Portrait : Philippe Blanc, Managing Director of Château Beychevelle.
Having arrived at the spectacular 250 hectare Château Beychevelle in Saint-Julien just over 25 years ago, Philippe Blanc is today among Bordeaux’s most emblematic and recognisable figures.
Originally from South East France, Blanc studied agronomic and oenological engineering at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique in Paris and Montpellier. His career has since taken him from Champagne to Alsace and Australia, with a foray into the liqueur industry, before his arrival in Bordeaux in 1995. “I chose Bordeaux because of the amount of opportunities on offer and the number of senior posts available,” he explains. “Here, we have so many properties with aura and prestige, Beychevelle being one of them. It’s like Formula One or the Champions League. To manage properties like these, you need highly-qualified people. I hope that I can be considered one. I count myself extremely lucky to oversee operations at a place like this.”
Initially more technically oriented, with time and careful recruitment the scope of Philippe Blanc’s management role has become increasingly broad. “Today, my job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly for our team of about 50, in order to meet our owners’ expectations. My role is extemely versatile, encompassing supervision, management, commercial representation and, of course, the technical aspects of production, my eternal raison d’être”.
After 25 years at the helm of the Beychevelle flagship, the potential of which he immediately spotted, Blanc shows no hint of fatigue, remaining passionate about his profession. “This job has never bored me, and I hope it never will! Beychevelle is a wonderful place, making very fine wines, with a strong brand. It is a privilege, an honour, and a joy to oversee a property like this. When I am here at Beychevelle, elsewhere in France, or abroad, and the people I meet are aware of the property, have our wines in their cellar, or write about our wines, it’s an extraordinary sign of recognition.”
Château Beychevelle: a new chapter
Four years ago Beychevelle completed construction of a brand new technical facility, winery and barrel cellar, designed by the architect Arnaud Boulain. “It was a major, emblematic investment, with the next 30 or 40 years in mind, in terms of the overall quality of our wines. When it comes to winemaking, the new facilities enable us to pick from a number technical options. We now have more control and precision,” says Blanc. After a conception stage lasting three years, followed by a year and a half of construction work, the facilities were ready in time for the 2016 harvest. With 59 stainless steel vats, most of which are shaped like truncated cones, with four different capacities, the winery was conceived with plot-selection in mind. Respect for the manually harvested raw material, is a prerequisite condition for the production of fine wines. Today, the vats are filled using a gravitational system (instead of pumps), with the help of moveable, manually emptied basins. In the same vein, a number of extraction methods have also been made possible (pumping-over, rack and return, as well as punching down). The ultimate aim of these multiple improvements: “bold, beautiful, elegant tannins, the defining characteristic of all great red wines”.
The new winery goes hand in hand with the property’s new barrel cellar. More spacious and offering tighter temperature and humidity control, the new construction provides for peace of mind throughout the 12 to 18 month barrel aging process. With four vintages already having benefited from the new facilities, Philippe Blanc couldn’t be more satisfied. “The new winery and barrel cellar more than meet our expectations, for both Château Beychevelle and our second wine, Amiral de Beychevelle. We are making the finest wines we’ve ever made. The progress we’ve made is universally recognised.”
The environmental challenge, among others…
On this solid foundation, Beychevelle’s Managing Director can look to the future with serenity, ready to take on tomorrow’s challenges. “At Beychevelle, there isn’t a great deal holding us back”, Blanc explains. “Maintaining quality is vital. We have to continue to make the best wines we can, in order to maintain our reputation.” The ongoing pursuit of quality goes hand in hand with environmental concerns, which have long been at the forefront of the Beychevelle approach, as well as increasingly prevalent societal expectations. “We oversee a magical place, surrounded by woods, parks, prairies. It is our duty to preserve this environment.” Among the pioneers of this approach, Beychevelle “has always made efforts to reduce the potentially harmful effects of winegrowing”, assures Philippe Blanc. “We stopped using herbicides and insecticides a long time ago, while we limit our use of pesticides to a strict minimum. We are part of the Bordeaux Environmental Management System (SME), ISO 14001, and we have also been certified Terra Vitis”, explains the Managing Director. Far from resting on their laurels, the Beychevelle team and owners continue to push for a more virtuous approach to winegrowing. "For a long time, we have been making more than significant efforts to test organic methods in the vines. These tests currently represent 10 hectares, but have recently covered up to 30 hectares. We are working hard, but of course we know we can do more to change our approach. The work is far from over, and we are thoroughly convinced that that these are major subjects on which we are evolving, and will continue to evolve.” With this in mind, the Cru Classé is leaving no stone unturned, constantly on the lookout for potential innovative solutions. “If we have to invest in electronic equipment, or automation, we will give it the necessary consideration,” explains Blanc. “We have to give this point all the attention it deserves.”
