Armed with seven centuries of history and tradition, Château Carbonnieux came back to the forefront of the Graves scene at the beginning of the ‘90s with an amazing leap in quality that is particularly notable in the vintages of the past decade. Received by the owners, we discovered the impetus behind the rise which put this “cru” on the path to excellence whilst at the same time keeping family ownership and retaining the old school side which is one of its trademarks.
Situated in Léognan close to Bordeaux, Château Carbonnieux is classified for both white and red wine. Marc Perrin was the one to enjoy this recognition in 1959 just three years after he bought the domain and restored the vineyards. His son, Antony Perrin enjoyed another success; the birth of the Pessac-Léognan AOC in 1987 – partly a result of his own efforts. This was the impetus that set him thinking about the evolution of Carbonnieux. He put his ideas into practice a few years later and his children, Eric, Christine and Philibert Perrin are continuing this work today.
Eric explains: “the improvement in quality at Carbonnieux commenced with the arrival of Denis Dubourdieu who began consulting on the whites from 1988. We moved from fermentation in stainless steel vats to barrel fermentation and we started ageing on the lees with stirring to add complexity and body to the wines. From the 1990 vintage we abandoned the dilapidated winery buildings in the courtyard of the château and moved into new facilities. The same year we invited Denis to take charge of the entire production.” At the same time, the domain began a study of the soils dominated by Günzian gravel which were carried along by the Garonne river in the quaternary era when the Pyrenees were uplifted and then dumped along the left bank of the river… The famous Graves region. This soil study at Carbonnieux enabled them to draw up a more precise geological map: Two prevailing structures – gravel-clay and clay-lime-stone – as well as zones of pure gravel, a clay vein, a limestone vein and a sandy gravel zone. In total, 119 different plots were identified and then elaborated in the winery to increase their aromatic complexity.
As a second step, at the beginning of the 2000’s, the property got to work on restructuring the vineyards. “We like our Cabernet Sauvignon to be nicely ripened and are not worried about a touch of over-maturation. With this in mind, we replanted on the warmer graves plateau which favour early ripening where the Sauvignon Blanc was and replanted the Sauvignon on the cooler clay-lime-stone soils,” Eric explains. His brother, Philibert continues: “In order to increase the lifespan of our vines, especially the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon which are most susceptible, our winegrowers took pruning courses to learn about precise pruning related to the flow of sap’. For over 25 years we have been working the vines and soils without the use of insecticides or pesticides and have been testing organic farming on 7 hectares for the past 2 years. We can see that in a wet year the vineyards farmed organically respect the environment more as we use less copper which, in turn, has less impact on the soils and sub-soils. The tillage and sub-soiling help the vine roots to grow deep down to the cool clay-lime-stone sub-soils and this helps them to cope with long, dry and hot summers.”
However, the most significant evolution in terms of quality at Carbonnieux has been over the past decade. On the one hand, 2004 saw the introduction of a ‘second vin’, which fitted in naturally with the selection of the “grand vin”. Produced from the younger vines of the property in both colours, La Croix de Carbonnieux has also evolved over the decade as the vineyard has aged and with attention to the winemaking. It is a chance for wine lovers to treat themselves to the expertise of a “cru classé” at a more affordable price. “It’s great to see the La Croix de Carbonnieux brand getting stronger year after year.” On the other hand, procedures have been put in place in the winery to improve the production of the white wine. Eric goes into detail: “we have reduced the journey from the vineyard to the press bypassing the reception of the grapes. Since 2014, maceration, pressing and collection of the juice all happen in the same receptacle, (Inertys press), with the addition of nitrogen and CO2. We have also moved bottling from July to October when it’s cooler and hence a more suitable time. Now, after 10 months of ageing in barrels and oak vats the whites are racked and put into tanks for an extra four months which delays the vintage’s release onto the market. Finally, since 2014 we have been using hi-tech corks to enable better maturation in the bottle”. It is easy to understand the Perrin’s satisfaction at the upturn in the success of their whites, a fact acknowledged by everyone in the trade. Their production of white wine alone represents more than half of the volume of the white wine production of Graves “crus classés.” At Carbonnieux, the 45 hectares of white produce about 35 different batches each vintage, depending upon the variety, the original plot and the method of ageing. Amongst them a selection of 20-25 batches go to make the white “grand vin” which results in its lovely complexity with floral hints and notes of lemon, apricot and white pepper – without forgetting the grilled nuances from the oak ageing which is partially in big containers to minimalize the aromatic impact of the wood. Since 2008, a reduction in the use of new oak, (25% instead of 35%) has also contributed to this result. The blend of Sauvignon Blanc, (about 75%) and Semillon lends the wine vibrancy as well as body and depth. “The richness of the 2011 on the palate, for example, works very well with fish in a sauce,” adds Eric Perrin. The red wines, produced from 50 hectares of vines, are aged for 18 months in oak barrels with 35% new oak. Château Carbonnieux red is enjoyed for its classic, linear profile made to age thanks to 60% of Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend is made up with Merlot, (about 30%), Cabernet Franc and a splash of Petit Verdot. Concerning the latter, Eric explains: “The Petit Verdot has already proven itself in great vintages such as 1996 and 2000 so we decided to plant more of it at the time and for the last few years it has become a component of the blend again – like a drop of Tabasco in a Bloody Mary as a wine friend of mine likes to say! In 2012, for example we added 5%, which adds a spicy charm to the blend which is already very attractive today with elegant notes of blackcurrant and cherries mixed with a touch of minerality.” “But quality is not everything,” he adds, “amongst the graves “crus classés” we are not the only ones making excellent wines and it’s always difficult to distinguish ourselves from the others in a blind tasting. So at Carbonnieux, we have to go even further by associating our wines with moving experiences. With this in mind we organise events at the château on a regular basis. And we select carefully the restaurants we work with so that everything is brought together to bring the best out of our wines: the food, the environment, the service, the atmosphere. And the precious advice of the sommeliers of course who, for example, recommend a dry white wine with cheese – the perfect accompaniment for Carbonnieux,” suggests Eric, very attached to tradition.
After Denis Dubourdieu died in 2016 his partner Christophe Ollivier has continued to accompany the Perrin family on the path to ever increasing refinement. Especially with the continued restructuring of the vineyard which should reach completion in 2022.
“We were late with this project,” Eric reckons, “but today, thanks to replantation, the plots are becoming homogenous which helps with the blending”. Important to the maintenance of the Carbonnieux style so loved by connoisseurs.