Until I joined Vinfolio, the US arm of our business, I hadn’t heard of Ch. Belle-Brise. But I rapidly fell in love with this little-known, yet much-loved Pomerol property.
Our retrospective was to be held at three-star Michelin SingleThread in Healdsburg (Sonoma County, California), and examine 23 vintages of Belle-Brise, from 2020 all the way back to 1993. As proprietor Henri-Bruno de Coincy unfortunately couldn’t make it to our event, I was tasked with hosting on his behalf, and gave him a call to learn more about what he feels are the most important details to share about his property. (My degree in French, which was instrumental in my becoming a sommelier, proved to be quite useful. While M de Coincy speaks four languages, English is not one of them.) During our conversation, I confirmed the embarrassment of riches as far as what sets Belle Brise apart from its illustrious neighbours.
Located in the southwestern corner of the already diminutive Pomerol appellation, Belle-Brise consists of only two hectares (around five acres) of vines. Planted to 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, the vines average 70 years in age, with some 110 years old. The vines are farmed biodynamically, using horses to complete the necessary labour in the vineyard. While the subsoils have a mix of clay and sand, they also possess the famous crasse de fer – the iron-rich sand that is said to impart the aroma of truffles, a facet which only reveals itself as the wine ages. M de Coincy refers to Belle-Brise as his “jardin” (indeed, while the family spends much of their time in Armagnac, the house at the heart of the vineyard is very much their second home) and takes great pride in the fact that everything can be harvested by hand in a single day.
Wine has been made at Belle-Brise since the 18th century, but the property did not see its first commercial release until 1991, after M de Coincy acquired the estate, with the wine sold only to family and friends before that date. If you are familiar with your Bordeaux vintages, you will know that 1991, ’92, and ’93 were all extremely difficult harvests. While not the auspicious start he may have hoped for, it did offer an opportunity to explore the vineyard and learn how to best care for it.
Today the winemaking is identical from year to year, with the vintage – and site – speaking loudest. The wines are fermented in concrete before being placed in a third new, a third second-use and a third third-use 400-litre barrels, the traditional size used for Armagnac, rather than the more conventional 225-litre Bordeaux barrique. The Coincy family has been making Armagnac for 32 generations and over 700 years, so the exact size is not arbitrary, but the decision to use larger barrels is also deliberate – reducing the impact of the wood on the final wine.
While the story of the château and the history of the De Coincys are both compelling, I must return to what is most important to keep in mind when tasting Belle-Brise: elegance and finesse. Serving Pomerol with kaiseki-influenced Japanese cuisine (as at SingleThread) may not be the obvious choice, however the delicacy of the wines ensured that the harmony of the dishes was kept intact, leading to many unexpected moments of delight.
Unsurprisingly, exceptional vintages were beautifully cohesive and balanced, however, it was the less well-respected vintages (2011, 2004, 2002, 2018 and 2008, among others) that truly showed how attention to detail and care can surmount challenges that nature may present. While we were not able to taste every vintage of Belle-Brise (with the tiny volumes produced, the family simply doesn’t have stocks of everything), this retrospective tasting was one of the largest ever presented.
The favourite vintage among guests on the night was 2011, a vintage which also came up in my conversation with M de Coincy, as it has been chosen as the “desert island” of wine professionals and aficionados many times before. The most interesting flight for me came later in the meal, with the 2004, ’03, and ’02 grouped together. These vintages all presented different challenges during the growing season. The 2002 saw extreme rain in many parts of France, with heavy downpours affecting flowering and fruit set. The 2003 saw a summer with extreme heat, which taught many lessons that were applied in 2022. Lastly, the 2004 had a larger harvest on the whole, but the vintage is often forgotten, left in 2005’s long shadow. In the glass, however, the 2002 was pure and bright, with the 2003 showing its suntan but still refined, and the 2004 had a concentration and depth that was remarkable (especially as the wines were all around two decades old).
Regardless of vintage, elegance and finesse were constant throughout the entire evening, reminding me of a concept I learned in one of my French philosophy classes at university. If my memory serves me correctly, Michel de Montaigne proposed in his Essais the concept of a “forme maîtrise” or master form when referring to the evolution of a person as they age, and as something that cannot be easily defined in simple terms. While I am now much different than I was at age five, 15, 25, etc, there is still a governing sense of self (or possibly a single thread) that connects the person writing this to the child I once was. As we continued to taste through the vintages of Belle Brise, this forme maîtrise kept asserting itself, via the performance of the wine in the glass, reminding me of the “garden” where these wines were made.
As many of the variables seen at other châteaux (differing blends, oak regimes, etc) remain constant at Belle-Brise year after year, one can focus on the vintage and its effect on the wine in the glass. This results in a singular experience, when one can truly feel the sense of place that only certain wines can offer.