Philippe Dambrine is the general manager of Château Cantemerle and president of Conseil des Vins du Médoc. He has been working in this château for twenty-eight years, even longer in Médoc, and he knows this region by heart.
Monsieur Dambrine is very humble, despite his successful career in the wine sector. He gladly welcomes people in the château to share proudly the magical liquid they are producing.
In this opportunity, I asked Monsieur Dambrine his wine path, his insights of Château Cantemerle and finally some questions about Médoc and Bordeaux.
N: How did you decide to build a career about wine?
D: I think it was an opportunity that made me get into this career. I am not originally from Bordeaux, I am from Paris. First of all, thirty-five years ago, I decided to come to Bordeaux and experience the harvest for grape picking. In those times, as a grape picker it was difficult to get into the cellar. But I was really curious and after work every day, I ran to the cellar to try to visit it and have some view of the winemaking. In those times, the cellar and the cellar master was a secret. Each time when I was trying to get into the cellar the doors were closing. So, I was a bit disturbed by this and I decided to ask to stay longer and to learn about winemaking. I had the opportunity to get an internship as a student of wine at Château Gruaud Larose and that is how my career started in winemaking. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to get a job in a property in Northern Médoc and that’s how I started actually, from the bottom.
Château Cantemerle is a winery in the Haut-Médoc appellation and in the Grand Cru Classé by classification of 1855. Today, it has ninety hectares of vineyards which are mainly planted by Cabernet Sauvignon and then Merlot, and also Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in smaller quantities. The winery produces two wines, the first one is Château Cantemerle and the second is Les Allées de Cantemerle. The proportions of the varieties in these two wines change according to characteristics of the vintage.
N: What are the characteristics of the style of the wines of Château Cantemerle?
D: It has a really special signature, which comes from the location of the château, the composition of soil and the grapes themselves grown in this soil. Because of the location, we are close to Margaux appellation in the south part of Médoc peninsula. If I should describe the style of Château Cantemerle, it is very dense in the nose and at the same time it is delicate, especially in the expression of tannins. It has great aromas and very long after taste.
N: How does your terroir express itself in this signature?
D: Because of the soil itself which is mixed with sand and gravel, the drainage is very good. The maturation is early due to the location itself by the influence of the climate which is balanced by proximity to the river and ocean. By this microclimate effect and composition of the soil, we have this expression in our wines.
N: How was the harvest 2015 for Château Cantemerle?
D: It is one of the best years we produced in the past ten years. It is very difficult to compare. I do not want to compare with other vintages but due to the early flowering, and the way it came by itself, the season was very good. We had sunny and dry weather in July and August. We have great concentration in the sugar content with a good acidity level and also high polyphenol content. We have very good expectations of the 2015 vintage.
It’s fascinating to know the changes that the Médoc region has been going through since all these years. Winemaking in this region started centuries ago, but it is obvious that it was quite different from the practices that we are seeing today.
N: What are the improvements you have been observing in the Médoc region since you have started to work in this region?
D: Many changes… First of all, when I started in the wine business in Médoc, thirty-five years ago, the region was not in very good condition. The facilities, the equipment in the properties and also vineyards needed renovation. So year after year, since the 1980s, we went through a lot of improvements. First of all, in the winemaking process we made changes to be cleaner, and also we started to have the possibility to make temperature control in the vats, to be more precise. And then around the 2000s we went back to the vineyard. We had a lot to do, to be much more precise in the production of grapes, due to the historical high-density planting in the vineyards. We worked vine per vine and the approach is quite different now, we give a lot of importance to ripening of the grapes in the vineyard. We do a lot of green work during summertime, like leaf and bunch thinning. And also control of the composition and balance of the nutrients in the soil made a lot of changes in the overall quality of the Médoc wines. Then of course the Médoc region has a great world-wide wine industry due to the top brands we know since 1855 classification that helps to sell and promote the wines of the region.
The last question is about the historical labels of Bordeaux wines, which did not change over the centuries. Nowadays, in the wine world there are innovative labels and bottles to attract the consumers’ attention; however it’s not the case in Bordeaux, which does not change the classical image.
N: Do you think in Bordeaux, it will be necessary to make some changes in the classical “Château” labels?
D: Image is based on “Château”; when you say Bordeaux, you think château. It is the first point, we are promoting our wines on this basis and it is like this in Bordeaux in general. What we hear from outside is that Bordeaux can intimidate people because sometimes people find the appellations complicated to understand, and when we talk about terms like terroir, estate grown etc. We saw famous varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which are used world-wide nowadays and people think it would be simpler to speak about the wine by variety. But at the same time, we have to protect our tradition and the fact is that the mixture of the varieties that makes the signature of each wine. Should we change the labels? I do not think so. There were some trials on that in the past to have a more modern kind of labeling but it never worked, because people are expecting to get the tradition from Bordeaux. The “Château” label consists most of the time, the picture or drawing of the château and the vineyard around it with the name and the appellation, estate bottled, in the front label. What happened is that we already changed the labels ten years ago in Cantemerle. We decided to put all the legal mentions in the back label which becomes the official label and the front label is more simple, pure and clean, and it works.
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