In the Middle Ages, the château of Cantemerle, seat of the jurisdiction of the same name, bordered the Garonne River and made up part of the line of fortifications that defended the banks of the Médoc region, just over half a mile from the present château.
The oldest known masnuscript known which mentions the name of the Lords of Cantemerle is the "Grand Cartulaire" of La Sauve Majeur Abbey, dating to the twelfth century. The monks recorded there all transactions executed within the monastic community. In 1147, the Abbey received vast territories as a gift from Arnaud, Lord of Blanquefort, before he set out on crusade. This donation was made in the presence of Pons de Cantemerle. Did he follow Arnaud de Blanquefort on pilgrimage to Jerusalem ? No one knows for sure. If he did leave, he returned to France, because in 1151 he was witness to yet another donation - that of the Saint Croix Abbey by the priest of Bordeaux, Lord of L'Isle.
A century later, with Aquitaine under English rule, a Lord of Cantemerle is warring against Saint Louis, King of France.
He was called in 1241 by Henri III, King of England, to fight at the battle of Taillebourg, which he lost. Fortunately, he kept his feudal domain, and his descendant, Ponset de Cantemerle was Lord of the estate in 1340.
The first traces of viticultural production on the property were found in 1354 - the Lord of Cantemerle paid his tithes on wine with a tonneau (tun or Bordeaux cask) of clairet (the pale red wine which inspired the English word 'claret').
In the fifteenth century, the feudal domain of Cantemerle belonged to the Caupène family, originally from the Landes region. According to a title deed of 1422, the squire Jean de Caupène was described as Lord of Cantemerle. His son, Médard de Caupène, later became Lord until the end of the fifteenth century.
Bordeaux's book of arms shows that during the fifteenth century, a union was formed between the Caupène and la Roque families, with Jeanne de Caupène given in marriage to Henry de la Roque. Their son Charles became the Lord of Cantemerle at the beginning of the sixteenth century and took Isabeau de Lanes as his wife.
A title deed of 1536 shows that Jean de la Roque, also an equerry, was Lord of both Gua and Cantemerle. The Gironde region's historical archives mention that, in 1540, Jehan de la Roque possessed the noble house of Cantemerle, in the jurisdiction of Blanquefort, and thereby had an income of sixty Bordeaux francs in deniers, approximately five or six barrels of wine and some poultry.
In 1575, only three "tonneaux" of wine were collected - that is, 12 Bordeaux barrels - on the Cantemerle estate. During the Middle Ages and up until the sixteenth century, the Médoc was devoted more to cereal-growing than to wine production. On 20 August, 1579 , Jean de Villeneuve, second president of the parliament of Bordeaux, bought the noble houses and outbuildings of Cantemerle, la Raze and Nestérieu for 12,500 livres or "4,166 crowns and two-thirds of a crown".
Jean de Villeneuve, Lord of estates in the regions of Toulouse and Agen, as well as of Cantemerle, Macau, Ludon-Dehors and other sites in the former province of Guyenne, married Antoinette de Durfort, of the houses of Dures and Blanquefort. Through this union, the Villeneuve de Cantemerle family became the Villeneuve de Durfort's from 1600 onwards.
This change of ownership led to the adoption of a new kind of exploitation of the land that had begun to develop in the wine-producing Médoc area: "the Bourdieu". The Bourdieu is a farm whose principle activity is that of wine production. As early as the sixteenth century wine became the main industry of the lands of Cantemerle. They were no longer subject to the feudal Lordship of the Middle Ages that had imposed rents and tithes, but were managed directly by the owner through a sharecropping lease, which was clearly more profitable. The lessor received half of the crop and kept the domain under better supervision, as the duration of the lease was short, about 3 to 5 years.
In the seventeenth century, the jurisdiction of Cantemerle stretched over a great many noble houses, notably Gironville, Maucamp and Sauves.
In 1643, Sauves was occupied by Hector de Villeneuve, brother of Louis, Lord of Cantemerle. It was to Sauves, now renamed Cantemerle that the Lord had his harvest of grapes transported.
The Gironde's religious archives tell us that, in 1654, Louis de Villeneuve, Lord of Cantemerle incurred excommunication "for having caused a great scandal in the church of Macau and creating a public disturbance during the holy service." He had kidnapped the sister of Pierre de Lacornière, Lord of Gironville, and had beaten her in the church…
Pierre de Villeneuve, husband of Marie-Anne de Loupes, was Lord of Macau and shared the Lordship of Cantemerle in 1698. In 1713, he had a violent quarrel with the permanent curate of the parish of Macau. He died in 1742.
