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Where the Heart Is: Ducru-Beaucaillou 1934-2018
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 21, 2022
The first time I saw proprietor Bruno Borie’s kitchen, I made an indelible mental note never to allow Mrs M to set eyes upon it. ‘Tis the kitchen of your wildest dreams: an oven built from a Sherman tank, a constellation of copperware dangling from the ceiling, knives sharpened by a samurai overlord, herbs and spices from A to Z. Borie’s kitchen has conjured up some of the most delectable dishes I’ve ever eaten, eschewing the sophisticated or froufrou for the apotheosis of traditional French country-style cuisine, a morel sauce to die for, tender beef that could turn a vegan into a carnivore. Apart from a gourmand, Borie is raconteur, bon viveur, art collector and above all else, vigneron. He presides over a cornerstone of the Left Bank, a Saint-Julien estate that has been a constant throughout my own quarter-century career, Ducru-Beaucaillou.
During my extended sojourn in Bordeaux last June, we undertook a vertical tasting that we had discussed for many years. Borie asked how many vintages I wanted to taste, and my default reply always is: As many as you are happy to open. Borie excelled not just in terms of the number of vintages, but the professionalism of organisation. Together with his winemaking team, we travelled through time from the most recent release back to the early Fifties.
Such a tasting deserves a write-up of equal
magnitude. If you are planning to read this, I advise setting aside an hour or take
a break halfway through; perhaps, pour yourself a wee dram of Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Don’t blame the author entirely. Bruno Borie’s replies to my enquiries were so comprehensive
and insightful that they deserve to be published unabridged. They afford
readers an insight into the history, modus operandi and the family members that
have presided over Ducru-Beaucaillou to create what might well be the
So, let us go back to the only place to start. The beginning.
The genesis of Ducru-Beaucaillou can be traced back to 30 May, 1720, when Jacques de Bergeron was betrothed to Marie Dejean, whose dowry included land in a lieu-dit known as “Maucaillou”, a portmanteau of mauvais (bad) and caillou (pebbles). It infers that the soil was difficult to work, not with respect to vines in that period, but to cereal crops. Once vines were found to thrive in this locale, the name was amended from “mauvais” to “beau”. The land was farmed by the de Bergeron family and, according to Clive Coates when researching the Lawton archives, wine was only sold under the “Beaucaillou” name from around 1760. He entertains the possibility that at the time of the Revolution, the parliamentarian François de Bergeron was the same that owned the land.
The imposing rear façade of
Ducru-Beaucaillou. You can see the towers that were constructed later to flank
the chartreuse. The tasting room is located on the ground floor.
In 1797, the land was purchased by Bertrand Ducru who duly appended his name to the cru. Ducru reconstituted the vineyards and renovated the buildings, which were initially built purely for functional purposes, the grand directoire-style façade that visitors see nowadays was constructed in 1820. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the quality and reputation of the wine began to befit such a splendid château and production reached 150 tonneaux per annum by 1850. This melioration was perfectly timed, as prices reached a level whereby it was ranked Deuxième Cru in the 1855 Classification. Bernard Ginestet, writing in his Saint-Julien book, attributes the rise of Ducru-Beaucaillou to Antoine Ravez, who married Ducru’s daughter, Marie-Louise. The father of Ravez, Auguste Ravez, acted as député for the Gironde between 1816 and 1829 and ennobled by Charles X. After Bertrand Ducru passed away in 1829, the estate was run by his son Gustave and daughter Marie-Louise, though it is said that its stature and reputation was enhanced by the contacts and influence of her father-in-law, Auguste. That meant that quality of wine notwithstanding, Ducru-Beaucaillou was virtually guaranteed a high ranking in the 1855 Classification, eventually designating a Second Growth. In 1857, Gustave acquired Branaire from his cousin-in-law, Léo du Luc that begat the fellow Saint-Julien, Branaire-Ducru. Presumably, wishing to focus solely on Branaire, Gustave sold his share in Ducru-Beaucaillou to his sister in May 1860. One might have expected her to hold on to ownership for a number of years, but on 3 March 1866, she sold it to Lucie-Caroline Dassier, the wife of Nathaniel Johnston, for the princely sum of 1 million Francs. It was purchased in her name since it was underwritten by her family and added to Château Dauzac in Margaux that Johnston had acquired in 1863.
The Johnston Era
Johnston’s forebears emigrated from Ireland at the turn of the 18th century and were immediately subsumed into society as French citizens. Johnston was a civil engineer from the École Polytechnique and École des Mines, an inquisitive man perpetually interested in the latest techniques, including the production of sparkling Médoc wine that he branded “Sparkling Ducru”. Since Ducru-Beaucaillou was not their first property, Johnston allegedly tried and failed to revert the name back to “Beaucaillou”.
The estate kindly sent me this old etching of
the château and a black and white photo of the rear garden.
Perhaps their purchase was ill-timed? Mildew and phylloxera lay just ahead. But it was at Ducru-Beaucaillou where a remedy for the former was serendipitously discovered, a copper sulphate solution known as “Bordeaux Mixture”. Fed up with thieves stealing grapes from the vineyard, vineyard manager Ernest David painted the most targeted vines closest to the road with a concocted blue-green mixture. Lo and behold, he noticed that these vines became impervious to mildew. Further experiments were undertaken under the supervision of two professors, Gayon and Alexis Millardet, plus Skawinski from the renowned agronomist family. The copper sulphate solution was trialled at Dauzac in Margaux since they did not want to risk the more precious vines at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
In 1876, Lucie-Caroline Dassier passed away and two years later, Johnston married Princess Marie Caradja of Constantinople, the daughter of Prince Constantine of Turkey. Wishing to add grandeur to the château, he commissioned architect Michel-Louis Garros to add two Victorian towers at each end of the chartreuse, whilst Eugène Bühler was tasked with landscaping the encompassing gardens.
