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Château Calon Ségur: “a new impetus”
Words: Charlie Geoghegan
Published: 5th May 2023
Ten years ago, centuries of aristocratic ownership came to an end at Château Calon Ségur. Vincent Millet, winemaker and general manager here, is fully embracing the estate’s “new lease of life”
Wine has been made at what is now Château Calon Ségur since at least the 12th century. The history of the estate is a story of French aristocracy, having been owned by a succession of noble names through the centuries, from de Gascq to Capbern-Gasqueton. Most notable of all, perhaps, was the Marquis de Ségur, who also owned the vineyards of Lafite, Latour and Mouton. Despite laying claim to three future First Growths, his home – and, as the adage goes, his heart – was firmly at Calon. The estate being the domain of nobility is now a thing of the past, however.
After hundreds of years of family ownership, Calon was acquired in 2012 by Suravenir, a large insurance group that forms part of the larger Crédit Mutuel Arkéa. Big conglomerates operating châteaux is nothing new in Bordeaux, though it provides an interesting contrast here.
01: Vincent Millet has made
Calon since 2006
02: The heart motif, a nod to the Marquis de Ségur
“It gave the estate a new lease of life,” says Vincent Millet, the general manager of Calon and its sibling property, Château Capbern. He also oversees the three Right Bank châteaux the group acquired from Artémis Domaines, the present-day owner of Latour. Vincent is no corporate spokesman; he has worked here since 2006, quietly and consistently making one of the Médoc’s most lauded wines. Before that, he spent several years at Château Margaux.
Vincent Millet is no corporate spokesman; he has worked here since 2006, quietly and consistently making one of the Médoc’s most lauded wines
A NEW ERA
Vincent knows Calon intimately and clearly feels an attachment to the estate. He also knew that it was in need of investment. Even for the great families that owned Calon historically, he explains, “earning money from wine was still very difficult.” Things became more prosperous in the 1980s and ’90s as Robert Parker helped to spread the word of Bordeaux around the world.
“We saw a sudden rise from that moment, and the property started to earn money,” Vincent says. “But it wasn’t enough for significant investment.”
Roll on a few decades and the arrival of a new owner with serious financial clout. Suravenir invested heavily here – in the winery, the cellar and the château itself – to the tune of 25 million euros. Such an outlay would simply be beyond most family-owned operations. Yet it has given the estate “a new impetus”, Vincent says – and it will have a positive effect for generations to come here.
03: Calon’s new owners
have invested heavily here
04: More and more estates are ageing their wines in amphorae
The results are plain to see. Vincent and his team have ultra-modern facilities letting them monitor everything down to the last detail, from sophisticated temperature control to bottle authentication. There’s a team of 50 here, made up of of smaller, specialised teams.
“The tractor drivers only drive tractors,” Vincent says – and there’s a team of mechanics on hand to maintain those tractors and other equipment. Research and development (R&D) is an important function, and one close to Vincent’s heart (this having been his metier at Ch. Margaux), though he prefers the term “technological innovation”. That department looks for solutions to issues in the vineyard and cellar, often investigating “if there are solutions in other industries”, citing food processing and cereals as sectors to learn from.
The changing climate is one of the great challenges of viticulture today, not least here in St Estèphe where grapes have not always ripened uniformly. Warmer vintages have led to more consistent ripening, Vincent explains, though this has brought with it higher potential alcohol levels.
When Vincent arrived here, chaptalisation was commonly used to increase the alcohol level and achieve better balance in the wine. Within a few short years, it was no longer necessary. This was on one hand a benefit, Vincent says, but it “posed other questions” too. “It gave us a chance to rethink the way we were making wine.”
Harvesting grapes is hard work – on the pickers and, if you’re not careful, the grapes. Warmer summers and autumns make for tougher working conditions and mean that harvested grapes can get relatively hot. “In 2022, some grapes were above 30 degrees Celsius,” Vincent says. This called for a change of some sort. Laughing off the notion of harvesting at night (this is France, after all), he instead introduced a new cooling system which chills the grapes rapidly once they get to the winery.
