Winemaker of four French estates shares Wine Philosophy

Caroline Frey, winemaker of four estates in Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and Valais, speaks to Nimmi Malhotra about her wine philosophy

Le Chevalier de Sterimberg, now marketed under the new Domaine de la Chapelle.

Frey cares about birds. And bees, and bugs, and butterflies.

For a winemaker, birds can potentially pose a problem. In some vineyards, the vines are covered with nets to prevent the birds from noshing on the ripening fruit. But Frey won’t have it. She has rescued one too many distressed birds caught in the net’s webbing. It’s too dangerous for them, she says.

This 45-year-old is the owner, oenologist, and winemaker of not one, but three prestigious properties across France: the Third Growth left bank Château La Lagune in Bordeaux, Paul Jaboulet Ainé in North Rhône, and Château Corton C. in Burgundy. She also owns a small two-hectare vineyard in Valais, Switzerland.

Birds take on a different meaning in Frey’s pursuit of pure, lithe wines. She believes in biodiversity in the vineyard, enabling ecosystems where living things are in balance with each other and the environment. Birds, along with bees and different species of animals, are indicative of natural balance. “Biodiversity sustains life,” she says, “In organic farming and biodynamic areas, it is a question of considering the vine as a whole, as a living organism. Our role is, therefore, to strengthen and preserve the biodiversity around our vines.” All her vineyards are certified organic and practise biodynamic viticulture with cover crops in mid rows to cultivate soil diversity and good health. In a symbiotic ecosystem, one species looks after the other. Birds are insectivorous and act as natural pest managers.

Over the last two decades, Frey has created two biodiversity refuges in partnership with the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO): the Jalles du Ludon and Clos Gounon. One is a 34-hectare marshland near her estate in Bordeaux and is designed to foster reproduction, shelter and migration. The other, a seven-hectare reserve, is located in the heart of Crozes-Hermitage vineyards of Domaine de Thalabert, fostering ecological habitats. The success of these endeavours is counted in intangible and tangible ways, one of them being the return of different species of birds. For instance, at Clos Gounon, there are 35 species, as compared to 22 before the installation.

“It’s a natural balance that we want to preserve,” Frey elaborates, “When there are too many of one species, it’s because the overall balance is not good. The results we have had in our vineyards and our wines in recent years only reinforce my conviction that all these interactions of the living beings around the vine are essential for developing great wines.”

It started with the soil
Frey’s oenological journey started with La Lagune, the third growth estate in Haut Medoc. The Bordeaux property was acquired by her father, Jean Jacques Frey, in 2004. A billionaire
investor with holdings in Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Frey senior is known to turn failing estates around with tailored management and investment in the vineyard and cellar. Hence, the winemaking equipment was duly modernized, staff increased, and yields decreased. The focus has always been quality.

Frey heads the historic house of Paul Jaboulet Aîné spread across 120 hectares of vineyards in various appellations

For Frey, quality started with the soil. Her aim is to nourish and strengthen soils and vines in order to develop their natural resistance to disease and climate change. The recipe to achieve this requires no chemical intervention, mechanical cultivation or harmful chemical sprays against disease or pests. The nourishment comes in the form of biodynamic practices of cow manure and tonics like chamomile, yarrow, and dandelion tea infusions to improve the humus content in soils.

In the winery, the winemaking is gentler, and the maturation process is less reliant on oak. The oenology team is experimenting with concrete eggs and glass wine globes to develop the potential to make a great wine, which completely showcases its ‘terroir’ and is successful in preserving the purity and freshness of the wines. Following sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, the winery uses recyclable materials for the wine cartons, vegetable inks for printing, and lightweight bottles.

The latest vintage wines ranging from the Cabernet Sauvignon-led La Lagune and the Syrah-centric Paul Jaboulet Ainé to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy show a glistening purity of fruit. Not only that, but her cleaner approach to viticulture also preserves the terroirs, she says, and helps to cope with climatic conditions.

