Can you explain how you came to be an oenologue?
I come from a family where some work in wine and some in pharmaceuticals, and as I was always attracted by the vineyards but also come from a scientific background I decided to become an oenologue.
I studied for a BTSA viticulture-oenology at Blanquefort and then went to University in Bordeaux. I then worked in different regions including Sancerre and Hérault, after which I created the laboratory at Pauillac that I manage now. The studies lasted four years when I did them, but now it is five years.
Is oenology an art or a science?
Oenology is a science, but it is a mix of science and art and I always describe myself as a doctor of the countryside.
Can you describe your typical working day?
We have different typical days according to the season. Before the harvest, we have meetings we call réunions de pré-vendange with each one of our clients. We tour the vines, look at what did not work so well the previous year, what the client wants to achieve this year, and what we want to improve. We help decide when to start the vendange.
Then harvest time arrives. We go to each client two or three times a week to taste the newly filled vats which are in the fermentation period and to help them decide how to blend the wine. That lasts from about September 15 to November 15.
During the blending period we taste the wines from the preceding year which are in barrels to decide when we will transfer them to vats and then taste the current year’s wines to decide when to put them in barrels.
During the rest of the year we follow the development of the vines and continue tastings, for example to decide the effects of the different types of barrel on the wines. We make regular visits to each property, at least once a month.
Tastings, then, are at the heart of your work?
Yes. We taste between 30 and 40 wines a day most of the time and during the vendange we can taste up to 400 wines in a day. I think it is a skill which develops with experience and training.
Some of us are better at detecting different elements than others and so sometimes we work together to get the best results. It is very difficult and you need to stay humble before the wine and before the wine owner.
There is a lot of work in deciding how to blend the wines from different vats. For example, for some wines two months is just the right period and for some it is too much or too little and some are complementary with some and not with others – it is our job to decide which ones should go together and that takes a great deal of tasting and time.
We do tests in our laboratory as well as tastings to see what blends work best. Experience over many years helps us come to our decisions.
How much does personal preference come into your work?
Not at all. We are not helping to make the wine we like, but the wine each vineyard wants to make. The aim is to come up with a quality that the owner wants and that his customers will like and enjoy so they will buy. We are there to make what the owner wants and to improve his wine.
What role does the laboratory play?
It is very important. It helps us to follow the evolution of the wine and to forecast certain results. We analyse not only the wine but also the grapes, the barrels and the corks. Testing the grapes is complementary to tasting the wine so we know when the grapes are ripe.
What can you do to improve the wine?
We can give advice about the vines, the harvest, the choice of date for the harvest. The way the wine is made, which includes several factors: temperature; the number of times the wine is pumped over; the maceration time; the type of barrel, new or old, toasted or not; do we make a silky wine or one which is more structured?
There are a huge number of factors which determine the final result. Nowadays we encourage our winemakers to work more and more with the quality of the soil to improve the vine. You only get good wine from good grapes.
What qualities do you need to be an oenologue?
Above all you have to have a passion for this job. You have to love nature because you spend a lot of time outdoors in the vines with your clients; you have to love wine, of course, and you must be willing to be receptive to the wine owner and to listen to what he wants and to interpret his desires to make a wine that suits him.
When you are not working, are you still able to enjoy a glass of wine at home after a day of tastings?
I love to drink wine, but not during the week and just when we have guests or go out to dinner. It is interesting to try wines from other regions in France and other countries to have a wider outlook and find out what is happening elsewhere. There are some very, very good things happening everywhere.
Do you love your work?
Yes. Some people might think we are completely mad, tasting wine at seven in the morning, which we do during the wine harvest, but for me it is a pleasure. In our glass we have the result of all the work the vineyard owner has done over the past eighteen months to two years. We see how it has evolved and every year there is always an element of discovery, almost like a new birth each time.
The work is very varied. We work the most during the vendange when it is almost non-stop including the weekends. But when we start this job, we know that will be the case and it really doesn’t trouble me.
During the winter it is a little lighter, but when you are called out you have to go, there is no choice. You can’t give the right advice by telephone, you have to be there.
This summer there were terrible hailstorms which damaged vines in the Bordeaux area. Has this been a particularly difficult year?
I find that every year is particularly difficult. When you do this job you work with nature. There are hailstorms every year and they are becoming more and more violent and creating more and more damage. All types of farming, not just wine, are physically demanding and then there is the added element that everything can be destroyed from one day to the next.
On the other hand, you can have really good conditions which will bring a fantastic vintage as there was in 2016. We look at the weather forecast every day but though we can master many aspects of wine making, we cannot master the weather.