Bordeaux's beating heart: Introducing Château Branaire-Ducru
Hailed as the most famous wine region in the world, I’ve heard a lot about Bordeaux through pictures, anecdotes and books, but fewer art forms have been better placed to represent this storied region than its wines.
With adjectives such as “austere”, “grippy” and “structured” often used to describe the shape and character of claret, the initial images conjured of this world are ones that appear somewhat repressed and stiff, like a tightly drawn cravat. But within a few moments, after a period of patience, many of the wines will slowly open up, revealing the comforting warmth of aged oak, as well as vivacious zaps of plump, juicy fruit; all signifiers of the history and craftsmanship of a region where for centuries, wine has charged its beating heart.
Within Bordeaux lies hundreds of châteaux, many of which bear fascinating stories of intrepid pioneers who settled on the land with the vision of creating something from its seemingly divine soil. One of which was Jean-Baptise Braneyre, who set his sights on the appellation of Saint-Julien in 1680 and was able to get his hands on a vineyard plot in a string of luck for himself. Once belonging to the much larger Beychevelle estate, which was subsequently broken apart to settle the debts of the late Duc d’Epron; Jean-Baptiste Braneyre became the first ever owner of what we know today as Château Branaire-Ducru.
It was Braneyre who saw the boundless potential of Cabernet Sauvignon, through noting that it thrived particularly well amidst the Médoc’s gravelly soils. A fabricated freak of nature, Cabernet Sauvignon was a relatively new grape during this period, having come about through a chance marriage between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Today it is counted amongst the 13 different grape varieties permitted in the region (for the AOC has strict rules that winemakers must follow), and whose dense flavour profile of blackcurrant (think Ribena and syrupy crème-de-cassis) typifies the wine of Left Bank Bordeaux.
As seemingly common throughout the region, Branaire-Ducru was purchased by an ex-financier in the 1980s, Patrick Morateaux, who saw buckets of potential in the tiny château and set out on the mission to create the finest expression of its terroir. Serving as the President of both the UGCB (Union of Grand Crus Bordeaux) as well as the President of the Saint-Julien Appellation, it was clear that Morateaux knew a thing or two about world-class wine, and served as a true ambassador of this tiny patch of Left Bank Bordeaux.
Immediately setting out to enhance the estate’s quality, Morateaux enlisted the help of Phillip Dullain as Branaire-Ducru’s Technical Director. In 1991 the estate saw the introduction of a new Chai (pronounced “shay” and translates to wine storeroom), which solely relies on gravity to move the grapes through different phases of production – and stands proud as the first estate in Saint-Julien to do so. It seems a bit like witchcraft to think that the grapes could move around the workroom without the assistance of pumping or heavy machinery, but with some clever architecture, gravity-fed winemaking often allows the grapes to tumble from floor to floor as they go through different steps in the vinification process. Today many other wineries across Bordeaux have followed suit, and the end result is delicate wines that are at lower risk of over-extraction or oxidation.
The estate’s technological improvements of the nineties resulted in a huge shift in quality by the time the millennium hit, which saw Branaire-Ducru elevated to one of the top estates in Saint-Julien, causing it certainly live up to its Fourth Growth hype. This was coupled with the expansion of the estate (Morateaux purchased an additional 10 hectares) and the reduction of yields. Fast forward to 2023 and Branaire-Ducru is currently under the faithful hands of Patrick’s son François-Xavier as well as leading winemaker Jean-Dominique Videau, whose 2022 vintage marked two decades of his impact on this remarkable estate.
In the present day the château’s contemporary practices still relay the interests of its 17th century founder, through winemaking that continues to honour the expressive qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon, whilst also paying homage to the now late Patrick Morateaux through the vivid translation of Saint-Julien’s terroir. In turn its 60 hectares of vineyard are predominantly planted with 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with many of the vines reaching up to 90 years of age. The final percentile comprises Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot – all of which enhance the flavour of the cuvée’s star grape.
When savouring Bordeaux, particularly in its youth (a period where clarets are usually years away from entering their prime) there’s an almost architectural quality to these wines, where the thickness, shape, and texture of each tannin is carefully considered against its relationship with the wine’s acidity, or exactly where in your mouth the flavour decides to sit. Each aroma is carefully layered upon each other, in a similar way that a chef may construct a meal, and in turn wine serves as a blatant expression of hours (or even years) of craftsmanship and meticulous engineering.
In the case of Branaire-Ducru its signature structure is punctuated by an abundant freshness, which directly reflects the Gironde’s biting winds and Saint-Julien’s Oceanic climate – a quality that is particularly pertinent throughout Videau’s winemaking. But these characteristics don’t just exist by magic and are instead the product of centuries of viticulture within this particular segment of Saint-Julien. In a recent article for SLOP Magazine Katy Severson states that “the single most exciting and interesting thing about wine [is] its story” and in the case of Branaire-Ducru we are taken through hundreds of years of the Médoc – through the creation of its hallowed ground, multiple different owners, phylloxera, and other landmark historical moments.
Wines like Branaire-Ducru offer a portal into viewing Bordeaux through a different lens. History in this instance isn’t archaic but fascinating. The wines needn’t be viewed as austere or closed, but coy and intricately structured. Over time this particular château has continued to innovate and advance – working alongside nature to craft wines that are a true reflection of the spirit of the Médoc and forms just one of the many thumping veins of this beautiful region.
Alchemy and reinvention form the bedrock of Branaire-Ducru’s history, and the fruit is clearly better for it.