Denis Durantou: Chateau l'Eglise-Clinet
Denis Durantou is a winemaker's winemaker: a singular man of forthright opinions and great integrity, whose wines articulately express the soil on which his modest Pomerol chateau stands. A man who from childhood knew he would make wine, his ambitions reaching far beyond the parochial confines of Pomerol to those hallowed vineyards in the poldered wild west of Pauillac, St Julien and St Estèphe.
For over twenty years he has tried and succeeded in pushing the boundaries of wine making, while continually expanding his knowledge of terroir. His immediate predecessor at the family owned chateau was responsible for making the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc, but the young man who took over the reins was uninhibited and while maintaining an appropriate degree of deference, went on to improve and revolutionize the winemaking at his family estate, without the least self doubt.
Denis Durantou has great respect for tradition, family values and hard work, he has a vision and intellect capable of challenging the many hidebound practices which for so long have restrained Bordeaux at every level. His ability to create massive and beautifully structured wines in the great Bordeaux tradition while remaining at the cutting edge, reassuringly defies the long held view that only over-extracted leviathans might gain praise from the point scoring gurus who for too long have held sway over consumer fashion. Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet now stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest Pomerol estates of Vieux Chateau Certan, Lafleur, l'Evangile, Petit Village, La Conseillante and even Pétrus. Indeed, it has on many occasions beguiled the old war horses of the tasting circuit when presented blind alongside the First growths of Latour, Mouton and Lafite.. no small achievement for the son of a civil servant who only ever drank Coteaux du Languedoc with family meals.
The vineyard of Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet measures 4.5 hectares with vines averaging some 40 years old, comprising 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc on a combination of clay and gravel adjacent to the Durantou family home in Pomerol. The name derives from an ancient Roman church, little of which now remains. A further 1.5 hectares of more gravely soil contribute the second wine of ‘La Petite L'Eglise'. In addition to Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet, Denis Durantou also owns a property in Lalande de Pomerol known as Chateau Les Cruzelles along with a negociant enterprise with cellaring and storage in Catusseau, through which he sells his own wines and those of his friends.
Pomerol provides a flat landscape with ‘no distinguishing features': acre upon acre of vines, gnarled and skeletal in winter, lush and verdant in summer, bisected by a network of narrow country lanes, each partnered by unnervingly deep roadside ditches, some large enough to swallow those vehicles unfamiliar with the ways of Bordeaux wine country . A place randomly be-speckled with small and for the most part, un-prepossessing stone farmhouses, the pattern occasionally interrupted by grander architectural offerings suggesting bourgeois affluence. It is a place so typical of many parts of France: when grey and wet one is simply tempted to drive on to more scenic destinations, yet when the sun shines and the late afternoon shadows trace violet across the bleached dusty earth, a fresh aspect is revealed. Contrasting the vine's sap green canopies with their blue-black harvest beneath, a vivid, crisply coloured palette emerges, making one sense there is something really quite special about Pomerol. On a more prosaic level, perhaps this is simply an illusory beauty, generated by our knowledge of the legendary wines produced in these famous vineyards. Though Pomerol may not offer visitors the obvious visual delights of neighbouring St Emilion, it plays its part in a valuable supporting role and when we speak of wine, egalité prevails.
The great popularity of Pomerol wines over past decades, has been, in large part dependent upon their fleshy easy drinking qualities and while there remain many top wines which exhibit this quality when young, there are others which require enormous patience and command respect for their ability to age in bottle, metamorphosing into something other-worldly over many subterranean decades. Such wines necessitate understanding and silently rail against this modern age of instant gratification. There are now a considerable number of top Pomerol chateaux producing wines of such magnitude, only the most affluent collectors might afford their price tag (due to scarcity and limited production), though paradoxically, it is so often these very people who desire the easy drinking, fleshy, youthful Pomerols... or to quote Denis Durantou, "the sweet things in life"
The Pomerol plain is made up of one third clay/gravely soil and two thirds sandy/gravely soil. Durantou explains, "There is a ‘Golden Triangle' comprising the best chateaux, Petit village, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante, l'Evangile, Pétrus, Lafleur, Le Gay, La Croix de Gay and the top end of Rougét, Clos l'Eglise and Chateau Cabanne, after which Trotanoy and finally the top of Nenin". This is his definition of the Pomerol triangle producing the best wines, "the rest of Pomerol is sandy soil like most of Bordeaux, here it is more difficult for growers to find an ‘identity' for their wines" The differences come from geology and the precise style of wine making. "Many chateaux in Pomerol produce ‘Merlot wine' every year. I try not to make the same type of wine and keep an open mind, each vintage produces a great diversity in styles, this provides my inspiration".
