A conversation with Hélène Garcin- Lévêque

by Marla Norman-Freytag, Publisher

Château Barde-Haut, vineyards and estate of Hélène Garcin-Lévêque

Hélène Garcin-Lévêque takes a hands-on approach to manage her vineyards in Bordeaux and Argentina.

To overstate the prestige and cachet of Bordeaux is impossible. The region has been dedicated to wine growing for centuries, even before the Romans conquered the area and named it Burdigala. And Bordeaux’s legendary reputation for quality and longevity fetch top dollar in wine auctions, where single bottles often sell for over $2,000.

So, to be a superstar among such a celebrated and influential group is something rare. Vignobles Garcin under the proprietorship of Hélène Garcin-Lévèque has demonstrated, over the past decade, that their outstanding vineyard management and quality winemaking team are producing some of the world’s most highly-rated wines.

For example, during years in which Bordeaux experienced poor growing conditions (2012, 2011 and 2008) Vignobles Garcin still managed to produce highly-rated wines: Château Branon received ratings of 92-94 (2012), 92-94 (2011), and 92 (2008); while Château Barde- Haut received 90-93 (2012), 90-92 (2011), and 93 (2008); Château Haut-Bergey 90-93 (2012), 90-93 (2011), and 94 (2008); Clos L’Eglise 92-95 (2012), 91-94 (2011), 91 (2008).

During years with particularly optimal growing conditions, ratings for the Garcin properties are impressively high as well: Château Branon 97 (2010), 98 (2009), 96 (2005); Château Barde-Haut 93 (2010), 94 (2009), 93 (2005); Château Haut- Bergey 93 (2010), 94 (2009), 92 (2005), Clos L’Eglise 95 (2010), 98 (2009), 96 (2005).

Hélène Garcin-Lévèque discusses her properties and collection of highly-regarded vintages: “Each wine we produce is unique. They’re like our kids,” she taps a nearby table for emphasis. “Maybe there are similarities, but each is an individual. So, we have to approach each one a little differently.”

We’re sitting at a cafe in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida -- thousands of miles away from the vineyards Hélène owns and manages with her family. The Garcin vineyard inventory is nothing short of remarkable -- four ultra-premium Châteaux in Bordeaux:

Clos L’Eglise dates back to the 18th Century and is located in the Pomerol region of Bordeaux to the northwest of St. Emilion. Nearby is Châteaux Petrus known for extraordinary wine, consistently selling for upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

Château Haut-Bergey was established in the 15th Century. The property's magnificent castle has been completely restored.

Château Haut-Bergey was established in the 15th Century. By 1700, the estate was approximately 247 acres. In 1850, a magnificent castle was reconstructed.

Château Branon is the site of one of the oldest stone wine presses in the region. Abandoned for many years, the Château has made an incredible comeback and now produces 5,000 bottles of wine annually.

Château Barde-Haut is where Hélène, her husband Patrice Lévêque and son Louis live. The property boasts a new state-of-the-art “green” winery -- built entirely from oxidized steel -- a dramatic departure from traditional Bordeaux styles.

Château Clos L’Eglise, vineyards and estate is located in the Pomerol region of Bordeaux and dates back to the 18th Century.

Hélène, her husband Patrice Lévêque and son Louis live in Château Barde-Haut.

Additionally, Hélène and Patrice own another vineyard in Argentina’s spectacular Mendoza. Their Bodega Poesia was established in 1935, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

Bodega Poesia, located in Mendoza, Argentina's superb wine-growing region.

Victoire Girard, U.S. sales manager for Vignobles Garcin and proprietress Hélène Garcin-Lévêque at the South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival.

Needless to say, managing the viticulture and international sales for the five vineyards keep the couple traveling constantly. When I catch up to Hélène, she and her U.S. sales manager, Victoire Girard, are presenting wines at the South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival.

So today you’re in northern Florida. Just yesterday you were in Argentina harvesting grapes for Poesia. After a few more sales presentations here in the States, you head back to France to pick up with the four Bordeaux properties. How do you manage all the travel and demands on your time?

I have a lot of help! We have a great team of people in both Bordeaux and Mendoza to assist with every phase of the operation. And we really do function as a team. Everyone is important. Patrice and Brian Chesseborough are the winemakers. Brian is originally from California -- has degrees in Enology and Viticulture from Fresno State University. He travels all over too -- even more than me.

Also the fact that the seasons are reversed in Argentina from Europe is a huge help. We had looked at property in California at one point, but decided that since harvests are at the same time as Bordeaux, there was no way we could manage a U.S. property. Argentina works perfectly.

And really, our schedules are pretty manageable. The fall is the only time that’s difficult. Harvest is crazy! Everyone knows not to talk to me then.

With the four Châteaux in Bordeaux -- arguably one of the most coveted wine-growing regions in the world -- why did you decide to expand in Argentina?