05: The town of St Estèphe sits just beyond Calon’s walls
06: The 2022 vintage is undergoing its élevage
Warmer seasons make for more concentrated grapes, Vincent explains. This can mean lots of colour and tannin in the resulting wines – not necessarily a bad thing, but something which forces Vincent “to be more vigilant during extraction”. His goal is to make “wines that are rich but also digestible, with lots of freshness.” He achieves this in part by “limiting excessive tannins, which would make the wines too heavy.” He has stopped pumping-over during the fermentation and started gentle micro-oxygenation instead.
“We can adapt quickly in the cellars, but in the vineyard we need to be more careful”
— Vincent Millet, Château Calon Ségur
“We can adapt quickly in the cellar,” Vincent says, “but in the vineyard we need to be more careful.” The viticultural decisions he makes today will be felt for years to come, just as he is today dealing with the results of decisions taken decades ago. In the 1980s, the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture encouraged vignerons to propagate their vineyards with commercial clones of vines that showed desirable characteristics – “hardy grapes that mature and accumulate sugar fast,” says Vincent. Clonal selection, as it’s known, has its advantages, though in recent years issues have arisen here due to the changing climate.
Vincent has observed his clones ripening earlier, and accumulating significant amounts of sugar, ultimately leading to higher-alcohol wines. In response, Vincent has been using massal selection, an approach that seeks out a diverse range of vine material from which to propagate new plants. The aim is to encourage biodiversity and, hopefully, some respite from rising alcohol levels.
07: Everything the cellar master needs for racking, a process of moving wine from one barrel to another
08: Racking is underway
09: A treasure trove of old vintages
“We examine our very old vines to see if they’re capable of producing lower alcohol,” Vincent says. “We’ve found that old Merlot vines planted in 1942 have given lower alcohol than the clonal selection.”
Vincent has an open mind about what else he’ll need to do in the vineyard. He has experimented with grape varieties from other regions, a somewhat contentious issue in Bordeaux. “Is it the future? I don’t know,” he says.
Drought was an issue here in 2022. Using drought-resistant rootstocks can help, along with other efforts to retain moisture in the soil. Yet drought is “not constant”, he says, and as such there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution. “We had a lot of drought in 2022, but we had rain throughout the year in ’21. We need to move forward with a viticultural plan gently because we don’t know everything; there’s a lot of mystery and uncertainty.”
10: Form and function are equally important in the cellar
After 15 years at Calon, what has Vincent learned? “We must remain humble,” he says. “Even if we have scientific credentials, even if we have experience, there is never real certainty. What is true in one vintage is brought into question in the next vintage.” His “biggest frustration”, he laughs, “is that we observe, but we don’t understand much. That’s what’s terrible, all the mystery.”
For Vincent, “the notion of terroir” is neatly demonstrated by Calon and its neighbour, Capbern. They share an intertwined history, having been under the same ownership for almost 130 years.
The Capbern-Gasqueton family owned Capbern first and then bought Calon in 1894. They managed both properties until 2011, with Suravenir taking over the following year. Calon was classified a Third Growth in 1855 and is, for Vincent, “a great terroir”. Capbern is not classified, though was historically a Cru Bourgeois.
Absorbing the latter into the former might make commercial sense today – increasing the production volume of Calon and increasing the relative value of Capbern’s land. Yet this is not something Vincent considers an option – and nor did the previous owners. “They already observed that there are great terroirs that make great wines, and there are good terroirs that make other wines. For me, the difference between a great wine and a good wine is elegance and finesse.”
“We must remain humble. Even if we have scientific credentials, even if we have experience, there is never real certainty. What is true in one vintage is brought into question in the next vintage”
— Vincent Millet, Château Calon Ségur
Bordeaux’s great châteaux have always been in the hands of the rich and powerful. In the past it was nobility; today it’s insurance groups, banks and luxury-goods houses. Some may turn their noses up at this development, or lament for times gone by. But not Vincent. “Thanks to the investments brought by the group, we’re able to make wines how we wish, in a homogenous way. Even with complicated vintages like 2017 or ’21, we can make high-quality wines thanks to the tools we have. The story of Calon Ségur is in its continuity.”