“A good bottle is an empty bottle”

World-class wines come out of Bordeaux. Maintaining this level of excellence and unique character, is a mission on it’s own. Heike Blümner visited Château Rauzan-Ségla and Canon in order to understand, how this can be achieved.

When know-how is contrasted with intuition, and analytics with metaphysics, a space opens up that allows excellent wine to be created. For exactly that reason, Nicolas Audebert isn’t just a winemaker – he thinks of himself as a time traveller in spirit too, someone who needs to consider yesterday, tomorrow and the present’s ever-changing moment. And that puts him in a philosophical mood: “We have one foot in the past while the other one is in the future. It is a world where you never arrive, as if you are constantly starting over.”

Winemaker and CEO Nicolas Audebert (center) at work with his colleagues

However, the 47-year-old has arrived pretty well in the real world being the CEO of four renowned châteaux: Canon and Berliquet in Saint-Émilion, Domaine de L’Ile on the tiny Provençal Island of Porquerolles and Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, Bordeaux. On an ordinary Wednesday morning at Rauzan-Ségla, a small castle from the 17th century, we sit in front of the fireplace in the salon, surrounded by an extravagant ambience that is characterised by luxuriant furnishings displaying antique sofas, armchairs and cushions as well as rugs, small tables, bronzes, porcelain figurines and vases with bouquets of flowers. The colour that sets the tone here is red in all its shades, the walls are covered in silk and ornamental brocade dominates the room.

Jewel in Bordeaux: Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux

The person behind this interior design spectacle is American architect Peter Marino – and this is no coincidence. After all, Marino is responsible for many projects at Chanel. And Chanel, or more precisely the family behind the company, known for its discretion, also owns the four vinicultural gems that Audebert presides over. None of the estates is open to the public; discretion is paramount here, too.

So why is Chanel in the wine business? Well, the same question could be, why not?

Expensive alcoholic beverages from champagne to cognac are luxury products. Its competitor’s empire, the luxury goods group LVMH, is built in parts on a range of such products. Chanel, however, takes a different approach with its involvement. The brand stays in the background, the amalgamation between the traditional house and the wineries is not a big public thing – but the effort that goes into this is striking. A lot of money needs to be spent on the immaculate condition of the land, the historic buildings and their furnishings, the tools and equipment plus the over 200 employees to be able to deliver at the highest level later down the line. In any case, all this doesn’t quite look like turning a quick profit, it rather resembles a long-term investment.

“They are two different schools of thought and neither is right or wrong,” is Audebert’s explanation about the two luxury players interest in wine. “LVMH is a company that combines luxury brands with excellent business models. Chanel is a historic family business. Nobody interferes with the way we make wine here. We have complete freedom to make it the way we prefer. There is an incredible respect for what we do.”

Here, winemaking, he says, is first and foremost about preserving cultural heritage, to which the house is committed.

Pittoresque hard labour on the land of Château Canon: The laws of agriculture also apply to wine making

Similar to the highly specialised métiers such as lacemaking or feather artwork for Haute Couture. Only that in Bordeaux, it is a more down-to-earth business in the truest sense of the word: “At the end of the day, it’s agriculture,” says Audebert. In a favoured location, though. Bordeaux, with its 120,000 hectares of land, is one of the largest and most famous wine-growing regions in the world. And Saint-Émilion or Margaux are, in a sense, the Haute Couture among the communities in it – world-famous, stylistically unique and very expensive. In 1994, the company took over Rauzan-Ségla, in 1996 Canon and in 2017 Berliquét – each in poor condition.

Owning a château in the finest location is one thing, holding it and passing it on to the next generation is something completely different: “How the commitment came about is ultimately a typical Bordeaux story,” says Hélène Perromat.

The 30-year old woman is a typical child of the region: she’s a winemaker’s daughter and was born here. She is also the press representative for the estates which is an asset because she knows every stone and every story. The fact that wineries in such locations are for sale at all happens when after several generations a family can no longer hold on to the estate, because the next generation is pursuing other interests, or the children that take over can’t manage to pay off the other heirs, she says. The consequence is often abandonment and, even worse, decay – not only of buildings and land, but most importantly of tradition and know-how.

When Chanel took over the traditional Rauzan-Ségla estate almost 30 years ago, with its history spanning back to the late 17th century, it was only a shadow of its former glory. The property was dilapidated, the 70 hectares of land unkempt and full of holes. “We have historic lands, fantastic terroirs, but we had to restructure it all – stone by stone, vine by vine,” says Audebert. It must have been a huge feat to raise everything to the standard that prevails here today. The sparkling production facilities and the nostalgic castle, which shouldn’t be photographed from the inside, function like an impressive business card. The ambitious winemaker and his team though are primarily concerned with reviving the old wine spirit, the essence of the respective estate style with modern means: “It’s not about my ego, but the Rauzan style. We have an obsession for quality and precision.”

