The name ‘Les Grands Chais de France’ may not be familiar, but those who have perused the wine shelves of our major supermarkets will certainly recognise the names of some of their big volume brands, including the JP Chenet wines from across France in their distinctive crooked bottles, and the Bordeaux wines appearing under the Calvet label.
In fact, Grands Chais, still a family owned and run company, is the world’s biggest exporter of French wine, and in the top two or three producers in France in terms of both volume and value. They have over 2,000 employees, and three massive bottling facilities in Alsace, the Loire and Bordeaux.
Founded by Joseph Helfrich only in 1979, the company has grown with phenomenal speed, but it is more recently that they have evolved from négociant, bottler and distributor of huge quantities of wine, to substantial estate owner too, focused on Bordeaux. Indeed in the past decade they have acquired 15 properties in Bordeaux, including highly regarded left bank Crus Bourgeois, and some well know estates of the right bank, including St Emilion Grand Cru Classé Château Cantin, and Clos Beauregard in Pomerol. They have also acquired exclusive distribution rights for a number of other prominent and high quality properties.
On this whistle-stop two day trip I was invited to visit and taste at a few of their Châteaux across the Bordeaux region, to see the other side of this huge business for myself, and one that until now has been developing quite quietly and discreetly. Perhaps the company felt the quality was now right to throw their doors open just a little wider?
Les Grands Chais
I was greeted at Merignac airport by bright young Australian manager, Emma Holland. Emma is a Roseworthy-trained winemaker who has worked in Australia, France and California, but who has been with Grands Chais for two years now on the commercial side of the business. Emma explained that the company has been putting significant resources into the new Bordeaux estates it has acquired (several from Bernard Magrez, who has been selling off a number of properties). That rolling programme of improvements is being overseen by senior winemakers who look after the right and left banks respectively, with the input of Michel Rolland and Hubert de Boüard as consultants.
The work so far has mainly concentrated on vineyards. “The biggest and first investment always when we take on a new property is the vineyard,” says Emma as we approach our first stop, Château Cantin. “At Cantin, for example, we have moved blocks of Cab and Merlot around, and replanted extensively. Joseph (Helfrich) always favours quality.”
There are 150 different wines in the Grands Chais portfolio. It is a complex, market-led global business, and that means 14,000 different SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) – blends for different markets, bottled under screwcap or cork, different labels tailored to the market, etc. This sure ain’t the tale of an artisan winegrower and his hand-labelled product, but I was really keen to discover what these Bordeaux properties had to offer.
Château Cantin, Saint-Émilion
Grand Cru Château Cantin covers over 30 hectares, 86% planted to Merlot on clay and limestone soils. Vineyards surround the Château, which Grands Chais took over in 2007, bringing Michel Rolland in to consult. I met up here with Sebastien Villenave (right), in charge of all the Grands Chais right bank properties, who explained that there has been a big restructuring programme here, planting more Merlot in favour of Cabernet Sauvignon, especially one particular vineyard where the Cabernet failed to ripen because it was in one of the coolest spots on the estate.
The oldest vines are 40 to 50 years old, and farming follows the ‘Lutte raisonnée’ philosophy of regular soil and vineyard analysis to spray or fertilise only when needed, not by routine. There are various levels of fruit sorting employed both in the vineyard and at the winery, and 100% of the Grand Vin goes into barrel, 70% new, and predominantly from Burgundian coopers.
Whilst at Château Cantin I also tasted wines of other nearby properties:
Château Laroque, Saint-Émilion
Another Grand Cru property, where I was met by manager and winemaker David Suire (right). This is a Grands Chais partnership: they have exclusive distribution in all markets, but the beautiful property, parts of which date to the 12th century, has belonged to the Beaumartin family since the 1930s. With 61 hectares of vines it is the biggest single property in St Emilion.