Many châteaux suffered the ravages of phylloxera and economic malaise, though Ducru-Beaucaillou fared better than most. In 1904, Johnston became the first president of the Syndicat des Grand Crus Classés du Médoc. Nevertheless, demand remained fragile, and following the First World War, Johnston’s business began to suffer after Prohibition eviscerated the U.S. market. The reputation of Ducru-Beaucaillou began to slip by association, and in 1928, Johnston was coerced to sell the estates to Fernand Odon Desbarats, who was married to Mary Butler de Burke, the daughter of a powerful English family that had settled in Ireland. He was a partner in a firm of Bordeaux merchants, as well as the great-grandfather of Edouard Miailhe, current proprietor of Château Siran. Alas, Desbarats was unable to turn its fortunes around as the Thirties dealt successive wretched seasons and markets continued to suffer. By the beginning of the Second World War, Ducru-Beaucaillou was in a dilapidated condition, unprofitable and run down. Then, Debarats passed away, and the estate was put on the market again.
The ornate gardens that stretch from the château almost to the banks of the Gironde Estuary.
The Borie Era Begins
The pivotal moment was the acquisition of Ducru-Beaucailou by Francis Borie and his family. Like many, his ancestors, brothers Eugène (1862-1911) and Émile Borie (1865-1940) moved from Meymac in Corrèze to Bordeaux, part of the first wave that settled on the Left Bank. (Those a part of the second wave in the 1920s, including the Moueix family, tended to settle on the Right Bank.) In 1870, they had established a négociant business, purportedly run by their wives, developing private clients in Northern France and Belgium.
“The Borie brothers quickly understood the importance of having physical proximity to the source,” Bruno Borie explained. “They were determined to deliver only the best quality to their clients. First, in 1900 they constructed an ageing cellar in Pauillac at a time when wine was bought in barrels and matured in the négociant cellars, followed by the acquisition of vineyards that commenced in 1901 with Château Caronne Saint Gemme. Their commitment to delivering quality has always been integral in the Borie family’s approach. It is a key to the success of Ducru-Beaucaillou through the ages.”
Bernard Ginestet once described Eugène Borie as one of the “lords of Ducru-Beaucaillou”.
When Eugène Borie passed away, his son Francis went to work alongside his uncle.
“Eugène Borie and his wife Annette had four children,” Borie continues. “Eugénie, Thérèse, my grandfather Francis and his younger brother Marcel. Francis was the beloved one of the family. He was handsome, a force of nature, big in size and personality with a large appetite for everything: life, food, family and work. [To this writer, it sounds like Bruno is a chip of the old block!] He was brilliant and hardworking, stopping his law studies at the University of Bordeaux upon his father’s death in 1911 to run the family wine business alongside his uncle. He was later joined by Marcel and together they created ‘Borie Frères’ negociant house. Their business activity was interrupted by the First World War as both brothers were called to join the French forces in the artillery, notably in Verdun in 1914. Thankfully, they returned home safely after four years.”
“Shortly after their return, they acquired Château Batailley, a Fifth Classified Growth in Pauillac. On June 8, 1920, Francis married Marguerite Borderie, also from a family of merchants of Corrèze origin, who owned Château Bel-Air in Quinsac, north-east of Bordeaux. They had two children, Jean-Eugène and Françoise. In 1939, Francis and Marcel Borie separated the business and divided Château Batailley in two. Francis’s share became Château Haut-Batailley, which his daughter Françoise Des Brest inherited and later sold [to the Cazes family of Lynch-Bages]. In 1941, the former owner of Ducru-Beaucaillou, Fernand Odon Desbarats, selected Francis Borie as his successor and passed him the reins of Ducru via a fermage viager (lease to own), as Francis could not finance in cash such a significant investment.”
A short time earlier that year, Francis Borie embarked upon a much-needed reconstruction program and a reconstitution of the vineyard. It was a massive undertaking, though his outgoing, larger-than-life personality meant that he soon established close relationships with his team. He passed away in 1953 at the age of 63. Bruno Borie recalls how his father, Jean-Eugène, often spoke fondly of Francis.
Francis Borie – big in size and personality.
“My father, Jean-Eugène Borie, succeeded my grandfather upon his death. He was the opposite of Francis in many ways. He was not as physically strong nor as exuberant. Instead, he was a very refined, elegant gentleman. He had an extraordinary sense of humour, very witty, with a great appreciation of English humour. [A friend gave me one anecdote of his humour – alas it is unpublishable!] He loved younger generations and welcomed many young vignerons who have since shared stories of his great kindness. My father was very modest, but he was a true entrepreneur who achieved incredible feats in his lifetime. In the early Sixties, he managed the family négociant activity, but eventually, in the mid-Sixties he decided to drop the those activities and focus solely on Ducru-Beaucaillou. His goal was to raise it to the summit of the Médoc hierarchy. He developed the family’s holdings so that when he passed away, we controlled three Grands Crus Classés: Ducru-Beaucaillou and Grand Puy Lacoste in full, Haut-Batailley on lease to our aunt Françoise. That is the equivalent of approximately 170 hectares of classified vineyards in Pauillac and Saint-Julien. My father did not invest in other regions. He believed in knowing the Médoc intimately. It was the place where he could bring the most added value. Therefore, he remained anchored in the Médoc and built the most significant holdings of châteaux at the top of the hierarchy.”
