Bordeaux profile: Brane-Cantenac

In the first in a new series, Colin Hay looks at the history, market performance and most recent vintages of some of Bordeaux’s ‘up-and-coming’ estates, starting with Margaux second growth Brane-Cantenac.

Terroir, history and context

From its high perch atop the famous ‘croupe de Brane’ the vineyards of Brane-Cantenac look down on one of the two great terroirs of the appellation of Margaux. ‘High perch’ is, of course, a relative term. For we are in the southern Médoc and we are talking here of only 22 metres above sea level. But this is still the highest elevation of the appellation itself. And it gives those lucky enough to visit a palpable sense of the quality and character of this unique terroir.

One is immediately struck by the sheer expanse of vines. Out of respect for the qualities of its deep gravel-rich mineral soils, the châteaux themselves circle the plateau at some distance. Palmer, Rauzan-Segla, Cantenac-Brown and, of course, much closer, Brane-Cantenac itself.

These days, it is from the croupe de Brane that the vast majority of the first wine comes. That implies a very strict selection, with less than 30% of Brane’s 90 hectares making it into the first wine in 2000 and scarcely 25% in 2007. What it also means is that Brane is the wine whose character and identity is most strongly defined by this unique terroir. For while Palmer and Rauzan-Segla also have significant holdings on the plateau (parcelles that are in fact contiguous with Brane), their first wines are rather more the marriage of a variety of different terroirs. Their character, as a consequence, is rather different.

It is presumably for this reason too that, in 1833, the Baron de Brane (nicknamed Napoleon des vignes – the ‘Napoleon of the vines’) sold Brane-Mouton (better known to us today as Mouton-Rothschild) to amass sufficient capital to purchase the vineyard he re-named Brane-Cantenac. Twenty-two years later both were awarded deuxieme grand cru classé status in the 1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc (with, of course, Mouton further promoted to premier grand cru classé status in 1973).

With the benefit of hindsight and given the relative prices of these wines today, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Baron made something of a mistake. In the 2018 vintage, for instance, one could purchase eight bottles of Brane-Cantenac for the price of a single bottle of Mouton Rothschild and still have enough left over to fill up the case with the (rather excellent) second wine, Le Baron de Brane. But, back in the day, the Branes – Mouton and Cantenac – sold for very similar prices.

The more recent history of the property really begins in 1992, with the current owner, Henri Lurton, taking on responsibility for the estate – though, as he explained to me, his first vintage was in fact 1986 (a wine that he made together with his father, Lucien).

The early 1990s were difficult years for Brane – a combination of a succession of poor vintages in climatic terms and of the passing of the mantle from one generation to the next. But from the mid 1990s we see a very steep upward trajectory, culminating in a fantastically consistent series of wines from 2000 onwards. This brought growing critical acclaim from the international wine press, despite Henri Lurton’s admirable reluctance to pander to the stylistic preference of some of the most influential critics of the time.

It is a particular pleasure and privilege to be able to revisit some of these wines today – their quality and character testimony to Henri’s passionate and enduring conviction that Brane should eloquently express its terroir and its singularity rather than the vinification fashion of the period in which each wine is made.

That is now widely accepted as the way the greatest Bordeaux terroirs should be expressed; but it was not always so, and Henri Lurton has, in this respect, been very much in the vanguard of the return to terroir over technique.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the estate in October 2019 for a vertical tasting of each consecutive vintage from 2000 to the present day (though in fact the wines were tasted in reverse order, the youngest first).

What is striking is the consistency of the expression of Brane’s singular terroir, its elegance and poise, it subtlety and growing precision from one vintage to the next, especially since 2014 – and, above all, the distinctive and instantly recognisable signature of Brane that runs like a rich vein through each and every wine tasted.

No less striking, and very easy to appreciate in a vertical tasting spanning two entire decades, is that Henri Lurton has set the qualitative bar very high indeed at Brane-Cantenac. The quite stunning consistency between vintages is remarkable. It is testimony both to his forensic attention to detail and to his seemingly natural and intuitive grasp of the DNA of this singular and exceptional terroir.

