Dive In: Cantenac Brown 1978-2018


Eric Boissenot stares at a disused swimming pool. The reclusive yet immensely influential oenologist, whose counsel is sought by almost every major Médoc château, the “Brian Eno of Bordeaux,” is transfixed. I understand why. An empty swimming pool is an inexplicably thought-provoking sight. Devoid of any purpose, the onlooker imagines those that splashed, swam or dived in its chlorinated water. It seems bizarrely out of place here, something that I did not anticipate seeing when I visited the Margaux property.

“It won’t be here much longer,” head winemaker José Sanfins warns us. “It will be demolished as part of the reconstruction work.”

My heart sinks a little. I think Boissenot’s does too.

“Is there no chance of saving it,” I enquire before desperately asking, “What if future workers want to swim?”

Sanfins grins. The decision has already been made.

The Cantenac Brown pool.

I have been long overdue a morning touring this château. Recent vintages demonstrate an unequivocal uptick in quality, part of an overall trend within Margaux. Nowadays, there is a roster of thoroughbreds and less also-rans within the appellation. Sanfins welcomed me to the estate in the summer of 2021, together with Boissenot, to undertake a rare vertical and discover more about the estate.


The estate traces its roots back to the 16th century when it was known as Château de Cantenac. The land was owned by the Irish Boyd family, though there was no château at that time. The story really begins in 1806 when a majority of the land was bought by Scotsman, John Lewis Brown, who married the granddaughter of Jacques Boyd. Brown commissioned the construction of a château in an unorthodox architectural style that draws strongly on a Tudor design. It is the most grandiloquent, arguably ostentatious château in the vicinity with some 370 windows and doors. Quoting Sanfins, “there are as many windows as there are days of the year.” Though with rising energy costs, that’s a lack of forward thinking. Brown also built a folie, an exterior building for aesthetic reasons only, in the rear garden that remains standing today.

The distinctive front façade at Cantenac Brown.

Brown belonged to the Clan Broun of Colstoun, whose motto was “Floreat Majestas” – let majesty flourish. He was both a shipper of claret and a renown naturalist painter that became close friends with Degas, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Those artists were probably attracted by Brown’s penchant for hosting lavish and doubtless, bibulous parties at the château. Unfortunately, he was unable to sustain his hedonistic lifestyle from paintbrushes alone and was forced to sell the estate in 1843 to avoid bankruptcy.

The property was sold in two lots, one part forming Château Boyd-Cantenac. Cantenac Brown first passed into the hands of a banker, Mon Gromard, who unsurprisingly was more interested in pecuniary gains instead of looking after the property. In 1855, it still managed to secure ranking as a Third Growth, but five years later, he sold it on to Armand Lalande, then co-owner of Léoville-Poyferré. Lalande resolved to restore the 134-hectare estate to its former glory and began to replace missing vines. The estate was renamed Cantenac Brown in 1884. In the 1898 edition of Féret, the vineyard totals 67-hectares, one of the largest in Margaux, commending Lalande for noble varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot when in pre-appellation rules, it was perfectly legitimate to plant whatever you liked. Lalande’s family remained owners until 1968, whereupon it was sold to the du Viviers that ran the Bordeaux merchant A. de Luze & Fils. The man in charge was Bertrand du Vivier, though he did not live at the château. Too many windows perhaps? Instead, he rented part of it out.

In 1989, the estate was acquired by French insurers AXA-Millésimes. The wines were made by Jean-Michel Cazes, ‘moonlighting’ from Lynch-Bages. Christian Seely oversaw the wines between 2000 and 2004 before Sanfins took the helm. “I started with Jean-Michel Cazes and Daniel Llose in 1989 as a trainee at Lynch Bages,” he explains. “When Cantenac Brown was integrated to AXA-Millésimes’ portfolio, I had the luck to follow my internship at Cantenac Brown. I’m still here … my internship continues. After the purchase of Quinta do Noval by AXA, I had the opportunity to work there with Christian Seely for several years. My Portuguese roots helped me a lot. During my spare time, I still make wine on my personal estate of 2.5 hectares in Haut-Médoc and Margaux. In the last few years, my wife and I bought a little Quinta in the Douro Valley where we produce olive oil.”

In 2006, Cantenac Brown changed hands once again, acquired by the Simon Halabi family, who appointed Sanfins as estate director. Finally, in 2020, it was bought by Tristan Le Lous. Le Lous clearly has grand ambitions for the estate and embarked on a large-scale program of reconstruction. The centerpiece will be a 5,000m² cellar designed by Philippe Madec, details of which you will find further on.

