It’s a bright, refreshingly cool morning in the vineyards of Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan when the gravel soil of the namesake Graves region really starts to make its presence known.
I’m in minute four of a low-level, half-squat, half-kneel position wrestling with an unbelievably prodigious Sauvignon Blanc vine. The current challenge: to wedge my secateurs (pruning clippers) between a trellis post and trellis wire and cleanly cut the grape stem while leaving the 150-or-so berries on the cluster intact. The limestone gravel is slowly etching a pattern into my shins and knees, increasingly rivaling the pain in my lower back. But it’s a good pain, born of adventure, curiosity and respect for the centuries of grape-growing here in this ancient vineyard. Who knew French vines sit so low to the ground… a wee oversight on my part when I signed up for this assignment!
This morning I’m working at the east end of the estate. The viticulture team of Thomas Stonestreet (technical director) and Didier Peytier (chef de culture) – have decreed the fruit in this specific plot and these specific rows is ripe and ready to be picked. My gloves, my shirt… pretty much everything on me is sticky, confirming the wisdom of this decision. The quality of these sun-ripened grapes is superb – golden, juicy and extraordinarily delicious. A summer of heat and minimal rain has triggered the textbook ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response in these grapes. The vine’s ‘struggle’, and search for water and nutrients has sent the roots deep into the soil, a vigneron’s dream growth scenario for richer, more concentrated fruit.
So with the white harvest going strong, the Chevalier team is happy. And who knows – perhaps this is a vintage for the record books. What’s best: I’m here in Bordeaux to celebrate ‘les vendanges’ 2019. The harvest. A Bordelaise wannabe’s dream-come true.
Green Winemaking in Bordeaux : Balancing Risk and Reward
I have come to Bordeaux seeking experience in a white (vin blanc) harvest and to better understand the ‘saviour faire’ (know-how) required to convert conventional grape-growing to organic and biodynamic production. With our planet’s well-documented climate emergency, I applaud any producer who is embracing organic vineyard practices and acting on sustainable values. Many months of researching viticulture best practices and meeting with winemakers, has left me with a deep respect for the business and emotional trade-offs associated with ‘eco-conscious’ winemaking. Going green ain’t easy.
Here in Bordeaux, Mother Nature has blessed the region with a magnificent tapestry of legendary terroir – which, roughly translated – means how the earth gives flavour to wine (and food). I don’t think any grape-growing region in the world is as driven by, invested in, or linked to wine’s fundamental concept of terroir or “purity of place”, as Bordeaux. The 62 rigorously sanctioned AOC appellations spread throughout Bordeaux – the largest concentration of appellations in France and indeed the world – have had to prove their soil and winemaking offers an observable, individual expression of terroir. 62 is an impressive testament to the array, distinct attributes and quality of Bordeaux’s wines.
While a gifted patchwork of terroirs, Bordeaux’s geography also brings with it some very real weather challenges. Humidity, frost and regular bouts of maritime rage (aka rain) are part and parcel of the area’s terroir. Despite this, there is a growing community of resolute producers here who choose to farm organically and biodynamically – without chemical inputs – even when the climate risks are so high.
At the top of the risk-meter? Bordeaux’s iconic cru classé (classified growth) producers. I read my share of the 2018 ‘futures’ media and trade reports and saw how a questionable vintage can knock a producer off that ‘prestige’ pedestal PDQ (pretty damn quick). These estates live and die under the media microscope, in an ‘en primeur’ sales and marketing system that demands transparency and accountability. A challenging vintage and the magnitude of loss for these chateaux can be considerable.
Even with 10% of Bordeaux winemakers converting to organic, and sustainability as headline news, the Grands Crus de Bordeaux who break from ‘protocol’ (conventional winemaking) have much explaining to do.
So why convert and how best to do it? That’s what I wanted to know.
Domaine de Chevalier and the 2019 White Wine Harvest
Domaine de Chevalier Blanc is considered one of the finest dry white wines in the world.
