Bending Rules: Les Carmes Haut-Brion 1955-2019

Bordeaux châteaux tend to take years to change direction. Dismantle an entrenched and outdated modus operandi and reconfigure so that a new vision is realised. But once in a while, a change is so radical that it’s as if someone snapped their fingers, et voilà! An estate is reborn, almost unrecognisable from its previous incarnation. I remember visiting Les Carmes Haut-Brion 1.0 in the late Nineties. It was just another Pessac-Léognan, quirky and quaint, a Lesser Spotted Haut-Brion that had survived urban sprawl, whose wines had a penchant to charm and yet rarely quickened the pulse. I visited out of curiosity more than anything. A few years later, I recall setting eyes on Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2.0 for the first time. They almost popped out of my head. It was as if a giant submarine had surfaced in the city’s suburbs, a dazzling architectural overhaul commensurate with a startling re-invention of the wine. This article thoroughly examines those changes, from out in the vines to deep inside that “submarine.” I look at the anatomy of a sui generis and its thinking outside the box, how despite all this reinvention, there are common threads binding past, present and future. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating visits in recent years. I would not have expected anything less. HISTORY The clue is in the name. Les Carmes Haut-Brion was originally part of the estate of Haut-Brion. In 1584, its owner, Jean de Pontac, donated a parcel of meadow and chucked in a few rows of vines to the Carmelites, a religious Order based in Langon. The name appropriately derives from Mount Carmel and translates as “God’s vineyard.” This munificent act was purportedly in return for the monks praying for the Pontac family, though it was not their first tract of vines since they owned land that ultimately begat Rieussec in Sauternes. For two centuries, the Order tended the land for ecclesiastical purposes and no doubt a drop of post-prayer libation. The French Revolution saw the estate confiscated. Léon Colin eventually acquired it in 1840. His descendants were the Chantecaille family, merchants that vinified and aged wine in their cellars in Bordeaux since no facilities existed at the estate. Despite this, the family oversaw the construction of an ornate château that overlooks the vineyards. When I first visited Les Carmes Haut-Brion, it was like visiting a small, local jardin de publique. All that was missing was a children’s playground. A gentleman named Didier Furt, who married into the Chantecailles and had run the estate since 1987, came out to greet me. Furt had already overseen improvements, cutting out herbicides and installing a long overdue winery and barrel cellar, enabling greater use of new oak and the introduction of a Deuxième Vin. A new chapter opened in 2010 when Patrice Pichet purchased the estate. He had met the Chantecailles several years earlier and would often walk on neighbouring land, gaze over and fall under the spell of Les Carmes. Pichet was not short of a “few bobs” and instigated a long-term investment program, sums that might be considered extravagant for such a bijou estate with a modest reputation. But it paid dividends since Les Carmes Haut-Brion became a hotbed of new ideas and an alternate way of thinking. That is thanks, in no small part, to the appointment of Guillaume Pouthier. Pouthier is a dynamo, a man who doesn’t sit still and talks like a runaway train to such an extent that when discussing aspects of viticulture and winemaking, my fingers can barely keep up. Ironically, a hitherto soporific château has such an energetic manager at its helm. Pouthier graduated as an agricultural engineer from Toulouse, whose alumni include Olivier Berrouet (Petrus) and Jean-Michel Laporte (Talbot). For ten years, Pouthier was the technical manager of the Bordeaux négociant CVBG. After this, he upped sticks to the Rhône where he worked for the only person I can think of with as much energy as Pouthier - Michel Chapoutier. Having looked after Chapoutier’s portfolio, he returned to Bordeaux in 2012 to join Les Carmes Haut-Brion. In his spare time, Pouthier enjoys mountain climbing. “It’s good for your health,” he tells me, “and it clears your head.” --Neal Martin, Bending Rules: Les Carmes Haut-Brion 1955-2019, October 2022 To read Neal’s full report and learn more about the vineyard, winemaking and the wines, check out the full article on Vinous now .