José Sanfins explaining the new winery currently under construction.

The Vineyard

Cantenac Brown is one estate where to look only at the vineyard is to miss the overall picture. In fact, there are very few estates on the Left Bank where there is such polyculture. We spend an hour touring the surrounding woodland populated by Evergreen oak, Spanish firs and 200-year-old sequoia. The shade ponds are fed by a running stream, and a magnificent heron keeps watch as we walk past. I ask Sanfins about the viticulture at Cantenac Brown, which I replicate as a Q&A.

Neal Martin: What is the exact size of the vineyard and holdings?

José Sanfins: For the reds, there are 63 hectares in total spread over the plateaus of Cantenac and Margaux. In 2022, there are 59 hectares in production. For the whites, there are 5.16 hectares in total of which 1.8 hectares are in production in 2022. Around 3.4 hectares have been planted this year and will be in production in 2024.

NM: What are the various soil types and are they matched to grape variety?

JS: The choice of grape varieties was dictated by years of observation, by tasting and by an in-depth study of the nature of the soils. The estate can be divided into three zones: namely five to six hectares of clay-limestone terroirs, 16 hectares of small gravel deposits and finally, 34 hectares of deep Günzian gravel on the Margaux and Cantenac plateau, which form the backbone of Château Cantenac Brown’s wines, as this is precisely where Cabernet Sauvignon is predominant. This mosaic of terroirs makes it possible, whatever the impact of the weather, to produce great wines every year.

The white grape varieties were planted on clay-limestone plots.

NM: How many parcels do you split the vineyard into? Are there different orientations? 

JS: The vineyard is divided into 62 parcels, 60% oriented north-to-south and 40% east-to-west.

NM: What is the composition of grape varieties? Have they changed over the years and what about future plantings? 

JS: Today, the composition is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Our objective is to increase the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon for the new plantations in accord with the terroir, to reach around 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. Next year, we will also plant 1.2 hectares of Petit Verdot. For the whites, we presently have 90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sémillon. The new plantation of this year comprises 0.75 hectares and is composed of 90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sauvignon Gris. So, in 2024, there will be 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 3.5% Sémillon and 6.5% Sauvignon Gris. 

NM: What rootstocks and pruning methods do you use? Pruning has become important in recent years - do you have a specialised team that undertakes this task? 

JS: The rootstocks are adapted to the soil and to the grape varieties. We use mainly 3009C and 101-14 MDGT on several clones. For each new plantation, we study the soil to choose the most adapted rootstock. Pruning is indeed a very important operation that we realize meticulously with the estate’s team. The entire team is trained to a “gentle” pruning by respecting as much as possible the sap waves.

NM: What is the vineyard approach - lutte raisonée, organic, biodynamic etc.? How has it changed over the years, and what about the future? 

JS: Our approach to the vineyard has always been sustainable with a concern for eco-responsibility. Indeed, in 2001 we started our ISO 14001 approach, and the commitments of Cantenac Brown have been rewarded and formalized since 2019 by obtaining certifications “Operation with High Environmental Value Level 3” and “ISO 14001 via the Association of the EMS Bordeaux Wines”. This controls energy consumption and waste recovery, controls effluents, protects waterways, and we are committed to reducing our environmental footprint. Preserving the life of the soil is also a daily challenge for us. A vineyard that is home to a variety of plant and animal species is an indicator of a healthy and balanced ecosystem. We have always worked our soils and are committed to implementing actions that support soil fertility: planting hedges and shrubs of local species along the vine plots (the first hedges planted in 2008), sowing and flowering fallow land, maintaining the ditches in a reasoned way and grassing. These are all good practices favorable to our terroir. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a 20-hectare park with great biodiversity, maintained by eco-grazing, and agroforestry is at the heart of each new plot development, especially for new white plots. We have therefore opted for a thoughtful and sustainable culture. We let nature take its course and only intervene whenever necessary by promoting organic and biocontrol methods that respect the environment and persons. This commitment to eco-responsibility will also be reflected in the construction of our new vat room/cellar on a base of raw earth and raw wood.

NM: Have you adapted practices in the light of global warming? How does a Margaux estate like Cantenac Brown tackle that?

