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Château Cantemerle: The Fifth Growth That Nearly Wasn't

The 19th century château is set in 28 hectares of park and woodland, south of Margaux
© Vinexia | The 19th century château is set in 28 hectares of park and woodland, south of Margaux
After a century spent sadly shrunken and neglected, insurance company money returns Château Cantemerle near its mid-1800s heights.

It’s a pleasing scene to picture. The year is 1855, Bordeaux is still one of the leading ports of France, although its glory has faded slightly from its pre-French Revolution days, as the trade in sugar, spices, coffee and slaves has dropped away, leaving just the one stalwart of the city: wine. The Paris exhibition is drawing international attention to the importance of Bordeaux’s wine industry, and its brokers have drawn up a list of the 60 most commercially successful red wines in the region.

Most château owners had zero understanding of how important the 1855 ranking would become. But one woman in the commune of Macau did grasp its relevance, and was furious to have not been included. She was Caroline de Villeneuve, owner of Château Cantemerle, one of the biggest properties in the Haut-Médoc.

Château Cantermerle: Key Facts
1855 classification: fifth growth 
Current owner: insurance group SMABTP
Total acreage:232
Grape Varieties: 55% cabernet sauvignon, 35% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot
Average annual production: 300,000 bottles
Second wine: Les Allées de Cantemerle

Villeneuve had sold her wine direct for 40 years, building up a loyal following almost entirely in the Netherlands. But in 1854, she handed over sales responsibilities to the network of brokers and négociants of the Place de Bordeaux.

She realized she needed help keeping up with the demands that selling wine required, but also felt she was doing the merchants a favor by allowing them a cut of such a successful brand. Now, barely a year later, this was how they repaid her, by leaving her wine off the list

Not prepared to put up with this turn of events, Villeneuve marched down to the Chamber of Commerce in September 1855, while the Exhibition was still ongoing in Paris. She demanded a meeting with the head of the brokers union, and told him in no uncertain terms that she had put her faith in the Place by giving her wine to them for distribution, and she expected to be acknowledged. She brought 40 years' worth of receipts with her, showing how much Cantemerle sold for; how it was comparable to other newly-classified estates that had made the cut

Whatever she said clearly worked as right there in the meeting, Cantemerle was added to the list as a fifth growth. You can see it today on the original document, in different handwriting from the rest, not so much an afterthought as an apologetic reaction to a rebuke from a clearly persuasive woman.

This document shows Cantemerle's late addition to the 1855 classification
© Chateau Cantemerle | This document shows Cantemerle's late addition to the 1855 classification 

Today, Cantemerle continues to be undervalued, when you look at price compared to critics' scores. The London-based fine wine exchange Liv-ex gives its 2009 vintage the best ‘Price over Points’ ratio among fifth-growths, as it received 95 points from James Suckling, and yet was priced at just $387 per case (compare that, for example, to Clerc Milon, which also got a 95 from Suckling but cost $767 per case).

Paul Hammond of the wine investment firm IG Wines says of Cantemerle,"The market is missing a trick here, for now."

The reasons, most likely, are to do with it being located in the Haut-Médoc appellation, away from the bright lights of Pauillac, Margaux and Saint-Julien; the fact that its distribution was limited for a long time by an exclusive arrangement with Cordier négociants; and its relatively small size.

The estate was hit badly by phylloxera in the 1880s and Villeneuve's family sold it shortly afterward. It languished for a century and when the insurance group SMABTP purchased the estate in 1980, the area planted was down from 284 acres under Villeneuve's stewardship to just 50.

"Once SMABTP arrived, with Cordier in charge of running the property on a day-to-day basis, the estate finally got the investment it needed," says current Cantemerle director Philippe Dambrine.

Dambrine explains that the new investors planted 100 acres in just three years, tripling the potential yield of the estate. It was "a big financial decision that we are reaping the benefits of today," he said. In 1999 the company bought Domaine du Moines Nexon, whose vines had previously been rented out to a neighbor. The 50-acre property was absorbed into the Cantemerle stable but improvements were needed in the vineyard and the fruit was not used in the château's grand vin initially. "It was great terroir but bad management," says Dambrine, who joined Cantemerle as director in April 1993. 

And the improvements are paying off, according to Hammond. "They have invested heavily in upgrading the estate’s infrastructure and in the last five years their average Parker score has risen: from 1997 to 2004 the estate averaged 84.5 points, from 2005 to 2012 this has risen to just over 90 points; although there were a few better vintages during this period. If the estate continues scoring highly and producing great wines like 2010 the brand will strengthen further and prices will rise naturally."

There are 232 acres of vineyard; the cap after the wine was drained from the tank at Cantemerle
© Vinexia | There are 232 acres of vineyard; the cap after the wine was drained from the tank at Cantemerle

Back at the château, Dambrine is the nephew of one of the directors of SMABTP, but he has earned his stripes in the wine business, arriving in Bordeaux from Paris in 1981 to work at Gruaud Larose before spending a decade as the head of Château Greysac. Slim, elegant, quietly spoken and reassuringly calm, he has a sharp if unromantic understanding of how Bordeaux works.

He is now using the experience overhauling Cantemerle to the insurance firm's estates in Saint-Émilion. In 2010 they bought Château Grand Corbin and merged it with their existing properties Château Haut Corbin, and (a small part, as allowed by the classification committee) Château Le Jurat. They have gone from 27 acres of vines in Saint-Émilion vines to 69 acres of Grands Crus Classés vines, plus 20 acres of Grand Cru.

"The Left Bank has clear brands, big production, and a scalable model," says Dambrine. "We wanted to try the same thing on the Right Bank, at least on a scale that is suited to Saint-Émilion. Psychologically, however, it’s fair to say that I remain more at home on the Left Bank, and it is hugely satisfying to see Château Cantemerle develop.

"The vines that were planted in the 1980s have matured and so quality has improved," he says. "As an example of what that means, we are making around 30 percent second wine today, whereas 10 years ago it was closer to 40 percent second wine. We really felt the difference from the 2004 and 2005 vintages, when the vines reached 25 years old and started giving more intensity and complexity to the final wine. We had no examples of older wines from most of our plots, because the vineyard had been left virgin for over 100 years. Today we are probably rediscovering what Cantemerle tasted like in 1855."

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