With total ‘white Bordeaux’ production of just seven hectares or 20,000 bottles, the grapes are truly liquid gold. The Chevalier white blend – a mix of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon, represents a very small part of the estate’s 65 hectare output. Domaine de Chevalier reds are equally respected in the Pessac Léognan appellation and broader Bordeaux community, the two grand vins contributing to the estate’s inclusion as a red and white Cru Classé in the 1959 Graves Classification.
The 2019 white grape harvest started in early September – on Tuesday, Sept 3 – about a week earlier than management’s suggested arrival date (i.e. when I, and my two Canadian friends were told to arrive in Bordeaux). Whites are generally picked 3 – 4 weeks ahead of the reds although merlot is increasingly nipping at the heels of the white harvest (merlot being the most sensitive to heat). All in all, the team couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather for the 2019 vin blanc vintage.
Will Bordeaux’s notoriously challenging weather hold for the reds? No one in Bordeaux counts their proverbial poulets before they hatch. The rains of 2013 still haunt and mention of spring 2017 sends chills up producers’ collective spines. In fact, rumour has it, church visits spike in the fall as chateaux executives hope and pray for a kind and generous harvest.
Our Host Winery: Famille Bernard & Domaine de Chevalier
Domaine de Chevalier is a family run estate helmed by the inimitable, Olivier Bernard. Olivier is a legend in the region, known for his equal parts joie de vive, Aristotle-like wine pronouncements, and wine business savvy. The Bordeaux patriarch’s knowledge goes well beyond the boundaries of Chevalier having been President of the 225 member Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux for six years – an industry body representing the very best Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux. His credentials also include Vice Chancellor of the Bordeaux Wine Academy, president of the Union des Crus Grave classification and membership in the Académie du Vin de France.
Olivier Bernard took over Domaine de Chevalier in 1983 at the tender age of 23. Green as the vines that surrounded him, he had the good sense to keep original owner Claude Ricard on contract for four years to help him learn the ropes. Realizing he’d have to live amongst the vines to meet his – and the Famille Bernard’s high bar – he moved to the vineyard’s sprawling estate. The industry veteran is overseeing the property’s 37th vintage – a testament to his and his family’s resilience (it takes a village).
Today, Olivier’s 34-year old son Adrien is the sales and marketing manager while 32 year-old Hugo oversees the Clos des Lunes vineyard in Sauternes. As young millennials, they’ve learned the machinations of wine production and the business fundamentals of a Bordeaux spreadsheet from their dad. Equally impressive, they’ve learned the ‘art of the deal’ from their spirited family of shareholders that number 390 strong.
Of course the Famille Bernard is ubiquitous in Bordeaux. Olivier’s grandfather Lucien Bernard started the company in 1928 on the quays of the Garonne River. Now, with four generations of expertise, the Bernard Group is firmly rooted in the wine and spirits sector with four key business pillars: spirits production and distribution (Lucien Bernard), fine-wine distribution in the online/direct-to-consumer segment (Millésima) distribution to the hospitality sector (Sobovi), and of course winemaking, with operations managed by Olivier and sons. The Group Bernard chair is Jean Bernard and the family managers are accountable to – yes, not a typo – 390 family shareholders (I’d kill to be at one of those family dinners!!).
Ten years after purchasing Domaine de Chevalier, the Bernard family took over the lease of Domaine de la Solitude, a monastery in the Martillac region of Pessac-Léognan run by the Sisters of the Holy Family. Around the corner from La Solitude is Château Lespault-Martillac, a small 9.5 hectare property at the top of the Martillac plateau. Olivier Bernard leased this second vineyard – described as the jewel of the appellation – from the Bolleau family in 2009.
Further south, in the gentle hills of Barsac, is Château Suau. Part of Bordeaux’s famous 1855 classification of Sauterne, the Bernard family entered into an 18 year leasing arrangement with this 6.5 hectare property in 2015.
The forth property added to the ledger, which some describe as Olivier’s finest ‘chess’ move, is Clos des Lunes, a 59 hectare vineyard in the heart of Sauternes. With no estate, just an operational cellar supporting the brand, the property counts Château d’Yquem, Château Guiraud and Château Lefaurie Peyraguey as its neighbours. Purchased in 2011, the goal of Clos des Lunes is to build on the storied terroir of Sauterne and produce exceptional dry (sec) white wine. (To read tasting notes and learn more about each of these estates, jump to the end of this post.)