Frey is future proofing with newly-approved INAO (National Institute of Origin and Quality) varieties like Castets, which have roots in the region (Gironde). Castet is among the six new varietals allowed to be planted in Bordeaux, with a view to combat climate change with their ability to handle hydric stress in warmer temperatures and shorter growing cycles. At the same time, a part of the vineyard on clay soils is marked for white grapes — Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The first Bordeaux blancs from La Lagune are due to be released in the near future.

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Her singular focus on terroir and conscious practices have earned Frey the Chevalier de l’Ordre Nationale du Merite from the French government and the Amorim Biodiversity Prize at The Drinks Business Green Awards 2021.

La Chapelle is listed on the Place de Bordeaux
alongside the world’s greatest wines

Diversity in the Rhône Valley
A similar philosophy extends to the Rhône Valley, where Frey heads the historic house of Paul Jaboulet Aîné. Over 120 hectares of vineyards are spread over various appellations of the north and south — Condrieu, Cornas, St Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Côte Rotie and more. Then there are the exceptional vineyards on the hallowed granitic hill of Hermitage, which deliver the flagship red and white wines: La Chapelle and Le Chevalier de Sterimberg (now marketed under the new Domaine de la Chapelle).

Hermitage is considered the birthplace of Syrah and is broken into a series of lieux-dits (small geographical areas bearing a traditional vineyard name). La Chapelle, a pure Syrah, is sourced from three select sections: les Bessards, Les Rocoules and le Méal, each with a different microclimate and granitic soil makeup. The wine is capable of ageing for decades and is considered one of the premier wines of the entire Hermitage region.

This year, both the Hermitage wines were listed on La Place de Bordeaux. Only the top- tier Bordeaux and 100 most prestigious wines of the world have cracked a place on the Place’s shelves. Frey’s wines are the first two to be listed from the Rhône Valley. Frey announced at the time, “It is a great pride for La Chapelle to join the Place de Bordeaux alongside the world’s greatest wines.” The wines will be marketed under a new entity, Domaine de la Chapelle, with its own winery. Renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, known for projects like the Audemars Piguet Manufacture, and Noma restaurant, has been commissioned for this ambitious project.

Caroline Frey in the vineyard tasting grapes of different varieties to assess

Of white grapes and Valais
Working across four terroirs and a myriad grapes, I wondered if Frey had a preferred varietal. When pressed, she evaded the question. “It’s very interesting to have the experience of such a large panel of grapes. Usually, I like late- ripening grapes. They have more length and balance than the early ripening ones.”

One such grape is Petit Arvine, introduced to Frey by her late professor and mentor, Denis Dubourdieu, who instilled a love for white winemaking in her. This relatively unknown late-ripening varietal was one of his favoured grapes and is indigenous to the Valais region in Switzerland, home to Frey’s smallest estate, her private vineyard, Mon Jardin Secret.

Harvested grapes ready for the winery

The vineyard is located in Fully, in the western part of Valais, on granitic soils, 700 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains. Some slopes are covered with green outcropping, while others, naked, rocky, and majestic, hover over the glistening valley.

“I came to the area with Denis Dubourdieu, and I discovered this vineyard during a mountain trek,” she says, as she uncorks bottles of Petit Arvine 2019 and 2020 in the small chalet attached to her vineyard. The white wines in Bordeaux and Fully are a tribute to Denis Dubourdieu.

These are, for me, rare sips and a rarer visit. For starters, not many can visit this private vineyard, especially one called a secret garden, nor sample the minuscule production that comes out of her home winery. The Chasselas and Johannisberg Silvaner are blended in Les Grains Blanc, a fresh, textured wine with stone fruit notes. Petit Arvine, a dry, mineral-driven wine, is bottled unfiltered as a varietal.

Petit Arvine’s plantings reach across the mountains into Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, as do Frey’s roots. She discovered that one of her ancestors was a vigneron in the region. Could Italy be the next frontier for Frey Frey? “Yes, that could be a project for the future,” she said, laughing. “The idea would probably be to replant vines at the same place as my great- great-great-grandfather did. It is a place well known for good Nebbiolo.”

Petit Arvine, a relatively unknown late-ripening varietal is indigenous to the Valais region in Switzerland, home to Frey’s smallest estate, her private vineyard, Mon Jardin Secret