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mixed case: opinion and advice

Where Will the Next Generation Take Bordeaux?

The challenges of the Millennial winemaker play out in sharp relief in this most traditional region
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: May 21, 2013 12:45pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

"Was I stressed or nervous? I am still! I knew that my biggest challenge would be not to do something wrong. I don't know if 2012 will be really nice at Moulin-Haut-Laroque, but if it's not the case, it will be my fault. So it's a lot of pressure," sighed Thomas Hervé, the proprietor of the Fronsac estate.

Hervé, like 17 or so generations of his forefathers, has been around Bordeaux wine most of his life. He has helped out during recent harvests at the château. But last July, he quit his job in finance to take over the family business. When it came time to bring in his first vintage, Hervé's father was out of the country, leaving the 29-year-old flying solo in one of the more technically demanding years of recent Bordeaux memory.

Marc Milhade took the reins at St.-Emilion's Château Boutisse in 2005, when he was 25. "The only way I found to be efficient and to learn fast was buying a lot of books and reading a lot by night," he said. "At the beginning, you absolutely need a very good phone connection" to call pére in a pinch.

The wine biz has spent several years now wringing its hands over What to Do About Millennials. Not so long ago, it was a received truth of this big, problematic, new generation of wine drinkers that they dismissed Bordeaux as an old man's game. But stop in at any Bordeaux walk-around tasting and it's immediately obvious that both sides of that formulation are wrongheaded today: More and more, what young Americans drink, young Frenchmen (and women) made. I asked a few of these young Bordelais what it's like trying to fit 2,000 years of tradition into our modern wine climate.

On the Right Bank especially, more châteaus than you're probably aware are run by guys and gals not so far out of university. Of those who lead or share winemaking duties at Cheval-Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus, Olivier Berrouet is the eldest. He's 34, and he's been at Pétrus since the 2008 vintage, following his father to guide the storied cuvée. He agreed that the job can be nervewracking, and always gets second opinions on his blends. But perspective helps: "How can we say—it's wine. So the pressure to reach the level of quality for Pétrus of course is very high, but we are on a magic spot" in terms of terroir.

I asked Hervé, Milhade and Berrouet how their Bordeaux will look compared to dad's Bordeaux. Nobody's calling for big changes at Pétrus, but Berrouet diplomatically offered this point, echoed by Milhade and Hervé: "Maybe the power of winemaking was very high in the last two decades" in the cellar. "And the winemakers, especially the young generation, are doing more in the vineyard, with a new approach in the viticulture, with less and less intervention. Everything starts there."

"We are young, but we are old enough to understand that Bordeaux has to really change the way of thinking in terms of environment," said Hervé. "Clearly the biggest challenge for us is to understand that we are no longer people from old families with very bad [environmental] habits." Hervé and Milhade are taking explicit steps to make their wineries greener.

Another new development is the hustle, especially crucial to châteaus still building their markets. "My father was only involved in the wine production. But I have to be in the wine production, the communication, information, social networks, the promotion of my wines, all those things. All that is very new and going really, really fast." said Milhade. "It's more and more important to be in contact with the final consumers. It's something that the buyers expect more and more." The Milhades are in the U.S. three times a year nowadays.

Fine wine today, of course, is no longer château against château: It's Bordeaux (or any other region) against the world. But this has fostered a more social, collaborative attitude toward winemaking. "We taste together many, many times, meeting to organize events. We have dinner together," said Milhade of his confreres. "It's very important for me to develop together rather than only thinking of competition and selling better than the others next door."

Dinner parties are nice, but when I asked about Right Bank nightlife, Hervé responded: "Eh, a tractor." He lives in the city of Bordeaux proper now (too old to be living with his parents, he said), but foresees the day when he'll be the 17th generation called home. "It's going to be more and more complicated not to be at the château because we are a really small business." His dilemma is a miniature of the tension the next generation of Bordeaux winemakers faces. "This is the challenge: trying to change but to understand the traditions and the habits we have. I mean, we still need to have our own identity."

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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