Dawn’s approach lifts the darkness across the gravelly plateau that runs along the Left Bank of the Gironde River where it spreads open to meet the Atlantic. Overhead, a tattered blanket of purple clouds scuds across the remaining sliver of the moon, and a burnt-orange rim flares along the horizon to the east. The air is chilled, just above freezing, and somewhere beyond the sea of shadowy, darkened vines, a solitary cock crows out its welcome to an early February morning.
Hidden among a grove of leafless trees at the end of an entry drive lies a cluster of buildings, some grand, some plain. This is Château Lagrange, a St.-Julien grand cru estate.With 387 acres of vines, Lagrange constitutes the largest classified growth in the Médoc.
Sylvia Polès throws back the wooden shutters that cloak the office doors. Inside, Bruno Eynard, the director of the château, is at his desk in one of the half-dozen offices, having arrived a few minutes ago from his house in nearby Saint-Laurent. Eynard has been director for three years, having acted as Lagrange’s oenologist for the previous 17 years. In Bordeaux, a château director is its CEO, and, in Eynard’s case, he reports to the management of Suntory, the giant Japanese beverage group that purchased the then-derelict property in 1983 and spent more than $40 million to bring it back to its former glory. A balding, round-faced man with a charming smile and a collegial manner, Eynard holds aloft a large plastic bag of cèpes that he has brought for the cook, and, with the manner of a true forager, tells a visitor, “I picked these in the woods last October but I’m not telling anybody where!”
One hundred yards or so behind Eynard’s office, tucked among the 105 separate parcels of vineyard that make up Lagrange, are the maintenance sheds where an armada of agricultural equipment is stored. Chef de culture Philippe Gayraud gives last-minute instructions to a tractor driver going out to turn a long, high hillock of smoldering compost nearby. On a distant knoll, Gayraud’s vineyard crew is already at work.
André Cardenas, a forgeron, or blacksmith, pounds red-hot metal on an anvil, shaping it, he explains, into a sharpened plowshare for one of the tractors. The Lagrange soil is heavy with sand and potato-size gravels, and a plow can only survive ripping through this ancient river debris for about 40 hours. Keeping equipment readied has Cardenas busy year-round, shifting between the fires of the forge and an acetylene torch.
Fabrice Genty, one of a dozen or so vignerons, works his way down a row of prized Cabernet Sauvignon in Block 47A using battery-powered shears and a small hand saw to cut away unwanted shoots. Asked how many vines he cuts daily in the weeks of winter pruning, he smiles and guesses, “Une mille, peut-ètre?”—1,000 maybe? In March and May, Genty and his coworkers will repair cordons and cut grasses; in May, they will thin shoots; then de-leaf and green harvest in summer and harvest in the fall. Toute la France takes vacation in August.
Across a dirt vineyard road in 46B, Yvette Castéran, hired 25 years ago during Suntory’s ramp-up, selects a long, yellow willow frond from a bundle, cuts off a short segment and expertly ties a vine to a cordon, clipping off the excess. Many things at Lagrange are still done the traditional way, by skilled hands, in tending the one million-plus vines. About 65% are Cabernet, 28% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot. Additionally, there are Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes for the lively blanc, Arums de Lagrange. It is now break time, and the half- dozen women head to the cars lining the small road for a cup of soup or coffee, a sweet and, this being France, a cigarette.
A solitary worker emerges along a vine row, stopping every so often to pound a wooden stake into the stony ground. Bernard Gagner is retiring, and this is his last winter in the vineyard. But he laughs that he will still be outside, hunting “faisan, lapin, autre oiseaux”—pheasant, rabbit and other fowl.
In the recent past, Béatrice Germain cooked for hungry harvesters, but now she prepares meals mainly for the visiting trade and VIPs. Today, working in the cuisine building behind administration, she is in the last stages of putting together a traditional, yet elegant, Bordelaise lunch—preserved lamprey eels from the nearby river with leeks and pigeon and paillasson, or latticed potato cakes topped with Eynard’s mushrooms, all with red wine reduction sauces.
