What to do when you inherit a château

Last month, on the way to Château de Sérame in the north-east corner of the Corbieres in Languedoc, a miracle happened: it started to rain. Proprietor Anne Besse, who was driving, had to turn on the windshield wipers that were not in use during the summer, which was famously driving. To our right, a perfect rainbow could be seen over the vines.

You could argue that Besse needs a series of miracles to achieve her noble goal of restoring her family’s huge, but vastly neglected, wine estate. She wants to turn it into an “innovative, economically viable pioneer in eco-farming and eco-phenology”.

On the drive I learned that she starts with one main advantage. In 1995, her father turned over to Bordeaux merchant Dourthe/CVBG, overwhelmed by the responsibility of running 200ha of Ch de Sérame vines. During a 20-year lease on the land, they worked hard to obtain a valuable organic certification for this large area of ​​vines, one of the largest contiguous wine estates in the Languedoc.

When the estate returned to the family in 2015, Besse, her two sisters and her brother decided to restore it. They were raised in nearby Narbonne and were inspired by memories of family holidays at the chateau. The next five years were spent exploring the terrain and digging 60 soil pits. Any wine made on the estate was sold in bulk to go into a cheap blend. Only from the 2020 vintage did they take winemaking seriously.

Their plans include turning the château into a hotel with eco-lodges, opening the surrounding park to the public, importing sheep to keep the plants between the vines under control, planting thousands of fruit and olive trees, yoga courses and local. art, small digital workshops and, of course, sustainable packaging. Besse, who has sold her accounting business in Paris to focus on all this, has no ambition and comes down to Lézignan two or three times a month.

When we arrived at the property, I immediately saw the scale of the work ahead. We parked next to a row of dilapidated sheds, although in the next yard there were signs of a new era: a blue food truck and a marquee where they have already started holding events.

The project was really successful with the key redemption. Aymeric Izard, too tall for the doors of the old workers’ cottages where the offices are located, is used to running a large property. He arrived in January 2020 from Ch d’Aussières, Ch Lafite’s Languedoc property, and seems to have brought almost his entire staff with him. You must be unpopular with the people at Ch Lafite, I noticed. “A little bit,” he said.

But he must be popular with his new bosses, given how calm he is about the work ahead. (I visited the day before the 2022 harvest actually started, when most wine producers are completely frazzled.) Izard and Besse took me through the placards along one wall of the yard showing maps of the 21 grape varieties on the estate, different types of soil. and plans for a new winery.

We went on a relaxing tour around the 7ha grounds of the Chateau. With the Italianate church (a Victorian must castles). Besse recalls that up to 15 cousins ​​and their parents would take over the 18-room chateau. Today, all windows are closed, and the château looks abandoned. The terrace in front is an empty strip of yellow grass. The foundations of the church need to be repaired. The cave is a storehouse. But there was activity in one of the two permaculture vegetable gardens where we met three gardeners sharing melons. The food truck seems to use the vegetable.

Besse, the d’Exéas, is from a military family and told me proudly that Charles de Gaulle once stayed at the château. But the exploit of which the family is most proud, commemorated on a stone scroll around the coat of arms on the pediment of the Chateau, is the ancestor’s victory over the English in the hundred years’ war in 1402.”Exea defeated the Britons in close combat” (which the British took out of Exéa in close combat) is emblazoned on each carefully designed wine label as well. Not sure if it will be a selling point in the UK, but they are just starting to work on exports.

They commissioned French designers specializing in wine to do the branding and stir their wines into their ranges — Sources de Sérame (€6.80 in their roadside shop), Terrasses de Sérame, Murmure de Sérame, Blason de Sérame and, at the top, the €18.90 Château de Sérame. They also have a sulfite-free vegan wine – even the labels are stuck with vegan glue – called Orangerie de Sérame.

The young Mourvèdre Minervois vineyard, over the road from his Chardonnay in Corbières, is designed to have a fence running through it to encourage biodiversity. Bats are particularly welcome, as they keep predatory moths under control without resorting to outdated pesticides.

None of this was easy. The second vintage was a disaster, with 80 percent of the crop lost due to the exceptional spring frost that devastated the Languedoc in 2021. But Izard is confident about the 2022 vintage, having started 10 days earlier than usual thanks to with European heat waves. This corner of western Languedoc benefited from a downpour at the end of June, and the cover crops in the vineyards helped to retain what moisture there was. Some of the vineyards also benefit from underground irrigation. It was this, the two lakes and a stream on the estate, as well as the types of soil, that convinced the Exéus to go ahead.

I was shown seven expertly made and beautifully labeled white and pink 2021s as well as six 2020 reds and a 2020 white blend inspired by the oldest vines on the property, a 30-year-old Grenache Gris. As often with Languedoc wines, I favored some of the more simple, unworldly varietal blends that comprise the Sources de Sérame range, as well as the Murmure Syrah rosé and Petit Verdot.

In the reds generally there was strong, quite interesting evidence of Izard’s background in Bordeaux-run properties. Unlike most Languedoc reds, the tannins were just as smooth. He admitted that he used the Bordeaux (or Ch Lafite?) recipe of very light extraction at the beginning, then tasting twice a day to decide exactly when the young red wine should be move of the grape skins.

It says a lot to Izard’s efficiency that they can coax such consistent quality out of the ancient winery. He has an app on his phone to keep track of what’s going on in the 80 huge 400hl concrete vats typical of an old-fashioned Languedoc winery. Although they are busy splitting it in half, even a 200hl fermented handful is in stark contrast to the current practice of fermenting in small portions according to each individual parcel of vines. But at least the winery is naturally cool, so there’s no need for energy-guzzling air conditioning.

This was a contrast between the dark, damp interior of the huge winery and the shiny stainless steel of the brand new press and the recently installed grape receiving area outside the winery. EU money is apparently available for a small part of this new equipment, but the family plan to invest almost €10mn in the project, funded by their property business.

I asked the former accountant when she expected to start making money at Sérame. “Maybe in five years,” she said. “But we need to invest €1mn in the distribution network first.” Once that new vendor has things in order, look out for a wine label that prides itself on beating the British. It will be of reliable quality and come from an estate worth visiting in the end.

Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson

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