Under Jean-Eugène Borie the reputation of Ducru-Beaucaillou recovered, helped by the sage advice of the renowned and influential Professor Émile Peynaud who had been a consultant for Francis Borie. Together, they introduced earlier picking, greater fruit selection and temperature control, standard practices for contemporary winemaking. Borie also commissioned Alain Triaud to design a new semi-underground cellar. In 1953, he married Monique Rochette, who had grown up at Château Ducluzeau. Then, they installed their family, including their three children, Sabine, François-Xavier and Bruno, at Ducru-Beaucaillou. It is a rare instance of a château being a family home; a virtue that continues to distinguish it from other estates. According to Bernard Ginestet, writing in his “Saint-Julien” book, when the family moved into their new abode there was no electricity. Maybe they overlooked the lack of the power as the original intention was to only reside there for six weeks.
“My mother still lives at the château,” Bruno Borie tells me. “At 94-years of age, she is in perfect physical form and continues to visit the offices of Ducru and walks through the vineyards and gardens daily. She swears that two glasses of Ducru per day keeps the viruses (including COVID-19) away! She is intellectually curious and open-minded, making her an extraordinarily modern lady. It is primarily thanks to her that I can carry out at Ducru-Beaucaillou with the great projects that inspire and propel us today. As a tribute to my mother, in 2018 I launched a new wine, Madame de Beaucaillou, a Haut-Médoc produced partly from vines brought into the family holdings as a dowry upon her marriage to my father.”
Having studied English as an adolescent, Jean-Eugène Borie, together with fellow Saint-Julien winemaker Henri Martin, presciently travelled to promote his wines, particularly the UK and the USA in the Sixties, and Japan in the Seventies.
“In the Seventies, he [Jean-Eugène] accepted to join my sister’s godfather in investing in Haviland, a highly reputed porcelain manufacturer in Limoges. For him, wine and food were inseparable, and therefore, it was only logical to invest in “Les arts de la table”. However, the venture was cut short as he ultimately decided to refocus on the Médoc vineyards. In 1972, he purchased a large plot of approximately 30 hectares from Château Lagrange to create Lalande Borie [he would have been within his rights to absorb it into Ducru-Beaucaillou].”
“For my father, local life was important. He was a man of duty. He was a member of the Commanderie du Médoc, President of the Pauillac branch of the Crédit Agricole Aquitaine, and was the First Deputy to the Mayor in Saint-Julien. He was equally integrated into the community and attended local events like the fêtes du village and the vignerons banquets. He was close to other châteaux owners and directors, including Henri Martin and Ronald Barton. In 1978, Raymond Dupin selected my father as his successor when he was selling Grand Puy Lacoste (in the same manner that my grandfather was selected for Ducru-Beaucaillou.) He appreciated Jean-Eugène’s work ethic and value. There was so much trust that the price and terms were only first discussed with the notary when signing the sale.”
I never met Jean-Eugène Borie, the father of Bruno.
In 1978, René Lusseau took over from long-time cellar master, André Prévot, whilst Jean-Eugène ran Ducru-Beaucaillou, later together with François-Xavier Borie.
Towards the end of the Eighties, Ducru-Beaucaillou began to suffer problems with part of its production. Wines were tinged with an inexplicable mustiness that tainted what on paper ought to have been their finest in years. Robert Parker, never one to pull his punches, noted how the 1988, 1989 and 1990 were affected. I have heard a couple of explanations about what happened. Writing this article, I sought the definitive answer.
“At that time, I was working outside the family property, so to be honest, I do not have all the details about what happened. Still, I know that my father and my brother François-Xavier did their best to manage the problem, which affected many properties in Bordeaux as well as other major regions around the globe and remained unexplained until the beginning of the Nineties. I think it is important to note that in those years, the problem and its potential sources were poorly understood. We were in the wine boom, and therefore increased demand had led cork suppliers to source raw material broadly, without the precautions and protocols they follow today.”
“Today, TCA taint, notably its causes and consequences, is well understood. It can be traced, measured and controlled, and most importantly, avoided. Forty years ago, this was not the case. Today, we know that the TCA infection came from two sources: storage warehouses and the corks. In the warehouses, it came from the wooden structures of the buildings or pallets used to store the wines as unbeknownst to us, the wood had been treated using chlorine that subsequently reacted with the wood’s cellulose fibres resulting in ambient TCA. The infection takes time to develop in the bottle, and therefore the disagreeable taste/odour revealed itself with time.”
“It impacted several estates in the region including other prestigious ones. My father, however, being a very honest man, was the first and one of the few to publicly acknowledge the problem. It was a challenging period in our history. Once we understood the problem, we eliminated the sources in three ways: the construction of new storage facilities with elimination of all chlorine-based products, controlling/analysing the air of the cellars and warehouses and being more stringent about our cork sources and selection. We now know much more about the cause and control of TCA. Thankfully the cork industry has made significant progress in reducing the rate of infection. Today at Ducru, we use corks that have been individually tested for TCA. In addition, our R&D department is meticulous when selecting corks, including blind tastings at various intervals throughout the ageing process.”
The 1995 Ducru-Beaucaillou gave notice that the estate had recovered, and together with the impressive 1996, re-established its reputation as one of the finest Grand Cru Classés. As Jean-Eugène Borie entered his twilight years, François-Xavier took over the daily running of Ducru-Beaucaillou and its sister properties, as well as Haut-Batailley, and he would receive me when I first began to visit in the late-nineties. On 31 December 1998, Jean-Eugène Borie died. I recall how news of his passing was received as the passing of an era. One of the giants, one of Bordeaux’s most respected and adored proprietors was gone, but certainly not forgotten.