Speaking of Château Guiraud, Olivier Bernard is one of four partners in this organic 1855 Classified Sauterne property, but stay tuned for that post in the weeks ahead.
My 2019 Wine Harvest Itinerary
Not surprisingly, Olivier Bernard – aka the boss – intercepted us as we arrived at Domaine de Chevalier’s front office.
Our four day itinerary included picking time in the field and production time in the cellar at the three large Bernard estates: Chevalier, La Solitude and Clos des Lunes. We’d report to Thomas Stonestreet, technical director who’s managing his 23rd Chevalier harvest and overseeing the conversion to organic and biodynamic agriculture.
We were also introduced to Frederic Lelong in the vineyard – an incredibly busy man and one of two boots-on-the-ground directors responsible for the conversion to biodynamic viticulture. Frederic, I discovered, is also an impressive quality control guy. Frederic walked behind the 30, highly animated Spanish pickers, assessing the grapes in their baskets. At Chevalier, quality control happens in the field, so clean, healthy clusters, with no bad grapes, leaves or bugs is de rigeur. Did I mention Frederic also has super-sonic vision? He repeatedly walked behind me, pointing out clusters of grapes I’d missed, hidden in the vine canopy (hmmmm – was he told to keep an eye on les Canadians ???).
According to Frederic, Chevalier’s organic conversion is slowly marching forward. “Right now we’re at the 50% conversion level here at Chevalier, so half the estate is biodynamic and half is still conventional. There’s still much work to do and we’re still learning,” he says. “We started three years ago and we hope in five or six years the entire Chevalier property and our two smaller properties will have been converted. It’s a three-year process to be certified organic and biodynamic if we go that route. It’s important to get it right.”
In the meantime, they practice organic viticulture as a matter of conscience.
“The best wines are made in the vineyard when nature and terroir are allowed to take their course,” says technical director Thomas Stonestreet when I sit down with him over the lunch break. “We must change our way of working and we must be cleaner as an industry. We want to be careful with the vines and conserve the vineyard health, conserve the vineyard traditions and conserve the vineyard history at our wonderful properties. It’s a slow process, but I believe the vines are getting better and better.”
Stonestreet says the 2019 vintage has been a roller coaster of weather influences. “We were off to an early start with hot weather and the vines grew fast. Then in April it was very cold and the vines stopped growing. Then we had frost.” Thomas says the Chevalier estate has ten, eleven-meter fans which the team pulls out to protect the vines from frost. “There was no real damage to the vines, so the good news is it worked,” he says with a we-dodged-that-bullet look to the sky.
“Well, and then the frost was followed by heat spikes in May and June that was news around the world, and then some rain,” he continues. “It was a slow, late pollination when we saw the first flowers and then a very hot and very dry July, followed by some much-needed rain.” Thomas says flowering and véraison – the concentration of grape pigments and changing of colours – happened slowly which often signals a later harvest for reds. They say 100 days between flowering and harvest, I suggest. “We’ll see. It’s not over yet,” he laughs.
And the whites, I ask, rubbing my back oblique muscles. “Just fabulous,” he exclaims. “They show the colour. They let us know when they’re ready to be picked. We’ve had the luxury of three or four tries or passes through the vineyards with the white harvest, so we can be very precise every day with ripeness. 2019 will be a great year for whites.”
But for the Weather…..
Thomas says last year’s spring rains were a huge challenge for producers in Bordeaux and indeed a lot of France. They produced significant mildew challenges. “It’s particularly challenging for our organic and biodynamic vineyards,” he admits. “Last year, our biodynamic vineyards produced about 15% less crop. As organic farmers, we can’t spray. We can only use sulfur and copper – what the industry calls soft chemicals – and we try to use very little. We stopped all herbicides and four years ago we stopped the use of all other chemicals. It’s better for the vineyards and of course better for our employees.” This is a reassuring bit of news as I process the tens of …okay, hundreds of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes I’ve consumed as part of my ripeness ‘applied’ research.
