Vertical Tasting of Chateau Branaire-Ducru

Branaire-Ducru is a storied Bordeaux property whose wines are remarkably consistent and high in quality.  Though Branaire lacks the super-second status of some other properties in Saint-Julien, their wines are dependable and well made.  In fact, given the quality in the bottle and the relatively low cost of the wines, I believe Branaire-Ducru represents one of the best buys in Bordeaux wines today.  Branaire-Ducru owns roughly 50 hectares of old vines (their average age is 45 years) and is usually one of the most exotic Saint-Julien wines, with hints of ripe cassis, milk chocolate and sweet brown spices.  

Actually, Branaire-Ducru has a long in history.  Reportedly, wine was first made at the property in 1680 by Jean-Baptiste Braneyre, whose daughter Marie married Pierre du Luc (which explains the property's original name of Braneyre and the name of today's second wine, Château Duluc).  It was Marie de Chillaud, granddaughter of Marie, who bought the house in 1817 that was to serve as the foundation for the modern-day chateau building.  The estate was further embellished by her children, who then hired the famous architects Rieutord and Laclotte, who created the definitive Branaire-Ducru buildings that are widely admired today.

As is often the case with Bordeaux, there is an American touch here:  Laclotte had previously served as an architect in the U.S. Army while living in New Orleans.  Braneyre created the property by buying a piece of Château Beychevelle (in fact, Branaire-Ducru stands opposite Beychevelle, which lies just across the small D2 road that winds through the Médoc); it's worth noting that Beychevelle, once a much larger property than it is today, was always believed to own one of the Medoc's best terroirs.  Over the centuries, Branaire-Ducru has had many different and distinguished owners.  One of the best known was Gustave Ducru, and his family name was added to the property's.

Clearly, although Branaire's wines were always well thought of, the estate's rise to the upper tier of Bordeaux quality coincides with the arrival of current owner Patrick Maroteaux in March of 1988.  Maroteaux, a natural consensus builder--it's not by chance that he has served three different terms as President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and is also President of the Saint-Julien appellation--is blessed with incredible energy, a genial disposition, and a remarkable love for Bordeaux, its wines and the region's history.  When I first met him 15 years ago, I remember he took me first on a walk along the river's edge, then through Beychevelle's vineyards, and only then on to Branaire-Ducru--this so that I could better understand the gradual change in that section of Saint-Julien's landscape and soils.

In fact, moving east to west (or from the river inland), it's easy to spot the change in the surface's pebbly component to a darker, thicker, more gravelly soil richer in clay.  Nevertheless, gravel rules in Saint-Julien (there are at least five different categories of gravel), explaining why cabernet sauvignon is king here.  Suddenly, mesmerized by a particularly good-looking gravel patch, Maroteaux stopped midstride, his face lighting up, and said excitedly:  "You see how the soil changes here?  Had my vineyards just been on the other side of the D2, I'd now likely own a second growth rather than a fourth."  If you stop to consider that Maroteaux is one of France's most important and successful businessmen, and that a minor change in soil so excited him, it's easy to understand why the wines of Branaire-Ducru have improved by leaps and bounds under his tenure.

Clearly, Maroteaux has worked with some exceptional talent.  Beginning with the 1998 vintage, he appointed Philippe Dhalluin as his chief winemaker and technical director (Dhalluin has since moved on to become general director of Mouton-Rothschild and its sister properties, helping those estates reach new heights as well).  In 2002, the talented Jean-Dominique Videau was chosen to replace Dhalluin, and the two men cooperated to make the 2002 vintage.  Maroteaux also built the first gravity-flow cuverie of the Médoc as well as an analysis lab in the middle of the cellar, and chose to use almost exclusively high-quality, more expensive Taransaud barrels.  "The climate was cooler then, and the thinking was to plant more merlot; but achieving better grape ripeness was really the key.  Through better viticulture, we now harvest, on average, 12 days later than we did in the early '80s, thanks to greatly reduced vine vigor.  This is obvious today, but 20 years ago it wasn't.  In the end we actually planted more cabernet sauvignon!"

The following tasting was held in the château's tasting room last April, in the presence of Maroteaux, his wife Evelyne, winemaker Videau and a very small group of wine journalists from all over the world.  The wines were tasted almost blind--that is, we weren't told which vintages we were being served.  Later, I opened another four vintages from my own cellar (bottles that I purchased upon release, in Bordeaux) to make the report more complete.  I don't remember a single bottle needing to be replaced due to cork taint or any other flaw.  My thanks to both Patrick Maroteaux and his aide Nathalie Lamblot for the detailed and helpful historical data.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata