This is for Graham, a long-time friend and follower of this blog, as well as a frequent companion on our trips to France. Back in 2003, we rented a house in the Dordogne with him and two other old friends. One day we decided to visit the Bordeaux vineyards and we chose St. Emilion as our focus. It resulted in what Graham describes as one of, if not the best, experience of all of his trips to France with us. And there were lots of other memorable experiences let me tell you. So I thought I would see if I could follow up on that experience. I know I've told you about the experience itself before, maybe even a couple of times. And what I found today is all very interesting, in so many ways.
It was one of our earlier French visits, and we had not visited many vineyards and so we assumed that visiting the Bordeaux region would be much like visiting the Yarra Valley, or any other Australian wine region. So we went to the tourist office, expecting to pick up a map of all the potential vineyards. But Bordeaux does not operate like that. We were told that we could join the 'official' tour which wasn't for a few hours, or we could perhaps phone one of the chateaux in the list we were given. Maybe. They were not very encouraging. On that list some mentioned that they would conduct tours by appointment.
Being the prime French speaker of the group I was designated to make the phone call. We perused the list, decided it had to be Grand Cru and stuck a virtual pin in the list. The result was Chateau Quercy. At the end of the phone, a charming male voice said that yes he could give us half an hour after he had had his lunch. It was, of course, lunchtime. Whenever we are in France we are often thwarted by lunchtime because virtually everything stops while people retire to their homes or a restaurant for a long lunch. It's taken very seriously. Anyway we thanked him and decided to wander around the town, which is beautiful, for a while. Maybe even have lunch ourselves, although I think we just did our usual thing and bought something to nibble on from the patisserie. Maybe Helen and Max had a 'real' lunch.
Having allowed a decent interval to elapse, or perhaps at an appointed time, we made our way to the vineyard of Chateau Quercy just outside the village of Vignonet, a short drive from St. Emilion. There we were greeted by a youngish man who introduced himself as Stéphane Apelbaum and who launched into perfect English, for some of us were not up to a French language tour, explaining that he had been educated at Princeton in America, and that he was of Swiss extract. What followed was well over an hour, maybe as much as two of the most fascinating explanations of Chateau Quercy, Stéphane himself and Bordeaux wine.
Of course we bought some wine - a couple of magnums on our part - one of which we gave to my uncle in Paris who hosted us for our last two nights in France, only to see it disappear into his wonderful cellar of wines. But that was alright because he produced something equally wonderful to go with his exquisitely prepared dinner. The other we gave to English friends who hosted us at their holiday home in Brittany. That one we drank, to the great enjoyment of all. Maybe we bought three and brought one home? Don't think so. These are not what we bought, but it's the nearest vintage I could find pictures of on the web. 2002 - which may actually have been what we tasted.
I have no pictures of my own of the occasion. So thanks to either Graham or Helen for the one at the top of the page. I must have been so absorbed I completely forgot to take a picture. However, my husband has just found a few. The one of Stéphane playing chess, talking on the phone and doing a tasting all at the same time is sort of how I remember him.
Anyway that is a rather lengthy introduction to what I was going to write about today. Which is what became of Chateau Quercy and the wonderfully generous, entertaining and inspiring Stéphane Apelbaum. So much to tell.
First of all Chateau Quercy.
It's rather quaint looking is it not? I vaguely remember Stéphane saying that the Nazis had commandeered it during the war, and that it was partially destroyed at some point. I believe it was Stéphane's father who bought it in 1988 and went about restoring it to its late 18th century grandeur. They developed the vineyard and made Grand Cru Bordeaux on 6.5 hectares until 2014 when it was sold, like so many - well about 2% - of the Bordeaux vineyards - to China. In this case the buyer was a 47 year old Chinese industrialist called Chen Li from Guandong Province in China, who bought it because 'it looked like a castle'. The price was 5 million euros. (Isn't Guandong Provinve where COVID19 originated?)
Try as I may I cannot find what has happened to it since then. There do not appear to be any vintages after 2013 I think and there is no website, although the name of the vineyard does still seem to be registered with Mr Li still the owner. Maybe any wine that is made is shipped direct to China. Maybe no wine is made at all and it is purely an investment. Ready to be sold at an opportune time.
I do know that in 2018, 10 wine chateaux in Bordeaux were seized by the French police because of tax fraud and corruption - back in China, where unreported government money was used. They all belonged to on, different company from a different part of China, but still, one wonders. I'm sure that more about the China/Bordeaux thing can be gleaned from watching Red Obsession a 2013 documentary on the subject. SBS has screened it but it does not seem to be available at SBS On Demand at the moment. I did notice a brief comment in my searchings that said that the Chinese love affair with Bordeaux has waned of late. But that is all that I can find out about Chateau Quercy for now.
Stéphane however, is another matter.