Another Villeneuve, who was also a parliamentary councillor, succeeded Pierre before the arrival at the head of the estate of his son, the knight Joseph-Emmanuel de Villeneuve de Durfort. It was he who appeared before the assembly of the nobility in 1789 and became the last Baron of Macau . In the same year, Sauves became the residence of the Barons of Villeneuve and the seat of their jurisdiction.
Jean de Villeneuve-Durfort died on 13 December, 1834 , leaving Cantemerle to his son, Pierre Jules. The new Baron of Villeneuve had not yet come of age and responsibility for the estate fell to his mother, née Caroline Josephine Françoise Josephe de Lalande.
Nine years after having taken possession of Cantemerle, Pierre Jules de Villeneuve-Durfort died unexpectedly and intestate in August, 1844 at 29 years of age. The property returned to his mother and sister, Jeanne Armande, Baronne d'Abbadie. Although she legally shared ownership of Cantemerle, her participation in its affairs was purely nominal and, once again, it was Caroline de Villeneuve-Durfort who, alone, supervised the destiny of Cantemerle with great attention to the quality of her wines and a very capable manner of defending their reputation.
In 1845, this led her to enter into legal proceedings, still described twenty years later as "a trial that has remained famous in the Gironde ". In that year, Pierre Chadeuil, the new owner of Pibran, a neighbouring vineyard, began to label his wines "Chadeuil Cantemerle Château Pibran". He claimed that the name 'Cantemerle' had long since been associated not only with the private estate of the Villeneuve family, but also with all the lands surrounding it and that, as such, he was fully justified in incorporating 'Cantemerle' into the name of his wine because it represented its region of origin (naturally, the fact that this may lead to confusion with another wine, the quality and reputation of which would enable him to sell at prices well in excess of the majority of growths in the parish was a matter of pure coincidence - at least, according to Chadeuil). However, Madame Villeneuve-Durfort did not see the matter in the same light. Producing documents dating from the 1570s, when the Villeneuve family had acquired the estate, she proved that Chadeuil's claims were without foundation. Her case was sufficiently well-documented and conclusive for all mention of Cantemerle to be removed from Chadeuil's labels, on top of which he was obliged to pay damages, as well as courts costs.
In 1852, Fleuret-Jean-Baptiste, Count of Lavergne, was a pioneer in the fight against powdery mildew. The first attempts to control it, by dusting the vines with sulphur, were carried out at the château of Cantemerle. He was rewarded for his efforts with several medals and a prize from the Academy of Bordeaux.
On 19 September, 1855 , the Chamber of Commerce classed it as a fifth growth. The 1855 classification of the Château Cantemerle is explained in the following section.
A. d'Armailhacq recounts in his work Vines in the Médoc that, in 1858, the estate of Cantemerle covered 225 acres. Some of the vines were planted in Ludon, next to those of La Lagune, whilst the remainder were situated on the best slopes of Macau . Annual production was 160 tuns or tonneaux of principal wine and 30 of second wine, representing a yield of approximately 1900 litres per 2.47 acres , relatively low in comparison with today's production.
In 1866, the surface area given over to vines was a tenure of just over 270 acres (of the property's total of 1000 acres ), producing an average 150 to 160 tonneaux, or Bordeaux casks, of principal wine and 50 to 60 of second wine - that is, a yield of 1800 litres per 2.47 acres and, thus, slightly less than that of 1858.
In 1867, the Château Cantemerle received a silver medal at the World's Fair in Paris as a reward for the quality of its wine.
Cantemerle was not only the worst hit of the Médoc classified growths during the phylloxera crisis, but the vines were also attacked by downy mildew between 1879 and 1887. Consequently, potential average annual production dropped by 50% (in comparison with the benchmark period of 1864 to 1878). In 1884, mildew was responsible for a complete upheaval in the usual hierarchy of the great growths. The wines of Margaux, Cantenac, Ludon and Macau fared better than those of Saint-Julien Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Consequently, the price obtained for 1884 Lafite fell to 1400 francs per tonneau (compared with 5000 francs for Margaux) and Cantemerle was one of two fifth growths, the other being Dauzac, to fetch 200 francs more per tonneau than the Lafite wines.
In 1892, the descendants of the last of the Villeneuve family, Jeanne Armande, Baroness Charles d'Abbadie, sold Cantemerle to the Dubos family, thus ending the Villeneuve de Durfort family's "reign" of over three hundred years.
Théophile-Jean Dubos, husband of Charlotte Delbos, took over the estate in 1892, with the assistance of his two sons, Pierre and Bernard.
As well as being owner-producer of Cantemerle, Théophile Dubos was also vice-president of the Union of Médoc classed growths and négociant for the Dubos Frères establishment (sold in 1914).
