Château Le Puy is a well-known name in Bordeaux, an estate that seems to have been spared the crisis of Bordeaux bashing, and this for good reason: this domain has quite a unique story. It has always followed its own path, often pioneering to move against the current, and has managed to convince an increasing number of wine lovers. A closer look at this super success story.
It was in 1610 that the Amoreau family acquired Château Le Puy, making its history one of 430 years and 14 generations. Wine was already made there at the beginning of the 17th century, though this was just to make a bit of extra money on the side. The story of the Amoreau family goes some way to explaining the spirit of independence that has always guided this property.
The estate is situated in Saint-Cibard at the region’s highest point – 107 metres of altitude – on the chalky plateau of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. It spans around 100 hectares of land, though only half of this is used to grow vines, allowing the owners to preserve other kinds of natural spaces: forests, ponds, prairies, and pastureland for the cows. The idea is to create a balanced ecosystem with organic diversity that encourages communication between the vines, the workers, and their environment.
In 2013, the Amoreau family took over another domain, la Closerie Saint-Roc. This is a very promising venture that has seen great success from the release of its very first vintage.
Respect for nature and its ecosystems
The Amoreau family has the right to boast of never having used modern, chemical products in its vineyard. They have never crossed that line, even during the inter-war period when many other domains took such steps; “they never felt the need”, explains Frédérique Roine, the property’s sales manager. Later on, this path continues to be followed, though for reasons that have become more militant.
Le Puy is thought of as an ecosystem in which each element can bring something to the vine, in a more or less direct way. Agroforestry, permaculture, and the bushes planted near to the vines bring with them the right kind of insects to balance the plant life. “We know that the enemy of wine growing is monoculture, which tends to exhaust the soil and attract only one kind of insect…” explains Frédérique. “We don’t want to fight nature, we want to rely on it to bring richness and diversity.” Pond insects, for example, can be helpful in fighting leaf predators. This is a complex ecosystem that goes beyond the world of plants and preparations involved in biodynamics. All of these elements contribute to the resilience of the vine.
Pioneers in organics and biodynamics
The domain has been certified organic since the beginning of the 1990s, as well as having Demeter recognition and being one of the founding members of ‘Renaissance des Appellations’. However, we can go back even further, since the domain got its first biodynamic certificate from Nature et Progrès in 1963. To talk about pioneers, not just in Bordeaux but for the biodynamic movement as a whole, would be no overstatement! Nowadays we are seeing more and more domains moving towards such practices, a move that is widely-praised, though this hasn’t always been the case, and Château Le Puy was even criticised to begin with. In recent years, the property has gone from strength to strength, and they continue to improve every element of their process. The harvest, for example, has been perfected to an art, with trained workers who pick only the perfectly-ripe grapes.
The vines, with an average age of fifty years, are grown organically and biodynamically, and the soils are worked using animals. Yields are low at around 30hl/ha, though sometimes they can be a little higher. “We remain humble in our dealings with nature, and we take what nature can give us every year. So, we don’t have a specific aim for our yields, they are natural.” This approach allows for each vintage to fully express itself, with all its characteristics.
The property employs around 20 people, 15 of whom work in the vineyard. Biodynamic work demands time, energy, and much observation on top of the manual labour.
Château Le Puy has a global approach to tis work, meaning that not only are the vineyards treated naturally, but the methods used in the winery are low-intervention and follow the lunar calendar. No corrective oenological techniques have ever been used here; “this is a foreign language to the family”, adds Frédérique. The harvest is totally destemmed and vatted at length. The grapes are spontaneously fermented in open vats with the cap submerged; this avoids punching down and allows the wine to breathe. Malolactic fermentation occurs in the same, open vats. No additives are used, and for the cuvées that have sulphur added to them, this happens after running off (écoulage); even then, the doses are minimal, with the wines touching the threshold of 20mg/l of SO2.
The wine is then matured in large, foudre containers, and this can last up to 24 months depending on the cuvée. The barrels are seasoned, so no new wood is used at all since the team seeks only a micro-oxygenation. The wines are not fined or filtered.
