Today we meet José Sanfins, director of Château Cantenac Brown, a Grand Cru Classé of 1855 in Margaux.
Can you start by introducing yourself?
José Sanfins, director of Chateau Cantenac Brown.
I was born in Portugal and arrived in France in 1965 with my parents. I lived on the island of Patiras in front of Pauillac, between Médoc and Blaye, I lived there for several years with my brothers and sisters.
Afterwards, I lived in Pauillac. I studied in Bordeaux, in Marman, Aire-sur-l’Adour and then Bordeaux, to end up working in the wine industry. My parents were winegrowers. When I was working with them in the vineyards, I never thought that I would end up in the vineyards too, 40 years later.
Your parents were wine growers, have you always known the vineyard?
I belong to those families where the parents worked in the vineyards and the children followed. Today I can’t tell when I learned to drive a tractor or when I learned to roll a barrel. I don’t remember those dates, but I know how to do it, I’ve always known how to do it.
Have you always been interested in wine?
Strangely enough, no. At the beginning I studied mechanical engineering and a few years later I came back to the wine business and I realized that it was very interesting I have been working in the wine industry for more than 35 years now.
Did you have a particular trigger to change your path?
When you are young and you are essentially asked to give a hand on the technical part without explaining the theoretical part, like all young people, all teenagers, you don’t necessarily want to stay there. Afterwards, when you discover things with a different eye, when you get closer and understand why you have to do this work in the vineyards, it is much more interesting and you realize that you can change things. I think I enjoyed it when I understood why I was doing this work.
Have you discussed this choice with your parents?
No. Today, being a winemaker is a very noble profession, and this was not necessarily the case before. It’s a craft that everyone likes or would like to do.
But it’s a very difficult job and very hard if only in connection with the weather. When we go pruning in winter and it’s five degrees outside or it’s raining, the work still has to go on. Personally, I don’t mind. I even find that it is one of the happiest and most pleasant periods to prune in winter alone in one’s plot.
How did your career in the wine industry start?
In fact, no, I went back to viticulture-oenology. The big turning point was in the years 85. I was a grape picker and I had the chance to make wine at Chateau Lynch-Bages, to give a hand in the vinification.
In 1986 at Chateau Bellegrave, I helped a friend with the vinification. I didn’t realize it but I had it in me. I knew what pumping over was, what maturity was, so it seemed natural to me to work in wine. That’s when I realized that it was very interesting. After my military service, I studied wine-making again to come back to the source.
You started at Lynch-Bages and then just afterwards at Cantenac Brown?
Exactly. It was the same person who managed the properties and I joined Cantenac Brown as an intern as well. I became technical director in 1990. Today I am the general manager but I still keep the technical part and the winemaking part which is always the most exciting part.
Did you expect to be here for so many years when you joined Cantenac Brown?
Oh no, no idea, no. When you join Cantenac Brown, you are very proud to work for Axa Millésimes and for the whole team that made this company move. And no, we don’t think so, we know that there is a lot of work to do because it is a classified growth that needs to be brought up to standard, both in terms of the level and in the cellars.
We have people around us who trust young people, I was 26 or 27 years old. I thank them again for having trusted me.
When you arrived, did you have in mind to update the domain?
At that time, many classified growths were still under reconstruction. Many chateaux were rebuilt in the 80’s, the Pichon Baron, other great growths and great terroirs were in disuse, a bit abandoned.
Cantenac was one of them. Rebuilding a vineyard or a property takes a lot of time. It was quite typical in the 80’s to see Medoc vineyards going through a difficult time. I was lucky enough to contribute to Cantenac Brown in those years.
How have you seen Cantenac Brown evolve over the last 30 years?
The difficulty was to restore the vineyard to its original state, which takes time. From the first years we drained the whole vineyard, we replanted the plots and the grape varieties in the right place.
We benefit from it today because to have beautiful, beautiful grapes and beautiful plots of vines it takes 10 or 15, 20 years, even more. Today we are benefiting from it. We have to thank the whole team since the beginning who has been able to work each time as well as the vineyard managers, the cellar masters as well as the managers to be able to invest in the right place, at the right time and to put in the right grape varieties and the right terroirs.
It is the combination of all this that makes it possible for us to make great wines every year because people before me and with me knew how to plant and take care of the vineyard correctly.
Wines have evolved a lot. Before the 80’s, a lot of vineyards produced rather mediocre wines. We were one of them. At the end of the 80’s, the 90’s, we put a lot of energy into bringing the Château up to standard and I realize that in fact it takes a generation for people to realize that the Château is one of the best in the appellation.
But it seems quite logical to me. The time to plant the vines, to elaborate the wines, to taste them, to drink them 10, 15 years later, it takes indeed a generation.
