In conversation: Caroline Frey of Château La Lagune and Paul Jaboulet Aîné
Db’s Bordeaux correspondent, Colin Hay, begins a new series of ‘in conversation’ pieces in which he tracks down some of the world’s leading winemakers. Here he talks to French winemaker Caroline Frey, owner of Château La Lagune, Paul Jaboulet Aîné in Hermitage and Château Corton-C in Aloxe-Corton.
Coming from a line of winemakers, Caroline Frey first took the helm of the family’s Haut-Médoc third growth chateau, Château La Lagune in 2004, after studying at the Universite OEnologie Bordeaux. Since then she has become known as a cutting-edge winemaker and an advocate of organic viticulture, adopting organic practices to nurture healthier vines at La Lague, Paul Jaboulet Aîné in the Rhône Valley, which she acquired in 2006, and Burgundy’s Château Corton, which was purchased in 2014.
db took the opportunity of a recent invitation to Tain l’Hermitage to speak to Frey, the conversation unfolding over two days during an exclusive and historic tasting of every vintage of the mythic Hermitage La Chapelle and of Château La Lagune made by Frey since the acquisition of each property (click links for tasting notes).
How would you characterize the style of La Lagune and La Chapelle today and how has that style evolved over the past 20 years?
I don’t want my wines to have a style. A style is a fashion and fashions pass – I prefer to talk about the identity of a wine, its DNA. We search for the deep soul of a wine and we seek to preserve that special link to the place from which it comes. I believe that the quality of any wine comes essentially from its terroir.
That is why we attach so much importance to the proper functioning of the ecosystem in which our vines grow. This involves a profound attention to all that takes place underground – the humus, the micro-organisms, the mycelium – and all that takes places above ground – the fauna and flora, the microclimate and the surrounding biodiversity. Our wines draw their identity from their environment; that is what makes them unique.
The ultimate taste of the wine in the glass and the health of the terroir are intimately interconnected. This is why we do everything we can to preserve our terroir.
Over the past 20 years, climate change has of course also impacted the taste of our wines. It is by tending and preserving a soil capable of regulating the effects of the climate that we preserve the identity of our wines. Maturity must always come from the plant and not from the mechanical effects of heat, for example. A soil that has a good amount of humus is capable of retaining water like a sponge and releasing it when necessary it is needed. For this, biodynamic viticulture helps us a lot.
When we taste one of your wines to what extent is what we are tasting a reflection of the terroir, to what extent is it a reflection of vineyard management and to what extent is it a reflection of your approach to vinification?
The terroir is, in my eyes at least, what matters most. But although it is the necessary precondition of greatness, it is not in itself sufficient. It is, if you like, the musical score that nature has composed; it still has to be performed. Viticulture is the means through which we seek to give the best expression to it.
To extend the analogy, the winemaker is the pianist. You can’t give the score of the Chopin Nocturne to just anyone and expect a great concert. As in music, it is the work, the skill, the knowledge and the experience of the winemaker that makes the magic possible. And the more one masters the technique, the more it becomes a question of touch and emotion.
The process of vinification is just like that. It has to be subtle, deploying its know-how with care, precision and always with rigour. The task is to protect the wine from all the defects that might mask its terroir typicity (for example, oxidation, brettanomyces, and so forth). But, at the same time, it is to give it the freedom to express itself – like a child. A maternal instinct is perhaps something of a plus!
At Jaboulet it is very easy to see that it is the terroirs that bring the identity to the wine. For our vinifications are almost the same for the different terroirs; but when you taste the wines they are profoundly different.
It is sometimes said that, to date at least, climate change has been kinder on the Médoc than it has the Rhone – that the Rhone is more in the front line. I suspect things are a little more complicated than that. What is your first-hand experience?
Yes, you’re right – things are probably just a little more complicated than that! The two contexts are, in the end, very different and it may not be terribly helpful to seek to draw comparisons.
One needs an integral and holistic understanding of the whole terroir/climate relationship. The soils of Bordeaux would probably not support the climate of the Rhone climate and the inverse would probably not work very well either. And when it comes to climate change it’s not really a question of one being more severely impacted than the other. I would not draw that conclusion from my experience.
We have to adapt in both regions, in particular to allow the vines to withstand both intense periods of heat but, perhaps above all, long periods of drought punctuated by occasional episodes of substantial rainfall.
Frost and hail, which are becoming more and more frequent, seem to me to have had the same impact on the two regions in recent years. That said, the fact that in the Rhone valley the vineyard is dispersed and not from a single block like La Lagune may serve to limit overall frost and hailstorm damage.
In short, each region has its strengths and its challenges. We simply have to manage as best we can such different situations.
