IN CONVERSATION WITH JOSÉPHINE DUFFAU-LAGARROSSE

In early June 2023, the Chelsea Vintners team were very privileged to join Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse for dinner on the eve of her thirty-third birthday. Over the course of a suitably convivial evening, we drank in both the stunning surroundings of the château and vineyard and some magnificent back vintages of Joséphine’s family wines, selected from the incredible network of limestone cellars which sit directly below the house. Joséphine has held the reins at her family’s estate, Château Beauséjour (formerly Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse) for less than three years, but her passion and energy is already bringing a new dynamism to an estate that is fast becoming one of the St-Émilion plateau’s most talked-about terroirs; we believe that Beauséjour will surely be one of the stalwarts of any great collection in years to come.

Our Head of Marketing Jess Lamb caught up with Joséphine to talk about her amazing journey from veterinary student to vigneron.

Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse at home in the Château Beauséjour winery.

                                                                                                                                       

The last few years have been a rollercoaster for you and your family estate. Can you tell us more about how you came to take charge at Château Beauséjour?

Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse) has been in my family since 1847 and I represent the ninth generation to make wine here, so it has been a huge part of our heritage for a very long time. However, in 2020, some of my family decided that they wanted to sell the estate. We had around thirty family shareholders, but apart from my father Vincent, who was the estate manager, they were mainly working outside the wine business and living across various parts of the world. This was a very sad time for me and the other members of my family who wanted to keep Beauséjour – we really love this place, not just for the wines but because it has always been a family home where we had holidays as children and created lots of memories with our grandparents.

I was working for the Bernard Magrez group as an estate manager at the time but decided to try and find someone to help us keep control. This was very hard in the beginning as I didn’t know anyone who could step in or how to approach people. However, I found a great opportunity in 2021 when I met Prisca Courtin-Clarins, who had recently become CEO of the Clarins Investments branch of her family business. Even though we are from completely different worlds we had this great feeling of two young businesswomen who shared the same energy and dynamic and had a lot in common in being from the same generation – she was 34 and I was 30 at the time. She understood how important it was to me to keep Beauséjour, and I think she was touched by the family story.

Prisca came to visit us in Bordeaux and, of course, she fell in love with the vineyard and our amazing underground cellar. It was a perfect match. She called me back twenty-four hours later after talking to her family and confirmed that we could make a joint bid for the estate. This was great news but not an easy time as there was also interest from the Cuvelier family at Clos Fourtet and the family Boüard from Angélus, both of whom very much wanted the site. It was a fight, but in the end, we succeeded! It was an amazing feeling and Prisca’s family were all very excited and proud as it was the first time they had invested in wine.

 

The view across the vineyards at Chateau Beauséjour

What is the working relationship between you and Prisca like now?

Prisca and I are a great match. She brings a huge amount of business savvy and I have all the winemaking knowhow, so the balance is perfect and I love working with her.

We speak almost every day via WhatsApp and I am always sending her updates on the vineyard – we have just planted a new parcel of Cabernet Franc and she had pictures of that every single day! It is very important for me to let her know what is happening in the vineyard as all the estate management and winemaking is completely new to her. She visits every two or three weeks
and we have an official meeting once a month to talk about the commercial and technical elements of what we are doing. It’s great because I am comfortable and completely free to make my own decisions in the vineyard, I just have to let Prisca know what I am doing and why. She is very keen to learn and understand and so I always explain in detail the reasons why I am making my decisions, which helps my thought process too.

I am very comfortable with the winemaking, of course, but the business and commercial aspects are completely new to me since we took over in the last two years and Prisca is an amazing help. It’s wonderful that she wants to be so involved in every part of the process. Earlier this year when we were releasing our 2022 vintage en primeur, we were calling each other every ten minutes before I sent the release email to the négociants! I was really stressed, but she simply said, I know you and I trust your decisions. There is a lot of pressure but it is great to learn from each other, we trust each other completely and have the shared goal of putting Beauséjour at the very top.

I think I’m very lucky. The Courtin family are great, and all check in with me regularly – particularly Prisca’s father and uncle, who always want to know what’s happening in the vineyard. They are lovely and always make sure I’m okay and supported … it’s a new family for Beauséjour.

Did you always want to be a winemaker?

In the beginning, no. I grew up with my parents in Lalande-de- Pomerol and my father worked in the vineyards (he managed Beauséjour and two other properties) whilst my mother was a lawyer. I remember joining my father for winter pruning when I was young, and I did not like it at all. It was hard because the cold made my hands painful, and I didn’t want to go back! I saw then that being a winemaker is not so easy because you cannot control everything, and most of the time it is nature that is in charge’ even when you are doing your best.

