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Living the Dream: Stéphane Derenoncourt

Living the Dream: Stéphane Derenoncourt
© Patrick Loubet
French wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt provides advice for 90 different clients all over the world, including war-torn Syria. A self-described "terroirist," he has two wineries of his own: Domaine de l'A in Bordeaux and Derenoncourt California in Napa.

Where did you grow up?

In Dunkirk, Normandy. I left to hitchhike to Bordeaux in 1982. It took two days. I knew there was harvest work and I found a small job. It was my first contact with the vines.

Did you always drink wine?

No. I started when I began work in the vineyards. At home, my parents drank wine, but not me. My first ‘shock’ was with a Figeac ’71. I bought it and drank it alone, listening to music – to Tom Waits. I loved this wine. It made me dream, it smelled of flowers. It was the first time I smelled flowers in a wine, it was the first time I found magic in a wine.

Did you always want to become a consultant?

It was a dream for me since the time I met Michel Rolland when I was a vineyard worker in Fronsac, at Château La Fleur Cailleau. Rolland was the consultant and when I saw him work, it made me dream. I thought he had a magnificent life. I never thought that one day I might do the same thing. It was a dream.

So when did the dream come to fruition?

My career really started in 1990, when I began work at Pavie Macquin. I began to build a good local reputation during those years. Then, in 1996 I started as the winemaker at Château Canon-La-Gaffelière with Stephan Von Neipperg, and we started with La Mondotte [a 'micro-chateau' or 'garagiste' wine that was made in a much fruitier, bolder style than the traditionally austere Bordeaux classics]. It was a big, big success. After Mondotte there were plenty of people coming to me to ask for advice and to help them.

After two or three years, in 1999, I decided to set up my own consultancy. It was called Vignerons Consultants and I was in St.-Émilion at that point. I resigned from La Mondotte, Pavie Macquin and Château Canon-La-Gaffelière, but I kept them as clients.

Was it not a risk to set up on your own?

No, there was already lots of demand and I had seven clients right away, including Château Prieuré Lichine. I never had to look for work or advertise. People always came to me. In 2000 I had a few more clients and in 2003 we began overseas, with clients in Spain and Italy.

I never thought it would be like this. It grew day by day. We always had lots of demand, and we’ve often had to say no to people, because we wouldn’t be able to do good work if we grew too quickly.

Today, one of your clients is Syrian producer, Domaine de Bargylus. How are they coping with the harvest in the midst of a civil war?

I am in touch with them weekly. It’s going alright because we have a local team in place and the owners are in Beirut – they also have a vineyard in Lebanon. We work by email, phone, using photos. I can’t go to the vineyard right now – it’s been too dangerous for the last two years. I started consulting at Bargylus in 2005 and the last time I was there was February 2011. I felt then that it was a bit unstable.

Fifteen days before the harvest this year, we thought we were not going to be able to bring in the grapes, because there were shots less than 150 meters from the vineyard. It was the rebels. A vat was burst by a bomb and automatic guns were fired. The women and children were evacuated from the village. But finally the Syrian army pushed the rebels back, and the people returned and we were able to harvest. To set a date for the harvest we had to bring the grapes by taxi, in a cooler, to Beirut, so we could taste them. It’s about four hours by taxi.

The clay and limestone soils of Bargylus; brothers Karim and Sandro Saade manage the Syrian estate
© Bargylus | The clay and limestone soils of Bargylus; brothers Karim and Sandro Saade manage the Syrian estate

How many clients do you have now?

Ninety, and that’s it. I am full. I’m always full.

When did you sign up your newest client?

Three months ago. A Greek [winery], on the island of Santorini. The vineyard, Argyros, is my first Greek client. They make a white wine, from the assyrtiko grape. The vines grow on volcano soil. They have a great life.

What’s it like having Francis Ford Coppola as a client?

It’s very impressive for the first 10 minutes, when you are in front of a global star. And after, it's just something really nice. Because he is a great guy, very generous. And you have to understand I am not working for Francis Ford Coppola the director, I‘m working for [Francis Ford Coppola] the owner of the land. It’s where he is with his children, his land. That’s what I share with him. Not his career. It’s the man. It’s the wine.

How much does it cost to hire you as a consultant?

Depends on the dossier. But for a small vineyard, less than 10 hectares, for one year, about 15,000 euros ($20,000). After that, more: up to 150,000 euros ($202,000) a year for the creation of a vineyard.

What’s your outlook for Bordeaux 2013?

I think it will be very complicated. It’s a very difficult year. I have hopes for the people who can spend a lot on very high-quality viticulture. But I don’t have much hope for the producers in the smaller appellations. The most complicated bit will be to bring the raisins to maturity without botrytis. There will be some good wines, but it’s a shit year.

You have a reputation as a truth-teller, in a region that’s known for exaggerating the good qualities of its latest vintage.

Yes, that’s true. I just am what I am. And when I have something to say, I say it like it is. I am very happy in Bordeaux. I love the terroir and the wines, I am well established now. But I am not very social, not a man of networks. I don’t go to dinners or things like that.

Limestone at Bargylus; Derenoncourt still works with Canon la Gaffeliere today
© Bargylus/Chateau La Gaffeliere | Limestone at Bargylus; Derenoncourt still works with Canon la Gaffeliere today

What will the Bordeaux industry look like in 10 or 20 years?

I think it will never be too complicated for the grands crus, but sadly it will be more complicated for the heart of Bordeaux. The smaller producers. Their market will get smaller.

Who are the up-and-coming winemakers that you find exciting?

I see more initiative in the producers than in the consultants. I don’t seem to see many new consultants. But all over the place there are producers who are working their vines and making incredible wine.

What has been the most important development in wine making over the last 10 years and what will be the most over the next 10?

Over the last 10 years we’ve really seen incredible technical advances, in the cellar and in the vineyard. We’ve realized how much we need to reduce pesticides, spray better, care for the vines better. And we have new tools for working the soil, lighter tractors. In the cellar, the grapes are treated with much greater respect; there are excellent sorting machines and we are using gravity, for example. The next 10 years will be about philosophy, to rediscover the taste of terroir. To go much further into terroir expression, to make more identifiable, more singular wines.

What’s the thing that every eco-friendly producer should care about?

The quality of the vine’s root system. To help them go deeper. You have to look at the soil, the passage of water, the soil compression. Getting those right can help the roots go deeper. A lot of attention is paid to what we can see, and not enough to what we can’t see; the roots are very, very important. And the soil, of course. It’s all linked.

What do you drink on a 'school night'?

It depends on what I am eating. I am wine mad. I have 8,000 bottles in my cellar here [at his home and vineyard, Domaine de l’A]. I drink a lot of Burgundy. I drink a lot of Bordeaux, evidently. I drink a lot of Loire, a lot of foreign wines, wines from all over. I really like wines that are meant for sharing: wines one eats with, convivial wines.

I know exactly what I am going to drink tonight, because this morning my fish seller arrived. So this evening it will be monk fish tails with thyme and lemon. I love cooking. And the fish will be accompanied by La Roche aux Moines 2007. It’s a white wine from Anjou, made from chenin blanc. I thought of it the moment I decided to do the fish with some lemon. I knew I would need a wine with a bit of acid, but at the same time some generosity and richness.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Me. I see me. With a professional story that’s a bit like a fairy tale. But sadly I don’t have much time to stop and analyze it. I’m someone who moves quick, always. If I stop to think, I might think, wow, we’ve done all that. But I don’t really have the time and I am not really very egocentric.

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