The Durantou home is modest in proportion, devoid of ostentation or exterior decoration and seems eminently well suited to its hard working proprietor. The rectangular austerity of the chateau sits awkwardly at right angles to the small rue de l'Eglise, with a windowless gable turning its stone cheek to the neighbouring Chateau across the lane. The railinged façade of Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet faces directly out across a narrow gravelled drive, along which stands a simple row of pollarded Plane trees. In winter the trees resemble so many arthritic hands reaching heavenward, they line the way to a small village cemetery at the opposing end of the house. Beyond this line of silent guardians are regular rows of vines stretching out for perhaps several hundred metres toward the large and rather unattractive stone church of St Jean de Pomerol, around which is clustered an assembly of quite utilitarian stone buildings. The ‘chateau' and chais, (situated to the rear) sit amid this sea of vines, providing the vigneron with a constant reminder of his past and present.
I first met Denis Durantou almost eight years ago, shortly after the en primeur tastings of the 1998 vintage and the devastating theft from his cellars of a newly acquired and valuable wine collection. His close cropped hair then contained a little less grey than it does now but physically he remains the same, proving at 49, a lifetime spent consuming classified Bordeaux should probably be available on prescription. With large expressive dark brown eyes and a gallic nose designed for vacuuming up any nuanced bouquet from a fine Riedel glass, he looks every inch the French wine expert.
Clarity is an adjective which comes to mind when attempting to describe Durantou, his thoughts are conveyed clearly and with enormous passion. One might never be in doubt of his sincerity. He has the determined personality you might expect (or hope for) of a man who makes wines for the long haul, no half measures just a relentless search for perfection and the firm belief that the next vintage will be the best. Above all he is an enthusiast and when listening to him speak about his beloved L'Eglise-Clinet, Pomerol and the piece of terroir he calls his own, not for one moment do you doubt his conviction and love of the life he has chosen. Though not particularly evangelical or demonstrative, unless solicited, his speech falters only when his mind runs faster than his physical ability to expel the words. Perhaps surprisingly for a Bordeaux winemaker whose wines are highly regarded and command prices similar to those of the Super Seconds, ostentation or flamboyance are alien to Durantou. With none of the ‘classified' trappings of vinous success, he lives in a modest farmhouse with his wife the artist Marie Reilhac and three teenage daughters Alix, Noémie and Constance. Every day they are reminded of the earth that provides their livelihood - this piece of Pomerol is what family life revolves around, 365 days a year. If one ever needed a living definition of ‘a man of the soil' it would be Denis Durantou.
A Brief History
Clos L'Eglise-Clinet was created in 1882 by the joining together of two families, Mauleon Rouchut of Clos l'Eglise and Constant, the owners of Ch. Clinet. From then until the mid nineteen fifties the wines were labelled under the name Clos L'Eglise-Clinet. Thereafter all wines were labelled simply Ch. L'Eglise-Clinet - Pomerol. Denis Durantou's great-grandfather was a shopkeeper; his grandfather never lived in the chateau and remained in Coutras where he owned a traditional dairy farm, "they earned much more money from traditional farming practices than they would ever have done making wine". Clearly, there was no great history of winemaking in the Durantou family. In 1942 Durantou's grandmother came to an arrangement with Pierre Lasserre, proprietor of nearby Chateau René : it was decided that he would become the administrateur at L'Eglise-Clinet and in return for both making the wine and selling it, he received 50% of the revenue each year. This practice continued for some 40 years, a period which saw the gradual transition of top Pomerol wines move from being merely popular in Belgium to the worldwide superstar status of the early 1980's and 90's. The marriage of convenience suited both parties admirably, however, a sad consequence of this ‘partnership' was a dearth of old vintages when Denis Durantou finally inherited the chateau. Many of the wines from this period are remarkable and have a considerable following among collectors, most notably perhaps Hardy Rodenstock, the better vintages have great longevity and demonstrate the considerable talents of the past administrateur Monsieur Lasserre.
