Since Bruno-Eugène Borie took over Ch. Ducru-Beaucaillou in 2003, the estate has become one of the best-known and most-loved properties in Bordeaux. The 2023 vintage will be his 20th at the helm – during which time the estate, and the region, have been transformed.
“Everything has changed, and nothing has changed,” Borie says, laughing. “Go all the way back to 1720. Even then, Ducru was trying to improve and adapt to current market conditions.” While he insists that Ducru’s quest to produce the best wine possible dates back centuries, facilitating that motivation has not always been easy.
Bordeaux thrived throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, prior to the arrival of phylloxera in 1875. The economic turmoil in Europe during the first half of the 20th century was even more challenging, and the recovery slow. It’s only really in the 21st century that many of the top Bordeaux estates have regained the resources and clawed back their premiership.
Borie took over Ducru at a key turning point for the region – with both the climate and markets rapidly changing. Economic reform in China led to a huge influx of new customers for the fine wine market, and Bordeaux in particular. “China represents 30-40% of the Bordeaux sales today,” says Borie. “It changed everything.” For Borie, this sudden and huge expansion of the market began to lure investors from all over the world. As investment flooded into the region, new wineries, new equipment, new viticulture and new technology began to pop up everywhere. “More investors meant more managers, and more managers hired innovators,” says Borie. It facilitated a whole qualitative movement that, he believes, is behind so much innovation in the region.
But the investment in Bordeaux was not the only factor behind the big changes at Ducru. Borie’s decision to slash production had a huge impact on the estate. Before he took over, the property made around 15,000-20,000 cases of the Grand Vin. Today, it’s closer to 7,500 to 8000. Few estate owners can attest to such a dramatic drop in yield for the sake of quality. Such a bold move was certainly helped by Ducru’s independence – it is one of the few Classed Growths that is still 100% family-owned. And the risk has paid off, with Ducru regularly competing for wine of the vintage in the Médoc.
Climate also brought about big changes at the property. Borie’s first year in charge – 2003 – was the hottest on record. Soaring temperatures were causing havoc all over France and not just in the vineyards. “People were dying on the streets of Paris,” recalls Borie. He remembers his viticulturist at the time came to him in June, suggesting they start leaf-thinning the vines (removing leaves, opening up the canopy and bring more sunshine to aid ripening). With the vintage’s blazing sun, Borie thought it was madness. “People did it because it’s what they always did,” says Borie. But he resisted. He quickly realized it would be the weather – rather than tradition – that dictated work in the vineyard going forward. As harvest dates crept forward, the days of an August off at the beach were disappearing. Everything was changing.
While the investment and innovation in these early years coincided with rapid change in the region, it is over the last 10 years that Borie has witnessed the most impactful changes in Bordeaux. In the vineyard, these changes have not arisen from flashy new machinery, but in the strategic employment of companion planting and cover crops. These agricultural techniques have been used through the ages, but, Borie believes, never as dynamically and rigorously as today.
“We plant a certain type of radish in the vineyard where we find compaction, this opens the soil and creates more oxygen. We plant alfalfa at the beginning of spring where needed, bringing nitrogen to the soil at the right time,” he explains. The control of organic matter, Borie believes, is the key to healthy soils, healthy vines and, most importantly, the quality of the grapes. But, Borie is quick to emphasize, this is not simply a revived practice from the days before chemical farming. For Borie, the science behind which and what cover and companion crops to use is much more advanced. Practices are no longer habitual, but much more scientific. “The companion planting of crops between the rows is very new,” says Borie. “Each plot has different requirements.” It doesn’t always work. Borie recounts how the planting of sorghum to encourage the root development of the vines resulted in a nematode infestation (a pest similar to phylloxera) – and the sorghum was quickly replaced. They’re still learning, admits Borie, but he’s convinced the vineyards have never been in better shape.
Over the last 10 years, there have also been technological developments in the winery too. Borie is very proud of his “smart” tanks – which analyze the must and wine throughout fermentation, 24 hours a day. It’s a game changer for Borie who has been experimenting with them since 2019. In recent vintages, the Grand Vin has been made exclusively in these tanks. The information these tanks provide is perfect for monitoring temperatures and maceration levels – allowing Ducru to get the best out of the tannins without over-extracting. With live updates on what’s going on inside the tank (and no need to manually take a reading), they can adapt their processes instantly.
Ducru has always been family-owned – giving Borie a sense of responsibility and duty. He still lives at the estate, making it one of the very few inhabited châteaux in the Médoc. Borie resides in one of its famous towers, while his mother (95 years old) lives in the other (and still enjoys two glasses of wine for lunch and one for dinner).
As custodians of the estate, Borie – and his mother – have witnessed many changes. And as Borie has grown accustomed to greater precision in the vineyard and winery, he has returned to consider older vintages in the estate’s cellars. He and his team set about checking every mature bottling, re-corking only those in perfect condition and destroying the rest. These bottles are more than history, they represent his family – and his sense of duty to their reputation has been the driver behind many similarly costly projects over his 20-year tenure.
Having the opportunity to taste the entire range from Ch. Ducru-Beaucaillou from the magnificent 2019 vintage (now all in bottle) was a wonderful experience. Across the range, it is the textural quality of the wines that really stands out. The clarity of fruit – which Ducru has become renowned for – is also apparent. The quality of the Grand Vin, however, is so impressive – the depth and concentration, the layering of abundant tannins while never losing its finesse. Even at such a young age, its drinkability is a perfect example of contemporary Bordeaux with that extra level of precision. Tasting the 2005 alongside proved how well the wines at Ducru age. Still youthful with plenty of fruit, the first hints of midlife tertiary development bring so much complexity to the palate. It was only Borie’s third vintage, but the lower yields produced a wine of incredible concentration and balance.
The fortunes of history and the new wealth in Bordeaux has benefitted practically every property in the region but few have been so effective at capitalizing on it than Ducru. The transformation of this Saint-Julien property, both in the vineyard and winery, is impressive but there is, Borie believes, still room for improvement. His latest investment is a state-of-the-art winery planned for completion in 2024. With Borie in the driving seat and committed to championing the Super Second’s – and his family’s – reputation, Ducru-Beaucaillou is in a safe pair of hands.