Under Saskia de Rothschild, things are changing at Domaines Barons de Rothschild. One of the newest members of the team is Juliette Couderc – who took over as Chief Operating Officer at Château l’Evangile in 2020, aged just 29. Sophie Thorpe sat down with the vigneron to talk about Lafite’s Pomerol sibling and the evolution at this prestigious stable of estates
Juliette Couderc didn’t have the easiest start at Château l’Evangile. She arrived in September 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, and just in time for the 2021 growing season – a vintage that saw incredible mildew pressure and a return to the chaptalisation that was, pre-climate change, normal for the region.
But the 31-year-old isn’t one to shy away from a battle. The Sunday before I spoke to her, she’d broken a finger playing rugby – something about which she was particularly blasé (it was “very, very blue”, she told me). Indeed, she used to play fullback for Narbonne’s team in the Fédérale 1 league, and now represents the local Libourne squad. In a wine region that is dominated by the slick and suited, she’s a breath of fresh air.
Born in the Charente, France, Couderc studied winemaking in Bordeaux and Montpellier before traveling to opposite ends of the earth – Chile and then New Zealand – to learn her craft. But L’Evangile – one of Pomerol’s most respected names – is a far cry from the wineries she started in. Both Escudo Rojo (a Mouton Rothschild project) and Wairau River in Marlborough were big operations, giving her exposure to larger-scale winemaking. She returned to France and worked her way through Burgundy and the Rhône before settling in the Languedoc for several years, focusing on viticulture. It was here that she first met Olivier Trégoat, who was then Technical Director of Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s projects in Chile, China and the Languedoc.
In 2017, he recruited her – then just 26 years old – to head up the vineyards for Long Dai, their winery in Shandong Province. She’d planned to only stay a year, but then she was made Technical Director, managing work in both the vineyards and winery. It was Covid’s arrival, along with China’s strict lockdowns, that saw her return home – and Olivier Trégoat, who had just taken the reins for L’Evangile and Rieussec gave the talented winemaker her next opportunity, as Chief Operating Officer at L’Evangile.
For the rest of the team – including a Cellar Master that had been there 20 years – she may not have been the obvious choice. Despite growing up just an hour away, the 29-year-old had never worked in Bordeaux, let alone one of the region’s top estates – one that is sibling to First Growth Château Lafite Rothschild.
“At the beginning, it was pretty stressful for me,” she confesses, “because I’m pretty young in comparison to the rest of the team.” But it didn’t take long for them to realize why she’d been chosen. She’s not the sort to sit behind a desk. She was instantly out in the vineyards and winery talking to the team, digging into the DNA of the estate – and gently starting to question why they did things this way and that.
Baron Eric de Rothschild bought shares in Château l’Evangile in 1990, taking full ownership in 1998. Significant investment and change followed, with a new winery completed in 2004, extensive replanting and an additional seven hectares bought to complement the original 15. Bearing in mind the Rothschild family has owned Lafite since 1868, L’Evangile is just a baby – but that hasn’t held them back. Robert Parker gave the 2009 vintage 100 points – and the estate has been a cult address ever since.
L’Evangile is big by Pomerol standards, with 22 hectares spread over various sites. Between four and five hectares sit on the appellation’s famous blue clay (shared by Pétrus), with the rest on sandy clay and gravel soils. It’s the Merlot from that blue clay that contributes the creaminess that is key to the property’s fingerprint – along with soft yet dense tannins. Couderc is looking to make sure that that fingerprint shines through in the wines, even with climate change.
Her appointment is part of an ongoing shift at Domaines Barons de Rothschild. Since Saskia de Rothschild took over in 2018, she’s been pushing for a new vision, putting Jean-Sébastien Philippe in place as her right-hand man, and a flurry of fresh faces throughout the company, with the hope to move from “aristocratic” to “up-to-date” – and certainly more approachable, breaking the fourth wall to talk to consumers. This is the new generation taking over at the highest level.
The broader vision is enormous, with the cornerstone establishing an agricultural ecosystem. They are reintroducing corridors of vegetation, establishing ponds and natural waterways, and planting cover crops to improve biodiversity and soil health. They’re re-structuring the vineyards, breaking up plots into smaller parcels, reducing vineyard density, re-orienting vines and adjusting the trellising, working on massal selections and trial plantings of different varieties, as well as moving towards biodynamics – all with extensive trials and studies to ensure changes are for the long-term. Indeed L’Evangile has become a “laboratory” of sorts for the family, with many of these changes introduced at the smaller estate before they are implemented at Lafite.
At L’Evangile, the aim has been to pull back – unmasking the terroir. Couderc is experimenting with ways to manage extremes – both drought conditions (as experienced in 2022) and mildew (as in 2021). One key from her point of view is managing the vineyard to retain freshness in the wines – reducing the canopy size and using cover crops, as well as farming both organically (certified since 2016) and biodynamically (certified since 2018).
When she first arrived, she plotted areas to harvest based on how the fruit tasted, planting flags to mark off areas, often stopping partway along a row. Although having done it “blind”, the final map matched up with the different soil types almost exactly. The differences between these parcels are particularly accentuated in hot years, with as much as a week between harvest dates for plots. And, as Couderc tells me, while once they might have waited a little, with warmer September days, finding exactly the right moment to pick has never been so important.
With each parcel harvested separately, it can be treated differently, Couderc explains – pushing the extraction of Merlot on the blue clay, for example, but being more careful for gravel-dominant sections which can bring overly “straight” tannins.
She’s also planting more Cabernet Franc, having seen the success of the variety on sandy plots. Naturally more resistant to mildew and bringing welcome freshness, she feels it will be key for the future – and aims to have it represent around 30% of the vineyards eventually (up from around 20% currently).
In the winery, élevage has been the focus – tweaking to find the right balance. She’s worked closely with Trégoat, Saskia de Rothschild and the cooper Taransaud to find the right oak profile, which has then been translated across three additional coopers (including the Rothschilds’ in-house operation) for barriques, as well as starting to use both foudres and amphorae. For Couderc, amphorae are tricky – with a risk of crude tannins, but the ability to emphasize tension and freshness which she likes, anticipating they will represent a small but important 8-15% of the final blend each vintage. Foudres were trialled on the second wine (Blason de l’Evangile) first, but will now also be used for the Grand Vin. With the natural generosity of Merlot, Couderc sees her job as “to keep the austerity, the freshness” of the wine – while also preserving the innate density of their terroir.
Tasting through a flight of vintages, it’s easy to see the transformation that is underway here. The 2015, for example, is one of the last “old-style” vintages, only enhanced by the generosity of the year. The wine is exotic, rich and ripe – a voluptuous, decadent wine that envelops you. By contrast, the 2019 and 2020 display a crunch and vibrancy, while not losing any of the property’s signature density. The 2022, meanwhile, manages to take the generosity of the year and contain it – with restrained precision and perfume, smooth but gravelly tannins and a seductively lighweight feel.
It’s clear already that Couderc is set to be a star – and L’Evangile will only rise higher with her.