I still loved wine and appreciated it from a young age, but I decided to do something else and pursued veterinary studies for two years – but I came back very quickly. I really enjoyed this time, but veterinary school was very hard. I realised that I wanted to do something different every single day and that this career would not be enough for me.

So, in 2012 I went to Napa Valley and worked at Inglenook for seven months. I particularly enjoyed this period because I went to Las Vegas as well! I then returned to France and continued my studies, which included a year in Burgundy in 2014 for a Masters degree in wine trade and marketing. At the age of 25 I returned to Bordeaux briefly, but I really wanted to continue to travel, so I went to New Zealand for five months and then had the amazing opportunity to go to Mexico, where I worked at an estate in Chihuahua called Cavall7. This was a great experience, although I was amazed by the crazy way they drive in Mexico and did not dare to get behind the wheel of a car once!

I returned to Bordeaux at the end of 2015 but struggled to find a job, so I went to prune in Lalande-de-Pomerol, which was very ironic as I found myself going back to the very same thing I had hated as a child! I eventually went to work for the Bernard Magrez group, where I stayed until 2021 … and then there was the beginning of the new story.

These years were wonderful because in each place I learned something new. I studied extraction in Burgundy and was amazed by how different the reaction of Pinot Noir to a barrel is to Bordeaux grapes. Napa and New Zealand were very focused on new technology in the cellar and vineyard, and it made me reflect on the fact that here in Bordeaux we can be very traditional and sometimes a little slow moving. Lots of winemakers from the previous generations have not travelled as much as we do now – this is absolutely not a criticism as what they do is great and
has laid the foundations for new winemakers but it’s also helpful to have a different, dynamic point of view. My generation of winemakers are very well-travelled and we have social media and the internet, so we can learn a lot about what is going on around the world in a way that was not available to previous generations.

Do you think that it is easy to see this generational split between winemakers across Bordeaux?

I think in Bordeaux – and I guess this is the same around France, but I can only speak about the region I know – a lot of things are changing because of the different experiences that the new generation of winemakers are having. We are seeing techniques change, and new approaches such as more precise extraction mean that the taste of the wines is very different. They are just not the same wines we made ten years ago … but again, it is really important for me to make it clear that we are in no way against the last generation, because they did a great job here in the vineyard. In fact, we are inheriting everything, from the grapes we harvest to our passion for the wines, from this generation. The huge majority of the choices they made were extremely good and it’s thanks to them we have such great quality of grapes. Even if you have the best extraction and the most high-tech tools, you simply can’t make great wine without great grapes, and they took decisions that have left us with amazing fruit. There is no sense of split or opposition … it is simply that they are passing the baton to us.

Bordeaux is currently experiencing a period of very dynamic, exciting change. What are your thoughts on the future of the region?

It’s definitely very exciting for us to be making wine in Bordeaux at the moment, as we feel it changing so much. I think the main goal for me is to find balance in the vineyard with varietals and rootstocks; we are making choices to help the vines cope with climate change in the future. In my opinion we should take our time and pay attention because lots of fashionable but quite extreme decisions are being made and I’m not sure that is good. When you follow a trend, you can sometimes forget to think about the impact further down the line and as winemakers, we want to think in the long term. When I taste wine from Beauséjour (and Bordeaux in general) from the 1960s and 1970s I have this feeling that most of the winemakers of this period were not so radical as we are now. In my opinion, we don’t have to make changes just to follow trends. We just have to be steady, observe the vineyard and make the right decisions at the right times.

In fact, I really hope that we will be able to produce great wines like the last generation did without any new technology. I have never tasted the 1947 vintage, but people say that it is an incredible year and for me, this sums it up; that just two years after the end of World War Two, this legendary wine was made in an incredibly difficult time without any of the experience and knowledge we have today. This for me demonstrates that it’s not all about radical changes … sometimes you just need to relax and focus on what kind of wine you want to leave for the next generation.

The Chelsea Vintners team amongst the Beauséjour vines in June 2023

Do you think that winemaking in Bordeaux will be able to cope with climate change?