At the beginning of 2003, I was visiting the estate 48-hours after it was announced that Bruno Borie would take the helm at Ducru-Beaucaillou, whilst his brother would run Grand Puy Lacoste. Like many, I had incorrectly assumed that François-Xavier would eventually take over the Saint-Julien estate, though it was immediately clear that his brother would dedicate himself to running one of the most important crus of Bordeaux. Maybe like others I asked myself: Is this guy up to the task? That question was soon answered when I met him and began tasting the first wines under his aegis.
A wonderful image of the harvest at
Ducru-Beaucaillou in an era when cattle were an integral part of the harvest.
Country Boy: Bruno Borie
Neal Martin: What are your memories growing up in Bordeaux. Do you have an early memory of drinking Ducru-Beaucaillou?
Bruno Borie: “I was born in 1956 and raised in Ducru-Beaucaillou. I was truly a country boy, preferring to run through vineyards and meadows than taking walks in the town. I enjoyed the company of the winegrowers and loved taking part in the various jobs, including, of course, the harvest. In the Sixties, the Médoc did not have the prosperity it enjoys today. I witnessed its metamorphosis: the arrival of the first tractors that replaced the horses and mules that I loved so much. The nights my father spent watching over the fermenting vats with our cellar master, André Prévot or even getting up in the middle of the night to turn on the heaters amongst the vines during spring frosts. Then, I remember cattle breeding being abandoned at Ducru-Beaucaillou, also the herd of sheep in Haut-Batailley, signs of declining profitability of those activities and better prosperity of the wines.”
“I remember the visits of Émile Peynaud who frequently had lunch at the family table. He was a great man of science but also a very kind person, a teacher with a great sense of pedagogy who entertained us with wonderful discussions. I also remember visits from Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Alexis Lichine or Ab Simon (Austin Nichols, then Châteaux & Estate). Then came Michael Broadbent, Serena Sutcliffe, David Peppercorn and many more. Of course, my father poured bottles at the table and from the age of seven, we were allowed to take a sip.”
I took this shot of Bruno Borie after the
tasting in June 2021 in the rear gardens of the château.
“In some ways, I was brought up with the 1961s that my father served on big occasions: Christmas, Easter or Bastille Day, since that was his birthday too. Not only 1961 Ducru- Beaucaillou. At that time he ran a small wine merchant house through which we purchased a few vintages including the 1961 Petrus that he often gave us to taste. My father regularly served Krug champagne as an aperitif and Yquem with dessert, which I also enjoyed very young. At round the age of 16 to 18, I became enthused by the idea of the American Dream, and I had the great pleasure of taking internships at California wineries. It was the era when the wine industry was developing and it was fascinating to witness.”
NM: What was your career before joining Ducru-Beaucaillou?
BB: “After university, where I studied economics, I worked for Peter Sichel from 1981 to 1985, where I became Export Director. Again, I was able to taste superb bottles like the 1961 Palmer, which Sichel co-owned. These were great years for me. I was able to learn a lot from him, familiarize myself not only with the Bordeaux region, also Burgundy, Rhône and the Midi regions of France that the company worked with. I have fond memories of great Chablis from Raveneau that we sold in Boston. We kept a few cases for us here in Bordeaux. This job took me to the United States, Canada and North Europe, also the Far East, in particular in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. At that time these were emerging markets and did not have the tremendous level of sophistication they have today.”
“In 1985, I took over ‘Lillet, l’Apéritif de Bordeaux’ with a group of prestigious investors that I brought together and trusted me, notably Jean-François Moueix, Robert Drouhin and Jorgen-Ulrich Kai Nielsen. That was again, a great experience, working to improve the quality of this aperitif with oenologists and building a brand with some of the largest distribution groups in the world such as Seagram, Allied Domecq and of course, Ricard, to whom I sold the company in 2008. This allowed me to acquire an understanding of markets, distribution and good marketing expertise.”
NM: How did you feel taking over such a prestigious estate? Were there aspects that you wanted to change and what were the challenges lay ahead?
BB: “In January 2003, we reorganized the family wine group into two distinct activities of interest: François-Xavier keeping the Pauillac businesses, whilst my mother and sister entrusted me with the reins of the Saint-Julien interest, Ducru-Beaucaillou. At first, I was very flattered and very proud. But, I immediately realized the duties that I had towards those properties, towards our predecessors, as well as our teams. The worlds between Lillet and Ducru-Beaucaillou were so different. It was like a compass pointing south to manage the former and north the latter.”
“I have great respect for the work of previous generations, and in 2003, I conducted a thorough analysis of the current modus operandi with my new team. First, on a technical level, what were our current practices in the vineyard and in the cellar, what were the practices that we had abandoned in the past 20 years and what were those that we had adopted? Were those choices in line with our ambition for excellence and so forth? Then, we questioned the advice, observed our colleagues and made a number of decisions, reintroducing certain practices, abandoning others and introducing new ones with our sights set towards the top of the podium. But we wanted to make Ducru-Beaucaillou, nothing else, so we looked back at the great vintages of such as 1953, 1955, 1959 and 1961. We sought more purity, precision and a slightly more assertive style.”
“Then we had to convince the teams, complete them and then tighten them around this goal of excellence. We had the same approach to sales, and once we had our vision, we set out to convince traders, importers and distributors to our cause. Today, the work continues. The 2022 will be my 20th vintage, and we still have many projects ahead. Our Technical Director has reached maturity with us after five vintages. We have created a new R&D sector with two excellent engineers and our sales and communication department has grown.”
NM: You have passions outside of wine such as hunting and art. Can you tell me where they come from?