And all the work you and your teams have done will pay off in about ten years, right?
We will see the benefits in 10 years but today we have done a lot of work in the vineyard and we are lucky with the arrival of the Le Lous family in 2019 to have enlarged the vineyard and to have undertaken the construction of a new vat house, a cellar at the height of the terroir that we have.
I think that this will be the conclusion of 30 years of work: to have a tool worthy of our terroirs. I think that there is a beautiful adventure and a beautiful qualitative progression which can be there as soon as 2023 because the construction site will start this year to finish in 2023.
How did you meet the Le Lous family, and more particularly Tristan?
Tristan had already been to Cantenac Brown, we had crossed paths. We had talked to understand, he needed to understand the place of Bordeaux, how Bordeaux worked in general, the marketing, the products, how to make the products, how to improve them.
We spent several hours together and we both hit it off. When the property went up for sale in 2019, he and his family bought it. He immediately understood that Cantenac Brown needed an additional tool. So we started looking for projects and Tristan immediately wanted to build one of the most unique wineries in the world because of its eco-responsible construction. And we quickly turned to raw earth and raw wood I would say which are the pillars of the future building.
We have a lot of ambitions for Cantenac and I have found an owner who has as much or more ambition than I do. It is really exciting for the future, for my future and for the future of Cantenac Brown.
How were the first days of your collaboration?
The acquisition of a castle is not signed overnight. There is a lot of study on both sides to ensure that it goes well. Tristan and his family have worked a lot on the quality of the terroir, on the vineyard, on the teams. It has always gone well and frankly.
When he signed in December 2019 we immediately put it into second gear. We had done the assessment. Technically, it was working. There was a need to develop the image of Cantenac Brown and the marketing.
In addition, after 30 years of working at Cantenac Brown, the teams and I all had a technical project in our heads, perhaps not architectural but at least technical. We knew that we needed small tanks to vinify the parcels and even the volumes, we had already established all the tables. Between Tristan’s architectural will to build an eco-responsible building and our will to have a technical and performing tool, the implementation was fast.
Can you come back a little bit on this different range and on these different wines?
We have the Château Cantenac Brown of course, it is a great vintage 1855. It is the heart of our vineyard, the perfect Margaux. To have a perfect Margaux we also need a second wine to be able to put young plants, parcels that do not have a first wine. We created Brio in 2001.
Previously, there was already a second wine but it was not directly related to Cantenac Brown. Brio was created in 2001 with the idea of making a wine for pleasure.
And the advantage of Brio is that, in fact, with experience, we were able to choose the plots before the fermentations. This means that, year after year, we have the same character in Brio. It is not simply a selection at the blending, that is to say vats that make the first wine but vats that make the second wine.
Then, to complete the range, we had a piece of land on which it was possible to produce wines but which was a little colder. We always wondered about planting red wines but we knew that the wines would not be great. On the other hand it was an ideal place to make white wines. We decided to make a great white wine too. To achieve this goal, we planted 1.8 hectares, which does not seem like much, but we make between 7,000 and 8,000 bottles a year of white Cantenac Brown: Alto. We will be able to increase the surface area in the future, but today with 1.8 hectares we are able to make wines of very good quality.
In 30 years, have you also seen an evolution in the way wine is consumed?
I realize that today it is possible to drink a red wine at any time, while at one time there was a whole ritual for drinking wines. It was for an initiated population.
Today we distribute our wines all over the world. You can drink our wines in restaurants or as an aperitif, at any time without it shocking anyone. I think that’s pretty cool. And it’s not just about the second wine. It is always said that the second wine is served to wait for the first one, nowadays even the first wine can be drunk as an aperitif or in the morning.
Can you describe the day-to-day life? How do you manage a Grand Cru Classé?
What’s fabulous about our job it’s that it contains several jobs. I started out as a technician, and it’s something that’s ingrained in me. I’ve been working twelve hours a day for thirty years. You don’t count the hours in this job. You always get up early to be there with the technical team, the team in the vineyard, the team in the winery… We always have an eye on them. It is important to surround yourself with competent people so that you can always have the information and also pass on the little you know about the property.
After that, there are the finances, the business, the marketing, the travel, the representation. It’s a complex job, not complicated but complex, where we intervene on several levels. It’s quite fabulous, but despite everything, it’s agriculture that takes precedence. We are anxious about frost, mildew and rain. We try to get the best of each parcel before the harvest, the stress of choosing the right date of harvest, heating the right temperature or extracting just what is needed to have the right fruit, the right texture in the wine.
These are questions that we ask ourselves every year, every vintage. Even though I have been working with Cantenac Brown for a few years, in our profession we do not often do the same thing. There are people who do the same thing a thousand times a year in their work.
