On a recent visit to Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, we ran into the estate’s owner, Bruno-Eugène Borie, walking through his vineyards. We chatted a bit about the recent vintage. Borie confirmed that the famous Ducru Günzian gravel soil had continued to perform and his 2021s received some of the highest ratings of the region. (Note: Beau caillou translates as “beautiful stone”)
Borie is a tall, commanding figure. His intensity and work ethic are legendary, as are his charismatic leadership and charm. Even as we spoke with him — standing before his family’s magnificent 300-year old Château — other visitors gathered around. Borie’s magnetism attracts fans like a rockstar! And maybe we’re pushing the “caillou” metaphor a bit, but it’s hard to imagine a more perfectly matched pair than Bruno Borie and his estate.
IN THE BEGINNING…
One of the oldest properties in the Médoc, the unique terroir at Ducru-Beaucaillou has been recognized for centuries. But the story officially begins in the early 1700s, when Jacques de Bergeron, a member of the Bordeaux Parliament, married into the family owning Beaucaillou. Under his stewardship, the wines were widely distributed, especially in Scandinavian countries.
In 1797, the estate was acquired by Bertrand Ducru, who added his name and hired architect Paul Abadie to design the Château. His two children ran the estate until 1860, when Marie-Louise Ravez bought out her brother and became the sole owner. It was during this period that Ducru-Beaucaillou was listed as “Deuxième Cru” Second Growth in the classification of 1855 and became the most expensive wine in the Saint-Julien appellation.
Lucie Caroline Dassier purchased the property in 1866 for one million French Francs — an unimaginable sum at the time! Dassier’s husband, Nathaniel Johnston was a forward-thinking négociant who replanted the vineyards, modernized cellars and even developed one of the first treatments for mildew.
World War I and American Prohibition forced Johnston to sell the estate to the Desbarat family, who owned the property until 1942, when Francis Borie, another successful négociant, took on Ducru-Beaucaillou. In 1953, Jean-Eugène Borie assumed management of the estate, then passed the title on to his son, Bruno-Eugène.
“I literally grew up on this property,” Borie tells us. “I played in the vineyards as a child. Ducru is in my veins. When I was 16, my father sent me to the US,” he continues. “I was hosted by Gerald Asher, who was then President of Monterey Vineyards. This was 1972, and I met Dick Peterson at Monterey Vineyards, visited E&J Gallo in Modesto and many of the legends, including Robert Mondavi, Bernard Pontet, Philip Togni, among others.”
“I had a wonderful time driving around in a pick-up with a walkie-talkie, eating barbecued corn, and feeling like a cowboy. California was the epitome of freedom in the 1970s. Everything was more open and we had so many more liberties compared with what I knew in France. I was encouraged to share my thoughts and visions, which was new to me…it was simply an amazing experience for a young man!”
BRUNO BORIE AT THE HELM
From 1981 to 1985, Borie worked as the Commercial Director for P.A. Sichel, then became CEO of Lillet, the Bordeaux apéritif in 1985. In 2003, while still in charge at Lillet, he began managing Ducru-Beaucaillou. “It was a very hot vintage,” Borie recalls. My first major deicion was to not have a preconceived agenda, but rather to listen to nature and try to tailor our approach accordingly. For 2003, this meant very little leaf thinning to keep bunches shaded and protected from the scorching rays of the sun. We finished with a 2003 that has beautiful freshness and the trademark Ducru elegance.”
Since taking over the estate, Borie has introduced a number of quality initiatives, including more selective harvesting and establishing more organic farming practices. “We now cultivate and plough various grasses and legumes to help aerate the soil,” he explains. “This increases biodiversity, and the quantities of critical nutrients. When replanting vineyards, we leave our plots fallow for five years, during which time we perform a deep ploughing to reduce compaction, and then cultivate various grasses in rotation to help preserve our precious soils.”
More recently, Borie undertook a mammoth project — re-corking the full inventory of 40 vintages — all Ducru-Beaucaillou wine between 1950 and 1990. Moreover, he implemented a ground-breaking technique to ensure the wines were not exposed to air, giving them an extended life of 50 years.
Borie describes the process: “Re-corking was, and is still in many places, performed by hand, which creates a high risk of infection by rogue bacteria and oxygen. The machine we developed enables us to do the same procedures, but in sterile conditions: uncorking under inert gases, topping up using wine from the same vintage, adding carefully dosed oenological gases (nitrogen, argon) to protect the wine, and then re-corking.”
An enormous undertaking, at tremendous cost, but as Borie emphatically reiterates: “We always do whatever it takes to produce great wine.”
A CONVERSATION WITH BRUNO BORIE
A few weeks ago, we had an in-depth discussion with Borie about the upcoming 2022 vintage, his plans for a new cellar and winery, global warming and wine critics. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
The 2021 vintage was pretty tough. How are things going this year?
