If you love fine wine, you probably know that the Chamber of Commerce of Haut Medoc classified the best wines in the region into five growths, or classes. To this day, French children are rumored to sing the names of the five First Growths in a nursery rhyme.
Yet what about the prestigious Deuxièmes Crus? Who among us will sing their praises? You will find fourteen Chateaux labeled Deuxièmes Cru, and while their winemaking standards are as high as the First Growths, they are decidedly more affordable while retaining the same aura of glamour and prestige. Today I would like to introduce you to Chateau Brane-Cantenac, a delicious and collectible Deuxièmes Cru from the Margaux AOC in the Haut Medoc.
Curiously enough, I was first introduced to Chateau Brane-Cantenac at a lunch to celebrate the release of Remy Martin Cognac 1989 at a trendy French bistro in Manhattan. Once our hosts ordered the wine, I noticed a flurry of excitement in the room and reached for my pen and notebook to record tasting notes for the Brane-Cantenac 2004, noting the rich, velvety aromas of blackberries, raspberries, cherry, violet, and oak. A bit more than a year later, I found myself invited by this prestigious Chateau for a very private dinner celebrating several vintages from this chateau.
The Chateau’s history can be traced to the early 18th century when it was purchased by Baron Hector de Brane in 1833, the man largely responsible for the identification of Cabernet Sauvignon as the Medoc’s premier grape. Upon Baron Hector’s death, the estate fell into many hands before its present owners, the Lurton family, took ownership.
Today, Henri Lurton is the owner and proprietor of this prestigious property. Mr. Lurton, an affable and pleasant man who speaks perfect English, guides me through the vineyards and areas where crushing, fermentation, and maturation are performed. A natural thought is that Mr. Lurton is an extremely lucky man for having inherited a Deuxièmes Cru estate. Yet if you have been in the wine world for a while, you know that the seeming excitement and glamour of being the proprietor of a Deuxièmes Cru estate is really just fodder for romance novels and glossy gossip magazines. In reality, producing any wine, be it Deuxièmes Cru or Vin de Pay, is a hard business. Hale, frost, disease, and fungi can destroy an entire vintage. Banks are not always friendly. And consumers expect consistent quality or they will take their business elsewhere.
As he shows me the 45 hectares adjacent to the chateau (Brane-Cantenac has 45 hectares more) and discusses the unique soil, Mr. Lurton speaks with the intensity and passion of an individual who has physically worked this very land for many years. I later find that he has a Masters in biology and a DEA in oenology as well as a diploma in oenology from the University of Bordeaux. Far from the fortunate son who happened to “luck out” in inheriting a Deuxièmes Cru Bordeaux Chateau, it turns out that Mr. Lurton also worked in South Africa, Australia, and Chile to perfect his winemaking skills.
During the tour, these are a few items of interest I discovered.
The grapes are picked by hand, varietal by varietal, plot by plot, at ripeness levels that will allow the winery to keep as much fruit flavor as possible. The date is decided after numerous phenolic and technological ripeness tests and also through a tasting of the berries by Mr. Lurton.
The grapes are given a first sorting on a table in the vineyard, and then they are transferred to the vat cellar in small stainless steel harvesting bins.
The grapes are weighed, which provides specific data about the yields and volume going into the vat. After a second sorting, they are de-stemmed. They are then sorted by an innovative system called Viniclean in which they are placed on a vibrating sorting table. This eliminates any dry skins, grapes affected by millerandage, pips, and tiny vegetal debris. A system of rotating brushes captures any pieces of leaf, stems, or leaf stalks. A final manual sorting is done on a table to ensure no MOG (material other than grapes) remains.
The musts undergo a cold pre-fermentation maceration during which ‘punching down’ equipment is used to accelerate the extraction of anthocyanins and primary flavors. It is interesting to note that some musts are concentrated using vacuum evaporation methods in order to increase the ratio of skins to juice when wet conditions have penetrated the skins and diluted the juice before harvest.
Alcoholic fermentation begins when musts are inoculated with selected F33 strains of yeast which produce little volatile acidity and improve the roundness of the wine. Fermentation lasts six to ten days depending on the conditions of the vintage. To increase color and tannin extraction, long and frequent pump-overs are performed.
Delestages (racking off the must to another vat before returning it on to the skins) are carried out as well as targeted punching down of the cap of skins. I found it interesting that Brane-Cantenac uses a Socma puncher – a pump that is immersed in the vat and which floods the cap with the fermenting must, thereby causing the cap to break up within a few minutes. This results in a better extraction of the phenolic compounds in a gentle, selective way.
Wines are fermented at temperatures varying from 26 – 31 Celsius with maceration lasting from 20 – 28 days at a temperature between 25 – 28 Celsius. Skins are pressed in two fixed Sutter pneumatic presses. Enzymes are added to the press wines to enable them to clarify quickly. The very best juices go through the malo-lactic fermentation in barrels.
The must is aged on the lees for two months, with tasting for the blending performed in January. From November to April the wines are aged, and from April on the barrels are plugged tight with a silicon bung. They are racked every three months using compressed air during their first year, then every four months the second year.
In contrast to the new, high-tech winemaking equipment was the ancient cellar, dating back at least to the eighteenth century. Though the cellar had been modernized, some of the original brick wall had been kept intact, and this touch gives Brane-Cantenac its aura of romance.
Before dinner I tasted earlier vintages of Brane-Cantenac, including the winery’s second label, Baron de Brane 2008. Though young, I liked the well-balanced aroma and palate of delicate cherry. A special treat during dinner was the 2000 Brane-Cantenac, with its elegant nose of perfumed cherry and its well-constructed palate, offering a delicate blend of wild bramble fruit and well-balanced tannins. It was a lighter wine than I had anticipated with a great deal of finesse. I enjoyed the 1996 Baron-Cantenac as well, with its nose of stewed fruit and full bodied palate with its long finish and hints of truffle. The coup de grace was the pouring of the Chateau Brane-Cantenac 1959, with its palate of ripe, rich black, still fresh acidity, and flavors of dried fruit.
It is one thing to taste a wine, or read about a wine, and quite another to visit the vineyards where the grapes are produced and see firsthand how the wine is created. Terroir is everything.