“And ploughing methods?” I ask, having recently learned that soil tilling practices account for lost carbon in the soil and significant greenhouse gas emissions?
“We only use mechanical methods in the vineyard to work the ground,” he says. “And for our oldest vines, we have three horses that we bring to Chevalier to work the front of the property in the spring.” Thomas explains there are lots of advantages to using horses in the vineyard. “They aerate the soil, they help control weeds, they help remove the soil that covers the vines in the fall, there’s less lost carbon and zero pollution, and so on. Plus it’s a really beautiful thing to see horses in a vineyard.”
Back to the Future: The Business of Organics
When the noble knight (his Instagram moniker) and our host, Adrien Bernard comes to visit in the Chevalier vineyards I ask him about the importance of eco-conscious winemaking for Bordeaux. “Its important to Bordeaux as we are always promoting our wines,” he says. “Being the largest and one of the oldest production regions in the world, we tend to be a target but at the same time, an example. We must show that conversion is a positive thing. But it’s a step-by-step process as we have 280 000 hectares of vines here in Bordeaux. A lot of châteaux don’t have the same means or needs.”
With so many estates now owned by large corporations and accountable to shareholders, is it even realistic to expect grand cru estates to give up trusty chemical sheds and convert to organic and biodynamic agriculture? The risks are high.
“It’s about the future,” says Adrien. It’s about building resilient vineyards. At Chevalier we are making the vines strong, building their immune system and fortifying them with healthy soils so they are able to withstand drought, heat, rain and mildew and fight through difficult vintages. We want to create deep, resilient vines that can withstand the changing climate and better express the terroir of Chevalier.”
Adrien cautions the practices they use now in organic/bio dynamic is likely not what will be done in the vineyards in 10 years time. “It’s a fast-evolving solution. We try to apply the best knowledge we can now and we will see if it’s still the perfect solution in the future.”
Will you go the conversion route, I ask? “Converting means getting a logo, and we will see if we seek that logo or not. Promoting means that we did it for what it will bring us in communication when in reality we do it for the vineyard,” he says rather pragmatically.
Converting also comes with a host of other considerations. “It means people and in this case I speak about our incredible team. They must be 200% with us all the way. It takes long hours and strong research trials. It takes lots of risk assessment and financial investment. The risk of course would be low yields in humid vintages as we have seen last year.”
What are consumers’ expectations for green Bordeaux and is a producer’s environmental footprint a purchase consideration? “The Bordeaux consumers are trustworthy and have been with us for a long time,” says Adrien. “We often say when someone starts with Bordeaux, it is challenging to try something else. We offer an extremely large range of price, style and depth – including responsible vineyard practices. Here at our properties, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Our four days with the Bernard family and the community of pickers and employees provides many lessons learned and more than a few bruised kneecaps. In our visits to Chevalier, La Solitude and Clos des Lunes, practices around viticulture and winemaking – our ‘family recipe’ as Jean Camille describes it – are consistent. Great wine always starts in the vineyard, or, as Olivier likes to say, “A great wine is always born of a great grape.”
It’s clear the Bernard family is wrestling with some hard decisions – organics and biodynamics is better for the earth, better for employees and better for the vineyard. They’re all 100% onside with that. Trying to manage the risk that goes along with changing to organic practices isn’t easy. Done well, it takes many years of trials. Yet it’s increasingly the narrative framing the food and wine world and the Bernard’s know expectations are growing.
What’s truly evident at Bernard-managed estates is the passion and commitment to quality winemaking. Personally, I found the pricing of their grand cru wines so they’re broadly affordable – a really smart strategy.
From the spirited, seasonal workers who return each year to the front line employees – it takes a village. What a thrill to be part of this wine-making community – if only for a week.
