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 Dismantle an entrenched and outdated modus operandi and reconfigure so that a new vision is realised.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 .

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Pessac-Léognan Red Bordeaux Blend 2018

Delectable Wine
9.4

The 2018 Les Carmes Haut-Brion was aged in 75% new oak with a touch more matured in foudres. It includes 55% whole bunches. This has a slight confit-like aroma on the nose, plush cranberry and wild strawberry intermingling with cassis and violet; aromatically, this is the more precocious recent vintage. The palate is medium-bodied with sappy red fruit, fine tannins, clean and pure with excellent acidity keeping everything on an even keel towards the finish. The 2018 has a caressing texture and is very persistent. I might quibble and say that I just find the nose a little trop, but the palate is superb. Tasted at the Les Carmes Haut-Brion vertical at the château. (Neal Martin, Vinous, October 2022)
— 25 days ago

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Pessac-Léognan Red Bordeaux Blend 2017

Delectable Wine
9.3

The 2017 Les Carmes Haut-Brion comprises 45% whole bunches and matured for two years in 80% new oak plus foudres and amphorae. Complex on the nose, this offers black olive and brine tinged black fruit, crushed stone and light minty aromas, quite intense in the context of the vintage. The palate is medium-bodied with sappy red fruit on the entry, quite Rhône-like in flavour profile, hints of fennel and thyme interwoven into the red fruit, persistent on the finish. Delicious and distinctive. Tasted at the Les Carmes Haut-Brion vertical at the château. (Neal Martin, Vinous, October 2022)
— 25 days ago

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Pessac-Léognan Red Bordeaux Blend 2015

Delectable Wine
9.3

The 2015 Les Carmes Haut-Brion is the first vintage vinified with 100% infusion, including 55% whole bunches. This has a much more intense bouquet compared to the 2014: copious blackberries, blueberry and crushed violet scents, hints of blood orange and a light cassis touch with time. The palate is medium-bodied with fine density and precision, good grip, edgy tannins with clearly more mineralité percolating through the finish. Excellent. Tasted at the Les Carmes Haut-Brion vertical at the château. (Neal Martin, Vinous, October 2022)
— 25 days ago

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Pessac-Léognan Red Bordeaux Blend 2012

Delectable Wine
9.0

The 2012 Les Carmes Haut-Brion was the first vintage with whole bunches (40%) and 18 months in barrel. It was the introductory vintage under current winemaker Guillaume Pouthier. This is much more enticing on the nose after the 2011: well-defined black cherries, cola, peppermint, light rose petal scents and a hint of marmalade that emerges with time. The palate is medium-bodied with sappy black fruit, more freshness and tension than the 2011, and frankly, you would never be able to tell there was whole bunch here. This appears to be maturing with style and panache, but it will give another decade or more of drinking pleasure. Tasted at the Les Carmes Haut-Brion vertical at the château. (Neal Martin, Vinous, October 2012)
— 25 days ago