After Théophile's death in 1905, Pierre and Bernard Dubos shared ownership of Cantemerle until 1923, when Pierre became sole owner.
During the war and the difficult years of 1930-1940, many parcels of vines were pulled up at Cantemerle. As a result, only 61 acres were kept in production from 1945 onwards until 1981.
Pierre died in 1967; his great-nephew Bertrand Clauzel managed the estate alone until it was sold in 1981 to the SMABTP group.
During the 1970s the Mutual Insurance Division of the SMABTP Group was making significant investments in real estate and wished to diversify its holdings.
In 1976, there was an offer to buy Château Margaux, but the price was too great in relation to the Group’s other investments.
However, the idea of investing in an “1855 classed growth” vineyard had taken hold and attracted the attention of Albert Parment, who became the group’s new General Manager in 1980. Accompanied by Jean Cordier, owner of seven châteaux in the Bordeaux region, Parment visited several properties and decided on Cantemerle.
Thus, in December 1980, the SMABTP Group became the first insurance company to acquire a Bordeaux vineyard. Since then, numerous other insurance companies have also chosen to invest in vineyards, extending their holdings over several thousand hectares around the world.
Cantemerle was a property in distress after a long period of difficulties—it was undeniably beautiful and vast, but completely exhausted. Only 20 hectares around the château were planted with vines. The production buildings and the residences had been barely maintained.
Renovation of the technical facilities and replanting of the vineyard was done with the assistance of Ets. Cordier, upon whom the Group conferred direction of the project. The work was undertaken in successive steps, in accordance with priorities appropriate to the management of a winemaking property.
Work began with the vineyard, where everything at the property begins. Thirty-five hectares of land which had lain fallow for almost 50 years were planted within two years. It was decided to replant using traditional Médoc standards of 8 to 10,000 vines/hectare. This was a titanic undertaking on a local scale! By 1987 the vineyard had grown to 60 hectares.
At the same time, the cellars were entirely renovated in a manner which would enable the vinification of future harvests under optimal hygienic conditions–in these times the main objective of good winemaking was to produce clean, default-free wine. Accordingly, a modern vat room containing stainless-steel tanks with a total capacity of 2,200 hectoliters was installed; the barrel cellar was rebuilt, and henceforth the wine would be aged in one-third new oak each year. However, as a “link” to the property’s past, six small oak vats of 100 hectoliters each were reassembled using the best staves from the original tanks. This gesture would have unforeseen effects when the vat room was enlarged in 1990.
The château’s technical team was terribly short on space to receive the generous quantities of grapes from the new vineyard plantings, and had to put the small “souvenir” oak vats to use. These continued to be used for succeeding harvests, and each year it was found that the wines produced in them had a superior organoleptic profile. This led to the choice of installing oak vats with a total capacity of 3,200 hectoliters in the new vat room which came on-line for the 1990 harvest. This possibly made Cantemerle the first property in Bordeaux to voluntarily return to winemaking in traditional oak vats!
At the end of the decade the Group turned its attention to the château building itself, completing its renovation to make it suitable for receiving clients in a setting appropriate for promoting the wine.
After 10 years of intensive investments, Cantemerle paused to consider its future on the market for Bordeaux‘s Grand Cru wines; as it happened, these deliberations took place during the extremely tough economic climate of 1991 to 1995. At the time, the technical direction and marketing of the wines was still contracted to Ets. Cordier, which had managed the inventory from its warehouses after the wine was bottled at the château. In 1993 major changes in operations by Bordeaux‘s negociants led Cantemerle’s owners to take full control of the château’s operation. The first effect of this decision was the creation of a team to oversee the property’s operations on a local level; this same team continues to direct Cantemerle’s activities today. The construction of a bottle cellar and the conversion of production buildings to prepare the wine for shipment from the property was undertaken. During the following two years there was a reevaluation of the exclusive commercial arrangements with Ets. Cordier which existed since the property was purchased. Inventory had built up in the Cordier cellars and commercial perspectives were uncertain. By mutual agreement the decision was made to let Cantemerle henceforth manage its own sales on the Bordeaux marketplace.
The first “open” offering of Cantemerle’s wines took place in May 1996 during the futures campaign for the 1995 harvest. The timing was propitious for this vintage which marked the property’s return to the marketplace: around 70% of Cantemerle’s Grand Vin was taken in futures by 55 negociants; successive campaigns confirmed the property’s commercial status. At the same time, the château created its second wine, “Les Allées de Cantemerle”, which was also sold through the Bordeaux negociants.