BB: “Of course, as a country man, I was immersed in hunting stories and introduced very early on, even though my father did not hunt himself. The same goes for fishing, first in the Gironde and then at sea in Arcachon. Today, I continue hunting with my three English setters, but only for woodcock, an ethical hunt for this noble bird. My 13-year-old son Louis-Eugène has also become very passionate about fishing and now he has much better knowledge than I do. I also have a passion for contemporary art and design, which again, were not family interests. The Bordeaux Contemporary Art Museum was certainly one of the most dynamic contemporary art centers in France from the 1980s to the 1990s. All the greatest artists were exhibited there, and I was able to discover and often meet them. In recent years, I have turned more to design, an area that has shown great creative dynamism.”
The vineyard occupies 105 hectares in the commune of Saint-Julien, close to the Gironde Estuary, ranging in altitude from 5 to 20 meters. This includes 20 hectares further inland towards Talbot plus three hectares in the commune of Cussac, for which they have derogation to use as Saint-Julien. The vines are located on deep Günzian gravels, Cabernet Sauvignon planted on the upper reaches and Merlot cultivated towards the lower. The average vine age is 45 years with a planting density of 10,000 vines per hectare.
“Grape varieties are chosen according to the terroir and not by personal taste or commercial choice,” Borie explains. “Cabernet Sauvignon continually proves to be perfectly adapted to our maritime conditions. It is less susceptible to spring frosts, its thick skins helped protect it from rot, and our Indian Summers enable full phenolic development of this late-ripener, maintaining a vibrant freshness in warmer vintages. I have a true passion for this variety. From our sacred riverside vines, it yields wines of exquisite freshness, gorgeous purity of black fruits, ultra-fine tannins and unparalleled longevity!”
Borie abides by the philosophy that wine is made in the vineyard. “We help the vineyard give birth to wine. Nature can do it all. We are here to allow nature to express and share the best of herself. Together with my team, our role is to help the terroir express itself in the best possible way. I am here to make a Ducru-Beaucaillou, not just another Cabernet Sauvignon or another Cru Classé.”
To this end, in 2005 he incepted a heritage plot to preserve what they regard as the best genetic material from the top-performing century-old vines. Borie has overseen significant changes in the viticulture, introducing new techniques and forgotten practices. He told me how he constantly questions practices, looking both towards the past and modern science. The entire vineyard was certified HVE 3 in 2016, members complied to enhance biodiversity, eschew herbicides and pesticides and use organic treatment to control disease. Borie does not subscribe to biodynamics, preferring scientific rather than esoteric practices, applying techniques proven over centuries. Technical director Emmanuel Bonneau joined the team in 2016, and three years later, it was expanded with a new Quality/R&D department led by agronomic engineers Cécile Dupuis and Anaïs Faucon. As an example of their work, they are currently researching phytotherapy treatments to tackle mildew and lightweight robots to reduce soil compaction.
“I firmly believe that the most crucial element in making fine wine is to be close to the plant and its ecosystem,” Borie opines. “Pruning consists of preparing the vine not only for next year, but following ones. Therefore, it must be the same person who prunes from one year to another because he ‘reads’ each vine the same way. To achieve this, we assign each vigneron a selection of plots for all seasonal vineyard operations (i.e., pruning, etc), which fosters a deeper connection with the vines through continuity. We have two top pruners, both recipients of the coveted ‘Secateur d’Or’ award, who work closely with the entire pruning team to ensure that our approach is the most adapted for our environment and our vines.”
“We perform a range of operations to maintain and rejuvenate our soils. For example, throughout the growing season, we cultivate and plough various grasses and legumes between the vine rows to help aerate the soil, increase biodiversity and increase the quantities of critical nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium. When replanting, we leave our plots fallow for five years, during which time we perform a deep ploughing to reduce compaction, followed by a rotation of various grass cultivations. We also conduct extensive soil studies to determine each plot’s most suitable rootstock, variety and clone.”
The present vat-room at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
I ask Bruno Borie how he decides when to harvest.
“This is not an easy question and is challenging to answer. We do not have a recipe to determine harvest dates. Our objective is to pick each plot when fruit is at optimal ripeness, preserve its purity and enable it to express its terroir fully. We are certainly not looking to make overripe wines and risk losing their expression of origin. As a perfect illustration, I like to cite the parallel made by one of our colleagues. When an apricot is picked when perfectly ripe, it will reveal its true provenance and varietal. However, if you pick an apricot when it is overripe, you can no longer distinguish between one from the Rhône and one from the Roussillon in the warmer south.”
“We also consider blending compatibility for harvest date. For example, the 5-15% of Merlot in the blend of Ducru needs to be Médoc-like in style. It must be compatible with Cabernet with typicity, freshness and elegance to counterbalance Merlots that are overly rich and overripe. To determine the precise harvest date for each plot, we collect and analyse the critical measures of ripeness (sugar, IBMP, acidity, pH), but the final decision is based on taste. Each day throughout harvest, my technical team and I enter different plots and taste the fruit. The ideal berries are small with rich skins, beautiful colour and elegant, fine tannins, the pulps rich and highly perfumed, pips perfectly ripe with the tell-tale hazelnut taste. At the end of each harvest day, my team and I meet, sometimes for up to two hours in order to determine and fine-tune the plan for each plot the following day. Our Saint-Julien vines are 100% hand-harvested. Every year an experienced team of 180 harvesters stay onsite for the harvest period. This significant labour force allows us to be efficient and flexible in our harvest decisions. We can harvest quickly to ensure parcel homogeneity. Likewise, we can wait to pick with a ‘force de frappe’ at the ideal moment.”
“Sorting is always a critical operation at Ducru-Beaucaillou. We have four stages of selection. First, when individual bunches are selected from the vine at harvest and then unsuitable bunches are discarded on mobile manual sorting tables in the vineyard. Clusters are then transported on state-of-the-art hydraulic trailers to reduce vibration. Upon reception, the bunches are mechanically sorted with de-stemming. Finally, each berry passes through an optical sorting machine that we first trialled in 2011 so that only perfect, healthy berries are retained. For the past two years, we also conducted trials to compare mechanical sorting technologies, optical sorting and densiometric sorting, as part of our mission to constantly optimise our approach.”
