Young vintners are injecting a dose of casual cool into the region’s traditional winemaking scene.

Pop culture and Bordeaux wine are unlikely bedfellows. The Bordeaux establishment is more than happy to perpetuate the historical image the region has thrived on: the wine labels’ sketches of glitzy chateaus and gritty farmhouses remind drinkers of this sepia-hued zeitgeist. That is why winemaker Thibault Bardet is quite an anomaly: he has named his quaff Dornish Wine, a reference to the red ambrosia portrayed in the medieval fantasy TV series, Game of Thrones. The wine label even depicts the orange sun and spear insignia associated with the Dornish kingdom in the show.

Rebranding Bordeaux traditional winemaking modern biodynamic winemaking dornish wine

Thibault Bardet

The fresh-faced 28-year-old Thibault is a big fan of Game of Thrones, and his wine is his geeky way of “recreating something real from the show”. “I had the support and trust of my family, even if this project was completely different than those we used to have,” recalls Thibault, whose father Philippe manages the Saint-Émilion-based Vignobles Bardet. “Even those who don’t really watch Game of Thrones like the idea [of a wine] inspired by the most famous TV show at the moment.”

Since there was no mention of the wine’s taste in Game of Thrones, Thibault scoured books and memorabilia to get clues from the fictional environs the ambrosia was made in. He learned that the wine was “powerful and as dark as a blood” and the vines grew in sandy soils. He decided to make his Dornish Wine as a straight Merlot, which also grows in his sandy parcels in Bordeaux.

Rebranding Bordeaux traditional winemaking modern biodynamic winemaking dornish wine

Dornish wine inspired by Game of Thrones

Clever marketing aside, the Dornish Wine 2016 is delicious—rich, round and fruity, with lingering dark chocolate and leathery accents. In short, it’s masculine, and it feels like the kind of quaff the hirsute characters would be sipping in the show. Thibault has also made a sulphur-free version of the Dornish Wine to cater to the growing demand for natural wines.

Thibault doesn’t think he and his father have different winemaking philosophies. “As they say, ‘The apple does not fall far from the tree’,” he quips. “We both want to make good wines but for people [of my generation], we are better in marketing and packaging our wines.” Thibault belongs to a new breed of young Bordeaux vintners who aren’t afraid to push winemaking concepts that run against the norm of Bordeaux’s ethos. These winemakers are helping to shed the stodgy image of the Bordeaux vino fraternity and make more wines that appeal to a new generation of drinkers.

Wines to Enjoy Now

Early drinking Bordeaux sounds like an oxymoron to any wine buff and sacrilegious to the most finicky sommelier. But more young winemakers like Vanessa Aubert of Château La Couspaude in Saint-Émilion are subscribing to such a wine style. “Usually, Bordeaux wines were difficult to drink early; they were big and tannic. But today, many people don’t like to keep [their wines] in the cellar too long. They want to have the choice to enjoy them now,” says Aubert, a 10th generation winemaker whose family of wine growers manage several estates in Bordeaux.

Adjusting barrel techniques, she says, is one way to temper the tannins and make the wine more approachable in its youth. For example, they used more new barrels for the 2015 vintage, which was “a very hot year”, to smoothen the sharp tannins and encourage a higher permeation of oxygen. “The result is a very good integration between barrel and wine,” says Aubert. “Our winemaking style is more for the new generation: we prefer wines with more balance and freshness.”

Rebranding Bordeaux traditional winemaking modern biodynamic winemaking dornish wine

Pascal and Clemence Collotte of Château Jean Faux

Lydia Coudert, a fifth generation winemaker of Château Castagnac who joined her family business in 2017 after 10 years in the engineering industry, is another proponent of early drinking Bordeaux. “People think that Bordeaux wines are expensive and require cellaring,” she says. “I want to get rid of such a concept. I make wines that have low tannins and can be drunk now.” Château Castagnac’s latest wine, Cuvée Raphael, was launched in 2016. The round, slick Merlot impresses with a delicious aftertaste of mint chocolate. Coudert reckons it can be cellared for up to eight years, still a short lifespan compared with other Bordeaux heavyweights.

Other winemakers like 24-year-old Victor Collotte of Château Jean Faux advocate biodynamic winemaking, a practice hardly favoured by traditional Bordeaux vintners because the region’s oceanic climate increases the risk of diseases like mildew. But Victor had encouraged his father Pascal to give it a shot in 2014. The winery received their biodynamic certification from Demeter—an organisation that provides biodynamic agriculture certification—last year, an achievement that represents a new chapter for the young estate. Pascal, a former barrel maker, had purchased the property in Sainte-Radegonde in 2002, which came with 1.5 hectares of vines. Together with renowned wine consultant Stephane Derenoncourt, they increased the plots to 12 hectares over the years, while observing organic viticulture practices such as eschewing pesticide.

Rebranding Bordeaux traditional winemaking modern biodynamic winemaking dornish wine

Château Jean Faux’s vineyard at Sainte Radegonde

Clemence, 27, Victor’s sister, says biodynamic winemaking “is the future of wine for Bordeaux”. “It allows us to express the terroir well. You see renewed life and energy in the vineyards,” she remarks. Château Jean Faux’s Les Pins Francs 2016 was born from their biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon parcels. Because it was vinified only in steel tanks and not aged in barrels, Les Pins Francs is not classified as a Bordeaux Supérieur. The vino is minerally, light and fresh; a no-frills, restrained take on a classic white Bordeaux blend. “It’s the kind of wine you will drink every day,” says Clemence, who helps out in the winery’s commercial business. Victor will eventually take over his father when the latter retires.

Thibault thinks the mishmash of ideas from the old and new generation of vintners is good for Bordeaux. “With [the older generation’s] experience and our new vision, we can make better wines every year,” he muses. Clemence stresses that her new generation of winemakers are not rebels without a cause. “People think we want to recreate and reinvent winemaking, but that is a wrong view,” she says. “I think young winemakers like us are more appreciative of the methods our ancestors did before, for example, biodynamic winemaking. We keep the best practices and add a touch of modernity.”

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This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s May/June 2018 issue – Future Foods.  

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