Denis Durantou was born in Perigueux, one of five children. He has three brothers and one sister, none of whom work in the world of wine. His father Jacques was a senior civil servant and quite prosperous, travelling the world with his young family and spending a considerable time in South America. The family lived a bourgeois existence in many homes, with servants, good food and well tended gardens, they moved house every three years. At this time Denis Durantou developed a love of gardening, he says his very first ambition at the age of eight, was to be a jardinier, a passion that continues up to the present day. He befriended the family gardener : enjoying plants and the whole process of planting and nurturing - one imagines not dissimilar to creating and maintaining a vineyard. In addition to matters horticultural a considerable fascination for the culinary world evolved. The young Denis loved tasting, his mother was always busy preparing luncheons, dinners and a variety of official receptions. He spent much time in the kitchen garden, selecting vegetables for dinner or accompanying his brother on mushroom picking expeditions. Combining an interest in both taste and gardening made for a natural progression to the world of winemaking where both abilities are essential. The skills Denis Durantou began to hone at this early age, would soon prove invaluable. At sixteen he took a job working in a restaurant, for one year he performed every task from waiting at table to kitchen preparation and began to learn a little about fine wine. He says " I didn't simply taste Bordeaux wines but all wines, I had many references on which to draw"
In 1979 after completing his education in Bordeaux, where he studied political and economic science, Denis Durantou expressed a desire to take on the role of winemaker at the family chateau of L'Eglise-Clinet. "At this time my family only ever spoke of what they had to pay to the bank and never of what they might make from the vineyard" Not until the 1990's did things change in France, "it was the first time the owner earned money and if they wished, could sell their chateau - some for huge prices" As a boy Durantou occasionally tasted L'Eglise-Clinet, he recalls drinking 28's and 29's but confesses "it meant nothing at the time" Not until the age of 25 did he begin a serious appreciation of Bordeaux wines, until this time his father drank mostly Cote de Languedoc, "there was never any L'Eglise-Clinet on the family table". Léoville Las Cases was the first wine he drank knowing it was truly great, "I even appreciated poor vintages like 1979" He also began drinking the wines of Jean-Claude Berrouet the winemaker for J.P.Moueix. "his Pomerol wines were head and shoulders above the competition...though others have now followed his example and raised their game"
After the succession Durantou would need finance, even with the necessary ability to make wine it would require a leap of faith for any self respecting banker to offer money to a small Pomerol chateaux in the early 1980's, especially one with insufficient acres to generate a significant return. He was 26 years old, with little money and no wine making ability. Having just completed a University education in political and economic science, he needed to turn around and go back to school.. a wine making school and gain the necessary oenological qualifications. This was a daunting task for a young man impatient to take the helm of the family chateau and begin his new career as a vigneron. While studying at the University of Bordeaux for the second time, on this occasion at the wine faculty, he worked alongside Pierre Lasserre at L'Eglise-Clinet for no salary, he says "It was not a good ambience, as Monsieur Lasserre would really have liked to keep the property for himself and his grandson". Though Lasserre was entitled to remain at the chateau making wine until perhaps 1986 or 88, in 1982 Denis Durantou asked his father to allow him take over and say goodbye to the aging administrateur - a task which could not have been easy.
