Bordeaux Radicals: Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Last week we had the pleasure of hosting Stephanie Libreau from Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion at our London HQ, for a vertical tasting dating from 2016 back to 2012. These wines are brilliantly made, unique in so many ways and represent the cutting-edge of vinification techniques in Bordeaux. The rise in quality at the Chateau, along with the estate’s reputation for experimentation, has everyone in Bordeaux scratching their heads. Has this winery stumbled on a magic formula for the region? Or is it their particular site and terroir that benefits so much from these novel approaches in Bordeaux?

Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion was originally part of the Chateau Haut-Brion property – up until the 16th Century (1584) when the owner donated the property to the Carmes monks who went on to manage the vineyards until the French Revolution. During the Revolution the property was confiscated and finally sold to the Chantecaille-Furt family who went on to manage the property from 1850 to 2010! Despite selling the property to Patrice Pichet in 2010, the last member of the Chantecaille family still lives at the Chateau to this day, now aged 102. It is amazing to imagine the changes Bijou Chantecaille has witnessed in the Bordeaux region since her birth at the property in 1917!

New Ownership, New Ideas

The new owner Patrice Pichet is a local Bordelaise boy done good. Setting up a real estate business back in 2004, it has now become one of France’s largest – employing over 1,500 people. Patrice has always had a passion for wine and after making his fortune in real estate, he was keen to acquire a top Chateau. The changes made at the estate since taking over are quite staggering. No more so than in the striking new winery designed by superstar architecture Phillipe Starck, shaped like a blade and partly submerged in water. Due to the government protection of the land, the architect was keen to produce something that wouldn’t interrupt the surrounding area. The result is a design like the bow of a boat, which is in fact an optical illusion making the winery look smaller than it actually is. It is a remarkable site and the inside is as impressive as the outside. The barrel cellar for ageing the wines is at the bottom of the building, fully submerged in the local stream, providing natural temperature control and high humidity levels ideal for the ageing of the wine.

“Haut-Brion” actually translates as “hilltops” and the Haut-Brion property has three to it’s name – La Mission Haut-Brion, Carmes Haut-Brion and the original Haut-Brion. These three elevated sites on the border of Bordeaux city, produce some of the finest wines in Bordeaux and are the closest vineyards to the town centre. Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion is in fact the only winery in Bordeaux that is fully located in the city of Bordeaux, with the 10 hectare property (including 5 hectares of vines, completely surrounded by houses in the suburban district of Talence).

Cabernet Franc is King at Carmes

This is not the only thing distinct about Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion. Due to it proximity to the city, its climate is in fact 2-3 degrees warmer than the other vineyards of Pessac-Leognan, often harvesting up to 10 days earlier than the rest of the appellation. This in fact better protects the estate from the spring frosts and enables them to fully ripen their Cabernet Franc – which is another distinct element to the property. The Chateau has the highest proportion of Cabernet Franc in a blend on the Left Bank. The Cabernet Franc dominant blend, coming from limestone/clay soils, makes for a very unique expression of Pessac-Leognan, unlike any other wine in the appellation.

The uniqueness of the property doesn’t stop there. Following the acquisition, Patrice Pichet hired Guillaume Pouthier to manage the property. A winemaker from the Rhone valley he brought his own winemaking influences, including the use of whole bunch fermentation to the vinification. Whilst this was a technique traditionally used in Bordeaux, it is very rare these days. For Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion, it has a very positive effect on the wine. Due to warmness of the site they use the high level of mineral salts in the stems to affect the pH, the alcohol levels are also reduced due to the water found in the stems, as well as bringing an aromatic complexity to the wine.

The aromatics in the wine are also further increased by experimentation with clay and ceramic amphoras. The porous clay amphoras promote increased oxygenation of the wine; the reaction with the oxygen bringing out more aromatic complexity. This oxidative technique is applied to only a tiny amount of the final blend, with a reductive approach used for the rest. The blend is aged in barrels (80% new oak) and not racked at all throughout the ageing process, creating a highly reductive environment which protects the purity of the fruit.

Room to Experiment

The advantage of having a property owner who doesn’t rely on the estate’s success for income is that it allows for a much more qualitative approach and plenty of room for experimentation. Not only is there experimentation with amphora and whole bunch fermentation, the tannin management is also experimental and the results are to be applauded. When using whole bunch in the maceration, the tannin management has to be super gentle and the winery has adopted a new “infusion“ technique as opposed to the normal pump-over technique, more regularly used in Bordeaux. This gentle infusion involves an inflatable rubber-ring donut-shaped bladder, which sits on top of the cap, keeping the cap constantly wet (stopping any risk of volatility whilst the hole in the middle allows for continuous movement of the wine in the tank).

Tasting through the wines produced after the incorporation of these new techniques is a revelation. The tannins are structural but incredibly soft (even in the younger vintages) and very well integrated. The wines (particularly the 2016) have an incredible aromatic complexity and the balance achieved, whilst still being able to pick out all the component parts, highlights the boundaries being pushed in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux’s investment in sustainable viticulture, soil analysis, intra-plot selection and countless, inventive vinification techniques and experimentation belies the reputation of a region that is resting on its laurels and stuck in its ways. Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion is, without doubt, one of the leading lights in this new wave of Bordeaux producers pushing the boundaries of grape quality, cutting-edge vinification techniques and a greater focus on terroir identity.