As I’m sure you know, we had a few frosts in April, but our proximity to the Gironde always helps to regulate the temperatures and protect us and it did so again this year. The Arcachon fires are another situation for some vineyards in Bordeaux, but we’re located far enough north, so we aren’t affected.
We’ll see how the rest of the season goes. Our main policy is to never overreact. We listen to nature and work with her. Just the other day I was out in the vineyards with the teams and we noticed the vines looked a bit stressed and dehydrated. But, even while we were standing there, the sky darkened and a fine mist blew in and suddenly the vines perked up. Just that little bit of moisture was enough. So, again, we observe and intervene when necessary.
Back to the 2021 vintage, Ducru-Beaucaillou received very high ratings this year relative to other properties. What made the difference?
In 2021, we produced 28 hectoliters per hectare. (Note: Many estates in 2021 produced 35+ hectoliters per hectare.) When I took over in 2003, we were producing 15-20 thousand cases of the Grand Vin per year, while today we produce 5-7 thousand cases, depending on the vintage. For 2021, we only produced 4,500 cases. The reduction is due to lower yields, which gives higher concentration of flavors, and draconian selection, as only perfectly ripe, healthy berries are retained.
In general, however, the critics were quite hard on the 2021s. Your thoughts?
Yes! We knew even before a single critic had tasted the 2021 vintage that a kind of reset was going to take place. Scores for three vintages in a row — 2018, 2019 and 2020 — were particularly high, so they felt they had to come in with lower ratings.
What’s difficult to understand is the wide spectrum of scores. Mr. X rates a wine 98, while Ms. Y gives it 95 and somebody else 92. Incomprehensible. We’ve never seen anything like this. And, of course, consumers are totally lost. I think the best solution would be to compile an average of all the scores. That would make the situation less confusing. (Note: Ducru-Beaucaillou received ratings ranging from 95-99 points with an average of 97 for the 2021 vintage.)
Ducru-Beaucaillou has had a number of superb vintages. Famously, the 2009 was named the “World’s Best Cabernet” at a blind tasting organized by the IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Competition). You have described the 1953, 1961, 1970 as “mythical”. What qualities do you personally look for in your top wines?
Our goal is to make a Ducru-Beaucaillou with its signature personality every vintage. The Ducru style is balanced and elegant. A wine that draws you into the glass with mesmerizing aromas combining black fruits, violets, and exotic spices, then fills your palate with flavors that persist in an impressively long, perfumed, and nuanced aftertaste. Ducru is a wine with perfect harmony of its components, exquisite freshness, and superfine tannins. There is always a palpable energy when you sip Ducru and its texture drapes your palate like the finest cashmere silk.
My recent favorites, in addition to the 2021 vintage, include 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. What I love is that each wine processes its own style, all displaying Ducru’s extreme elegance, nobility, power, and grace — each being a facet of the same beautiful jewel: Beaucaillou.
Global warming has favorably affected the Cabernet harvest in recent vintages. However, unpredictable weather patterns are increasingly a challenge. How are your technical teams managing climate change?
As you rightly stated, climate change is not limited to warmer vintages. Climate change has also brought a range of meteorological challenges for viticulture. For example, warmer winters have resulted in earlier bud break, and therefore a greater risk of spring frosts. Humid weather has resulted in higher disease pressure, such as for mildew and botrytis. At Ducru, we have three key strengths as we face climate change: privileged terroirs, a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, and of course highly invested and competent technical teams.
Most of all, our great terroirs help us to mitigate the constant climatic threats. The well-aerated slopes that rise from the Gironde allow us to avert the worst of spring frosts. Our Günzian gravel soils permit adequate drainage during periods of heavy rains and the subsoil reserves provide needed water during periods of drought. Finally, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary moderate the climate, providing cool nights during the heat of summer and grace us with late-season warmer temperatures, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon.
A majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards of Ducru-Beaucaillou has also proven to be a great strength. Specifically, Cabernet Sauvignon continually proves to be perfectly adapted to our maritime conditions: it is less susceptible to spring frosts; its thick skins help protect it from rot; and our Indian Summers enable full phenolic development of this late-ripener; and it maintains a vibrant freshness in warmer vintages.
Although our privileged terroirs and our dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon reduce the consequences, Mother Nature keeps us humble with her meterological challenges. We have various procedures and tools that help us combat the challenges of climate change, such as later pruning to delay bud break, but in all honesty, there are no perfect solutions. Our very best strategy is to keep the vineyards as healthy as possible, and for this we rely on the agility and reactivity of our teams.
Nothing can replace terroir — your Beau Caillou on the Gironde estuary is your DNA. But, as someone always looking to improve and use technology, what’s in your future? Robots? Advanced drones?