Denis Durantou was now in charge and the need for investment in both chais and vineyard was considerable. Many improvements took place from 1983-86 and significant changes were made. Modernisation from the traditional artisanal approach was quite rapid as was the impact on the wine itself. A new crusher de-stemmer and a coil system for the concrete tanks were installed, the barrels came next. Up until 1995 he used 30% new oak, this has since increased to 50%. The investment needed far outweighed any likely short to medium term financial benefit. Requirement for modern technology was similar to a Medoc Second growth, though without the massive acreage to reap a quick return, thus the production cost per barrel for L'Eglise-Clinet is significantly higher. During the last decade the problem was compounded by a necessity to replace a large proportion of old vines -a result of inferior rootstock from years before. Durantou explains that approximately one third of the vineyard has now been replanted, though these new vines will not contribute to the grand vin for many years. A large vineyard might comfortably swallow this shortfall of 1.5 hectares but when it represents a third of your total production, a degree of self sacrifice and sheer dedication to the cause must be brought to bear. A clear indication that Durantou thinks long term and is passionate about making the greatest wine possible. "I spend a great deal of time with local nurserymen experimenting with rootstocks, plants and grape varieties using massal selection"
The tasting room at l'Eglise ClinetTradition is all important, "I am not obliged to build an Eiffel tower or the national library.. I just have to maintain and continue this tradition of wine making" This 4.5 hectare piece of terroir bordering the village of Pomerol is Durantou's heritage, it is something he preciously guards. "Although the new money invested in Bordeaux vineyards by wealthy entrepreneurs, banks and insurance companies, is vital to the economic health of our region, it would be a great sadness to see all family run chateaux swallowed up".
Durantou the Pioneer
Durantou was a pioneer of green harvesting in Pomerol, a practice which now finds favour with many of the best estates on both right and left banks. He was one of the first to adopt the coil system and thermo regulation in the cellars, "in the early to mid eighties very few cellars had this...now everybody has" He was operating a veritable wine laboratory and leading the way with practices adopted only many years later in the Medoc and Graves. It is clear therefore that he contributed to the new found consistency of modern Bordeaux wines.
A dramatic change came with the new approach to crop size in the mid 1980's, earlier in the decade it was permissible to produce more than 55-60 hectolitres per hectare in Bordeaux, therefore it was quite easy to improve the quality of the wine by reducing the crop size. "I am still surprised to see that every year authorized production per hectare exceeds my own by up to 20-25 hectolitres. It is impossible to make a very good wine if you exceed 45-50 hectolitres...absolutely impossible! My enologist Thierry Jouan likes round fruity wine... sometimes when I let him taste my young wines he finds them tough and too concentrated. I tell him, ‘don't worry it will be okay'. My cellar master likes round pretty wine, he has been with me three years and he says he has never before tasted wines so powerful and concentrated - they would prefer me to make more accessible wines"
The wine Denis Durantou now makes at L'Eglise-Clinet is different from that of his predecessor Pierre Lasserre, though Durantou points out "the ingredients are much the same for both wines". It is the careful and meticulous approach to every aspect in both the vineyard and the chais that set this vigneron apart. After many years of analysis, Durantou picks his plots at different times, having discovered through much trial and error how this influences the grand vin. These ‘experiments' might only be conducted once a year during the vendange, therefore, it takes a long time to draw meaningful conclusions. He has spent years developing techniques, which some of his neighbours have suddenly adopted for their own winemaking - they do however say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This fastidious and single-minded determination seems typical of a man who is clearly looking towards future generations and a steady sure improvement with his grand vin to rival classic wines right across the Bordeaux spectrum. "For me, the great wines are on the left bank", he reveals, "St Julien is incredible, Pauillac and St Estephe too, I never wait for my Pomerol neighbours in order to fix my price at en primeur, my aim would always be to have the same price as a second growth - not to be more expensive than other leading right bank estates... this is not my goal. Vieux Chateau Certan is fabulous, especially the younger vintages. I have a very warm feeling for the Thienpont family. The father of Alexandre Thienpont was the only one to visit me in my first year at L'Eglise-Clinet". The kindness of the Thienpont family has clearly been influential on Denis Durantou, he shares ideas with Alexandre and another great friend Alain Vauthier of Chateau Ausone. "I can speak about technical points with them both, we exchange information freely"
If Denis Durantou had an opportunity to plant his vineyard again he says he would "plant with a higher density of vines, more like the beginning of the nineteenth century - with perhaps more Cabernet Franc and even some Cabernet Sauvignon to suit the new climate we are experiencing" He thinks that Merlot was an economic choice in years gone by but feels it is not a good choice all over Pomerol. "In the past, what they could not achieve technically in the cellar, they tried to compensate for in the vineyard. The Merlot brought sugar, the Cabernet Franc some dryness and acidity, while the Malbec introduced some spicy hints. The Merlot can be good for the clay soil but not a good choice elsewhere". Loss of identity or typicity in certain Bordeaux appellations is something that fails to trouble Denis Durantou, though it is a subject perturbing many noted wine commentators. "Pomerol is not changing in style with modern wine making techniques, other appellations are changing and have moved more towards the Pomerol style" Some might say that Durantou is absolutely correct, it is evident that many voluptuous, hedonistic Pomerol wines suit the palates of famous wine commentators, therefore it goes without saying that other vigneron might naturally choose to imitate the type of wine which garners money making points, but at what cost to identity ? Even so, Durantou says it is still easy to find a Vieux Chateau Certan or Le Pin in a blind tasting.
