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Bordeaux 2000: Château Cantemerle

Patience pays off in the Haut-Médoc

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: April 8, 2003

With cellars updated and vineyards matured, director Philippe Dambrine was eager for harvest 2000.
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Score: 91 | Price: $30

It took a patient owner with deep pockets to turn around Château Cantemerle. But in 2000, the Bordeaux fifth-growth harvested the fruit of 20 years of strategic decisions and hard work, producing an opulent and silky wine (91, $30) that's one of the best values in Bordeaux.

In 1980, a French insurance company bought Cantemerle from the Dubos family. Though the family had owned it for a century, the property, one of the largest in the Médoc, had become a financial burden. "The estate fell on hard times. The château and the chais were in ruins," says Philippe Dambrine, Cantemerle's director. From 115 hectares (284 acres) of vineyards in 1855, when it was classified fifth-growth, only 20 hectares (49.4 acres) remained in 1980.

Enter Mutuelles d'Assurance du Bâtiment et des Travaux Public (Groupe SMABTP), whose boss at the time, Albert Parment, was a fervent Bordeaux aficionado. He reckoned Cantemerle's sizable vineyard land offered a golden opportunity. Thus began the big job of replanting and retooling the underachieving classified-growth.

It was a gamble because Cantemerle is located in a second-rate part of the Haut-Médoc. While the estate, which spreads out behind woods and a fenced-in park along the Route des Châteaux, is just a few miles south of the famous Margaux appellation, their soils have little in common. "There is a clear break between Margaux and us, which lies higher up," says Dambrine, 46, who explains that there is more sand in Cantemerle's Haut-Médoc area.

After paying 25 million francs ($5.9 million) for Cantemerle, Groupe SMABTP spent another 60 million francs (about $8 million) in the 1980s upgrading the place. The group, which also owns two estates in St.-Emilion (châteaus Haut-Corbin and Le Jurat) planted almost 100 acres immediately, then another 74 acres over several years to reach Cantemerle's current 222 acres. The domaine produces a total of 50,000 cases, divided between the first wine (30,000 to 35,000 cases); a second label, Les Allées de Cantemerle (10,000 to 15,000 cases); and a third, Baronne Caroline (5,000 to 10,000 cases).

Improvements were also made in the cellars. Wooden vats replaced stainless steel tanks to make the first wine, and the château installed an innovative system to spot and discard poor grapes before they reached the fermentation vats. But with so many young vines, Cantemerle had to wait patiently until the vineyard matured to full potential.

"We have the financial muscle to get our estate ready for a great vintage, and all we needed was a great harvest," says Dambrine. In 2000, Château Cantemerle got its wish.

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