Eco-Savvy Château de Chantegrive: Trailblazing Bordeaux Vineyards are Rolling out Green Wine Tours

chantegrive grapes
Almost ready. Photo credit: Château de Chantegrive.

For me, the really juicy story swirling around the food and beverage category – and indeed just about every retail category – is the changing values of customers.

Many consumers now rank a company’s environmental record higher on their list of “purchase considerations”.

Seminal research is indicating this ‘sustainability mindset’ is a marketing game-changer. Some examples: a 2017 study of 20,000 consumers (note the robust sample size!) in five countries by food giant Unilever showed:

  • 33% of customers are now explicitly buying from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good
  • More than one in five (21%) surveyed said they would actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer
  • 53% of shoppers in the UK and 78% in the US say they ‘feel better’ when they buy products that are sustainably produced.

The study’s conclusion? An estimated €966 billion opportunity exists for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear.

It appears that eco-aware cohort includes young environmentally-literate business students. According to The Economist, MBA program enrolment is declining in 70% of universities across the U.S. The reason? Incoming students want business schools to dial up the societal consequences of corporate actions; less focus on profit-driven capitalism and more curricula reflecting sustainable capitalism and social, environmental and ethical management.

And that was before Greta Thunberg started lecturing the planet.

amustread chantegrive semillon
Sémillon ripening on the vine for Château de Chantegrive’s Cuvee Caroline.

Eco-friendly Winemaking

Ahead of this curve, are the change-makers at Bordeaux’s Château de Chantegrive.

“We started to invest in the ecological wine segment in 2012,” says Chloé Le Bouffo, Deputy CEO of Château de Chantegrive in the Graves region of Bordeaux.

“We did it by conviction, because we live amongst our vines and are very sensitive and committed to the environment. Actually, we only started to communicate our message in 2017, because people – our customers and guests – started asking about it, “ she says. “And now it’s become quite an important conversation, which is a good thing for the people in Bordeaux who are not yet convinced. If they were not ready to invest in the ecology by philosophy, maybe now they can do it to reach some markets. If you want my opinion,” she adds, “either way is good, as long as it brings more people to green thinking.”

chloe - a true tree-hugger
Environmental champion and true tree-hugger – Chloé Le Bouffo – Deputy CEO at Château de Chantegrive. Photo credit: Château de Chantegrive.

Seeking Environmentally Friendly Wine

The mission for my most recent trip to the bastion of wine capitalism – Bordeaux – was pretty simple: seek out planet-loving châteaux with eco-integrity who are making outstanding wine!

Eco-friendly winemaking is definitely growing around the world as producers attempt to mitigate their environmental impact. Climate issues like carbon emissions, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution and the harmful impact of chemical additives are all by-products of conventional winemaking and traditional agriculture. Some wine regions like Austria, Chile and New Zealand are increasingly making sustainable wine production the norm – wrapping their national brand identity in a responsible environmental message – recognizing it’s better for the planet, consumers and employees working in the industry.

chantegrive insect hut
Nice Insect Hut Château de Chantegrive!! Insects need refuge at different times in their life: to spend the night, for protection from inclement weather, for shelter during winter, to reproduce in the spring … Most often found here: ladybugs, lacewings, wild bees & earwigs!
Bordeaux Map credit: Wine Folly

Your Green Wine Châteaux Itinerary

There are many forward-looking Bordeaux winemakers returning to traditional agricultural practices to reduce their environmental footprint. A good number of them – like Château de Chantegrive – are introducing wine enthusiasts to their sustainable practices and hard-earned environmental certifications through Green Wine Tours. (Note: Chantegrive calls it a Nature Tour.)

I was able to fit three of these green/sustainable/nature tours into my Bordeaux itinerary when I visited in September. Critically, wines from these estates are considered amongst the best in the region, reassurance I feel I must offer given the decidedly unfair baggage often assigned to environmentally-conscious winemakers (sigh).

In my last post, you met the eco-focused Planty family at Château Guiraud – Premier Grand Cru Classé – in Sauternes. I’d make that Day 1 of your green itinerary (stay for lunch at their restaurant – La Chapelle, perhaps head up to Barsac and visit Chateau Climens (also green and also Premier Grand Cru Classé) and overnight in the charming town of Cadillac).

Day 2 will start with a visit to Château de Chantegrive in the beautiful, historic region of Graves. After that, travel north to the imperial vineyards of Fronsac with a visit to the beautiful estate, Château de la Dauphine (next week’s post). Be sure to save space in your travel bag for Chantegrive and la Dauphine wines, which offer truly amazing value and the added benefit of supporting trailblazing winemakers.

graves gravel - happy earth day
The famous Graves ‘gravel’ at Château de Chantegrive in spring – celebrating Earth Day! Heat retaining stones help ripen the grapes. Photo credit: Château de Chantegrive

Château de Chantegrive

Château de Chantegrive in the commune of Podensac is one of the largest wine estates in the Graves appellation, with 97 hectares (240 acres) of vines. Graves departs from the French tradition of naming an appellation after a place. Here, the area is named for the limestone gravel soils found throughout the region.