Strong in the belief that modern methods and extremes of style will not alter the genetic fingerprints of any specific wine he says that vines, earth and climate remain a constant and so it is always possible to return a wine to its former self, "even if some of the very hands-on winemakers would like to vinify l'Eglise-Clinet, I think they could never remove its identity" The character of Denis Durantou is complex. He is a staunch believer in upholding traditions and maintaining an identity, though he abhors stagnation and loves Bordeaux because it continually evolves. It is within this hothouse atmosphere that modern French vignerons seem to thrive and so many new winemaking ideas spring to life. There is no doubt that competition and rivalry also play a part, with many chateaux playing the game of one-upmanship, however, one senses this particular vigneron abstains from such behaviour. Without compromising his winemaking style for the market, Durantou makes wine first and foremost for himself, he has confidence in his own palate. "Which market are you making wine for ? The Asiatic one ? The American one ? Make wine to the best of your ability and be true to yourself - and do not become a fashion victim"
On the subject of drinking immature wine: in order to encourage an understanding of patient and considered wine consumption he feels "we must do as our grandmothers and buy only one or two perfumes - try to be faithful to just two or three chateaux, buy six to twelve bottles of each property every year. You buy them, gradually build a cellar comprising numerous vintages of the same wines and in time you will be able to discover the real soul of the wine and it's terroir. This is the best way to improve your knowledge, I believe it serves no purpose to have a 3000 bottle cellar containing disparate chateaux and random vintages, it will be difficult to appreciate the evolution of any individual wine. If you occasionally wish to enjoy an old bottle of something exceptional then visit your wine merchant and pay 20-30% more. Every year I purchase 12 bottles of Léoville Las Cases, 12 of Vieux Chateau Certan and L'Eglise-Clinet and it's okay"
When discussing the subject of chateau investors and the many new proprietors taking up occasional residence on the right bank of Bordeaux : Durantou ventures, "if you have all the money in the world and simply buy a great vineyard you will not be able to make good wine - you must have enjoyed good food and tasted many wines. "fortunately, there is a wealth of skill and experience among Bordeaux's oenologists and technical experts. It is essential for new investors in Bordeaux to call upon these people, to help develop their wines and achieve their aspirations. Dominique Decoster of Fleur Cardinale in St Emilion is a fine example."