Specifically, my philosophy is that wine is made in the vineyard, and the first winemaker is the vignoble that gives the wine its DNA, its signature. In fact, in French, there is no direct translation for “winemaker”, as we do not make wine – we help the vineyard give birth to wine. Nature can do it all, and we are here to allow nature to express and share the best of herself. Science can assist but cannot replace nature.
With our R&D department, at any given moment, we have a range of in-house research and trials in progress, spanning every step of the production process from the soils and plants to botlling. For example, we are trialling various phytotherapy procedures combined with UV-C light exposure for the treatment of mildew and rot as well as lightweight robots to reduce soil compaction.
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; 2021 marks the first vintage that the entire volume was fermented in these vats. These Smart Vats offer a range of advantages: automatic, gentle remontages that can be fractioned over 24 hours with complete oxygen control for extreme precision. They also collect, analyze, and store all relevant data throughout the cuvaison period (sugar, density, oxygen), which allows us to be increasingly refined in our approach. The data can be used both for current decisions and future reference. For example, 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.
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. The best possible Ducru-Beaucaillou for each unique vintage.
Speaking of the future, you have plans for a new winery. Could you share some of the concepts and features for that construction?
Throughout the conception and planning for this new facility, our objective has been to combine these main elements and functions:
1. State of the art technology
2. Worker ergonomics;
3. Contemporary aesthetics
4. Ecological responsible processes
In terms of some of the specific features, the new facility will be designed on two levels for gravity flow, with a layout that enables better circulation of liquid and of people. We hope to have the project completed by 2026, so you’ll have to check back then for the big reveal.
During En Primeurs this past spring, we toured a number of the recent château remodels. All are incredibly impressive and the technology is astonishing. Sometimes, however, we wondered if some of the romance involved in winemaking was getting lost in the process. Maybe we’re too sentimental?
You have a great point. I’m a fan of Mouton Rothschild and feel privileged to have known Baroness Philippine. Her theatrical background and use of that experience in her design of the Mouton winery is wonderful. And, the glass insert in the vats is not only attractive, but very useful to see what is cooking, if you will. I have a Swiss architect for the initial conception and a French architect for the execution. We’ll have the best of both worlds!
As a parting gift during our last visit to his estate, Borie gifted us a beautifully decorated box holding a stone from the Ducru-Beaucaillou vineyards. We were touched by the present, clearly an aesthetic symbol representing Borie’s understanding and affection for his estate — and, of course, his rockstar status!
Here is our collection of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou wine. Linked items can be ordered directly on line. Please write mthibaultwine@gmailcom or call 850-687-1370 for assistance with all other products.
Ducru-Beaucaillou Grand Vin
1990. AG-91. $289.99
2001. NM-92. $219.99
2005. DC-98. $339.99
2006. DC-95. $229.99
2009. JD-100. $394.99
2014 Double Magnum (3 liter) JS-99. $799.99
2014 Methuselah (6 liter) JS-99. $1,599.99
2015. AG-98. $209.99
2015 Magnum. AG-98. $399.99
2016. JD-100. $229.99
2017. JS-98. $179.99. Available through Double P Imports
2021. AG-96-98. $208.99. Available through Double P Imports
Additional Ducru-Beaucaillou Selections
2014 La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou. JS-94. $49.99
2014 Château Lalande Borie. WE-92. $28.99
2017 Château Lalande Borie. WE-92. $29.99
2018 Le Petit Ducru de Ducru-Beaucaillou. JS-92. $34.99
2021 La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou. JD 91-94. $48.99. Available through Double P Imports
2018 Domaine Vocoret Chablis Grand Crus “Blanchot” $81.99
2019 Le Petit Cheval Bordeaux Blanc. JS-98. $128.99
2019 Château Rieussec Sauternes – Domaines Barons de Rothschild. AG-97. $97.99
2020 Domaine Leflaive Auxey Duresses. $94.99
2020 Domaine Laroche Chablis 1er Cru “Vaillons Vielles Vignes” $56.99
2004 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. WS-96. $109.99
2006 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. RP-95. $97.99
2013 Chêne Bleu Héloïse. $68.99
2019 Château de Vaudieu “Amiral G” Châteauneuf-du-Pape. JD-98.$88.99
California & Washington
2013 Andrew Will Sorella. W&S-95 $69.99
2017 Vine Hill Ranch “VHR” VN-94. $158.99
2018 Hundred Acre Fortunate Son “The Dreamer” WA-95. $124.99
2018 Hundred Acre Fortunate Son “The Diplomat” WA-96. $174.99
2019 Opus One. WA-99 JS-99 JD-98. Special Pricing $309.99, listed at $389.99 low internet. Please contact us directly to reserve.