Borie tells me that his principle tenets towards winemaking are selection and precision, a combination of traditional artisan methods with new innovations.
"At vatting, we make selections through careful combinations or micro-vinification to ensure homogeneity for each lot and have a range of vat volumes to enable this precision. In 2020, we trialled a selection of new vats of varying materials and forms and finally chose a conical wooden ‘Smart Vat’ for the Grand Vin. The 2021 vintage marks the first that the entire volume was fermented in these vats. These Smart Vats have a number of advantages: automatic and gentle remontage that can be fractioned over 24 hours with complete oxygen control for extreme precision, analysing and storing relevant data on sugar, density and oxygen throughout cuvaison, which allows us to refine our approach. This data can be used both for current decisions and future reference. One day, my son will be able to access the data for a given vintage, see what choices were made, and potentially make better decisions in similar circumstances.”
I had never reflected on this before…the idea that the winemaker of the mid-21st century will have access to a mass of technical data. One wonders how this will influence decisions? Will this information provide templates for types of growing seasons? Or are growing season too nuanced, to the extent that such data could be misleading?
Borie continues, “we use a ‘slow hand’ for extraction. First a cold maceration, then gentle re-montages in the earlier more aqueous phase of fermentation. Of course, we consider the data but ultimately decide based on taste, tasting each tank several times per day throughout fermentation. Our objective is to extract noble tannins with the most refined grain that give a ‘draping cashmere’ texture on the palate, and the Smart Vats enable us to conduct our extractions with even more precision to achieve this goal. In the end, science allows us to do better art.”
The barrel cellar at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
“Ducru-Beaucaillou is aged in 100% new certified French oak for 18 months. We use new oak not as a flavouring agent, but because it is a perfectly hygienic and porous vessel. It reduces the risk of infections such as Brettanomyces and allows our wines to slowly develop with a gentle, natural micro-oxygenation, like a lung. We have strict hygiene practices, including sterilising our barrels between every sous-tirage [racking] to avoid contaminations from rogue bacteria and spoilage yeasts. We believe that a wine aged in oak should be harmonious, never excessive and never overwhelming the fruit. We trialled amphoras but concluded that they are not adapted for our wines as they are too porous and thus are not ideal for long term ageing. Oak is the ideal vessel for our wines.”
“We work with six or seven coopers for our barrels, sourcing wood from the most reputed forests of France. We insist on using staves that have been seasoned for five or six years, as this assures that we will have only the very best wood that won’t impart strong or bitter flavours to the wine. We work closely with our coopers for selection, ensuring that we have barrels that complement our style of wine. The barrels that work well with new style Merlots don’t necessarily work for our Cabernets. We taste with each of our coopers at least once per year and then conduct two or three internal tastings each year to compare how our wines react to different barrels. We change coopers from time to time for various reasons but generally prefer to establish long-term relationships with a small selection of the best.”
This vertical was held at the château on a Saturday morning, which meant that there was no rush through the wines. Bottles were assiduously grouped in flights according to what Borie described as “terroir” and “progress”. We commenced with the nascent 2020s that I included in the relevant vintage report already published on Vinous. Therefore, I am going to comment as per each series of wines.
Flight 1: 2017, 2015, 2014, 2012
The first flight encompasses what you might describe as “lesser” recent vintages, though these growing seasons posed their own challenges. The quality of these wines surpass the vintages of yesteryear. In other words, these wines evidence much more consistency through a refinement of practices both in the vineyard and the winery. If I had to pick one vintage that is testament to this, it would be the wonderful 2014 Ducru-Beaucaillou that transcends the growing season and, as I mention in my note, is laden with so much fruit, you might presume it was born in a warmer summer.
Flight 2: 2013, 2007
The two weakest vintages of recent years. The 2013 Ducru-Beaucaillou is certainly not a poor wine in the slightest; however, like many wines in this beleaguered growing season, as their decade in bottle nears, it’s as if the individual château’s DNA is slipping away. You end up with an outline, a sketch of the wine that you are familiar with. I just preferred the 2007 Ducru-Beaucaillou that had ample freshness, even if given its company, it just comes across a little one-dimensional.
Flight 3: 2008, 2006, 2004
This trio is what you might call the “tricky” even vintages of the decade, some of the early wines under Bruno Borie’s charge. I actually felt they all acquitted themselves well, certainly a step up from the previous flight. The 2006 and 2008 Ducru-Beaucaillou excel given the reputation of the growing seasons. The former is a particularly strong performer with plenty of concentration, indeed, it stood out when I re-tasted the wine at a 2006 pre-dinner Bordeaux tasting the following October.
Flight 4: 2001, 1999, 1998
These were the last vintages prior to Bruno Borie’s arrival, his brother François-Xavier was at the helm. Maybe I expected more from the 2001 Ducru-Beaucaillou. I have already waxed lyrical about this vintage in my examination of 2000 and 2001; however, I found the nose quite evolved, and it missed the complexity of the other wines in this flight. The highlight here is a strong showing of the 1998 Ducru-Beaucaillou, demonstrating the most complexity of the trio and displaying great harmony on the palate. This is à point, yet will continue to drink well for many years.
Flight 5: 1990, 1989, 1988
The infamous period when part of the production was tainted. This triumvirate yielded a trove of astonishing wines in the Médoc and yet this Saint-Julien was not invited to the party. I have tasted these vintages on numerous occasions over the years, and frankly, you never quite know what to expect. However, against auspicious company, I cannot pull any punches because they left much to be desired, coming across as a bit staid. I have had the most success with the 1989 Ducru-Beaucaillou, but even here it felt uncharacteristically leafy and rather dry, likewise, the 1990 Ducru-Beaucaillou was so herbaceous that I would never have guessed that it was born in such a warm growing season.