Mostly because Patrice and I wanted something of our own. We share the Bordeaux properties with the family, which is great, but we wanted to build something that was exclusively ours. Plus, I felt a connection immediately with Mendoza. It reminded me of my childhood home in the French Alps. It was a kind of Garden of Eden. That’s why I named it Poetry or “Poesia.”

We also thought there was a real opportunity in Argentina to develop Bordeaux-style wines that can compete with any of the high-end wines going for thousands of dollars. The terroir is superb and we cellar our Poesia wines, just as we do our French wines. They have great complexity and elegant flavor. They’ll be wonderful 35 years from now.

How have Argentines responded to your Poesia wines?

The Argentines have been extremely supportive. They’re quite proud of their wines anyway and very enthusiastic about developing a higher-level product. Over 30% of the Poesia wine is sold in Argentina. Another 50% goes to the U.S.; the remaining 20% is exported throughout the world.

How do the sales percentages break out for your Bordeaux wines?

We export 90% and of that 70% goes to Asia.

You built a new “green” facility at Barde-Haut. Are you moving into biodynamic cultivation for all your wineries?

We don’t use chemicals in any of our vineyards. But I wouldn’t say we’re biodynamic exactly. We till mechanically, although the grapes are picked and sorted by hand. In Argentina we were certified as an “organic” vineyard at one point. But eventually the certification seemed to be more of a government tax than an actual evaluation, so we didn’t reapply for it.

New "Green" production facility at Château Barde-Haut.

Cellars at Château Barde-Haut.

Then Hélène turns the tables: “I have a question for you -- can you ride a bike? Let’s ride to the beach and talk there.”

So off we go! We make arrangements to rent bikes and cruise down 30A, one of Florida’s most scenic drives -- past lilly-pad covered inlets and sprawling clusters of mangroves, to wide-open views of the Gulf of Mexico. Hélène, an avid cyclist, leads the way.

Victoire, the consummate multitasker is checking the all-important/make-or-break wine ratings just in from Robert Parker, Jr. “Listen to this,” she calls out, as we dodge other bikers on the trail: Another brilliant effort from proprietress Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, the opaque ruby/ purple-colored, medium-bodied 2012 Haut-Bergey reveals lots of smoky barbecue, forest floor, black currant and damp earth notes in a surprisingly dense, concentrated, positive, complete style. An outstanding mid-palate and length make for an impressive showing.”

“Super!” Hélène shouts back. “What about Clos l’Eglise?”

Charming homes along Florida's famous 30A.

Gorgeous Santa Rosa Beach at the end of Highway 30A.

“Even better!” Victoire answers, “Proprietor Hélène Garcin-Lévêque has fashioned another gorgeous wine from her 15-acre vineyard planted with 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. She also does a terrific job at her Pessac-Leognan estates of Haut-Bergey and Branon in addition to the St.-Emilion estate of Barde-Haut. This property has been on a qualitative hot streak since the late 1990s.”

New vines emerging at Château Barde-Haut.

Between Parker’s fabulous praise and a couple of hills, we’re all a little breathless now, but Hélène doesn’t slow the pace a bit. “I bike all over St. Emilion,” she tells me, which also helps to explain how she stays in such great shape. “It’s a really charming area, with old castles and cobblestones. Église Monolithe is the largest underground church in Europe. At Château La Roque de Bas, you can take cooking lessons from a chef trained by the great chef Paul Bocuse, or even rent the Château by the week.”

We pedal on, until at last we catch sight of the beach. Hélène and Victoire are thrilled with the white sand and crystal clear water at Santa Rosa Beach. “Reminds me of St. Tropez,” says Victoire.

Later, lounging on the sand, we talk about future plans for Garcin-Lévèque ventures.

You’ve accomplished so much in a very short span of time. But I gather there are even bigger things in the future?

Short term, we’re going to begin serving lunch and dinner by reservation at Château Barde-Haut.

And eventually Patrice and I would like to purchase another winery in St. Emilion. Just as with Poesia, we’d want to develop something that is entirely our own, apart from our family holdings.

"Wine Lights" brighten up the interior of the Château Barde-Haute winery.

The Bordeaux wines have become such a big business. En primeur, or futures sales (where wine is sold off before the grapes are even picked and individuals buy wines to collect and later resell) all generate huge profits.

Honestly, that part of the business makes me a little sad. Wine is for sharing with family and friends as part of a good meal. I would say don’t save the wine for collections to make money. And don’t save the wine for some special occasion that may never happen. Drink the wine and enjoy it!

Who could argue with such practical and poetic advice.

Hélène Garcin-Lévêque’s wines can be purchased through www.onlinewine.net.

Château Barde-Haut

Château Branon

Château Haut Bergey

Clos L'Eglise

Hélène Garcin-Lévêque