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France's New Faces

Young leaders take on the problems of Old World winemaking

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: September 30, 2003

Front row, from left: Claire Villars, Isabelle Coustal, Philippe Guigal, Pierre Perrin. Center row: Laurence Faller, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Pierre-Yves Colin. Back row: Jean-Charles Boisset, Jean-Guillaume Prats.
Winemaker Profiles:
Jean-Charles Boisset
Pierre-Yves Colin
Jean-Louis Chave
Isabelle Coustal
Stéphane Derenoncourt
Philippe Guigal
Laurence Faller
Jean-Guillaume Prats
Pierre Perrin
Claire Villars

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On a sunny day in June, several young winemakers from around France meet for lunch in Bordeaux. As they taste each other's wines, they are lively and open, eager to learn and willing to be frank. France may be disparaged as "old Europe" or hopelessly traditional by some, but there's nothing old-fashioned about these young wine professionals, who represent the country's new generation. They are interested in wines from other regions and are receptive in a way that the last generation may not have been.

"There is more exchange among the winemakers today than in the past," says Pierre-Yves Colin, 31, winemaker of Domaine Marc Colin in Burgundy. "Personally, I am very passionate about wine and curious to meet others. Such dialogue is important."

There's no war between "traditional" and "international" wine styles here. The group appreciates the clean, pure, focused flavors of Colin's 2000 Bâtard-Montrachet, but also the forward fruit and lavish oak of Stéphane Derenoncourt's 2000 Domaine de l'A Côtes de Castillon. They're willing to be self-critical, too. A 1996 Château Cos d'Estournel is mature and spicy "but made in the old style," admits Jean-Guillaume Prats, 33, CEO of the St.-Estèphe second-growth since 1998.

Each wine solicits eager questions and probing comments that reach beyond mere technical aspects. "You look to understand their mindset, and see how their style of wine compares to their state of mind," says Colin. "Sometimes you hear of ideas and work strategies you didn't even suspect existed."

Pierre Perrin, 31, pours a smooth and complex 1997 red Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the family's Château de Beaucastel. Part of its vinification involves heating the grapes before fermentation, a technique initiated by Perrin's grandfather. The method may seem anachronistic today, yet these young professionals praise the wine and press Perrin for information.

French winemakers are pulled between established modes and modern impulses, and mastering these tensions may prove the next generation's greatest strength. "It's not because we are in old Europe that we don't know how to make modern wines," says Perrin. He has just produced his family's first bottling with a screw-cap closure, a Costières de Nîmes Perrin Réserve, for Perrin & Fils, which he heads.

Who will be the next Philippine de Rothschild, Marcel Guigal or Lalou Bize-Leroy? Each of these towering figures has been an ambassador for their region -- Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley and Burgundy, respectively -- for the past few decades. They are still leaders, but all are at least 60 now.

Many young French winemakers, growers, wine executives and négociants have the potential to become stars in the 21st century. Wine Spectator zeroed in on 10 promising examples: three women and seven men, aged 28 to 40, whose wines have already made them known in their respective regions. They represent diverse approaches to the challenges that face France today, and their talents undoubtedly will help shape the wine world in the decades to come.

Our group consists of three representatives from Bordeaux, two each from Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, and one each from Alsace, the Southern Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon. All are profiled in the following pages.

France has a long tradition of passing family domaines from generation to generation; eight of our 10 young professionals are from families with ties to the wine business. Only two are self-starters, Derenoncourt, 40, and Isabelle Coustal, 40, the owner of Château Sainte-Eulalie in Languedoc's Minervois appellation. Inexpensive vineyard land was key for them; they were willing to gamble on regions that lacked prestige and high wine prices. Derenoncourt farms 12 acres in Côtes de Castillon, on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, where vines sell for 30 times less than top classified-growth vineyards in Médoc.

But whatever their individual backgrounds, all are passionate about their work and ready to take quality to the next level across France's wine regions.