If you need reassurance on quality, you’re in the right place. Chantegrive is a member of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), a 134-member organization representing the finest wines of Bordeaux. It was at the 2018 UGCB “futures” or “en primeur” tasting in April (read all about it….later :-) when I was introduced to this impressive estate.

The château produces a full complement of red, rose and white wines. But it’s the outstanding White Bordeaux, Cuvée Caroline, produced from 12 hectares (25 acres) of 30+ year old Sauvignon Blanc (45%), Sémillon (50%) and Sauvignon Gris (5%) that caught my attention. That, and the discussion I had with Deputy CEO, Chloé Le Bouffo on their very heartfelt commitment to sustainable viticulture.

Chloé says the inordinate respect for the land at Chantegrive comes from its founders – Henri and Françoise Lévêque. At 83, the legendary matriarch of the estate, Françoise still works in the vineyards every day.

In 1966, Françoise’s husband Henri sold stamps from his stamp collection to secure start-up funding for two hectares of vines around the village of Podensac. Every year, they’d sell another stamp and add a half-hectare or two to their holdings. Sometimes they acquired vineyards; sometimes they planted their own. Now, 53 years into this adventure, their spirited daughter and CEO, Marie Hélène Lévêque runs the estate with vintage consulting support from Hubert de Boüard, owner of Chateau Angélus in Saint Emillion (1er Grand Cru Classé A).

The day I visited Chantegrive, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris were being harvested for the Cuvée Caroline white blend. Sémillon is the last grape in the white blend to ripen and the vines were still a few days away from being picked. Once harvested, the juice is fermented in barrel and then aged in new oak casks for 9 months, with regular stirring of the lees to fatten the wine. A recent spate of awards is evidence of the quality of wine being made here. Cuvée Caroline always picks up its share of the awards and is widely acknowledged to be one of the top white wines in the region.

chantegrive lineup
Château de Chantegrive wine line-up. Photo credit: Château de Chantegrive.
chantegrive gate
Welcome to Château de Chantegrive!!

Back to Nature

Chantegrive translates into song-bird, and it’s that connection to nature and the environment that’s at the heart of this family-run estate.

“We have always invested in preserving our sublime natural heritage,” says Chloé Le Bouffo. The estate joined Bordeaux’s voluntary collective initiative Environmental Management System (EMS) in 2013. The collective of 25 estates drafted an environmental action plan with clearly stated objectives, commitments and optimization strategies including performance indicators to evaluate and track implementation of the plan.

Two years later, in 2015, Château de Chantegrive was one of the first châteaux in Bordeaux to be certified ISO 14001, an internationally recognized accreditation that confirms the estate has met established environmental targets.

Two years after that, Chantegrive secured the Haute Valeur Environnementale or HVE3 certification. The HVE ‘standard’ is a three-tiered system developed by the French Ministry of Agriculture encouraging farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, plant health, irrigation and decreasing the negative environmental impact of chemical fertilization and additives. According to Chloé, less than 5% of the wine estates in Gironde are HVE3 certified (read about these certifications in my Digging Into Bordeaux’s Green Movement post).

“Many people stay at level 2 – but at that stage, it’s about promising to make efforts. Level 3 is about applying a very strict cahier des charges….specifications. It is not a process that anybody can enter easily. There are risks, it demands time, a good amount of patience, money to adapt your infrastructure and motivation to change your way of farming. It involves new costs for different products that are greener, and a shift to more considerate soil practices, like weeding for instance.”

rose - chantegrive
One of hundreds of roses growing on the property. In addition to being beautiful, roses planted at the end of rows act as an early warning system signalling disease and pests. Photo credit: Château de Chantegrive.

I ask Chloé about the trade-offs between organic and HVE3 certifications. She brings a pragmatic and “reasoned approach”  to the discussion.

“We have 4 hectares (ha) on the property that are part of an organic farming test and we’ve had it for three years now,” she explains. “I would love to be organic on the whole property. But for now, it hasn’t proven its efficiency on our lands. Since we started, 2019 is the first year where we can actually harvest some grapes,” she says. “Bordeaux is a rainy region and the disease rate is very elevated – mildew especially. But for me, you have to keep your farming conception in a certain logic: if, to get a certification you have the impression that you are doing something against logic, then do not do it! To be organic on those 4 ha, we sometimes have to treat our vines 23 times in one year, whereas we only treated 7 times under the label HVE3. Ethically, I cannot call a vineyard where I had to spray copper so many times, organic. But legally according to the regulations, after a certain number of years, I am able to call it organic.”

