Chateau Belle-Brise: Interview with Henri-Bruno de Coincy

By Gavin Smith

May 20th, 2020

Every year we look forward to our special visit to the tiny Pomerol property of Chateau Belle-Brise, a rather inconspicuous property with a “garden” vineyard of two hectares that produces just 800 cases a year. With such little production and a legion of loyal followers, not to mention its uniquely seductive almost Burgundian style often described as “the Musigny of Pomerol”, the wine is little known outside of an exclusive list of top restaurateurs, a few lucky distributors and their clients.

Unfortunately, this year we were not able to visit the property in person but we were able to enjoy the latest vintage sent directly to our homes, while we talked with owner and winemaker Henri-Bruno de Coincy remotely from the property. One thing is for sure, after tasting vintages from the property pretty much covering the last decade and beyond, the 2019 is easily one of the finest Belle-Brise ever to be made. An assessment shared with Henri, now in his 28th vintage at the Chateau.

We caught up with him to find out what is the secret behind this idiosyncratic Pomerol estate and why the 2019 vintage was so special.

Henri-Bruno de Coincy

Henri-Bruno is the 20th generation of the Armagnac-making de Coincy family, who have been producing Armagnac for an incredible 700 years. His family haven’t been making wine that long but his tiny Belle-Brise property has been making wine since the eighteenth century. Before 1991 it was never sold commercially but only made for family and friends of the winemaker. ​Henri-Bruno is married to a Burgundian and on tasting the wines of Belle-Brise you can’t help but feel her strong influence on the wine with its silk-like, elegant appeal. Or is it simply something unique about the site, the pre-1956 vines, the micro size of the operation or all of these combined that makes this little wine of Pomerol so unique?

The biggest change at Chateau Belle-Brise this year was the introduction of the neighbouring property of Chateau Corlacy as an additional wine in the Belle-Brise portfolio. Henri-Bruno bought the property back in 2018 and is really happy with the quality of the 2019, yet the production remains tiny, producing just 1,500 bottles from this 0.5 hectare site. But micro-vinification is what Henri-Bruno is all about. Production of Belle-Brise is also minuscule. Initially he was producing just 800 bottles per year. Today the production level is around 800 cases.

To taste the Chateau Corlacy 2019 alongside the Chateau Belle-Brise 2019 was not only a great opportunity to get an insight on the new project but also to better understand the uniqueness of the Belle-Brise site. There is no doubt that the Chateau Corlacy and Chateau Belle-Brise share many similarities. They both have very light touch and elegance when it comes to texture – no doubt the result of sharing the same winemaker and following exactly the same processes for both wines within the same tiny little winery. But what was most apparent was the fruit expression, structure and overall finesse of the Belle-Brise, giving the wine beautiful depth and composure.

An 120 year old vine at Chateau Belle-Brise

The Foundations of Chateau Belle-Brise

What is really special about the Belle-Brise vineyard is the age of the vines, over 100 of the vines are a staggering 120 years old. It is rare to find any vines in Pomerol dating back before 1956 following a devastating frost that destroyed virtually all the vineyards in the region. Many vines planted following 1956 were often more reliable clones but not as good in terms of quality. There is just a few of these old vines left dotted around Pomerol and Saint Emilion (most noticeably at Chateau Lafleur and Chateau Ausone). These are old cabernet franc and merlot vines and  their effect on the wine Henri believes, creates an overall elegance, finesse and depth of flavour on the palate that is something really special. The rest of the current vineyard was planted in 1956 and were propagated from the original surviving vines in the vineyard so all of the vines comes from the original clones and have impressive age, pushing average vine age closer to 70 years old. Henri-Bruno is cropping them at 30 hectolitres per hectare.

Henri-Bruno has often served his wine blind to his restaurateur clients and the wine is often mistaken for premium Burgundy. The similarity to Grand Cru Burgundy is difficult to fathom, completely different varieties, different climate yet the same silkiness and finesse and almost weightless power more akin to Grand Cru Burgundy with a touch more opulence you expect from Pomerol.

The vineyard contains a split of around 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. The soil has gravel on the surface and beneath, a layer of clay, chalk and crasse de fer (iron rich bands of sand that play an important role in the flavour characteristics of many top Pomerol wines). Exactly what effect in the final wine is a contested subject in itself. Many believe it is responsible for the truffle aromas commonly found in Pomerol wines. Others believe it provides viticultural benefits limiting vigour and excessive leaf growth, therefore producing smaller concentrated berries.