Curiously, we do a job one year, we try to learn from the winemaking work we have done in the vineyards or the cellars and we start again, trying to improve the following year. It is not very repetitive. That’s what’s exciting. It remains essentially agricultural and we adapt to the climatic hazards.
Are you present on social networks?
I think it’s pretty fabulous to show the work we do in the vineyards and to popularize it through social media. We’re very present on Instagram. We have someone who takes care of it very well and everyone plays the game. I think that the winemakers are very happy and proud to show their know-how and to share their daily lives with people. Everything is accessible in one click, it’s pretty fabulous.
And then lately because of the pandemic we could not move. So we had to find other ways to keep in touch and communicate about our wine and our work. So, in fact, today we are the world champions of video-conferences, other tools to spread the image of the property.
How did it go with the confinement or at least with the Covid? How did you manage to adapt?
In 2020 we learned a lot and we did a lot of things but we were more successful in 2021. In fact, we installed a small studio on the property with the image of the Chateau on the back and so we broadcasted the wines all over the world and we made remote presentations by video conference. Wine has a convivial side, we need to be close to people to talk about it. We had no other choice than to stay on site and do it through a camera, thanks to this we kept a link with people. We were really able to continue to discuss and share through these video conferences.
Moreover, in 2021 we organized video conferences with importers and their customers. We did a video conference with 100,000 people in China who were following us, so it was really effective. We even set up outside so that we could broadcast and make the property live a little bit from the outside because I thought we were too much inside. And we broadcast so many confined images that we needed to get some fresh air.
So people were confident in what we did. We were also helped by two great vintages. The 2019 and the 2020 reassured everyone. It went very well.
Cantenac Brown is becoming more and more recognized, even on others continents. Is this something that affects you personally?
Yes, it is always satisfying to be recognized. Our wines are produced in Bordeaux but we need this recognition to be distributed in the whole world. The Chateau makes more than 150,000 bottles of first wine, and then 300,000 bottles in total. We need to target all the markets for the business to work. We need to be recognized all over the world. Which is the case today. The trade works very well. I think that improving quality, making commercial approaches and working with more affinities with the place of Bordeaux, is very useful for us to spread wine in the world.
If you had the opportunity to meet the young José on his way to Cantenac Brown and give him an advice, what would you say?
I would tell him to always stay sincere in his work and in his relationships. The first thing I asked for as a budget was to drain the vineyard. There are others who bought a car or bought new tractors. I asked for the vineyard to be drained and I believe that this was the right thing to do in order to be able to produce great wines one day. I think that sincerity, honesty, rigor and hard work are needed.
When I talk about myself, I’m talking about the whole team. We have a team that is really very efficient, very faithful. I am thinking of Fatima, who has been with us for more than 40 years. I thinking to her sister Gaëlle, who has also been here for more than 20 years. Without forgetting our cellar master who joined us after his studies in 2008 and our vineyard manager who arrived in 86 as an apprentice, both of them are still there.
I think you can feel this sincerity and this loyalty in our work and in the vineyard. We need to be sincere. We can’t play and we can’t live by cheating and just making moves here and there. And the serene side and staying together for so many years shows that there are sincerity, serious work and trust from both sides.
You said earlier that you had done viticulture-oenology. What advice would you give to a young person who is following the same path?
To go and discover the vineyards of the world. There are beautiful things everywhere. Before settling down, to travel, to understand a little bit the whole world. It’s very important because once you’ve started, once you’re committed to a property, it’s always difficult to go back to make wine or work in another country or in another appellation. Afterwards, there is the family, the installations, the house that you buy, etc… It is always more complicated. So if you can travel you have to do it.
Is this something you’ve managed to do?
Yes. First of all, thanks to my origins I had the chance to work in Portugal during the AXA Millésimes period. We were making porto and it was very exciting. And then I travel the world regularly for the business, the diffusion of our wines the distribution and marketing… We see a lot of things. It’s pretty cool. If you don’t have the opportunity to be in this environment and to do business and travel, if you are in the pure technical field of wine, I think that you should take advantage of it before. Or after, if it’s always more delicate.
How is your relationship with Tristan today?
Good! Tristan is someone who is very present. We exchange a lot, almost every day. Sometimes even several times a day, during the more critical periods, during the grape harvest, during the primeurs. Tristan follows the property closely. He met all the merchants, all the traders in Bordeaux, he is very involved and therefore interested in everything we do today.
It’s really interesting to share. It’s very important for us because for example when we need a new tractor, I can ask him and he knows why I need it. Another example, when we decide to change our farming methods, he knows them well and knows what we did before. It’s very easy to explain things to him. And that’s pretty fabulous to have someone who responds very quickly and who can make decisions quickly. In the culture, there are flaws, sometimes decisions that have to be made instantaneously. I share a lot with him in that regard.