Château Brane-Cantenac 2000-2018


Château Brane-Cantenac 2000-2018

Positive changes are happening at Château Brane-Cantenac. Not that you would immediately notice. There’s no jarring difference in style here, such as a trend correction veering abruptly towards a new ripeness/harvest philosophy or a flashy winemaking makeover. The stylistic changes in recent vintages are cleverly subtle, but you would expect no less from the understated head of the estate, Henri Lurton.

Changes Afoot

Over the last 5-6 years, the most notable development is the uptick in intensity, expression, and structure.

Changing the course of a 185-acre (75-hectare) vineyard operation is no small feat. The enormous time frame and costs involved are staggering. But, as manager of his family’s estate since 1992, having worked the land for years before that, owner Henri Lurton knew well what had to be done. He’d already undertaken arduous replants and created vineyard drainage systems where necessary. But when faced with a prime location with everything going for it except the correct variety, he needed to think outside the Bordeaux box.

In short, thanks to fundamental changes in the vineyard, the wines are better than ever.

“You see that rise in the vineyard there? That plateau?” Lurton told me as we stood at the back of the château and looked out over one of the vast sections of the vineyard. “That was all Merlot. The problem is this is deep gravel. We had Merlot planted on land that is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. But what to do?”

Replanting a core area of a great estate is usually a painfully slow process. After ripping out the vines, the land is allowed to go fallow for a few years to eliminate vine-threatening pests and diseases. The soil and new planting material must be prepared, trellising constructed, etc. And all this work must be carefully staggered in small sections to not put too much pressure on yields, quality, and finances. Thus, most growers are lucky if they can see the impact of significant vineyard changes within their lifetime.

Then a few years ago, Lurton took inspiration from what he saw happening in other high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon regions such as Napa Valley. He could perform field grafting in those ideal locations for Cabernet Sauvignon but where Merlot had long been planted. By cutting the Merlot scion from the mature rootstock and skillfully grafting over with Cabernet Sauvignon, the long, arduous process of changing over a section of the vineyard to a new variety could be fast-tracked with little or no impact on fruit quality. This way, the block could produce high caliber fruit within just 2-3 years, instead of the 10-15 years required to obtain grand vin level fruit from a full replant. The problem was finding highly experienced grafters who could do the job because this is a skill largely unknown in France.

“We were able to find such skilled grafters in South America, ”Lurton said.“ We brought them over, and the results were very impressive. ”

In February this year, I was able to sit down with Henri Lurton and taste the subtle change in the wines from two decades ago, which admittedly were also very good yet less consistent, and those from the last few years. The most significant difference, of course, is the amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blends. In 2000 and 2001, the grand vin was Merlot dominant. From 2010 onwards, more and more Cabernet Sauvignon is used in the blends. The 2019 grand vin (reviewed in my 2019 Bordeaux report), composed of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, backed by beautifully ripe, rich Merlot, is astonishingly powerful and profound—a real game-changer for this estate. The 2020 is also poised to be a remarkable beauty. Lurton’s inspired field grafting bet has already hit pay dirt, and the estate is clearly on the upward swing since the injection of this impressive new Cabernet core. Undoubtedly a château to watch, prices are still quite keen for these recent vintages and those who pounce fast. Enjoy!

Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photos by Johan Berglund

FYI, Brane-Cantenac 2019 (97+) and 2020 (93-95+) were reviewed in a previous article and can be found via search.