“I have some exciting news to share,” Olivier Bonneau, Directeur d’Exploitation Viticole (which essentially translates as Head Winemaker) at Lafite Rothschild tells us in a recent conversation. “We’re going to redo our vat rooms!”
Bonneau’s news is impressive — after all, the estate he works for dates back to 1234, produces some of the world’s most treasured wines and is owned by a legendary family.
“We want to work more precisely,” Bonneau explains. “So our new vat room will function with micro-blocks — single barrels assigned per plot. We’re also designing a new laboratory. And, because we’re concerned with global warming, we’re completely revamping our electric grid and plumbing to use less energy and less water. Work will begin this fall and is expected to finish by 2026.”
“Any famous architects involved?” we ask.
“No,” Bonneau says emphatically. “Lafite is a very historical property, so we don’t want to change the look. We’re focused on efficiency and precision. In fact, we want to get the history of Lafite into the wine. We don’t care so much about the appearance of the vat rooms. We want the history and romance that’s Lafite.”
THE SENTIMENTAL SIDE OF SCIENCE
We first met Olivier Bonneau this past spring when he had been at Lafite for just a few months. We were immediately impressed with his knowledge, experience and superb palate. His humility and quick sense of humor were enormously appealing as well.
Bonneau grew up in Paris, where he attended l’Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie majoring in biology with the intent of working in the forest industry. During his fourth year of studies, Bonneau also began studying GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) applied to drought conditions. Fascinated as he was with the topic, after awhile he found being isolated in a lab a bit too solitary and began looking for a job in the “real world.”
“For some reason I was drawn to oenology,” Bonneau reflects. “And even though I was very ignorant about wine, I found the technological and scientific side of winemaking fascinating. In 2002, I took a temporary position at the Musée du Vin in Paris as a sommelier. I quickly realized I was totally in love with wine.”
After his profound “wine epiphany” Bonneau enrolled at the Université de Bordeaux to study oenology. There he met Denis Dubourdieu — arguably one of the most influential personalities in French winemaking. “Attending his lectures was an incredible experience for me,” Bonneau recalls. “He had such detailed, complex knowledge, with an amazing ability to share his experience and expertise. I could listen to him for hours.”
Bonneau’s talent and enthusiasm impressed Dubourdieu, who hired him to work at Château Reynon in Béguey and at Clos Floridène in Graves. “They were fantastic experiences,” Bonneau tells us, “but since I grew up in Paris, those tiny villages seemed like the end of the world. So, I moved to Spain, where I worked in Ribera del Duero at Dominio de Atauta — about two hours from Madrid. It was an interesting experience to work with Tempranillo, Garnacha and Albillo.”
Always looking for new wine adventures, Bonneau even wound up in Chile for a time, at Santa Rita, where he added Carménère to his ever-expanding résumé of varietals.
After a brief stint at Château Montus in Madiran, very near the Spanish border, Bonneau spent eight years at wine co-ops — a real turning point in his career. “At the co-ops I was in charge of everything from the crush to the bottling. I learned about every aspect of the industry. It was a huge education for me.”
In 2016, Bonneau accepted a position at Château d’Arsac where he worked with Philippe Raoux. With 112 hectares, D’Arsac is quite a large estate. And Raoux is renowned for his success in reclassifying 54 of those hectares from Haut-Médoc to the Margaux appellation — no easy achievement! Bonneau spent six years at Château d’Arsac where he assisted with the production of their grand vin, two second wines and a dry white Bordeaux.
Then last year, he got the call of his life —an offer from none other than Château Lafite Rothschild — would he become the winemaker for Lafite and Duhart Milon as well as supervise the estate’s cooperage?
“I still can’t believe it,” says Bonneau. “It’s the job of a lifetime, absolutely!”
MORE OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH OLIVIER BONNEAU
Tell us a little more about your responsibilities at Lafite?
I work with Eric Kohler (Technical Director), Louis Caillard (Vineyard Manager) and, of course, Saskia de Rothschild (CEO). As a team, we decide when to pick the berries and we consult with each other on the blend. The technical aspects dealing with maceration, temperatures, practical things in the cellars are my decisions. I also manage the cooperage, which produces over 2,000 barrels annually.
Have you made any changes since you arrived at Lafite Rothschild?
In general, the management at Lafite is very conservative. We don’t want to change the wine. After all, the estate is almost 800 years old and so we work to maintain consistency and the elegance that is quintessentially Lafite.
Duhart Milon, however, is another story. We’ve made a lot of changes there. The vats are new. We’re also using amphorae. We’ve cut the yield and now blend more strictly. We’ve also changed out the barrels and the toast. We’re using more new oak from our own cooperage. I guess you could say that Duhart Milon is a bit of a laboratory for us.
Speaking of Duhart Milon, tell us about the new Bordeaux Blanc you’re producing.
Yes! Another exciting project. We had a large block of Merlot that was growing on limestone. It’s obviously the perfect place for a white wine, and so we’ve replanted with Sauvignon Blanc. Stylistically, we’re looking more to Loire instead of Bordeaux. The 2021 Duhart Blanc will release in the next few months and we expect to double production long term.
You mentioned that the new vat rooms will be more efficient to compensate for climate change. What other changes are being implemented?
I think we are dealing in a time of “Less Things.” We have less intervention in the vineyards. Less de-leafing. Less density of planting. We’re reducing 10,000 plants to 8,000 per hectare, so each vine can have access to more water. We’re also working to find a new root stock that is drought-resistant and building our own clones.
We’ve also learned to adjust and adapt to compensate for weather changes. In 2022, for example, we began evaluating berries in August and then harvested twice in September. It was an incredible amount of work, but we adapted.
We’re lucky in that we’re well situated. So far, Lafite has never experienced frost. Duhart Milon does have some plots that can freeze now and then.
Going back to styles…the 2021 and 2022 vintages were remarkably different. The 2021 a more classic Bordeaux, while 2022 is bolder, more New World. Do you have a preference?
First of all, let me say that “style” is often defined by what happens in the vineyards. We winemakers have to be humble and work with nature. So far as 2021 and 2022 are concerned, I tasted 2021 just yesterday. It has some tannin and is a little more reactive. But I think it’s possible it will be a very great vintage in 20 years. Amazingly, I find that it’s drinking pretty well right now.
But I love 2022 because, after all, it’s my first vintage at Lafite. Also, it has so much fruit and freshness. The tannins are both powerful and delicate. I find it very elegant.
What other vintages are your favorites?
I recently tasted a 1995 and I was quite surprised. It was incredible! With tobacco and fresh berries, I found it to be really special.
Another vintage I was lucky to try recently was the 1933. It was a great vintage, but for me it was also very emotional to realize that this wine was bottled long before I was born. And that most probably, everyone who had helped to produce the vintage is now gone. This experience really made me realize that we’re not just making wine. We’re leaving stories and something of ourselves for the next generation.