Like no other wine of the appellation Brane is, for me, defined by its nose. It has been referred to by others as the ‘Pauillac of Margaux’. But I have never understood that description. For me, like its terroir, Brane comes from the very heart of the appellation – it is the very epitome of Margaux itself. It is lighter, more floral and more elegant than most, if not all, of the other second growths and it has, for me at least, a very distinct signature that sings of its appellation. It is the Margaux of Margaux – and certainly the Margaux of Cantenac and its famous plateau.

To understand Brane is, I think, to grasp that it has no pretension to be anything other than what it is … and what it is is where it comes from.

 Brane’s market profile

Before turning in more detail to the wines themselves, it is perhaps first interesting to examine Brane-Cantenac’s place in the market today. Here, and in what follows, I am fortunate enough to be able to draw upon figures and data provided for me by the team at Liv-ex – the global marketplace for the wine trade.

What is first striking in the data is Brane-Cantenac’s remarkable performance on the secondary market over the last decade. Liv-ex’s Brane index, which traces the price movements of the last 10 physical vintages, has consistently outperformed its parental index, the Left Bank 200 – and increasingly so. We see a significant and growing divergence in the two indices from late 2011 onwards. Since 2004, Brane has risen by 300%, when compared to a rise of 160% or so for the Left Bank 200.

The reason for this is made clear if, instead of comparing Brane’s market performance with the Left Bank 200, we compare it instead with the that of the other second growths. The following graph is constructed from a combination of Liv-ex data, supplemented by some of my own.

It shows, on the left-hand axis, the percentage increase in price on the secondary market since release relative to the other second growths. The right-hand axis shows critical acclaim for each vintage, again relative to the second growth average (Robert Parker’s ratings are used for 2000-13, Neal Martin’s for 2014-17).

What is immediately obvious from the graph is that, until we get to the very recent vintages which have moved little on the secondary market, and regardless of vintage, Brane-Cantenac has consistently and significantly outperformed the other second growths. Brane 2000 has, for instance, increased by 330% since release against an average increase for the second growths of a (still very impressive) 265%. Similarly, Brane 2005 has increased 159%, whilethe second growth average is a more modest 72%.

Brane, in other words, consistently returns a very impressive yield on an en primeur investment.

The graph also gives a very strong hint as to why. For, since 2000, despite being among the most modestly priced of the second growths, its critical evaluation has been close to the second growth average.

This can be seen more clearly in the following two graphs. Calculated again from a combination of Liv-ex and my own data, the first shows the sequence of Brane-Cantenac release prices since 2000 alongside the maximum, minimum and average (or mean) release price of the second growths.

The second graph shows, in a very similar way, the critical appreciation of Brane relative to the other second growths. It plots Robert Parker’s ratings for the vintages from 2000 to 2013 and Neal Martin’s subsequently for Brane alongside the maximum, minimum and average for the second growths.

Taken together, what these two plots together demonstrate is that, among its second growth peers, Brane is both very reasonably priced on release and yet increasingly well appreciated by the critics in comparison to the same peers.

Among the second growths it is, in other words, excellent value for money; and it is hardly surprising that this is reflected in such an impressive performance on the secondary market.

Finally, we come to a related but rather different question – the comparative market potential not of Brane-Cantenac per se, but of particular vintages of Brane more specifically.

Here, again I am indebted to Liv-ex for the following two graphs. The first shows current market prices for recent vintages of Brane-Cantenac plotted against a variety of international critics’ scores. It suggests, in particular, that the 2016, the 2014 and perhaps also the 2012 (all, incidentally, vintages that performed extremely well in the vertical tasting below) are currently under-valued relative to their critical appreciation.

That impression is very strongly confirmed by the following, final, plot – again from Liv-ex.

This is the product of a rather more sophisticated statistical analysis that explores and maps the relationship (or correlation) between price and critical evaluation.

It identifies the 2016 (above all), but also the 2014, 2012, and also the 2011, 2013 and 2017, as attractive propositions when one considers their current price position.

The tasting notes from the vertical can be found on the following page.

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