Wine Estate Facts and Tasting Notes
Domaine de Chevalier – Cru Classé de Graves
Address: 102 Chemin de Mignoy, 33850 Léognan
Commune: Pessac-Léognan appellation, Graves region
History: Maps by the royal geographical engineer Pierre de Belleyme suggest wines were planted on this extreme western Graves property as early as 1770. In 1852 the estate was formally named Domaine de Chevalier and purchased by Jean Ricard who also owned Chateau Haute Bailly and Malartic-Lagravière. Grandson Claude Ricard took over the property in 1945 and wary of inheritance taxes, the family sold the property to the Bernard Family in 1983. The red vineyard was tripled in size and a new winery was added. Forest surrounds the estate on three sides insulating heat in the summer and increasing frost risk in the shoulder seasons
Surface area: 65 hectares – 7 hectares white (including one hectare in the replanting program) and 58 hectares red
Technical Director: Thomas Stonestreet
Winemaker: Louis de Bouglon
Organic/Biodynamic Conversion: Chevalier – 50% organic and biodynamic 50% conventional
Soil: Gravel and black sand on clay-gravel subsoil
Production: Vines are planted at a density of 10,000 vines per hectare. There are 90 individual parcels spread out across the property. Mix of cepage: 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot
120,000 bottles red – first and second wine 25,000 bottles – white
White production – Grapes are cleaned in the field (there’s always someone looking over your shoulder so pickers are expected to take the time to get it right!!), and picked in small parcels over multiple days. Vinification includes a whole cluster press with stems for a short period of time at low compression levels to ensure bright, ripe fruit and minimal tannins. Vinification takes place in 30% new, French oak barrels. The barrels are placed in a cold room to slow down fermentation. The wine ages on its lees in barrel with regularly battonage (stirring) for approximately 12 months.
Red production – The grapes are hand-picked, sorted and vinified in a mix of conical stainless steel tanks, new egg shaped cement vats and cement tanks. The oldest vines from the front of the property are vinified in new, oak barrels. The Grand Vin undergoes malolactic fermentation in new oak barrels and the second wine in a mix of barrels and vats. The wines are aged for 18 months.
Domaine de Chevalier White: 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Sémillon
Domaine de Chevalier Rouge: 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Second wine – L’Esprit de Chevalier
Domaine de Chevalier White: – 2010
A 70/30 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon
A rich nose of ripe tree and tropical fruit with a stony flavoured mineral backdrop. The wine is full-bodied, lush with some secondary nuttiness coming though. Apricot, pear and ripe citrus complement layers of sweet textured flavours. Unctuous.
Domaine de Chevalier Red: – 2010
A delicious nose full of sweet spice and ripe black fruit. A hint of tobacco and earth. On the palate, smooth polished tannins frame ripe plumb, kirsch flavours. Elegant, balanced – almost Margaux-like – with a long full-bodied finish.
Domaine de la Solitude
Address: 10 Route de la Solitude, 33650 Martillac
History: In 1820, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, a Catholic priest from Bordeaux, created the religious community: The Holy Family. He built a convent, orphanage, and developed agricultural activity in the fields surrounding the convent. In the 70s, the religious order added vines and winemaking to their holdings. In 1993, the Sisters of the Holy Family signed a 40 year lease with Olivier Bernard, who manages the Domaine de Chevalier (Grand Cru Classé de Graves) to take over all production. The Bernard family has made significant investments at La Solitude, with new plantings, winery equipment, tasting room, conversion to sustainable farming.
According to Jean-Camille Bernard who manages the tasting room at La Solitude – the sisters receive wines from every vintage (they prefer the second wine) and often stop by to say hello. The environment is wonderfully peaceful and natural with forests and streams throughout the property. The convent bells – carillon – rings out over the vineyards every day at 11:30am to signify an hour of prayer and solitude.