Flight 6: 1986, 1985, 1982
The 1985 and 1986 Ducru-Beaucaillou are vintages that again, can be tainted, though at the time the problem could not be identified or remedied. Like the preceding flight, the long and short is that given the reputation, this pair should be better. Regarding the 1982 Ducru-Beaucaillou, this is a vintage that I have tasted a dozen-or-so times over the years. I have enjoyed wonderful bottles, but I felt this was not the best example, surpassed by other less-reputed seasons.
Bruno Borie offering his opinion on the
flight of wines.
Flight 7: 1979, 1978, 1976, 1975
The 1970s is always a tricky decade to revisit, an era when Bordeaux was resting on its laurels, beset with growing seasons that each posed challenges. The highlight was clearly the very fine 1978 Ducru-Beaucaillou, which I had not tasted for a number of years. Plenty of red fruit mingling with cigar humidor aromas with vitality on the palate, this could teach some of the vintages in the 1980s a thing or two. Also, the 1975 Ducru-Beaucaillou can be excellent. I remember a splendid bottle served by Bruno Borie at a lunch three years ago, and though this example did not quite match that showing, I appreciate the vigour and saline finish. The 1976 and 1979 Ducru-Beaucaillou are not bad, especially the former given the torrid dry summer, although they now look a bit long in the tooth compared to the 1975 and 1978.
Flight 8: 1995, 1996
These are the two vintages that re-established the château as a leading estate. I was in the salad days of my career when the 1995 Ducru-Beaucaillou made waves. Having passed a quarter-of-a-century, the 1995 has the bit between its teeth, maturing with grace and panache. One should note that it is cut from a different cloth to younger vintages, built around 65% Cabernet Sauvignon instead of up to 85% Cabernet Sauvignon that is the foundation of recent vintages. Ergo, it possesses a fleshier texture, a little more sumptuousness. I just prefer this to the 1996 Ducru-Beaucaillou that has a little more Cabernet Sauvignon (75%). Given this, plus the fact that one of the leitmotifs of the growing season is the structure of the Left Bank wines, this is more classic style, though in retrospect, I am sure they would have used more Cabernet if possible. Both vintages are well-worth seeking out.
Flight 9: 2000, 2003, 2005
This was another strong trio that traverses the stewardship of François-Xavier and Bruno Borie. The 2005 Ducru-Beaucaillou is the most impressive with grippy tannins and an uncompromising backwards nature - a behemoth that may deserve a higher score down the line once those tannins polymerise further. The most eye-catching wine is the 2003 Ducru-Beaucaillou. I am not a massive fan of this growing season; however, by upping the Cabernet Sauvignon to 80% and picking almost a week earlier than the 2005, this is delicious and shows no signs of sur-maturité, decadent without compromising the personality of Ducru-Beaucaillou - some achievement. Another point to mention in this trio is that the 2000 Ducru-Beaucaillou was matured in two-thirds new oak, whereas the other two vintages were raised in 90% new barrels.
Flight 10: 2011, 2009, 2010
You might think it foolish to have included the 2011 Ducru-Beaucaillou against the renowned 2009 and 2010; nonetheless, it was not embarrassed at all, notwithstanding that analytically it has the same IPT as those vintages. The bouquet is beautifully defined with traces of liquorice, whilst the palate has ample black fruit kept in check by the spine of acidity. As I mention in my tasting note, it is one of the best wines of the Left Bank. Between the 2009 and 2010, well, it is a close call. To be frank, I anticipated that I would err towards the latter, partly because I prefer the 2010 vintage, and also my last bottle of 2009, served blind, showed some volatility. However, here I was floored by the 2009 Ducru-Beaucaillou that had dispensed with some of its Pauillac-like traits on the nose and displays wondrous intensity and focus, powerful yet not over-powering. The 2010 Ducru-Beaucaillou, bolstered by a little more Cabernet Sauvignon, is more sultry and backward; the plus-sign against my score suggests that this might overtake the 2009 in time. It is a fabulous wine, but it clearly requires several more years in a cool, dank cellar.
Flight 11: 2016, 2018
Here, we have two exceptional growing seasons. The respective Ducru-Beaucaillou wines are both exactly the same blend, picking beginning just a day later in 2018 compared to 2016, both raised in 100% new oak. I have rhapsodised this pair in recent reports, so there is little to add except hoping you have squirreled them away in your cellar and will afford them sufficient time to reach their drinking plateaus. I expected the 2016 to be a step above the 2018 to be honest, though contrasting them directly, they are level-pegging, partly because the former is starting to pull down its shutters. Maybe the 2016 will nudge its nose in front as they evolve? It will be fascinating to find out.
These flights contained the oldest vintages. I asked Bruno Borie how he found them himself, and he replied that they reflected the progress made at the estate and the influence of Emile Peynaud and his father. In fact, so inspired was Bruno that later he opened “less vintages” such as the 1954 and 1955.
Flight 12: 1971 (magnum), 1970, 1966, 1962
Here is a quartet of interesting vintages from a bygone age. Perhaps, with my critical cap on (maybe it’s never off?) I was expecting a little more because I have many fond memories of the 1970 Ducru-Beaucaillou guzzled regularly back in the day. It has retained vigour on the nose, but maybe just lost a little “sparkle” on the palate. Nevertheless, it remains a lovely Saint-Julien that has held up well over half-a-century. I remember a fabulous bottle of 1962 Ducru-Beaucaillou that I shared with a friend in 2006, and though it showed well, it’s not profoundly complex on the nose yet with disarming purity and fine-grained, elegant tannins, I wager that it has just lost a bit of vigour over the last few years. Though it came from magnum, the 1971 Ducru-Beaucaillou evinces what was a tricky growing season on the Left Bank, and there was a distinct chlorine scent on the nose, a trait more common with the 1961s.