Oreste da Silva is one of three equipment drivers at Lagrange, and this morning he is among the rows of Block 85—more Cabernet—maneuvering a combine-like tractor that collects and shreds pruned vines and dumps the remains at one end of the compost mountain. While much of the vineyard work, including picking, is by hand, da Silva has a heavy schedule of plowing between rows, cutting excess vine vegetation (hedging) in the summer and transporting hand-picked grapes to the vat house during harvest.
Gervais Ruton, in charge of quality and environmental controls, comes from her office to check progress at the composting area. “In addition to environmental concerns,” she says, “my job is new ideas in conserving resources —less energy, less water, fewer chemicals.” Lagrange uses almost totally organic methods and has one experimental vineyard to test biodynamic growing.
Lunch over, Eynard stops by the desk of Dominique LeFebvre, an administrative secretary, processing an order from Ginestet, a négociant or large wholesale wine merchant. Like most chateaux, Lagrange neither market nor sells its own wine to importers and distributors. Rather, it markets through the “négoces”—“about 150 different ones,” Lefebvre says—who pre-order the young blended wines from the previous vintage during primeurs barrel tastings and later distributes them worldwide.
Cellar master Michel Raymond is not filling any of LeFebvre’s orders today, but he will be bottling Château Lagrange’s second label, the 2008 Fiefs de Lagrange, in March along with some of the Arums blanc. In preparation, he is in the bottling facility selecting corks, cutting samples in half to examine their density. He points to the tight growth rings of one, explaining, “These we will order for the grand vin.”
In addition to bottling, Raymond is also in charge of the chai, where wine is aged in barrels, and the vat room or cuvier, where wine is made. This afternoon, Didier Thibault is dragging large hoses among a forest of towering stainless steel tanks in the cuvier. The blending recipe of the young 2009 cuvées, formulated over weeks in the tasting lab by Eynard, his team and popular Médoc consultants Jacques and Eric Boissenet, is now being super-sized among the tanks.
Meantime across the courtyard in the chai, Nicolas Lopez is taking that blend of 2009 Château Lagrange and putting it into barrels where it will age up to 20 months. Although the wine has not yet been tasted by the critics and the trade, the 2009 is already being called a great vintage. For most of the next two years, Lopez will treat the barrels to keep them sanitary, top them off and rack them to remove sediment.
Outside, the cold morning has turned into mellow afternoon. Geoffrey Evene, in his first year as an estate gardener, is helping 24-year-veteran Denis Cadix rework a patch of lawn in front of the actual château building, used primarily for visiting Suntory executives. As home gardeners everywhere know, winter is almost as busy as summer, and Lagrange’s staff of three has a year-around challenge tending the estate’s flowers, lawns, shrubs, trees and ponds.
Although it doesn’t need a marketing or sales force, the Lagrange brand and image are worth millions. Building them is the job of Charlotte Denjean. “I was in the United States last week,” she says as she checks proofs of upcoming brochures and posters, “and Wednesday I fly to Prague.” Denjean and Eynard are the public face of Lagrange on several continents, traveling to wine fairs and charity events, visiting with journalists and the trade, speaking at consumer wine dinners. Denjean is also in charge of hospitality, including visitors to the château (about 3,000 last year). Eynard says dormitories and a cafeteria once used by grape pickers are now being turned into lodgings for visitors and for events venues.
For years, Eynard was assistant director and eonologist for Marcel Ducasse, whom the Japanese charged with turning Lagrange around. Now that Eynard has moved up, his job has been taken over by former cellar master Matthieu Bordes. Bordes is perhaps the busiest executive at the château, serving as Eynard’s chief operating officer and being in charge of everything from procurement to personnel, as well as overseeing the actual winemaking. “For several weeks during harvest, I disappear into the vat room,” he explains. “People look for me in my office and ask, ‘Does Matthieu still work here?’”
He does, and, although 5 p.m. officially ends the day at Château Lagrange, the lights in his and Eynard’s and Denjean’s offices will still be burning as the enlarging slice of silvery moon again rises in the Médoc evening.