Chateau de Fontenille, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux
Stéphane Defraine owner-winemaker of Château de Fontenille
Since 1989, Stéphane Defraine has led the Château de Fontenille in Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers. Prior to turning his attention to Château de Fontenille, Defraine established and farmed vineyards for other Chateaus in the region. His viticultural knowledge of the area is significant.
The Château de Fontenille grows 52 hectares with 50 currently in production, the majority planted to red varieties – 35 hectares red, 15 white. Like much of the region, 90% of the wine produced is exported, in this case, primarily to the United States and Japan. His rosé of Cabernet Franc in particular is a stand out.
The Entre Deux Mers region of Bordeaux has a celebrated history for white wine. With an increased focus on red wines since the 1960s, however, whites of the region have mostly been regarded as good oyster wines meant to be enjoyed fresh and racy in their youth. Many current examples are perfect for that, but the history of the region was established in a greater range of styles.
The moderate temperatures and unique soils of the area support white wines with incredible aging potential. (We enjoyed a 1988 Bordeaux Blanc from the Entre Deux Mers on our trip, for example, that was still in beautiful shape with mouthwashing acidity.) At the center of the difference rests not only vinification choices but also clonal selection. As the attention for entry-level Bordeaux shifted to bulk wine production, interest in high production clonal types also increased. While Defraine grows a greater portion of red varieties currently, he has kept a steady focus on the farming quality of his whites and has helped to reestablish quality clones for white varieties.
In late September, Adam Lechmere, Richard Hemming, Emma Roberts and I visited Defraine to taste his wines and learn more of his perspective on the region.
Following is some of what Defraine had to share with us beginning with his thoughts on the 2015 vintage and his approach to viticulture. He discusses his views of sustainable farming and the role of economic sustainability. Eventually he speaks about the changes in winemaking style in Bordeaux and his work with clonal selection as well.
Stéphane Defraine of Château de Fontenille
“We don’t need to make a lot of intervention on the grapes because it is very good [weather this year]. It is a bit like 2000, ’89 too.
“What is very strange this year is July, it was very hot. We were not in hydric stress [in the vines] but I think 10 more days of hot weather [and it would have been a problem]… but we had a bit of rain in August. The plants restart then. June, it was not hot but it was very dry.
We are standing with him in the vineyard. He points to the grass he has under the vines as an example.
“When you have grass under vines you have competition and make hydric stress. When you have no grass you have no competition and no stress. All that means is that a year like this year, all of Bordeaux will be good. In a humid year though, the best terroir has good wine but when you try to affect the hydric stress of that vine [because of too much water] some places have to try harder. … Human intervention plays a role.”
We ask about how long he has been in the area.
“In fact, I am Belgian. I arrived in this area 40 years ago. Chateau Bauduc, I planted all the vineyards.”
We had visited Chateau Bauduc the evening before and walked the vineyards established by Defraine.
Determining Vineyard Density
We ask him about how he decided to establish the vine spacing he has here at Château de Fontenille, which is closely spaced.
“Here, the Sauvignon Blanc, we have 5000 vines per hectare. Each vine produces around 1 liter. It is better in terms of concentration. It is better to have that type of vines [planting density]. When you have less vines [per hectare] you have less concentration.”
We ask him about his canopy management, which appears well balanced for the vine spacing.
“We calculate the coefficient between the leaves and the distance [between vines] and it is 0.7. You want 0.7 [coefficient]. So, we have 2 meters distance here, and you calculate with 0.7. So, you must have 1.4 meters of leaves.” Defraine has 2 meters between vines and 1.4 meter canopy height. “It means if you have 3 meters distance you must have 2 meters leaves and you cannot [so we must plant closer. The vine will not support a higher canopy.]” Defraine’s calculations are based partially in the soil drainage of his site.
We ask about his vineyard maintenance practices and how they appear by site and by vintage.
“We don’t have a systematic way of work. It depends on the vineyard but we plant the grass or we work the soil or we plant the seeds.”
Sustainable versus Organic Viticulture
We ask him if he farms organically, or biodynamically, and what his views of selecting such farming practices are. His response is interesting. It could at first sound as though he is against sustainable farming practices but by the end it is clear that is not what Defraine means.
“It is not because [your farming approach] is organic that it is good. Today there is a big confusion between ecology and health. [People think if it is organic it is good as if organic equals health. That is too simple.] It is not because it is organic that it is good. [Good farming depends on more than that.] If your body is sick, and you go to the doctor. If you have an infection, you take antibiotics. [If you don’t you get more sick.] That is part of health.