Flight 13: 1961, 1959, 1953
The last flight focused on some of the legendary wines of the era, though there was no 1955 that boasts an awesome reputation. No complaints about that, because these three over-deliver. Note that they are all founded upon 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, the rest, a seasoning of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The 1961 Ducru-Beaucaillou is a vintage that I have tasted a dozen times over the years. It is a leviathan, a Saint-Julien of immense prowess and power. It is not the most elegant wine of the vintage, but there is great depth and structure, so much gorgeous fruit and energy, that it is completely irresistible. Upon reaching six decades, this shows that it still has plenty left in the tank. Then, the 1959 Ducru-Beaucaillou sashays along and oh là là, it is even better. It is one of the few 1959s that I have ever tasted, and it is drop-dead gorgeous. More floral on the nose than the 1961, exquisite balance on the palate, not ostentatious but utterly refined and graceful, this is what mature Claret is all about. Nothing beats it. I pitied the 1953 Ducru-Beaucaillou having to follow this pair, and to be honest, I expected it to have withered a little with age. On the contrary, the aromatics were on par with the 1959 and 1961 with wonderful cedar and aniseed scents. The palate is graceful, refined and perhaps just tapered a little towards the finish, forgivable after almost seven decades.
This retrospective tasting showed the journey that Ducru-Beaucaillou has taken over the years under Jean-Eugène, François-Xavier and Bruno Borie. You could see different chapters, the highs and yes, the lows when the wine was knocked off course. The older vintages prove the wines longevity, if proof was needed after the 1928 Ducru-Beaucaillou dazzled at one of our “Grouse Club” lunches. Certainly, one cannot ignore the troublesome aspects of the Eighties, but name me an estate that never lost its way at some point. The question is whether you learn, and clearly under the Borie family, they took radical action to remedy the problem when others remained silent or turned a blind eye. Recent vintages have been exemplary and though they are more approachable than earlier vintages due to better tannin management, it is a wine that needs time in bottle.
When I wrote the original draft of this article, I penned the introduction about Ducru-Beaucaillou’s kitchen as a whimsical prelude before entering into history and technical aspects of the vinification. You know my style…I always like something light-hearted and tangential before getting into the nitty-gritty. However, I always felt that the kitchen meant a lot to Bruno Borie, symbolic of who he is as a person. This obtuse line of enquiry unearthed a wonderful story and elucidated Borie as a person, so I will finish with his reply when I asked him to divulge more…
“Ducru-Beaucaillou’s kitchen is special in many respects,” Borie writes, “foremost for the special childhood memories created in this place. I can picture myself as a young boy, going down to visit Helmut for a friendly conversation. Helmut was a prisoner at the end of the Second World War, and at the end of his captivity, he decided to settle here with his wife Elsa and son Peter. They then had three more children, who became our best playmates. Helmut was a good man, absolutely charming, with an enlightened mind, a skillful and gifted laborer. He was first employed in the cellars. But as he had been a 'charcutier' [butcher] before the war, he was designated as chef, particularly during the harvest when we used to feed around 200 people twice a day.”
“I was fascinated by the huge black cast iron cauldrons where cabbage soup or ‘daube de boeuf’ gently boiled, emanating deliciously inviting fragrances. The cook, inspired by the local ingredients, collected wheelbarrows of vegetables from the garden and quarters of beef from our herd. Large yellow onions studded with cloves, bouquets garni as big as my arm simmered with carrots, turnips, celery, large pieces of bacon and huge bones. These feasts convinced me that volume and mass are essential for creating tasty cuisine. It did not require much more to instil a passion [for cooking] in me, a passion that was not shared by my father or the rest of the family. It’s with Helmut that I learned to slice onions and shallots like a pro. He introduced me to the art of sauces and braised cooking.”
“Later, as a student living in my own apartment, I had to cook well for myself and for friends that were kind enough to appreciate my cooking. When I was 18, I read the Michelin Guide and Gault et Millau, which at the time, had just launched Nouvelle Cuisine, also the cookbooks of great chefs. The recipes have become more and more elaborate, and I have never given up on this passion. I practice every day during the holidays.”
“It was only natural that when I returned to Ducru-Beaucaillou, I wanted to bring this kitchen back to life, as a special place to receive our visitors and to share a piece of my childhood with my guests. The vision came to me when Jean-Paul Barbier, who was upgrading and modernizing his kitchen. He offered me his old Charvet cooker. The idea was to bring to Ducru-Beaucaillou part of the soul of this iconic Médoc restaurant [Lion d’Or] that had given us so many gourmet meals and joyous memories. This idea immediately seduced me. We designed the entire kitchen around this gorgeous piece of equipment and the two historic cauldrons and added carefully selected professional equipment. We have even custom-made special pieces such copper fish boxes that can accommodate 20-pound turbots or a whole vineyard hare stuffed à la royale.”
Having learned about Borie’s culinary upbringing, I feel that whilst Ducru-Beaucaillou’s function is to exploit its terroir to turn grapes into wine, its heart is not the vat-room, but the kitchen. That’s partly because it is one of the few major estates that is still a family home - where else does a family gather, chat, laugh eat and drink? Our kitchen might not be quite as grandiose. But it too is full of happy memories with friends and family, and every now and then, a bottle of Ducru-Beaucaillou.
(Thanks to Tracey Dobbin MW for assistance in translating.)
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