Natural Winemaking

For Henri-Bruno whilst an experienced brandy maker, his project in Pomerol was something he learnt on the job and was faced with a challenging start. 1991 being his first vintage in Pomerol, his crop largely decimated by frost meant he had a very small quantity to work with and not likely enough to be sold. It therefore meant he was free to experiment with the vintage and trial different approaches. This was followed by three very challenging vintages in Bordeaux (’92, ’93 and ’94). Over this period the climate had thrown everything at Henri-Bruno and he confessed it was a strong and testing learning curve for him. When the more successful vintages of 1995 and 1996 arrived he was ready to produce wine in his style with confidence.

This is artisan, natural winemaking. The wines are made using biodynamic and organic principles, and employ horses to work the vines.​ The grapes are all harvested within one day allowing pin-point accuracy on picking dates, then hand sorted only by women! (something Henri is very adamant about). Once picked and sorted the grapes are then left uncrushed in concrete vats in the winery. Henri then closes-up the cellar and leaves the grapes for five days, the natural coolness of the cellar retarding the fermentation process. After five days he returns, opens-up the cellar and as the heat of the day enters the cellar the grapes naturally begin to ferment from natural yeasts. There is no electricity on the site, everything is made much as it would have been for centuries. Henri believes the slow natural process is one of the key elements to the Belle-Brise method. Henri tends to pump over the juice twice a day over six to ten days depending on the vintage and then leaves the wine to settle in tank prior to pressing off the skins. A method not common as can runs the risk of contamination. However, Henri-Bruno believes this helps extract the delicate aromatics from the wine. He then carries out a very slow pressing of the skins using an old manual vertical process, another vital element to the process in retaining the delicate finesse typically found in Belle Brise. This method Henri states is not possible in larger estates being such a laborious and manual process. The wines are then matured in large 400 litre barrels (1/3 new, 1/3 one year old, 1/3 two year old), eschewing smaller barriques which Henri-Bruno feels has too strong an affectation on the wine.

The 2019 Vintage

For Henri-Bruno the secret to the 2019 was patience. Those that waited for the rains were the producers to benefit the most out of the 2019 vintage. It is rare to talk about rain prior to harvest with such glee but it was a very dry summer particularly in Pomerol and with Merlot quick to ripen it was tempting to pick early and stop the sugar levels getting even higher and pushing up the potential alcohol. But for a vigneron, who picks only on taste, his concern lay more with the phenolic ripeness of the pips. Tasting berries there was still greenness in the pips and so held off. The rain finally came on 21st of September – refreshing the vines and pushing the grapes through to final ripeness.

There is real freshness in the wines of 2019 despite the dryness of the summer. Henri-Bruno believes this is down to the all-important rain just prior to harvest. For him, what makes the 2019 vintage so special is that it has three elements in the wine that you rarely find together in a vintage – refined aromatic complexity, structure and deep colour. To have all these in combination is something very unusual.

On tasting the 2019 following fermentation the first impression was the velvety softness of the wine something Henri-Bruno equates to those final rain showers prior to harvest. Then the combination of fruit clarity infused with distinct structural depth and earthy seriousness from the terroir and the old vines. With 2019 all the elements are beautifully intertwined, producing a wine of exceptional balance. The final alcohol levels was 13.65% abv.

The Chateau Belle-Brise Drinking Window

Chateau Belle-Brise has always been a fairly accessible wine in youth with its compact but soft tannins already beautifully integrated. The approachability of the vintage more generally particularly with the wines on the right bank is already becoming a recurring theme with the 2019 vintage. For Henri-Bruno, Belle-Brise takes five years maturation in bottle before you benefit the full impact of the wine and then depending on your tastes drink beautifully over the next ten. His favourite vintage for drinking now is the 2012.

Tasting Note

“This wine is sold on its texture with concentrated yet silky, elegant tannins that even in youth are beautifully integrated. This plush silkiness certainly equates to the “Musigny of Pomerol” phrase that is often associated with this wine, it is surprisingly delicate for Pomerol, medium bodied but not without some intensity. The aromas are at this stage fairly brooding – ripe black cherry, dry spice, peppered meat, a touch of iron. Compared to its neighbouring vineyard (Chateau Corlacy) the depth of flavour is significant – there is all the fruit but better integrated with darker spices, earthy savoury tones as well as lifted floral perfumes, there is more power too. The tannins are beautifully ripe, delicately layered and bring a lovely sense of freshness to the finish. This is no blockbuster but if you like a more elegant approach to Pomerol, this comes highly recommended.”  - FINE+RARE

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