While the environmental question is at the forefront of the property’s thinking, it is far from the only concern. On a commercial level, Beychevelle is constantly looking to conquer new markets. The entirety of the property’s production (approximately 240,000 bottles of Château Beychevelle, 180,000 of Amiral de Beychevelle) is distributed by Bordeaux merchants. “Most of the major Bordeaux players are involved. The only problem is the we don’t have enough wine”, he smiles. “It’s not a bad problem to have!” Currently, 90% of Beychevelle's wines are exported, a decent proportion of which go to Asia, with the remaining 10% remaining on the French market. The Cru Classé makes every effort to diversify its distribution, securing its position in increasingly unstable economic and geopolitical circumstances. “We need to be in as many places as possible, in Copenhagen, London, New York, Mexico City, Moscow, Paris, Bordeaux, in wine shops, restaurants… We make a concerted effort to support our partner wine merchants when they organise events, especially when chefs and sommeliers are present.” Responding to on-trade demand, Beychevelle recently developed a new cuvée in partnership with Castel Châteaux & Grands Crus: Aspirant de Beychevelle. Produced in limited quantities from the 2016 vintage, Aspirant de Beychevelle is dedicated to the premium restaurant market, targeting “by the glass” service.
Leaning on the international reputation of its wines, the secret of Beychevelle’s lasting success resides in the “win-win” commercial strategy put in place by Philippe Blanc and his team. “We are dedicated to communicating meaningfully at every step of the product’s journey; from the merchant to the distributor, to store owners, sommeliers, and consumers... Everyone needs to be happy in order for the process to run smoothly. Our job is to make sure that our stakeholders feel valued,” reveals Blanc, adding “the ultimate goal is to please the consumer, to make sure that he or she is happy with the product and wants to taste Beychevelle again, to buy a bottle, to ask for it at a wine store or restaurant.” Beychevelle is especially attached to a younger market, making them a target for the 10, 20, 30 years to come.
The role of wine tourism
Since the 1980s, a time at which very few Bordeaux Grands Crus were open to the public, the property has seen wine tourism as a valuable means of communicating directly with consumers. In the 1990s, a dedicated hospitality team was set up to welcome visitors. Today, 10,000 people discover the estate every year. “We demonstrate our working methods, we show them our equipment, our techniques, our environment, our wines…” explains Blanc. “There is a clear demand. French and international tourists in Bordeaux come and visit us, and very often end up coming back. That is a great source of satisfaction and hope. It shows that we are not ‘has beens’, that people are curious and interested, that we can hold their attention.” The visit is structured according to demand, from simple tours to master classes featuring Philippe Blanc himself or the property’s Technical Director Romain Ducolomb. To prolong the experience, visitors are invited to dine at the Table de Beychevelle, which can be hired out for tailored events featuring award-winning chefs. Visitors can also spend the night in one of the Chateau’s thirteen fully renovated bedrooms. “We don’t welcome visitors just for the sake of it. Our aim is to create an immersive experience, to enable visitors to discover a whole way of life. Of course our priority is to make sure that people enjoy themselves, leave with a smile on their faces, and recommend Beychevelle to family and friends. Given that there has never been as much choice for the wine tourist as there is today, it’s a great source of pride for the owners, the team and myself that more and more people are choosing to come to Beychevelle.”