Soft-spoken Stéphane Derenoncourt may not yet have his presence felt like Michel Rolland but as a flying winemaker he has taken the wine world by storm , with his career graph taking him to fascinating heights, working with 70 wineries in 11 countries, the latest venture being with the upcoming Alpine Winery in Karnataka, writes Subhash Arora who chatted with him, tasted his wines and those of his clients at Villa d’Este during the recently held World Wine Symposium in Italy.
Francis Ford Coppola- the well known film maker changed his vocation because of his love for wines and started producing wines in California. He is so loved and revered that he was invited as the Chief Guest at the Wine Future international wine conference in Hong Kong last month. Part of his wine success may well be attributed to of his wine consultant from France- Stéphane Derenoncourt with whom he has been working since2008 at his Rubicon Estate Winery.
Meeting at the World Wine Symposium
Fast forward 4 days to November 12. I am having dinner at the World Wine Symposium at a table with all the lady interpreters for the conference. I request the guy passing by our table if he could take a picture of all of us at the table. He obliges and walks away, duly thanked when one of the journalist friends walks up to me and asks me if I know who the guy was.
I had not recognizedStéphane Derenoncourt- the French Dhirubhai Ambani of the winemaking-he has been expanding his wine-consulting empire probably at the same pace as late Ambani did, without any formal education as a winemaker. I had met him in Bordeaux a few years ago at an En Primeur and spent time chatting about his entrepreneurship. It was embarrassing that he remembered meeting me very well in the big tent where several of the producers he consulted with, were displaying and pouring their wines.
He does not mind admitting that he has had no formal education in winemaking. ‘I come from North of France where there is no wine industry so I had to learn everything from a scratch. I came to Bordeaux where I ‘played’ with grapes. I hitch-hiked came to Fronsac in 1982, working here and there and found a job with Chateau Fronsac to the West of Pomerol in 1985. For ten years I worked in different chateaux and started becoming famous,’ he says with modesty.
He had immediate success when he was employed by Ch Pavi Macquin in St Emilion in 1990. ‘I also worked with Stephan von Neipperg, in his St Emilion Château Canon-la-Gaffelière winery in 1996 where I made a wine called La Mondotte which became a great success. I started having a lot of demand from Chateaux in Bordeaux and so I decided to set up my own consulting company in 1999,’ says Stéphane.
He has come a long way since then. He is working with 70 wineries in 11 countries. One can find him in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, Lebanon, Virginia, California, Morocco and now of course in India where he is working with the setting up of Alpine Winery in Karnataka.’ I consult with 50 wineries in France spread out from Bordeaux to Rhone, Languedoc and Burgundy. How he can manage so many wineries, I ask. ‘We have 12 specialists in viticulture and enology besides and me,’ he says.
What style of wine does he advocate? We choose to analyse each client’s case differently and adapt to individual case. The true expression of the terroir is our aim and not the style. I also look at the potential for aging. <Twice a year, vitcultrues 2 enologist 3 times ayear.>
Stéphane started working with Karnataka based winery last year. He says ‘Alpine belongs to people who are already in distillery business. They love wine and so formed a big company making wine. It is a good project for the future,’ adding ‘they started planting vineyards in 2008.’
Did the owner meet him in Vinexpo? Or En Primeur where I had med Stéphane briefly 3-4 years ago and was impressed by a singular display of all the wineries he was consulting under one tent and the visitors were already overawed by his winemaking prowess. ‘He came from India to my office. He already had some idea of the land- lot of clay and a bit of limestone, water is available for irrigation.’ We started to plant 26 varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and other varieties to try out for the micro- climates- Tempranillo, Grenache, Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc in 18 hA (about 45 acres). In 100 hA they are growing Cabernet Sauvignon- the classic variety. ‘The owners plan to expand to 500 hA in future, he informs me. It is a big project by any standard, indeed.’
‘It takes three hours by car from Bangalore because of the rough road.’ So when is the production coming out? ‘The winery is ready. There was a small harvest also in 2011 but not commercially suitable. We intend to buy grapes in bulk and possibly buy bulk wine too from both Maharashtra and Karnataka initially. Idea is to set the distribution and start developing the brand. From 2013 we shall be ready to come out with wine from our own grapes.’
How much production they have in mind for next year, I ask. ‘We shall target 250,000 bottles- that is over 20,000 cases and may not be easy to sell unless they are able to get the wine produced registered as Karnataka wine.’
What does he think of India as a wine producing country? ‘I have not seen other areas so far but I am sure there would be many interesting areas. As far as Karnataka is concerned, the soil is good. But problem is the climate. I know we can improve a lot. We have also got to teach the farmers in terms of precision. People do not follow good viticulture policies.’
Two of the best-known flying winemakers from Bordeaux working in two different wineries, fairly close to each other in Karnataka; Michel Rolland has been consulting with Bangalore-based Grover Vineyards almost since beginning. What does he think about that? ‘Michel and I are different generations. He is a trained enologist. I am not trained professionally but have picked up experience by getting my hands dirty. Besides, Michel specialized in enology. I am more in the vineyards. My specialty is to have a global view- I work from soil to bottling- I have specialists working with me but I am not an enologist.
Stéphane does not believe that one has to be born a winegrower or obtain specialized degrees to offer good advice. As a creative persona with a passion for wines, he brings a refreshing viewpoint to the table.
He has already been to India 6 times and plans a visit in January or February 2012. He already has his viticulture assistants stationed there, he says.
It is this global view that he partnered and formed a wine company in Napa Valley, California in 2006-called Derenoncourt California. He buys the grapes and crushes them in Arkenstone Estate winery in Howell Mountain, Napa, producing 20,000 bottles a year, a few of the labels of which I got to taste at the World Wine Symposium where the producer delegates were free to bring their wines for tasting by a knowledgable and decision making lot of around 250 people who had descended at Villa d’Este from 10-14 November, 2011.
He has been making his own wine with his wife, close to St Emilion in Cotes du Castillon, since 1999 from a piece of 10 hAs of land. It might be music to the ears of the likes of Good Earth Winery and Turning Point in Maharashtra who buy the grapes, crush them in other wineries and bottle and market under their own brands. Of course, they may not yet have the credentials of a man like Derenoncourt, whose limited quantities of California wines are retailed from $40 to $240s despite the pressure on high priced wines in the USA. He is already planning to export his wines to Europe where his name commands same respect as Michel Rolland.
No sure formula for success of Alpine
But having big name winemakers may not help increase the market share or even ensure high quality. Grover has been languishing at 60-70,000 cases and even had some quality problems which fortunately have been fully resolved and the products are back to their known good quality. In fact, Michel Rolland whom I had met recently again in Hong Kong at the Winefuture conference, told me that to maintain the quality it is important to have corresponding infra structure, facilities and investments-otherwise there could be problems.
While it is very encouraging to know that big wineries like Alpine are entering the market; using the services of an expert like Derenoncourt would give them additional strength but may not ensure successful continuous growth-especially at the rate the wine industry is growing in India.
Stéphane may be contacted at Stephane@derenoncourtconsultants.com
Subhash Arora I have been informed by Alpine Wineries’ General Manager, Mr. V.G. Manjunath that the company will release within this month their white wine Vindiva Classic- a Sauvignon Blanc at around Rs.500-600. Three more labels are in the offing. Oro Fine is a basic red made with Shiraz and will be sold in Karnataka at around Rs. 300-400. Vindiva Classic red would be a Cab-Shiraz blend at Rs.500-600. Vindiva Valley of Dreams will be the premium red label, aged from the 2010 vintage. He also confirmed that their own winery is nearing completion and the bottling will be done in their own winery- editor