Unique, Bordeaux wines
Anyone who has already tried a wine from Château Le Puy will know just how unique it is. It certainly retains some of Bordeaux’s most emblematic features: structured wine with many tannins and great ageing potential. However, it marries this with all the best features of natural and biodynamic wine, meaning a bright fruit with an incredible mouthfeel.
We should look a bit further into the ageing potential of these wines, actually, since any cuvée produced with such little sulphur tends to raise this very question. The wines from Le Puy age very well, much like the other fine crus we find in Bordeaux. The property often puts together vertical collections that date back as far as around fifty vintages. These cuvées are always precise, evolved, and without defects. This is the result of having mastered the art of vinification, but also of a certain inflexibility: “We don’t take any risks so for example we didn’t produce the Emilien cuvée in 2015; when we analysed the wine, we doubted its capacity to last in the long term.”
The unique, organoleptic qualities in Le Puy’s wine led the property to leave its appellation in 2017. As is the way for many natural wine ambassadors, they found themselves straying too far from the strict criteria set by the INAO, criteria that they felt no longer really represented what they were trying to do. This is a shame when we think about what such a domain could have brought to the Francs Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, a situation we’ve seen replicated across France’s winemaking regions. Yet recourse to a “Vin de France” label is not something that deters loyal wine lovers and curious souls. If anything, this new freedom from appellation rules brings many advantages, not least the ability to alter production methods and varietals in an increasingly unstable environment. The domain has planted grapes that resist better to increased temperatures, such as Pardotte, an old Bordeaux varietal at the brink of extinction, and Castets, a grape introduced to Bordeaux’s right bank in 1870 that has been largely lost to time.
The domain has forged a pioneering approach, and is now piquing the interest of some of the region’s finest châteaux; they are welcoming to all visitors, though Jean-Pierre Amoreau admits he has more of a bond with Burgundian producers like Prieuré-Roch and Alsace figures like Pierre Frick. “People aren’t as open-minded in Bordeaux,” he admits regretfully, “and I fear that in 50 or 100 years’ time Bordeaux will no longer be a reference point in the wine world; it might push itself into obscurity. It’s terrible, what’s been happening over the past years, with some of the finest restaurants in Paris and New York choosing to take Bordeaux of their wine lists. I wonder a lot about the region’s future, the organisations holding the power are quite behind when it comes to what producers are doing.”
The copious cuvées of Château Le Puy
The domain’s most historic cuvée is Emilien, a wine which used to simply be known as Château Le Puy. Then, in 1994, Pascal Amoreau developed Barthélémy, a cuvée with no added sulphur. At the beginning of the 2000s, he wanted to create a Merlot rosé in the same style, hence the creation of Rose-Marie. There is also Marie-Cécile, a sulphur-less Sémillon. The domain also produces a rare, dessert wine when the vintage allows for it, as was the case in 2011 and 2019.
So why this parade of names? Well, they all belong to the ancestors of the Amoreau family. Emilien, for example, was the second wine grower recorded on the family tree; Barthélémy was the first to bring back the idea of making a wine with no sulphur. Here, once more, we see the great importance of family history to this estate and its work. And yet, an appreciation of the past is no obstacle to the future, since the domain has crafted many a new cuvée in recent years.
The domain’s philosophy? “To make people happy”, Jean-Pierre Amoreau
We also got the chance to talk to Jean-Pierre Amoreau, who gladly explained the thinking behind this intricate craft.
“The domain’s philosophy is to bring happiness to people, not to produce wine for the sake of it. It’s essential to make people happy. We all live for joyous moments and we try to make the daily stuff of life as pleasant as possible. Of course, not everyone has the same tastes, some will prefer beer, others a sparkling wine…And each person has their own reasons, there is no one rule to follow. It seems a shame to confine wine to norms. I couldn’t say what a fine wine is. There are simple wines, and there are more complex wines. But we can find joy in the simplest cuvée, more complex doesn’t necessarily mean better. Here, we produce wine in the way we know and there are people who like that, though it is difficult to please everyone.”