Chloé says the team at Chantegrive believes the HVE3 approach is an important alternative for ecology minded grape growers who want to reduce their environmental footprint but can’t make the wholesale shift to organic.

“The HVE3 label is really demanding and made us invest in so many different infrastructures to protect our biodiversity,” she admits. “We now have our own wastewater treatment plant and another water filtering system called Phytobac to treat any chemical residue and effluent. We pulled off all the vines narrowing some streams and water channels – on 14metres of land. We have our own weather channel, which allows us to be precise and only treat if there is a real danger to the vines. We only use Excell products and have banned all carcinogenic products from the property.”

chantegrive harvest
It’s September! – and harvest team at Château de Chantegrive is busy sorting (no bugs, leaves, stems) Sauvignon Blanc, at the sorting table.

Chloé says one very interesting aspect of HVE3 is the sensibility training of employees and mutual support required between neighbouring properties.  Last year Chantegrive gave 11 medals for longevity to long-standing employees, many of whom have been with Chantegrive for 25+ years. According to Chloé, employees and field workers all appreciate their critical role in building and preserving biodiversity in the vineyards.

“The biodiversity learning has been so important for all of us. We have beehives on the property to help pollinate biodiverse crop cover and we’ve added insect huts,” she explains. “We control vine pests biologically now by using certain predatory species – typhlodromes for instance – instead of chemical treatments. We keep grass in the vineyard – one out of every two rows – to encourage healthy insect populations to develop. We are discussing with the conservatory how we can integrate an almost extinct kind of sheep in the vineyard to mow the grass and replace tractors.”

When I ask Chloé if Bordeaux is moving fast enough to address carbon and pesticide concerns around agriculture and promote sustainable values, she argues they are now. I’m sure a 2016 documentary highlighting the overuse of pesticides in Bordeaux was a clear motivator.

“I think Bordeaux is really one of the most engaged parts of France regarding sustainable farming,” she says. “We do have a very active syndicate – the CIVB* – that’s encouraging change. They’re promoting ecology and sustainable farming and they are working hard to educate people to the pros of a sustainable way of working. We receive regular emails and communication, so they are trying hard to educate the region.” (*Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wine = CIVB)

Our wine tasting at Château de Chantegrive. My raison d’etre: 2015 Cuvee Caroline – beautifully aromatic, intense citrus and peach flavours punctuated by an extraordinarily long fresh mineral finish. The 2015 Château de Chantegrive Red – equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a medium-bodied blend with ripe dark cherry fruit, leather, cedar and vanilla notes. Gentle, plush tannins support a sweet long finish.

Chloé says the move to “certified” green winemaking is happening slowly across Bordeaux. “I know that Bordeaux is seen as a very wealthy part of France, but the Grand Cru Classé are only a very small share of the market (3%). The rest,” she says “is made of châteaux trying to survive in a very competitive wine world. And some tiny and mid-size farmers do not have the financial means and time to pursue a formal (organic, biodynamic, HVE) certification. Many are poor and live under the minimum wage, and already struggling to have enough time to take care of their vineyard.”

So, what happens with the châteaux who are just getting by? How do they “go green” when non-environmentally friendly grape growing – i.e. conventional viticulture – is cheaper? It’s hard to argue for a change in practices when that change could put them out of business. It’s a huge challenge and reality check that remains for the industry in Bordeaux …. and beyond.

marie helene
@amustread with our spirited host: Château de Chantegrive’s CEO, Marie Hélène Lévêque

Visiting Green Bordeaux?

If environmentally-respectful practices are an important purchase consideration for you, I can’t recommend Château de Chantegrive enough.

Their newly launched nature (green) tour is an exciting addition to the wine tourism and wine education landscape in Graves. A real “plus” for me? The three women running this estate Françoise Lévêque, Marie Hélène Lévêque and Chloé Le Bouffo bring a values-based business perspective to winemaking, which, based on the demands of eco-aware consumers and MBA students, is critical in today’s business landscape.

When I ask Chloé if Chantegrive’s environmental focus has anything to do with the fact that it’s three women running the company (in male-dominated Bordeaux), she shrugs.

“Perhaps we bring a different point of view…. maybe a bit of freshness and kindness to it. I do hope this emerging new generation of women and young generation of owners, are going to bring Bordeaux closer to the heart of its drinkers. At Chantegrive we’ve modernized our style a lot and shaped our wine in a fresher way, with more drinkability and crispiness because this is what our wine customers want. And we want them to know we’re listening and that we care about the land – which is our past and our future. We’re seeing many amazing ideas emerge among the different chateaux in Bordeaux. I think it is just the beginning.”









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