JS: We adapt ourselves gradually to global warming. The trend is to increase the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon. With global warming, they give very beautiful ripeness. Also, the plots’ orientation, evolution of rootstocks, light or later leaf-removal, and lower trimming will allow us to produce high quality wines and, in the meantime, to preserve our typicity.

NM: Can you give details about the harvest? Where do you recruit pickers from? How do you decide when to begin? What sorting methods do you use?

JS: We scientifically analyze maturity, alcoholic degree, acidity, pH, tannins, anthocyanin and berries’ weight. We have used this [accumulated] database of information since 1993. Every day we walk in the vineyard to taste and analyze each grape. The team has worked at the estate for many years, and they know what to expect from each plot and how far they can go. One hundred percent of the harvest is made by hand, then we sort the grapes and at the end we use an optical sorting table. The young vines are harvested and vinified separately, sometimes dividing plots into different zones. We can have until 120 pickers divided into two or three teams.

The present barrel cellar and vat-room at Cantenac Brown that is all about to change.


NM: Can you give specifics about the current winery? Will this change with the new winery under construction? 

JS: In the actual cellar, we have 29 190hL-tanks , two of 100hL and four of 50hL. They are thermo-regulated stainless-steel tanks. In the new cellar, we will have 70 tanks from 50hL to 120hL in order to go further in terms of precision, elegancy, fineness and raciness. They will be truncated stainless-steel tanks with double coating. We will also add elevating vats in order to not use anymore pumps. Foudres will be also added for the ageing of BriO de Cantenac Brown.

NM: How is the construction of the new cellar progressing?

JS: Work started last November. For the new winery to blend into its ecosystem, it will be fully integrated within the current buildings. The triple objective is to make use of existing infrastructures, preserve unspoiled landscapes and maintain the quality of soil. All the materials, which are bio-based, natural and untreated, will be sourced from the Aquitaine region with the objective of achieving a zero-carbon footprint. There will be no use of cement. The cellar walls will be built using the rammed earth technique, an age-old construction method. The raw earth, consisting of clay and sand, will be compressed directly at the château to build the walls of this unique construction. The thermal inertia of the winery, induced by the use of raw earth for its construction, will provide a perfect atmosphere for the stability and ageing of the wines without air-conditioning and therefore without energy consumption. The architectural project is above all, a model of ecologically responsible construction, adapted to climate change over the coming decades. At the cutting edge of technology, the winery will also be entirely gravity fed, allowing the grapes to be handled gently with full control of the process. The vat room will be filled with a large number of small vats, allowing for high-precision blending. Completion of the winery is scheduled for the 2023 harvest.

NM: Can you give details on the élevage?

JS: An ageing of two years will be possible in the new building. For Cantenac Brown in new and one-year-old oak barrels, for BriO de Cantenac Brown it will be in oak barrels and foudres and for Alto, the white of Cantenac Brown, 90% in one-year-old barrels and 10% new oak barrels.

The Wines

This tasting began with the 2018 vintage and worked back towards the nineties. Unfortunately, library vintages are very thin on the ground, though Sanfins kindly opened the 1978 and 1990 Cantenac Brown, as well as pouring blind a 1994 Quinta do Noval Naçional that I have added as a little extra.

Interestingly, a couple of older texts describe Cantenac Brown as a very tannic wine that took many years to come around. Perusing my own notes over the years, I have rarely encountered any ancient vintages, so I do not know the veracity of that. Tasting the wines from the nineties, the headline is that there is a definite improvement from around 2009 and particularly an impressive 2010, which set the standard for future releases. Cantenac Brown is quintessential Margaux on the nose, quite floral, fuller than Brane-Cantenac, perhaps more sensual in its youth. The palate is often framed by pliant tannins and a smooth veneer that makes it seductive at an early stage. Yet there is substance to suggest that recent releases will repay cellaring for 15 to 20 years. Older vintages are a little hit and miss, though not without surprises. Sanfins served the 1999 Cantenac Brown blind against other châteaux, and it performed strongly, an undiscovered gem from the end of that decade. I bet you can find bottles for a very reasonable price.

Final Thoughts

This had been an instructive visit to Cantenac Brown, a château that is too often overlooked. Sanfins has improved the wine in recent years, and I feel that this has not been fully recognised by the market. It will be fascinating to see what he can do once the new winery is built. Finally, I must ask Sanfins whether the swimming pool was demolished after my visit.

“Yes indeed,” he answers. 

See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest

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