I think so, yes. I think that whilst we understand that the climate is changing, it is important that we don’t take drastic decisions – the vine is adaptable and so we must observe and take action based on what we see but not panic or move too quickly. We will do things because the vineyard tells us that they are needed, not because we think we should. I learned about this when I worked in the Médoc at Château La Tour Carnet; they have a collection of around seventy- five different grape varietals and do experiments with each one. As a result, when I was there I had the opportunity to taste all of them, including the new approved varietals that the region has recently permitted for use in Bordeaux AOC wines. They aren’t bad, but it is just not the same as the classic wines of our region. In a blind tasting, you would never say that any of them were a Bordeaux wine, and this is why we should be careful. We don’t want to lose those things that make us unique and special.

We need to keep climate change in mind and it’s interesting to experiment and make sure we are trying lots of new things, but there is still plenty we can do in terms of vineyard management to help our vines without resorting to drastic measures!

What is your vision for the future of Beauséjour?

Currently we are classified as Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’, and one of the goals that Prisca and I have is to become a Classé ‘A’ property alongside Figeac and Pavie – but this is not our only ambition. For me, achieving the Classé A classification is not a question of if, but when, and so we want to go further and become a truly iconic international wine brand. I will be happy in ten years if the people who really appreciate wine include Beauséjour on their wish list of ultimate wines from around the world and are excited to get even just one case or a few bottles of each release, because they have to have these wines … and I know that we will do it.

We want to show people what makes us so special, but for me it’s not always easy to explain because I think it is so obvious! It’s so easy to say terroir – we have an amazing place at the very top of the St-Émilion limestone plateau, and visitors love to see our underground cellar carved out of the rock – but it is also much more than that. I think when people visit Beauséjour they feel that it is different from many other estates because we are so authentic. It is not just a question of terroir but a question of soul. We are just five people working on the estate because we love it, and you can feel this in everything we do.

This kind of simplicity for me can be very hard to find and I am very keen to preserve this even when Beauséjour does become iconic in the way that we hope. I want people to be surprised when they come here and to be absorbed by the authenticity of the place, the people and the landscape. I also want people to feel that Beauséjour is a wine that you drink. For me, it is the kind of wine that should be opened and shared and used to create memories with. I don’t want to make wine to just put it away in the cellar and not be enjoyed. We need to drink it!

The 2022 en primeur was your second campaign since taking over at Beauséjour. How was that experience compared to 2021?

I enjoyed 2022 very much, especially because 2021 was a very different, complicated experience. The 2021 en primeur campaign came only two months after Prisca and I first took over the estate and it all happened very quickly. I don’t know if it’s the publicity that Beauséjour has had since we have become the new owners or the amazing quality of the ‘22 vintage, but this year in 2022 we had at least 40% more people visiting us at the estate. Camille (de Villenaut, co-technical director of the estate) and I had to share the appointments because so many people wanted to visit us and taste, it was completely crazy. On Monday we had our usual planned appointments but then all the rest of the week I was receiving texts from people who had had conversations with their colleagues and friends and wanted to come and see us as a result. When we finally finished at 7:30pm on Friday night we have never felt so exhausted!

It was a great experience, we felt so much more confident than we did in 2021 and it was wonderful to receive such excellent feedback from our guests on the wine. When it came to the release day for the 2022 we had everything sold out within two hours, and I was receiving lots of messages from people who were happy with their allocations but also many who wanted more! It was so good to see that because I believe it shows that people are not only putting their trust in Beauséjour but also putting their trust in Prisca and I.

We are finding our feet more every day and it feels like we are going in exactly the right direction.

Whilst we are eagerly awaiting future releases from Beauséjour, are there any back vintages that Bordeaux lovers should be exploring now?

That’s a very good question, because we are in such an interesting place right now in Bordeaux and it is very difficult to predict exactly what our wines will be like in fifty years, so it is very important to celebrate our wines from the past as we go into the future. For drinking now, I absolutely love where our 2001 is at this point, and actually the ‘15 as well. I tasted the 2015 very recently and was happy and surprised to find that it is not difficult at all to drink, it is really starting to open up and I think will keep getting better for a long time.

However, for me the ultimate Beauséjour wine has to be the 1990 vintage, a legendary release that was our first vintage to receive 100 Parker points and was the wine that really began to put us on the map in people’s minds. It’s also my birth vintage so I really love it for that reason too. We are seeing that it’s not so easy to find it now as so many people want it and the price is skyrocketing to 700 or 800 Euros a bottle – which I think is crazy, we could never have predicted that people would want to drink Beauséjour so much! The 1990 embodies exactly what our vision is for Beauséjour … iconic but authentic.

Tokaji, the Beauséjour winery dog

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