At first glance, Clos Manou might seem run-of-the-mill. But this small estate in the Médoc is far from it. We sat down with Stéphane Dief to talk about how a hobby became his life, the freedom of a fresh start, and why his family’s wines are worth seeking out
“It’s difficult when you don’t have vines, a winery, any equipment or money,” Stéphane Dief – co-owner and winemaker at Clos Manou – tells me. “You say you want to be a winemaker, but it is complicated. Our advantage, however, was being able to do exactly what we wanted.” Over the last 25 years, he and his wife Françoise have slowly grown their tiny estate in the northern reaches of the Médoc, beyond Saint-Estèphe, where they make wine that offers some of the best value in the region.
Saint-Christoly-Médoc – the miniscule village that is home to their domaine – is where Stéphane grew up, while Françoise is from less than 15km away. Although Françoise’s family had vines, neither she nor Stéphane were working in the production side of the business, but they fell in love with wine. Via his brothers-in-law – who worked at Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Rauzan-Sègla – Stéphane started tasting some special wines, buying older vintages at auction – and was soon determined to give it a go himself.
Together, the couple bought a mere 12 hectares and produced their first vintage in 1998, 600 bottles that they labeled as Clos Manou – “Clos” because they felt it wasn’t grand enough to use “Château”, and “Manou”, Stéphane’s nickname. It was such a success that their hobby rapidly became a full-time gig and the duo left their day jobs in 2000.
In some ways it doesn’t sound like they were doing anything remarkable. They wanted to make attractive wines that reflected their site, and to do so with precision and care. Their ambitions were modest. And yet, for Bordeaux, their small-scale, hand-crafted approach was – and is – atypical.
They sought out specific parcels of old vines, those planted before clonal material became commonplace, favoring the natural complexity of massal selection. They chose to work only with high-density vineyards – around 10,000 vines per hectare, a point at which Stéphane feels the vines self-regulate, meaning there’s no need to green harvest and often less de-leafing required.
In principle, they are close to organic – however, in a bid to avoid dependency on copper, they use bio-controls that aren’t permitted under organics, specifically phosphonic acid. They don’t use any herbicides, insecticides or chemicals – but believe that copper, as a heavy metal that kills soil’s microbiome, is best used minimally, and they prefer to use something that doesn’t leave trace levels in the final wine.
Almost everything is done by hand, with 12 full-time employees working on the estate. There are no protocols or routines. “We do things by watching, observing our vines and drawing conclusions and echoing those conclusions the following year,” Stéphane says.
The 2003 vintage was a turning point. Robert Parker gave the wine 93 points – an incredible score for such a modest Médoc, writing that it was “better than many of the vintage’s ‘big’ names”, “drop-dead-gorgeous” and a “prodigious effort”. Given the critic was at his peak, his influence was significant – and suddenly Clos Manou was in enormous demand.
“C’est notre métier, mais notre passion aussi,” Stéphane says – “It’s our profession, but it’s our passion too.” That explains perhaps why, for 11 years, he didn’t take a day off. “My wife wasn’t very happy with me,” Stéphane tells me, laughing cheekily.
Today they have 18.5 hectares of vines, scattered between Saint-Christoly-Médoc and Couquèques, all within a three-kilometer radius. They sit across three different soil types – gravel over clay, limestone-clay and sand, with some sitting very close to the estuary itself. Stéphane thinks of them as three children – one of which, the gravel over clay, is naturally gifted. But just because the other two need a bit more work, doesn’t mean they are any lesser. There is, he says, no such thing as “un petit terroir”. One special parcel dates back to 1850. Planted before phylloxera swept through the region, it’s managed to survive thanks to its sandy soils. In certain vintages they make a special “Cuvée 1850” from the block.
Despite the vines averaging 45 years in age, the yields are generally good – sitting at around 50hl/ha. Stéphane emphasizes that low yields don’t equate to better quality, necessarily – the balance of your vines is what matters most.
It’s undeniable that climate change has been a benefit here, beyond Saint-Estèphe, where once it was a struggle to ripen fruit. In 2018, Clos Manou had 15% alcohol – but, thanks to their clay soils, the pH was a vibrant 3.52, bringing great freshness to balance the wine. He’s still thinking about the long-term impact of the rising mercury, however, and experimenting with small portions of whole-bunch, inspired by the likes of Guillaume Pouthier at Les Carmes Haut-Brion. Stéphane feels that it can add tension and make the wines feel more dynamic, even on just 5% of the blend.
“On est des vrais vignerons – comme il y a en Bourgogne,” Stéphane tells me (“We are true vignerons – as there are in Burgundy”). Unlike larger properties where there are various directors who influence decisions – it’s just them deciding what to do. Despite looking further afield for their inspiration, he and Françoise don’t want to go against the grain of the region. “We want to be a bit unorthodox, but we are nevertheless Bordelais,” he says.
Clos Manou is, in essence, a family business. There’s nothing remarkable about their modest ways, but their freedom to start with a blank page has allowed them to create something that is no longer the norm. Inspired by the Bordeaux of yesteryear, everything is low-tech yet done with great precision. The wines are fresh and pure, yet distinctly savory and earthy – with a natural intensity that points to their old vines. You can see the addition of larger oak and amphorae in more recent vintages, bringing more vibrancy. They are somehow rustic yet fine. Little has changed here since 1998; let’s hope that that remains the case, and the Dief family continue to craft humble expressions of Bordeaux that are very much extraordinary.