter to a lifetime’s purgatory of betrothal to a wine bore droning on about the injustices of 1855 or ideal serving temperatures for claret?

It was 1934 Branaire-Ducru.

Château Branaire-Ducru lies opposite Beychevelle in the south of the Saint-Julien appellation. The gardens have always been manicured, and I have a soft spot for the pyramid hedges.


The origins of Branaire-Ducru lie in the seigneurie of Lamarque, owned by successive dukes of Épernon until 1666, when the last in line, Bernard de la Valette, saw his estate sequestered by the government to pay off debts. It was subsequently divided in three. The land sold to the Duke of Rendan begat Beychevelle, while the other parcel was sold to Jean-Baptiste Braneyre in 1680. Bernard de la Valette’s daughter married Pierre du Luc, and his family expanded the acreage under vine, though it was not until the early 1700s that Vitis vinifera occupied a majority of the land. Little is known about the Duluc family, though the “du” preceding their family name implies nobility, or at least aspirations toward it.

The original château was constructed in 1794, though the current two-story, directoire-style château building, designed by architects Rieutord and Laciotte, was built in 1824 and then extended in 1836, although the orangery at the rear dates back to the original construction. The Duluc family were seemingly untroubled by the French Revolution, since they presided over the estate into the early 1800s. In 1825, Louis de Luc took the helm, and his investments enhanced the reputation of the wine. Production in this period was between 100 and 140 tonneaux per annum. Clive Coates MW points out that in the same year, one Justin Duluc purchased Château d’Issan in Margaux, though whether he was a close relative of the family in Saint-Julien is unknown. In the 1855 Classification, Branaire-Ducru was deemed worthy of a Fourth Growth. Léo Duluc succeeded his father Justin and in 1873 sold the estate to his cousins, Gustave Ducru and his sister Zelie, who bought it using the proceeds from their share of Ducru-Beaucaillou. The cru was renamed Branaire-Duluc-Ducru, although most people refer to it as Branaire-Ducru. Gustave Ducru died childless in 1879, upon which Branaire-Ducru passed into the hands of his nephews, Comte A. Ravez and the Marquis de Carbonnier de Marsac, and later their distant cousins Viscomte du Perier de Larsan and Comte and Comtesse Jacques de la Tour. These four aristocrats inspired the four coronets that adorn each corner of the label.

In 1919 Branaire-Ducru was sold for 1 million francs to Edouard Mital, an industrialist who established an iron foundry in Lyon. Unfortunately, Mital was an absentee landlord who allowed the estate to slide into decline, much like many Left Bank properties in that era. Its demise is intimated in Dahl’s aforementioned story.

Mital sold the estate in 1952 to Algerian-born Jean Tapie, who set about rejuvenating Branaire-Ducru and restoring its former glory. By that time the vineyard had withered to 30 hectares, so Tapie began renovating the existing old vines and planting new parcels. Slowly, the standard of Branaire-Ducru began to rise. The property passed into the hands of Tapie’s son Jean-Marie and his daughter, who was married to the proprietor of Château Giscours, Nicolas Tari. Interestingly, in his book The Great Wines of Bordeaux, Hubrecht Duijker states that Branaire-Ducru spent around 30 months in almost entirely new oak, a lengthy élevage. Tapie was also partial to issuing non-vintage wines rather than releasing a vintage wine in a poor growing season, something of an anomaly in Bordeaux (although Château Margaux did this in the early 1960s).

Tasting with the late Patrick Maroteaux and Jean-Dominique Videau during the 2014 primeurs. 

The Tari family’s tenure lasted until 1988, the momentous year when the present owners of Branaire-Ducru purchased the estate. François-Xavier Maroteaux explained: “My father Patrick comes from Reims [La Ville-aux-Bois-lès-Dizy, to be exact]. The sugar business [Sucrière de Toury] was actually on my mother’s side of the family. He was a manager there. In 1986, he started looking for a château, but it was difficult because there were a lot of corporations buying properties at the time. In April 1988 he had the opportunity to buy a share of Branaire-Ducru. He came [to the château] on a Friday night and signed the following week. It was for a 51% share of the estate. He knew the wine, having drunk some old vintages. The rest of the shares were bought in 1990 and my family sold the sugar business three years later. Our family moved from Orleans near Paris to Branaire-Ducru in 2000.”

One of Patrick Maroteaux’s first decisions was to introduce a second label. “The second wine was introduced in 1988 when my father bought the estate,” François-Xavier told me. “He decided to name it after the Duluc family. It comes from the same vineyard as Branaire-Ducru, although in 2010 we bought 10 hectares just in front of Château Lagrange, which is used for Duluc. In fact, this parcel belonged to Lagrange 60 or 70 years ago. It lends the second wine more structure, and we do not sell it as futures, as the wine is not as approachable. The production is normally around 60% Branaire-Ducru and 40% Duluc.”