But when, in 2022, after an intensely dry and hot season, we see that the vines of the hill of Hermitage are in great shape – vibrantly green with beautiful clusters – it does not seem quite right to us to say that the Rhône is suffering more.
What is the impact of global climate change on both the Médoc and the Northern Rhône?
Even if 2021 was a rather rainy vintage, drought is now something of an established and proven trend. This is perhaps our biggest challenge: to ensure that the water resources are adequate for the vine to function properly until harvest. Only the soil can play this reservoir role.
We have adapted our viticulture in this direction, with meticulous soil management. During periods of drought and heat we leave the vines alone, so as not to stress them even more. The key is the organic matter resource, the humus, in the soil. By limiting the working of the soil, we avoid a rapid mineralization. The addition of biodynamic compost and the grinding (broyage) of the vine shoots makes it possible to restore organic matter. We sow green fertilisers in the autumn and lay them down in the spring using the Mexican method of the ‘faca roller (to encourage their composting). The aim is to preserve soil quality whilst at the same time nourishing it.
The use of biodynamic preparations such as cow horn manure has been proven to improve soil structure. There are many other ways to improve the quality of the soil too. I see great potential, for instance, in the use of organic indicator plants that help us to understand what the soil needs and when it needs it. But that is just one of a number of new techniques we are starting to use.
We have adapted our way of working the vines and will continue to do so, with less trimming and more foliage retained around the grape bunches to maintain shade. It is all about the small details; together they make a difference.
2022 has proved a very dry year and yet some vines have never looked better.
Overall, we have acquired a great deal of experience since 2003 and much has changed. We now know, in a way that we did not then, how to cultivate vines in these conditions. Today we have achieved a relatively good level of control. The vines also seem to have adapted, above all with deeper rooting. They have become more resilient. Indeed, they seem better adapted than old oak trees; we should not under-estimate their resilience.
We also know more about episodes of frost, hail and thunderstorms. Yet, at the same time, each year we need a fair dose of good fortune if we are not to lose our harvest.
What is clear is that maturity arrives earlier in warm years; we now sometimes start harvesting in August. And with only one red grape variety, Syrah, in the Rhône Valley, we see maturity differences between different plots reduced. We need to harvest faster and that requires larger teams.
How do you adapt your vineyard management and vinification to global climate change – existing and anticipated?
We have done and continue to do a lot of trial testing to have a finer understanding of the needs of the soil and the vine. It is an ongoing adaptation. We pay special attention to the soil but also to certain stages of the vine cycle that are particularly important for making a great wine. Bud burst, flowering, berry formation and veraison are all times when the plant must function properly.
But the plant’s winter reserves are also crucial. The vine is hard pressed during the year, it must be able to regenerate during the winter. We use plant-based preparations to help support these important steps adjusted to the prevailing climatic conditions. We also use certain preparations, such as silica after the harvest, which help to reinforce the vines’ natural reserves.
We seek to promote the good functioning of the soil with a compost whose development we closely monitor so that it is well adapted to the needs of our soils.
And we have a programme of massal selection in an through which we identify the vine stock that best responds to climatic constraints.
When it comes to vinification, our grapes tend now to be smaller with thicker skins. Accordingly, we have greatly reduced the extraction we seek, with less frequent and gentler pumping over and pigeage. Almost all of our extraction is now achieved simply through natural maceration. This gives a fabulous texture to the wine.
We are also now equipped with a cold room to cool our harvest before placing it in the vats or the presses for the whites. This also allows us to harvest more quickly. Since grape maturity can advance very quickly, we have to adapt so as not to harvest over-ripe grapes.
As we like to say, “Viticulture must be an accompaniment to nature and not a struggle against it. To achieve this harmony, biodynamics is an obvious philosophy that allows us to better understand and therefore better care for the vine.”
Do organic and biodynamic vineyards, in your view, react differently to climate change?
If you pay the right attention to the proper functioning of the soil and the plant, you can’t go wrong. All of our trial tests confirm that.
Weather conditions, as we all know, have become increasingly erratic and unpredictable – with more intense rainstorms and longer periods of drought. The only way to face these climatic conditions is to be very careful and to focus on the quality of the soil.
Farming organically and biodynamically certainly makes a difference; but however one farms, it is crucial to take the utmost care of the soil.
What lessens have you learned in the Médoc from the Rhône and in the Rhône from the Médoc?
Each region has its own terroir and its own history. You really have to respect that. But of course I always try to see if something that works well in one region might be interesting for the other.
But, as much as anything else that comes from the complimentary skills of the teams. For example, at La Lagune, our culture manager is very interested in biodynamic plants and compost. At Jaboulet, we have a culture manager who is very competent in top-grafting and massal selection.
When we pool the skills of both team we have a lot of possibilities!