In Bordeaux, for instance, the men and women who saved the region from a grave economic crisis in the 1970s are close to or beyond France's legal retirement age. These vintners capitalized on the fabled 1982 vintage and improved their châteaus, chais and wines. The young Bordelais give them credit and appreciation, but they look at their region now and see the glass still half-empty, with improvements yet to be made.

Today's young wine professionals are linked by a belief in their terroirs and the understanding that great winemaking starts in the vineyard. All of them are committed to farming their vineyards in a more natural and organic fashion than did their predecessors, and to producing wines of lower yields and deeper flavors.

It may take time to erase the mistakes of recent years, when France squandered its lead as the world's benchmark producer of fine wines. Two years ago, Jacques Berthomeau laid bare France's excesses in a report commissioned by his department, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing.

"We are harvesting what we sowed; our export failures are due essentially to a lack of rigor," he wrote in the "Berthomeau report." France produced poor wines in famous appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOCs), instead of "applying refined piloting to each of our vineyard regions," it added. "We were on a cloud, intoxicated."

Today France's wine exports to the United States are in the doldrums, hurt by the weaker dollar, fall-out from the Iraq war and a call to boycott French goods.

The new generation, however, comes prepared for battle. Six of our 10 young wine professionals have studied or worked in the United States; America has become an almost obligatory pilgrimage for young, ambitious French men and women entering the business. They interned in wineries, worked in their family's U.S. wine companies, studied winemaking or earned MBAs. Nine out of the 10 have earned one or more degrees of higher education -- in enology, of course, but also in chemistry or business. Claire Villars, 36, was a doctoral student in physics and chemistry when she came to Bordeaux; she now heads three châteaus in Médoc, including classified-growths Haut-Bages-Libéral and Ferrière. Laurence Faller, 36, studied chemical engineering and enology and holds a degree in business administration; she makes up to 30 different wines at Domaine Weinbach in Alsace each year.

The exception in this otherwise formally educated group is Derenoncourt, a school dropout who got his start in the business as a grapepicker in Bordeaux 21 years ago. Ironically, he's the only one among the 10 who makes a living as a consulting enologist.

Nine of the profilees are intimately involved in winemaking and grapegrowing -- a tally that reflects France's strong suit in distinctive appellations and terroirs. Jean-Charles Boisset, 33, of Burgundy is strictly on the business side, but he's pulling his weight for the revival of French wine quality by shaking up his family's business, incidentally the third largest wine group in France.

Only four of these young professionals' wineries produce exclusively estate-bottled wines; the remaining six are négociant-grower hybrids, and this points to an important trend as the new generation rises in France.

As négociants increase their activity as growers, and as growers add négoce businesses on the side, each profession adopts what's best in the other's approach, increasing the opportunities to improve the quality of their wines. Three of the young professionals (Boisset, Perrin and Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal in the Rhône Valley) work in large négoce businesses that are continually adding vineyards to their holdings.

French growers have seen the benefits reaped by many in California who have made great wines and fortunes without owning a square foot of vineyard. As talented growers look to expand their portfolio of wines beyond those they make from their own vineyards, they seek access to other people's vineyard sites through négoce activities. As a result, France has seen an explosion of new wines, including some terrific, old-vine, small-grower-size bottlings. Two of our notables are growers with a négoce business on the side (Colin and Jean-Louis Chave, 35, of the eponymous winery near the Rhône's Hermitage appellation).

In the Berthomeau report, the author wonders if "the French wine world, over-confident and arrogant, would be the first victim of a coalition of New World countries?"

This is unlikely to happen, as the next generation adjusts to the new global reality. Humble yet confident, France's young wine professionals are retooling their regions, wineries and vineyards. As they assume responsibility over the country's fabulous vineyards, they stand to make some of the best wines ever made in France.

"Thanks to the New World, the Old World has moved," says Boisset. "Today, there is no longer a New World or an Old World; there's one world of wine. We all have common values; we all want to show our terroirs."

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