Soils are mostly clay on limestone, varying from 30cm of red clay in the west, to 100cm on the east. “The thinner soils are more like Château Trotteville,” says David, “the richer soil more like Troplong Mondot.” In 2015 David dug 250 inspection pits in an attempt to understand the soils, and why there can be 10 days difference in maturity across the parcels. He has stopped use of herbicides and is growing “more or less organically,” ploughing, and using cover crops between rows. A Grand Cru Classé since 1996, only part of the production goes to Château Laroque, around half going to Château Peymouton, effectively a second wine, though there is also the official second wine of Laroque, called Les Tours de Laroque, from soils without limestone.
Clos Beauregard, Pomerol
In 1935 six and a half hectares of prime Pomerol vineyard was separated from Château Beauregard, and sold to the Moueix family. Clos Beauregard stayed in the Moueix family until its recent purchase by Grands Chais, who now have Michel Rolland as consultant winemaker, with Sebastien Villenave managing this estate too. The 40-year-old vines are 98% Merlot, planted on sandy soils.
Once again Lutte Raisonnée is practised, and Sebastien tells me currently only five hectares are in production, because in common with other recent acquisitions, there has been extensive replanting. The Grand Vin sees 100% new barrels each year, and as well as the big projects to improve the vineyards, they are also adding temperature control to the maturation cellar, and have introduced new basket presses and a new design of de-stemming machine that is much gentler on the grapes.
I also tasted two Pomerol wines from Château La Patache, another exclusivity for Grands Chais and owned by Hong Kong businessman Peter Kwok.
Château Lestage Simon, Haut-Médoc
In wellies and working gear, secatuers in hand, the no-nonsense Danish-born Merete Larsen met me at Château Lestage Simon. We’ve now crossed the river to the left bank, where Merete is senior winemaker in charge of all Grands Chais properties.
Sited mext door to Sociando-Mallet, Merete half-jokingly describes this area of the left bank as “Little Pomerol,” with mostly clay soils meaning that Merlot dominates. Merete spent 20 years at 5th growth Belgrave, and in a dozen years at this estate has seen new cellars built and a lot of replanting of new vines. She has divided the vineyard into 17 different parcels, including some where gravel patches dominate over clay and Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon create “The spinal column of the wine,” according to Merete.
She employs a fascinating method of de-leafing in preparation for harvest, burning off the lower leaves around maturing bunches using a large toaster mounted on a tractor. “It takes three hours per hectare as opposed to 50 hours doing it manually,” she says. Legumes and grasses are planted between rows in the 40-hectare estate, that competition giving natural yields of around 48hl/ha (whereas 56hl/ha is allowed).
I tasted around 20 wines of other left bank properties, just a few highlight below:
Château Lamarque, Haut-Médoc
The final estate in this report is another exclusivity of Grands Chais, where winemaker and owner Pierre-Gilles Gromand-Brunet d’Evry, every inch the aristocrat and enthusiast, with his viticulturist wife, Marie-Hélène, oversee a fascinating family business steeped in history, and run very much on their own terms.
One of just a handful of estates which are members of the Union des Grands Crus of Bordeaux whilst not classified as Grand Cru, Pierre-Gilles gave up his Cru Bourgeois status and association when a rule change meant properties would be continually re-classified. “We work entirely like a Grand Cru,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “the only difference is the price.”
All varieties are harvested and vinified separately, including 10% Petit Verdot and “A tiny trace,” of Cabernet Franc along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Optical sorting is used to eliminate any grapes that don’t meet the standard. After free-run juice around 33% of the harvest is press wine, but they use only the finest 7% or so, the rest is sold. After fermentation the wine is pressed straight to barrels, and then barrels assessed individually and graded for quality. There are four rackings in barrel (“Just like a Grand Cru,” Pierre-Gilles reminds me) and the wines are fined with organic egg whites.
The photograph shows Pierre-Gilles with their vats in a room rebuilt under Professor Emile Peynaud. Peynaud preferred cement vats, but Pierre-Gilles’ parents wanted wood, so the vats are in fact cement, clad in wood to give a very traditional appearance. I so enjoyed this visit and lunch with the family afterwards, so am delighted to say the wines were also very impressive.