In the vineyard, Cantemerle adjusted the proportion of the grape varieties which had been selected during the massive program of replanting in the 1980s. It was determined that there had been an over-planting of Cabernet Franc, which represented 23% of the total vineyard composition: the combination of the property’s terroir and this grape variety did not work well, hampering the wine’s potential quality. It was therefore decided to embark on a program of “top grafting” to reduce the amount of Cabernet Franc in the vineyard while preserving the benefits of a mature rootstock. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot were chosen as replacements, and the American technique of grafting vine shoots (chip bud) was used for its high success rate (90%, as opposed to 60% typical for the French technique). When grafting was completed, Cabernet Franc accounted for just 6% of Cantemerle’s vineyard planting.
Changes in the production facilities focused on temperature control, with the installation of a thermoregulation system for the vats and air conditioning in the barrel cellar.
In 1999, an excellent opportunity arrived with the availability of 20 hectares of vines located in the commune of Ludon, situated exactly between the main vineyard blocks of Château Cantemerle and Château La Lagune. Cantemerle succeeded in its acquisition and launched a ten-year program to restructure this vineyard. Although its terroir was superb, the choice of rootstock and plantation density did not correspond to Cantemerle’s quality criteria. The increased vineyard holdings also necessitated an expansion of the vat room with the addition of smooth-finished concrete vats, and the enlargement of the barrel cellars.
Now, 144 years later, Cantemerle had returned to the same vineyard size it had at the time of the 1855 classification—90 hectares.
The beginning of the new century was marked by a change in emphasis. After two decades of focus on oenological progress winemakers’ attention shifted back to the vineyard, giving rise to some general reflections: recent developments on the Right Bank looked interesting, but the techniques employed there were adapted to that region’s smaller-sized properties and thus faced resistance from the Médoc‘s larger estates with higher-density plantings. Labor costs were projected to rise dramatically, bringing the possibility of financial problems. And a number of vineyard techniques such as de-budding and leaf thinning which worked wonderfully with Merlot (a grape variety which takes well to such handling when young) did not offer the same promise of success with Cabernet Sauvignon, which depends on longer-term factors such as the depth of its root system and the structure of the soil it penetrates.
In the Médoc, the complex relationship between Cabernet Sauvignon and the quality it produces calls for a greater management of the soil rather than the vine itself.
As it turned out, these reflections came at a time when Cantemerle’s vineyard had reached full maturity. Vines from the great replanting in the early 1980s were now 20 years old, and (besides the work of top-grafting the Cabernet Franc) the majority of the decisions that were made proved to be correct. Now it was necessary to redefine the property’s agronomic direction, and 2004 was the year that started this break with the past. During the winter of 2003–2004 the château’s team began an in-depth reflection of what they sought to achieve: a mineral and biological balance appropriate to the particle size of the soils, taking into account the water-retention profile of large areas of the vineyard. This ushered in a long period of analyses whose first objective was to break with the overall method of vineyard management which had been in use. The definition of vineyard parcels would now be based on a multitude of independent “quality projects”.
During this same year, the reception of the harvest was entirely redesigned to incorporate a system for “berry-by-berry“ sorting between the destemmer and the crusher to eliminate vegetal debris after destemming. There had always been an insurmountable obstacle in Cantemerle’s plans for this: the size of the vineyard (90 hectares) and the need to pick each grape variety when fully ripe required a system which could process a minimum of 8 tons per hour, but the existing technology could only handle 2 tons—it was simply impossible to sort an entire harvest of Cantemerle’s size on a berry-by-berry basis! Since make believe can’t make wine, the idea had to be shelved until it could be done right. Happily, the team only had to wait until spring 2004. German engineers had been working for several years on a new-generation destemming machine capable of processing a harvest as large as Cantermerle’s while effectively eliminating vegetal debris. They had developed a single prototype and sought to test it under actual harvest conditions; Cantemerle decided to give it a try, reassured by the machine’s resemblance to a classic destemmer. (Still, the old equipment was kept on standby in the event of problems.) The results were convincing: the entire 2004 harvest was processed by the new machine, followed by an automatic triage of the berries and a final hand-sorting. This additional precision in the processing line brought greater definition to Cantemerle’s wines.
There are defining stages in the life of all winemaking properties; the conjunction of vineyard maturity and management evolution was probably the turning point for Cantemerle. Today, the property’s quality has firmly established it in the pack of the Médoc’s classed growths, and its continued presence there will always be due to the intrinsic quality of its terroir and how successfully it finds expression in each year’s wine. At decade’s end, the pursuit of excellence driving the people at Cantemerle at every level, every day, remains as strong as ever.