How has climate change impacted terroir and terroir expression? Does it make you reconsider which parts of the vineyard (and, above all on the hill of Hermitage, which parcels and exposures) are the best terroirs, improving some whilst challenging others? Does this have an impact on the blend for La Chapelle? Which terroirs are best protected against climatic change?
The particularity of a great terroir is precisely its capacity to adapt to all climatic conditions. As a result, the terroirs that go into the La Chapelle blend are always the same. Bessards, Méal and Rocoules.
One might imagine that the very stony soils like those of the hill of Hermitage, especially with its fully southern exposure, have become too dry or too hot. Think again! It is not by accident that these are considered great terroirs. It is all in the soil, which allows the vine to sink its roots very deep, to wrap itself around the pebbles, thus increasing its surface exchanges, to find water in limestone concretions formed under the stones by bacteria, or in deep clays. These terroirs are like real sponges, with incredible natural resources and great resilience. It is not surprisingly that the wines they give rise to are so consistent and so unique.
Do organic and biodynamic wines taste differently in your view – and is that effect (if any) different in the Northern Rhone and the Medoc?
In short, yes! We have carried out extensive comparative trial tests in the vineyard, then vinified the trials separately until bottling. This has allowed us, over a sustained period of time, regularly to blind taste the different modalities. The results are clear. We have a consistent and strong preference for biodynamic wines. They are purer, more luminous, more radiant and fresher.
If you look 10 years ahead for La Lagune and the Médoc and for La Chapelle and Hermitage, what do you hope for and what do you fear?
Our greatest anxieties are about climate change – and we question ourselves almost daily about that. But I remain confident that we will find solution, as we have done so thus far. Nature is full of resources and so are we.
In every decision we make today we think about the quality of the wine, of course, but also about the protection of our terroirs and their biodiversity, about human health and our carbon footprint. These considerations influence all that we do.
Above all, though, let me emphasise the importance of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Not only is it beneficial to the quality of the wines, but it allows for living soils that better retain water and therefore prevent both erosion and flooding. But they also capture more carbon and therefore participate in regulating atmospheric carbon. The planting of trees and hedges in the vines also contributes to this good functioning.
Each domaine must also highlight its heritage. At Château La Lagune, for instance, we have 40 hectares of wetlands surrounding the vineyards. They are a protected area (classified ZNIEFF). Wetlands are very important for the water cycle. We also have forests at Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé. All of this we see as essential to preserving biodiversity.
On another level, we have also worked much on our packaging, with the use of vegetable inks and recycled materials for wine cartons and lightweight bottles.
It’s the small actions of everyone that will make the difference. We don’t pretend to be perfect, but we do our best and try to improve every day.
What are your favourite ‘unfashionable’ vintages (for La Lagune and for La Chapelle)?
I am drawn to 2012, a vintage that is not been talked about much and sometimes goes a little unnoticed. Whether it’s La Lagune or La Chapelle, I find the wine delicious. This is a vintage that I open very often.
What were the specific challenges of the 2021 vintage for you at both La Lagune and La Chapelle?
This vintage was marked in both regions by spring frost, hail, rain and cool temperatures. The work in the vineyard was intense in both regions. In the context of global warming, 2021 thus seems like something of a rarity, bringing the return to a slightly forgotten taste. This vintage will also have the virtue of having given the vines a year of rest after several trying vintages in terms of drought and heat waves. No doubt they needed it.
At La Lagune 2021 is a vintage in which Cabernet Sauvignon takes a more important place in the blend with the arrival of several plots replanted 15 years ago which are now revealing their best. Despite a cooler and wetter year than the previous vintages, the precision of our interventions in the vineyard was obviously decisive, and the know-how of our teams acquired over the last 15 years of organic and biodynamic farming, a real asset for preserving the health of the foliage, the proper functioning of our soils and therefore the final maturity of the grapes. The taste of grapes and wine has been our driving force on a daily basis. The balance of this vintage highlights the pure expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s prime flavours. The wine is sumptuous and fruity, continuous and with a beautiful length completed by the sweetness of Merlot and the density of Petit Verdot.
The hillsides of La Chapelle have always worked wonders. In this vintage their capacity to drain so well has been crucial. The white wines were able to take advantage of the cool climate to develop excellent balance and intense aromatics. And the Syrah of La Chapelle itself has aromas of cooler vintages, where spices mingle with black fruits, the mid-palate is more marked by elegance and sweetness, and the long finish takes advantage of the beautiful natural freshness and acidity of the vintage.
We should take advantage of this cool vintage, because it is not sure that we will get to see its like again soon.
See here for the Château La Lagune Historical Vertical Tasting 2004-2020 and the Hermitage La Chapelle Historical Vertical Tasting 2006-2020.