A Sit-Down with Laurent Vonderheyden of Château Monbrison

Sep 14, 2010

I sat down here at my office last week with Laurent Vonderheyden, owner of Château Monbrison in Margaux, to chat about things in Bordeaux.

After suffering hail damage that reduced his crop dramatically in both 2008 and 2009, Vonderheyden is especially optimistic for the quality of the upcoming 2010 harvest.

“It’s been drier than ’03, but not as hot. The crop is really concentrated and we got rains that really helped, as the leaves were starting to get a little stressed. If it holds from here, we could really have something special,” said Vonderheyden.

Vonderheyden is equally comfortable on both sides of the Atlantic, having spent 14 years in the U.S. starting in 1978 as an 18-year-old, working his way up in the wine business with Alexis Lichine and others. He helped introduce Georges Duboeuf’s wines to this market and ran the Castel Frères operation here in the mid-1980s before starting his own import company.

During this same time, Vonderheyden and two of his brothers were trying to ressurect Monbrison, a 13-hectare estate in the town of Arsac, in the southern portion of the Margaux appellation. Following the crisis of ’72 and his parents' divorce, it was a difficult proposition to renovate and improve a lesser-known Bordeaux estate.

“We had no money at the time, but we built a new cellar by ’78 and had moved to all barrel aging, and everyone thought that was crazy at the time,” said the affable Vonderheyden. “We began replanting the vineyards, bit by bit so as not to stress the vineyard out, but looking to reduce yields and improve quality with better rootstocks. And then in ’86 we were the first to do a green harvest, and people thought that was pretty crazy at the time too. Now of course, it’s common practice.”

Von der Heyden himself returned to France in ’92 to take over Monbrison full time, following the passing of one of his brothers. Today, Monbrison, which has been owned by the Vonderheyden family since 1921, finds itself in a shrinking appellation, as larger châteaus buy up vineyards and consolidate the appellation.

“Rauzan-Ségla, Palmer, d’Issan. They’ve gotten so big. A generation ago, the usual size of an estate in the Médoc might have been 25 hectares, today it’s 50 hectares or more. We’re not competing with them; we’re all friends here in Margaux. But that does make it difficult for some of us in the marketplace.”

Monbrison, planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and an increasing amount of Petit Verdot, produces about 100,000 bottles annually, split evenly between the grand vin and the estate’s second wine. Vonderheyden, whose estate neighbors Châteaus Giscours and du Tertre, aims to make a wine in a more elegant style, which he feels compliments the Margaux terroir best.

“Our soils are a little sandy, with fine pebbles. So we do a longer fermentation at a lower temperature, aiming for more aromas and length. I like intensity, but I want something that builds in the mouth, and doesn’t just give you everything it has right up front.”

“It’s a luxury to make the wine that you really want to make. I’m lucky, and I know that. It’s really a privilege to be in Margaux,” he said. “It’s humbling really when you think of it—it takes three years to actually make a wine, from vineyard to table. And it takes 20 years to really build a vineyard. But you can ruin it all in just two years if you’re not careful!”

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]

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