Maroteaux also had the foresight to appoint a new winemaker by the name of Philippe Dhalluin, now head winemaker at Mouton-Rothschild. Whenever Branaire-Ducru happens to come up in conversation, Dhalluin always speaks with affection about his tenure in Saint-Julien, where you could say that he really earned his winemaking chops. Dhalluin oversaw a replanting program from cuttings propagated at their own nursery. One crucial investment was the winery. Hitherto the wine had been fermented in old epoxy-lined cement vats. Maroteaux presciently introduced one of the first gravity-fed chais in Bordeaux, based on a three-tier design that was completed in 1991 Additional smaller tanks were introduced in a second renovation between 2007 and 2010. Dhalluin departed in 2002 and was succeeded by current winemaker Jean-Dominique Videau.

Patrick Maroteaux was one of the first Bordeaux proprietors I became acquainted with, long before I began writing. He was unfailingly relaxed in demeanor, always welcoming me with a wide smile and a firm handshake. To quote Ian d’Agata in his obituary, “Patrick Maroteaux embodied all the qualities of Bordeaux’s best people.” Exactly right. Maroteaux set the template for a proactive president of the Union des Grands Cru de Bordeaux during his tenure between 2001 and 2008, expanding the tastings beyond a small group of select professionals. He was full of life, and like many others, I was shocked when I found him visibly thin and gaunt, battling a serious illness. Despite his physical challenges after long chemotherapy sessions, his upbeat spirit never deserted him. He passed away on November 19, 2017 at age 67 – far too young – leaving his wife Evelyne and four children.

Current co-proprietor François-Xavier Maroteaux took over the running of the estate, having spent a period of time working side by side with his father. In some ways François-Xavier’s personality reflects the style of the wine: not inclined toward the limelight, polite and always smartly attired, businesslike but personable. Branaire-Ducru is safe in his young but capable hands.

François-Xavier Maroteaux and winemaker Jean-Dominique Videau on his right.

The Vineyard

Château Branaire-Ducru is a conspicuous property for anyone driving north up the D2 artery. After an area of low-lying, marshy land, the road crosses the Jalle de Nord tributary and sweeps dramatically left as it mounts a Quaternary-period gravel croupe. You see the modern glass facade of Beychevelle’s winery on your right and the driveway leading directly to Branaire-Ducru on your left. The current vine plantings comprise 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, with an average vine age of 40 years, planted at 6,700 to 10,000 vines per hectare. There are plans to increase this density over time. “The vines presently cover 60-hectares dispersed over 70 different plots,” Maroteaux informed me. “We have several plots situated to the east of the appellation around the château and some on the west side toward Lagrange. [The parcels close to the château are located in a slightly warmer microclimate]. There is one parcel outside the appellation, in St. Laurent, on clay/limestone soils, and that is higher in altitude and so it ripens later. But we have a special derogation to use it in the Grand Vin.”

“There are no big changes in the Grand Vin in terms of the vineyard holdings,” he continued. “Our approach in the vineyard is quite simple. It is the balance between correct vigor, canopy management and cover crops according to each plot. Some of the parcels are plowed. We prefer a natural balance rather than green harvesting, except in the youngest plots, where it is necessary. We have a lutte raisonnée approach and are doing some experiments with organic viticulture.”


The chai is located in a separate building across the road from the château. Vinification is conducted in 28 stainless steel vats ranging from 60 to 230 hectoliters in size. The wine usually undergoes a three-week cuvaison period, the alcoholic fermentation occurring at around 26-28°C.

“We usually use around 10 to 13% of pressed wine in the final blend,” Videau explained. “We have around 200 barrels of vin de presse that are divided into five groups. Eric Boissenot usually helps with that. We undertake a soft extraction during the vinification, so we use the vin de presse to build the style of the wine during blending. These days we taste more and more during the vinification. We usually age the wine in around 50% new oak. About 80% of the barrels come from the Taransaud cooperage, sourced from Alliers, Vosges, some from the Loire and the south of Normandy. We also use the Baron cooperage from Cognac. What is important is the style of tannins that the oak will give. They are seasoned for between two and three years with a low-level toasting in order to respect the fruitiness of the wine.” Barrel maturation is usually around 18 months, followed by fining with egg whites and bottling.

The winery at Château Branaire-Ducru was one of the first to use gravity instead of pumps for a gentler means of transferring the wine into vat.

The Wines

The tasting notes in this article are gleaned from two tastings. The older vintages originate from a lunch at La Gavroche in London with François-Xavier Maroteaux. These were augmented by younger vintages tasted at the property, some usurped by more recent tasting notes that I include here.