Whilst he was at Chateau Quercy, a bio-organic vineyard, he found himself dispensing advice here and there to other growers. And so in 2013 (a year before Chateau Quercy was sold) he took himself off to school - specifically to the Bordeaux Agricultural Science College to do a Masters in Wine Estate Management. In the same year, with Bruno Jammy-Fonbeney he set up Optimum Vineyard "to share his experience with people passionate about wine."
Optimum Vineyard is a Management and Consulting company specifically aimed at the wine producers of Bordeaux. For all I know he continued to advise the Chinese buyers of his property, although one article of the sale did say that the new owner was bringing in a family member to manage the property.
Stéphane's main client appears to be an American - Bruce Jackson - who in 2011 bought Chateau les Conseillans. The Jacksons worked tirelessly to restore the whole estate, part of which is an officially recognised heritage property. For not all of it is under vines. There are forests and wild animals galore. And it does indeed look stunningly beautiful.
Stéphane manages the estate with Bruno. Interestingly when you look at any of these estates and their 'teams', there doesn't appear to ever be any direct reference to the winemaker, although the Optimum Vineyard team does have a lady oenologist. So I am not sure whether Stéphane actually makes the wine, or merely manages the whole enterprise from a business point of view. Anyway he seems to have at least one client. He is also said to have owned Clos l'AbbA - another Bordeaux Grand Cru label, but I don't think he still does, and he seems to have owned it whilst still working at Chateau Quercy. Maybe his father owned Quercy and he owned Clos l'AbbA. If you look him up in the various company listings you will find that he is also associated with another company in St. Emilion itself - a holding company of some kind perhaps?
On the Optimum Vineyard website a sort of company mission statement reads thus:
"As an owner and investor, you can feel alone when making choices that will commit you and the future of your business. ...This is why Stéphane Apelbaum and Bruno Jammy-Fonbeney decided to pool their talents to offer their clients the benefit of their expertise in organizing, enhancing and optimizing production from a business perspective."
I mentioned above that Chateau Quercy was very bio - they did not net the vines I remember - a shock to we Australians. He maintained that the birds worked hard at eating all the bugs that ate the vines, so they deserved the reward a few grapes. But then there don't seem to be as many voracious birds in France - perhaps they have all been shot for dinner. Chateau Les Conseillans is also increasingly bio, and looking for ways to decrease the use of chemicals in the entire wine growing and making process.
However, the times they are a changing - specifically the climate is changing, and this is putting pressure on Bordeaux, as well as other wine growing areas to adapt. In the last couple of years I believe that the Bordeaux appellation authorities have allowed the addition of various other grape varieties for use in Bordeaux wines - not in Grand Cru wines as yet I think, but in the lesser appellations. The first time since the 1930s, that such a thing has happened. I did not recognise many of the names of the grapes, but they are apparently mostly from the hotter areas of Spain and Portugal. The Terroirist had a very interesting article on the effects of climate change on Bordeaux and quoted Stéphane a few times. Perhaps he has become an authority on the whole thing.
“The wine industry has been [one of the] first to face this challenge,” said Stéphane Apelbaum of Optimum Vineyard Management & Consulting. “It seems like we’re having two seasons instead of four.” The Terroirist
“We still have to respect the Bordeaux style.. But we must prepare. We must face this.” Stéphane Apelbaum
He looks happy and still passionate about his milieu. And successful too.
I do wonder what happened to Chateau Quercy though. Apparently a lot of those Chinese purchases have gone completely bust.
Maybe Stéphane got out of the owning a vineyard business just in time. Maybe we shall hear more of him as Bordeaux moves to tempranillo and other such grapes in the future. They are experimenting with that at Chateau Les Conseillans. I don't think it yet has Grand Cru status, but are moving towards it, although then again maybe they are better off without it. I remember Stéphane saying that sometimes he found it difficult to stay strictly within the rules and that one year he had nearly lost his accreditation as Grand Cru because he had a touch too much of one of the allowed varieties in his wine, which he had done to improve the taste. He, like many other French winemakers, envied the Australians their freedom to do whatever they liked.
Thank you Graham for the idea, and thank you Stéphane for the best vineyard visit we have every experienced.
My friend Helen who was also with us on this visit sent me a bit of an update. She is an avid and doubtless excellent diary writer and she went back to look at that day. I gather she and husband Max did not have a 'proper' lunch but joined us in a baguette and iced tea. The best thing though was that she had made copious notes during our tour which she summarised thus:
"He said that wine-makers must have respect for their terroir. This is what I wrote to sum up : “The best terroir is at Quercy. Respect occurs in the handling too: all is done by hand, including stemming, and the grapes are not crushed; whole fruits go into the vats. He sees his job as wine-maker as being like an orchestra’s conductor and a vintage is like writing a new book every year”.
Thank you Helen.