Cellar Master: Eric Duron (with clipboard above)
Commune: Martillac, Pessac-Léognan appellation
Surface area: 32 hectares total: 7 hectares white and 25 hectares red
Organic/Biodynamic Conversion: 41% organic and 33% biodynamic. “If we taste from a biodynamic plot and we compare in a tasting, the wine is more expressive with biodynamic. So year after year, we grow our efforts behind that.” Jean Camille Bernard
Soil: A mix of sand and clay at the bottom of the plateau. Well-draining soils. Harvest is generally one week later than at sister estate Domaine de Chevalier
Whites: 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Sémillon Reds: 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon
Production: 40 hl/per hectare – dependent on vintage (limit for appellation is 57 hl per hectar)
120,000 bottles red – first and second wine 25,000 bottles white
White production: Grapes are hand picked early in the morning to preserve freshness and all cleaning (no gray/sour rot or botrytis) of clusters is done in the vineyard and overseen by vineyard staff. Grapes are whole-bunch pressed into the pneumatic press and juice gravity flows to buried vats where it settles before starting fermentation. All fermentation is in one-year old oak barrels.
Tasting Wisdom – with Jean-Camille Bernard. “Wine – it’s like a man – you don’t want to mix the younger vines (3 –20 years) with the older vines (20 – 80). When you’re young, you’re wild and crazy and you have a lot of juice. Then you get older, wiser, at the end, not as many bunches maybe, but the roots go deep, and you have better concentration.”
“Before the Bernard family arrived, everything was done with machines. We’ve changed everything here and now it’s all by hand, so the processes are totally different. People come in and say I’ve known your wines since the sixties – but now we say – yes but – now we’re different. Try again.”
Domaine de la Solitude – 2015 – beautiful red fruit aromatics and a hint of cedar. Medium bodied, concentrated, ripe red and black fruit and silky tannins.
Domaine de la Solitude White – 2016 – on the nose, fresh spring bouquet white flowers, peach, bright citrus fruit. On the palate, beautiful freshness, round mouthfeel (thank you lees), white peach, tropical fruit, myer lemon sweet citrus.
Prieuré la Solitude – 2016 – Younger vines but delicious and full of energy. I’m a fan! Fruity and extraordinarily fresh, an impressive balance of fruit, acidity and fine tannins. Exceptional value with distribution limited to France. I’m sad that I could only bring one of these back to Canada.
Note: Prieuré – is the place in the cloister or monastery or in a church where you pray.
Clos des Lunes
Manager: Hugo Bernard
Address: Cap Lanne, 33210 Sauternes
History: The previous owners made one sweet wine under the name of Chateau Haut Caplane that was moderately successful (certainly no social media buzz). In 2011, the Bernard family purchased the property renaming it to honour the Chinese Festival of the Moon – Clos des Lunes (which literally means walled (enclosure of the) moon).
Cellar Master: Thomas Meilhan
Commune: Sauternes – BUT – because the dry wine does fit the required level of sweetness to be sold as a Sauternes appellation wine, the Lune Blanche and Lune D’argent is sold as a dry White Bordeaux wine, or in this case as a Grand Vin Blanc Sec. The quality, however, goes above and beyond generic Bordeaux. The sweet Clair de Lune is sold under the Sauternes appellation.
Surface Area: 59 hectares in total: 45 hectares dry white, 5 hectares in a replanting program, 9 hectares sweet
Organic/Biodynamic Conversion: 16% organic and no biodynamic although I’m told the transition will begin soon. Farmed sustainably.
Soil: gravel with clay, sand and limestone soil
Wines: La Petite Moon Rosé, Lune Blanche (entry level wine, aged in stainless and concrete), Silver Moon (25% new French oak barrels x 12 months; the remaining 75% is aged on its lees in stainless steel tanks for 6 months), Golden Moon (18 months on lees) and a small production of Clair de Lune sweet wine. Clos des Lunes produces 400,000 bottles. The lunar themed wine is now marketed all over the world with 40% sold in France and 60% exported to Europe, the USA, Canada (Silver Moon – SAQ $31.50) and China.
Production: 70% Semillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc. The vines are 30 years of age, on average. The vineyard is planted to a vine density of 6,500 vines per hectare vs the Chevalier density of 10,000 vines per hectare (greater density encourages deeper roots, less vine vigour and more concentrated grape flavours). In the case of Clos des Lunes, vine age adds tremendous richness and generous flavours.
The wine is vinified in a combination of 60-hectoliter vats plus with new and used, French oak barrels.
Again, amazing value wines.
Feature Photo Credit: Domaine de Chevalier