Branaire-Ducru is a member of the most consistent appellation on the Left Bank, Saint-Julien, and therefore competition is strong and comparisons are inevitable. Stylistically, I have always found Branaire-Ducru to be a less powerful Saint-Julien, with generally less body and backbone than its peers. It is not inclined to “blow your mind” and reap superlatives. Rather, it is a more classically trained, almost understated wine that can be overshadowed in horizontal beauty pageants, where more extravagant wines such as Léoville-Poyferré or Ducru-Beaucaillou make unfavorable comparisons. Branaire-Ducru tends to shine when consumed on its own at the dining table. That applies to most Bordeaux wines, but it is especially the case with Branaire-Ducru. In brief discussions with Maroteaux and Videau, they have expressed a wish to add more midpalate weight in the future, and personally I do think that will benefit the wine.

I have relatively little experience of older vintages of Branaire-Ducru. It was a privilege to taste an extremely rare bottle of 1928 Branaire-Ducru, though unfortunately there was a very small taint on the nose. Nevertheless, it was clearly distinguishable as a ’28 on the palate thanks to its backbone, though even leaving aside the taint, I would not rank it as one of the best I have tasted from that legendary vintage. When I discovered that Roald Dahl had used the 1934 Branaire-Ducru in “Taste,” I was certain I had tasted this exact wine, and sure enough, after rifling through my archives, I found that it had been part of a memorable 1934 horizontal in London. Alas, while the bouquet was promising, the rather hollow and enervated palate suggested that either this wine has declined since Dahl composed his story, or maybe the gourmet and wine expert had no idea what he was talking about, which would be nothing new. Much better was the 1947 Branaire-Ducru. I encountered this back in 2013 as part of a 1947 dinner, and I must include it here, because despite pouring scorn on this era for the estate, I found it to be one of the highlights of that tasting, perhaps a one-off thanks to the hot summer that year. The 1966 Branaire-Ducru testifies to the improvements made under the Tari family during the 1960s. It is easily the finest old bottle I have encountered of this Saint-Julien, quite reminiscent of Talbot in style. I had two bottles of the 1970 Branaire-Ducru many years ago, but both suggested it was long past its modest peak. Not so the 1971 Branaire-Ducru. Patrick Maroteaux donated a bottle for a charity dinner that I organized in 2012, and it showed surprisingly well – not amazingly complex but, unlike the 1970, still alive and charming. The 1982 Branaire-Ducru is underwhelming in the context of the growing season.

The quality of Branaire-Ducru certainly picked up as investments in the property and Dhalluin’s expertise meliorated the Grand Vin. Both the 1995 and 1996 Branaire-Ducru testify to a rejuvenated estate, and the latter is the high point of this decade, well worth hunting down as market prices remain reasonable and this vintage is à point. Recent vintages, certainly from the millennium onward, have been consistent, with just a couple of underperformers, such as the 2004 Branaire-Ducru, which I feel strives too hard to overcome the deficiencies of that growing season. Much better are the 2000 and 2001 Branaire-Ducru, while the 2005 Branaire-Ducru displays more sinew and body, though retaining the approachability that has become a hallmark of the estate. Better still, the 2010 Branaire-Ducru delivers more complex aromatics and terroir expression and a sense of purity that I have not seen in previous vintages. Although the 2011 and 2013 Branaire-Ducru should be better, do not ignore the fine 2012 Branaire-Ducru with its Pauillac-inspired bouquet and structured, fresh palate. 

The Branaire Ducru barrel cellar.

Final Thoughts

During my research for this long-overdue piece, I turned to the ever-reliable Saint Julien by Bernard Ginestet, published in 1984. His entry for Branaire-Ducru summarizes almost the entire narrative for “Taste,” though Ginestet confesses that the name of the English novelist escapes him. Of course, armed with the internet, it took about a minute not only to identify the author but also to locate the original text. (As aside, you can also YouTube this Tales of the Unexpected episode, which is worth watching if only for the expert’s all-too-familiar pomposity and absurd, lizard-like tasting technique.)

In many ways, Branaire-Ducru is the quintessential “Englishman’s claret.” Maybe it ought to strive for more midweight power and body, but the question is whether that would be at the cost of Branaire-Ducru’s identity. Echoing the sentiments in my article on the stylistically similar Château Talbot, sometimes a cru must accept that it is what it is. Not every Grand Cru Classé is predisposed toward intense, showy or profoundly complex wines that seduce critics. How boring if it were that way!

One thing is for sure: had Roald Dahl written “Taste” in 2020, he could not have chosen Branaire-Ducru as the centerpiece of the tale, because it is no longer an “insignificant Saint-Julien château.”

But maybe we wine critics have not changed so much since Richard Pratt.

Tasting with the late Patrick Maroteaux and Jean-Dominique Videau Photo copyright Johan Berglund

See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest

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