Durantou prefers not to speak of ‘garagistes' but favours the term ‘laboratory wines'. "All of these growers have been able to utilise the new technologies learned from the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux. Micro-oxygenation, ageing on the lees, reverse osmosis etc.. It is good that they used them before the rest of us, thanks to their mistakes, we now know when or when not to use them. Personally, I know how to apply these methods but for developing my own wines identity they are not always necessary" He explains that successful exponents of such modern wine making practices might produce good wines on poor sandy soil A combination of advanced technology with good marketing create a winning formula for many enterprising vignerons. "Consultants are now able to sign the wines of the chateaux for whom they consult, even on lesser terroirs - this is clearly a practical solution though the wine's identities are purely ‘technique' driven. There will be no more cult wines in Bordeaux, I think the nouveau riche of Russia and Asia do not buy them - the classic growths are now back in favour. With reference to Robert Parker, "I think his importance has been partly created by the wine merchants. Parker has been a great success for the wine business, of which he is undoubtedly a part. The name Robert Parker is like a brand, when associated with Bordeaux, he has provided a good deal of business and success for many hundreds of chateaux across the region. We do however need everybody to speak about Bordeaux, not just one man"
The message is clear : terroir driven wines are what Denis Durantou believes in, they are his passion, they are his reason for being. No smoke and mirrors, no artifice dressed up in a heavy bottle with a smart designer label, Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet is simply the finest liquid expression of one particular and individual piece of Pomerol earth, lovingly created by a man whose heart and soul find their way into each and every assemblage and should be listed on the back label. "No one else can do the blend - I do: just 10 to 50 litres in 100 hectolitres might change things. I explain to the workers they must take great care, one centimetre more or less in the tank will alter the composition of the wine - it is very precise". Even before the final assemblage Durantou has a clear idea of the wine he will make in any given vintage. He knows that all of the production from the gravely plot and the clay plot will be blended, this will be the basis of the wine. He is not afraid of astringency, but sometimes his wine is a little over-oaked or tannic and he has difficulty accepting this. Patience is a Durantou virtue, he is all too aware the wine will be aged for 18 months before bottling, therefore, it will change and take on a different personality.
Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet 2005 is so far an unknown quantity, Durantou thinks it will be better than 2002 and perhaps better than the 2003. He states the Bordeaux climate has changed so much over the last ten years and that each and every year they lose some ‘references'. Since the year 2000 he has failed to produce a wine with less than 13.5% alcohol, during the last 20 years the alcohol in L'Eglise-Clinet has increased by 1 degree. With typical frankness he says, "I prefer to reserve my judgement on 2005 until after the malolactic fermentation because the acidity will drop and I would like to know if there is sufficient natural acidity to balance the alcohol and tannins. Don't predict until you pick and don't predict until after the end of the malolactic fermentation"
Though the success and integrity of Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet are paramount to Durantou, he enjoys and admires the wines of many fellow vignerons. Much has been said over recent years about the plight of numerous petit chateaux whose wines are outstanding but fail to attract the recognition they so richly deserve. Often a result of the Bordeaux ‘system', one which critics say is run by the most successful for the most successful. Commerce and market forces leave little opportunity in a consumer driven environment for the small chateaux without an advertising budget. There are so many modest winemakers whose dedication matches that of Durantou, these unsung heroes of the Bordeaux vineyards have broadly similar objectives, their wines offering the purest expressions of good terroir. In this world of classified growths small producers are so often overlooked, though not by Denis Durantou. As a negociant he is well placed to support a handful of hard working vignerons whose winemaking he appreciates and with whom he can identify. He offers many Bordeaux wines on his negociant list in which he believes. "I admire people who are making their own wines, particularly some of the new generation of winemakers - for example, Elian Daros at Clos Bacquey in the Cotes du Marmandais to the east of Bordeaux. He maintains a tradition and has discovered new terroir to plant. On the subject of ‘Flying Winemakers' he feels they have an important role to play; however, "the people I identify with are those who invest their own money and make the physical and mental effort around the clock, perhaps with their own small plot of land"
Running a modest negociant business with storage in Catusseau, Denis Durantou makes his own contribution to spreading the great gospel of terroir, though much of his time is consumed with making Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet he personally answers a constantly ringing telephone to accept orders for many other labels, the wines lovingly made by his friends and neighbours. Though based on sound commercial sense, with a large measure of ‘community' spirit, this ultruistic approach sets a fine example. In so doing, he makes a significant and positive contribution to aiding his fellow vignerons, something quite uncommon in the tough market of Bordeaux, where any sense of co-operation always has a ‘classified' limit.