“But [here in our farming] we are responsible. You make every decision to be ecologically correct. We are members of SME [a sustainable farming program in Bordeaux]. It is a unique way for producers to make decisions to do things for the environment.
“I have a lot of respect for people that make biodynamic farming decisions. It is very hard. One of the problems is the economics too. The price of a wine from Bordeaux in a supermarket in France is 1.5 € to 3 € and at that price you cannot make ecological growing because it is difficult. You have to have the economic first for it to be sustainable. A few people use [certified] organic or biodynamic around here but very few. It is very difficult. If you do biodynamic or organic wine you have to do 1.5 less yield and at that price it is very difficult to do it that way [with less yield]. [In terms of the environment] I prefer that all the producers of Bordeaux use less product that that a few producers use almost no product.
“We do not use fertilizer in the vineyard. [Healthy farming] is a vision.
“People think when you use organic product you use less product. It is not true. When you use organic you use more. Last year, I used 8 treatments but my neighbor, he is organic, and he used 17 treatments because he is obliged [to be certified].”
Typicity and Winemaking in the Entre Deux Mers
We ask him about what makes the zone of the Entre Deux Mers in which he farms unique in terms of the wine.
“In this part of the Entre Deux Mers we have a soil with a lot of gravel and sand. We have a soil that naturally gives a lot of aromatics. We try to keep that identity.
“When I started in Bordeaux, we were picking wine at 11.5 potential alcohol and it had acidity. Everyone had the habit of more acidity and it worked because the food at that time too, it had less sugar. And people kept the wine. But it is different today because the wine, it is made to drink right now. We do not in Bordeaux make the wine at all anymore like we used to. The problem in a year like this is the risk to wait too much before you pick in white and in red.
“[Picking decisions] are just like when you eat an apple. If you eat the apple when it is fresh, you can taste the fruit. If you pick too early, the fruit all tastes the same. If you wait too long you lose the typicity.
“Generality is the worst thing in wine. We must have our own regard for our own situation in where we are [versus making wine according to a formula or based on advice like that of a consultant from outside the region meant to apply to wine generally rather than specifically to that region and vineyard].”
Direct Engagement with the Consumer and Winemaking Choices
“More and more people are in direct contact with the consumer. In the old Bordeaux system you had the producer and the negotiant. And the producer had no idea what the consumer wanted [because the producer had no contact with the consumer]. It was very difficult for the producer to adapt his vinification to the market.
“Today, when you go to Belgium or Japan with your wine and people say, ah, I don’t want that. you are obliged to change your wine [if you want to be able to sell it]. You cannot stay in an arrogant position, this is what I make you have to take it. You have to listen. Though not too much. [You must maintain the typicity of your site.] If you make all your choices through vinification you will lose the specificity of your terroir. [You must let your vineyard decisions show through not just intervene in the cellar.]
Looking at Clonal Selection in White Varieties
We taste through a range of white wine tank samples from the 2015 vintage. They offer a sense of distinctiveness and energy with clear varietal contrast between Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle and blends of the varieties.
“We keep the wine on lees to protect the wines. We will use sulfites later but [for now] we keep it on the lees instead. In a year like this year, you do not need any sulfites in the beginning. [Defraine was able to pick before any rains so there was no rot or disease coming in on the fruit.]
“I like wine with a sense of tension.
We taste the Muscadelle last of all. It is distinctive – earthy, with a mix of treble and bass tones and vibrant acidity. It seems distinctive compared to some of the Muscadelle we’ve tasted elsewhere.
“What I want to do is arrive at 30% of Muscadelle in my blend. We replant Muscadelle. What was very difficult was to arrive at a good selection of Muscadelle from the plants. But we never talk about that in Bordeaux. White was very disregarded in Bordeaux for a long time with the focus put on reds. [For a while whites were only for high production wines and so clones were selected for high production not for quality.] The only clone you can find of Muscadelle is a high producer. So, 15 years ago we decided to go to all the producers to ask if they had old plants of Muscadelle from before the selection [for high production] of the 1960s and now we have new clones of Muscadelle that are higher acidity and lower production. We grow those here.”
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My husband is studying viticulture and oenology in Bordeaux, I’m in a slightly different program. We found your article informative and nicely written (especially after hearing negatives about Entre Deux Mers white wine). I like Monsieur Defraine’s perspectives on grape growing and wine making. We will look up Chateau de Fontenille and pay a visit.