Impressive businesscard: The production facilities and the library at Château Rauzan-Ségla

Achieving this Rauzan style is a bit like playing chess, because so many factors need to be considered. It is like a piece of patchwork consisting of five terraces and 98 plots, which in turn have 21 different soils and on which mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes are grown. Five years ago, the farm converted to organic farming and certification will take place in 2023. Climate change is affecting the conditions, too. It does not necessarily manifest itself in ever rising temperatures, says Audebert, but in an unusual accumulation of extreme weather events that they need to respond to. And even when all this is taken into account, he concludes that

“you might have the best kitchen and the best ingredients. But if you don’t know how to cook, they’re of no use at all.”

A table: Jean Baptiste Depons is cooking in Berliquet

When he started in 2015, the first thing he did was to tweak the recipe. Because of the higher temperatures, he got the harvest at Rauzan-Ségla and Canon underway a little earlier than it was done before. “People said we were crazy,” Perromat says, laughing. When James Suckling, one of the world’s most famous wine journalists, declared the 2015 Canon the “Best Wine in the World”, people fell silent. Today, others take their cue from him, says Audebert: “It’s like horse racing. The day, the hour, the second counts.” The work in the cellar is similarly meticulous until the new vintage is composed by a small team and bottled.

So, what does the Rauzan-Ségla wine taste like? In the afternoon, huge porcini mushrooms are on display in the estate kitchen, which the chef for all four chateaux, Jean Baptiste Depons, found under an oak tree. They will be served tonight, having passed the casting session, so to speak, because “here, the food is chosen according to the wine and not the other way around,” he says.

Bon appetit: Food is selected according to wine, not vice versa

The menu this evening features the 2016, 2005 and 2009 vintages. Of course they all taste excellent, even a non-expert can confirm that. Those who deal with it day in and day out find the appropriate words easily: “Rauzan is complex, soft, floral,” says Audebert. “There are a hundred shades on the palette.” So, what about Canon?

The next day we cross the wide, gently flowing Gironde River. Its water looks clear when you’re up close and murky from a distance because of the clay component in the soil at the bottom. The colour palette ranges from brown to beige and reeds grow on the banks as well as trees, where storks perch. It’s almost as if we could be on the Nile and not in southwest France.

Clay, stones, water: The banks of the river La Gironde remind slightly of the Nile

As the crow flies, Rauzan-Ségla is only 45 kilometres away from Canon and Berliquet, and yet a completely different character opens up in the wine there: “Rauzan-Ségla is poetry. Canon is sculpture,” is how Hélène Perromat describes it. “Canon is straightforward and well-shaped. A man with sensitivity,” adds Nicolas Audebert. Different characters, whose nature, however, is revealed in polarity with the opposite.

With its 20 hectares, Canon is smaller than Rauzan-Ségla, and Berliquet, which is right next to it, is even smaller with only 9.5 hectares. The two estates mainly grow Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes and lie elevated on a limestone plateau. They appear lighter than Rauzan-Ségla on the other side of the river. At Berliquet, a team of gardeners cultivates a Mediterranean garden with roses, fig trees and herbs, their scent enfolding the vines. A five-minute walk leads to the picture-postcard village of Saint-Émilion. You could also make the trip underground because the area is connected by a network of deep caves and passages like a profound secret. Wine that is over 100 years old is stored there.

In the cellars of the châteaux wine is stored like a well kept secret

A canny wine journalist was visiting Canon recently, Hélène Perromat recounts. He said to Audebert: “They always tell us that these wines age wonderfully and don’t lose quality, but how are we supposed to know that if we never drink them?” The head of the Châteaux then took the journalist to the Canon cellar and dared him to choose any bottle of wine. His choice fell on a 1926 vintage. The team was gathered, the bottle was carefully opened under laboratory conditions and then everyone was allowed to taste this treasure: “It was a dream,” Perromat enthuses. “Like a bowl of fruit with a bit of acidity, fresh, slightly minty and the signature of the house was still clear to taste even after 100 years. We were all super impressed.”

Today, a comparable bottle can only be purchased by auction. And afterwards, it usually disappears deep down into another cellar. The region is known for the speculative approach with which its wine is traded, at prices that are sometimes only partially comprehensible. But the 2ème Cru Classé from Rauzan-Ségla and Canon already start at 100 euros a bottle – and this is possible not least because a culturally sensitive partner like Chanel is behind it.

“We don’t produce wine to lock it up in the cellar,“ says Perromat. “Our motto is: a good bottle is an empty bottle.”

It’s a very French plea for pleasure – not in excess, though, neither in terms of quantity, nor in the speculative value of the wine. “Share the bottle with friends at the table,” she adds. Only a few luxury products offer this option. And that, too, speaks for the preservation of this culture and tradition.

The more the merrier: Wine from Berliquet tastes even better when shared with friends

Heike Blümner
Claudia Eberlein