Château Pichon Comtesse has sat as a jewel of the Bordeaux Left Bank, looking every inch the fairytale palace, since the 17th Century. Throughout its history, only two families have been responsible for maintaining its outstanding reputation and, in 2012, a then-38-year-old Nicolas Glumineau began making his mark in the vineyard’s legacy, as directeur général.
Glumineau’s own history is similarly steeped in romanticism, with a CV which reads like that of a Bond villain — he has a Masters degree in genetics, is an accomplished operatic singer, and served time in the French Special Services.
Intrigued, we sat with this polymath to discover why the wine industry is where he has found his true calling, how an industry riddled with arrogance can reinvent itself, and what it takes to produce some of the finest wine in Bordeaux…
Biodynamics: where science meets emotion
“People today are quick to say, ‘you have to be organic!’ or ‘you should be using biodynamics’, but nobody really understands what that means,” claims Glumineau. “Former generations applied a form of biodynamics to viticulture before it was ever given that name — it was simply the traditional technique.”
"It can be hard to admit that a lot of biodynamics is a romantic notion, rather than one which has been empirically proven..."
“Biodynamics means taking into account the Moon cycle, the planets and our close proximity to the ocean. Where our vineyard sits, between the river and the sea, there is a kind of game being played out between the air and the water and our land exists in a microclimate.”
It all sounds rather romantic, doesn’t it? “Most of us in the vineyard have a scientific background, so it can be hard to admit that a lot of biodynamics is a romantic notion, rather than one which has been empirically explained or proven. There are things that work — and we just don’t know why.”
"As Socrates said: ‘I know that I know nothing!"
So, why is it that vineyards such as Nicolas’ are only now waking up to the biodynamic processes? He laughs, “It’s not that I wasn’t convinced by biodynamics, I simply didn’t know anything about it. As Socrates said: ‘I know that I know nothing!’”
You get the sense that Glumineau relishes the opportunity to be amongst the first vineyards to discover the true potential of these underused techniques.
He has also put his money where his mouth is: with 15 of his 90 hectares operating using biodynamics, this is no longer a trial for the group.
A changing landscape
The Millennial generation have heralded in a new era, by overtaking the Baby-boomers with their wine consumption. And today’s younger generation are not simply drinking more wine to get drunk over a heavy weekend, but developing a deeper understanding of where and how their glass been created.
How is this affecting an industry which has been rooted in an often aloof tradition for so long?
“I think that we probably have to reinvent our communication across the industry,” says Glumineau, “and above all if you are French and from Bordeaux! Our image is that we can be arrogant and snobbish, I know. But, at the end of the day, it is only wine!”
“The real hero is in the glass — and I might know everything about what went into its production, but who cares? It isn’t about me. It’s about a bottle that we will open together and share. It’s all about experience and wine is so much more than a beverage, it is a produce which comes from the Earth through agriculture. We have made it, so now let’s share!”
"It’s all about culture and humankind..."
It isn’t simply a younger generation changing wine’s consumer landscape, but a growing appetite in hitherto untapped regions. “From the business perspective, in 25 years the bottled wine market has evolved so much. It is no longer simply London, Paris, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong — it has exploded across the whole world.
We have the chance now to talk about wine as we want to talk about it, not simply as an exclusive product, but as something which we are going to share. It’s all about culture and humankind.”
Opera and wine-making: A perfect pairing
Nicolas might only sing in the shower these days, but his operatic training shares more in common with his winemaking than you’d first imagine. “Opera singing is like being nude on stage, it’s your voice and nothing else.
You have to be good, and if you’re singing Mozart’s Requiem you know that everyone in the audience had heard in a million times before. It has to be perfect, and it’s all about bringing emotion to the audience.”
“So many things in our job as winegrowers and winemakers are about the feelings and the sensations. We benefit from the research and analysis done in labs, but a machine can only tell you so much.
"Music and wine both have to express something, the magic comes from what they give you in terms of sensations..."
There comes a time when you have to eat the berries and crush the pips to feel the tannins and and only you can say ‘OK, I want to pick the grapes today, or tomorrow morning, or in three days time’. It’s all about your personal ability to taste the components of the grapes.”
A lifelong affair…
“The key thing I have learnt is that balance is everything. And that is what is so fascinating about the job – it is different every year. Every year, you have to make a new baby from scratch, and you cannot compare the different vintages, because they have been produced differently.”
Does he have any parting wisdom, or piece of advice for young winemakers today?
“Once you are able to keep in mind that it’s all about keeping the balance, that is the key to letting your terroir express itself. We are here to serve the terroir, and our tools are the grapes. Using the vine, how can we express what the earth and soil want to tell us?”
Suddenly, Nicolas is tipping back his head and laughing, “Wow! It might be a little too early in the morning for so much philosophy!”
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