"The Bordeaux market is made up of a privileged group of wine merchants who have been inextricably linked with the classified chateaux and brokers for hundreds of years. It is one big family that has its own codes, rules of practice and obligations. These can be daunting for newcomers, even for those with limitless financial means. However irritating this may be, the Bordeaux market has always been, and remains the envy of those outside it. One of the disadvantages of this traditional market being the inability for Bordeaux merchants to market their wines in an innovative fashion, they are allowed little room to manoeuvre. Careful to preserve their precious guaranteed allocations from one year to the next, they often find themselves in a straitjacket with price and distribution. This is something that British merchants have never suffered, consequently, the British have succeeded in developing a greater expertise in marketing the classified growths, without reservation the British brokers are the best." Durantou concludes, "the future of Bordeaux rests with the classified growths and making wine for connoisseurs, while the petits chateaux will continue to make wine in radically reduced numbers. There needs to be better marketing and some more branding, the customers want brands...so this is a necessity" Durantou has made his own attempt at creating a larger brand with a stable of wines including ‘Saintayme' (now a St Emilion grand cru).
L'Eglise- Clinet is my life
Denis Durantou is an inspirational character: a man with a rich and diverse life whose personality clearly enhances the lives of those around him. Having recently discovered Scotland through his association with a British wine broker, his adoration for the desolate heather clad landscape of the Highlands seems profound. Sharing his boyish enthusiasm, he reaches across his desk for a small tape machine and plays me a recording made earlier in the summer of a Glasgow market trader. I comment upon the poor quality of the tape and tellingly he explains it has been played many times over. By capturing sound memories of places and people Denis Durantou reveals his own particular sense of humanity, thereby offering an insight to his own emotions. He also has a strong sense of family. At a lunch to celebrate his late grandmother's 90th birthday, where, for the very first time, the whole Durantou family gathered to celebrate with the wines of Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet. This venerable old lady having only ever consumed ordinary red table wine throughout her life, shared majestic old bottles from 1928, 29 and 47 with her entire family, "we were all together".. the pride which Durantou feels when he says this is tangible. This sense of place and a comprehension of man's interaction with earth and elements contribute greatly to a defined passion for wine that is honest and true, explaining in part his apparent dismissal of so many over-extracted, overworked wines. One simply knows that any wine made by Denis Durantou will be correct and clearly express the terroir he knows so well, thereby reinforcing his credibility as a winemaker's winemaker.
Wine is not, however, his only interest. His enthusiasm erupts when speaking of gastronomy. Japanese cuisine finds favor with him, as do traditional dishes from his own region - he adores simple food with subtle flavours. Had this man from Perigeueux not taken to the life of a vigneron, he might well have pursued an alternative career in the world of haute cuisine, a vocation that may still loom large. He does hope to develop a long-term project with an hotel and beautiful gardens at Chataeau les Cruzelles in Lalande de Pomerol. Modern architecture is another consuming passion and Durantou travels considerable distances to view the work of architects in Berlin, Barcelona and Madrid. The noted French architect Jean Nouvel is a particular favorite. The famous chef Michel Bras is a great friend, his fine modern hotel and restaurant sitting within the kind of unspoiled landscape that Durantou adores, thus combining his three great interests outside winemaking - landscape, gastronomy and architecture.
Though Durantou is acquainted with the piano, he leaves musicianship to his three daughters, all of whom are proficient in their own respective studies with violin, cello and piano. He has a varied taste in music, his love of Joe Cocker,Franz Ferdinand and Joy Zipper sitting with a reassuring eclecticism alongside his fondness for Couperin and Fauré. His wife Marie Reilhac is an artist of considerable ability, who contributes a valued opinion during the annual assemblage - "she is allowed to say whatever she wants," he affectionately intones.
The massive but beautifully proportioned wines of Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet have gained Denis Durantou a well deserved reputation in the worldwide market for fine Bordeaux. By sheer hard work and by remaining true to himself, he has earned the respect of friends and rivals alike. He has maintained his integrity, honoured a great tradition and refused to become a victim of fashion, producing wines that require patience and understanding in their youth. Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet is one of the great wines of Pomerol and one of the most authentic in Bordeaux - what better epithet for this man of the soil who, when asked "what does your vineyard mean to you ?" replies "my life, it is my life [...] I could not imagine a life without it."
copyright The World of Fine Wine 2006 - issue 10