My visit to Château Angélus last December came almost 20 years to the day after I first met owner Hubert de Boüard de Laforest. Then, as now, his enthusiasm was tangible as he showed me around the vineyard. Indeed, little in his genial demeanour – aside from markedly whiter hair – appears to have changed in the intervening two decades. But as we repaired to the château and relaxed into comfortable leather couches, the owner of this Bordeaux bastion betrayed some despondency over recent events – and not just a debilitating bout of Covid-19 that struck him a month before our meeting.
De Boüard represents the seventh generation of the family to have made wine on this south-facing lower slope, beneath the main limestone plateau of St-Emilion. He is by far the most transformative. Taking over the running of the estate in 1987 alongside co-owner Jean Bernard Grenié, he immediately set about revolutionising the property – in some cases against the wishes of his more conservative father Jacques.
Having studied under legendary oenologist Emile Peynaud, he hired a loyal team, including Emmanuelle Fulchi, who has now been technical director at Angélus for 25 years. He also recruited the renowned consultant Michel Rolland, whose wines tended to be popular with influential critic Robert Parker (though de Boüard stresses that ‘we never made wine to please Parker’ and that the only Angélus vintage under his stewardship that gained 100 points was the 2005). Rootstocks were changed, green harvests introduced, cellars restored, fermentation methods fine-tuned.
Dining at the top table – promotion to grand cru classé A
Since the official St-Emilion classification was first established in 1955, Angélus had occupied the comfortable but middling rank of grand cru classé. This meant that it was not only deemed a St-Emilion Grand Cru appellation wine but was also classified for boasting especially good quality. Such status, however, was not good enough for de Boüard, who was determined to enhance the château’s standing. And unlike estates on the Left Bank, where the 1855 classification is set in perpetuity, he had the opportunity to do so.
The St-Emilion classification is revised every 10 years by the French appellation authority INAO (National Institute of Origin and Quality) on the basis of blind tastings and independent juries, and it also has an appeals process for estates that are demoted. Sure enough, under de Boüard’s stewardship, Angélus became the only St-Emilion property to be promoted from grand cru classé to premier grand cru classé B (in 1996) and, finally, in 2012 – along with Château Pavie – to the coveted premier grand cru classé A, a rating that had only previously been held by châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc (who have, for their part, now opted to withdraw from the next edition of the classification, in 2022).
The property now had a ranking befitting a man for whom image is everything. (Even before its upgrade, he had changed the name of the estate from L’Angélus to Angélus so that it would appear first in alphabetical listings.) The name derives from the Catholic prayer associated with the ringing of three bells at nearby chapels that was heard by vineyard workers. In keeping with this tradition – and his own savvy marketing know-how – de Boüard not only renovated the façade of the estate, its reception area, offices and cellar space, but also added an elaborate bell structure on top, which can play a range of national anthems to greet international guests.
In 2006, he secured product placement in the James Bond film Casino Royale (it has since also appeared in Spectre) to further raise the estate’s profile (telephone callers to Angélus are treated to the 007 theme tune as they wait to be connected). A fixture at gala dinners, de Boüard became something of a celebrity in the wine world – and not just for his work at Angélus. In more recent years, he established Hubert de Boüard Consulting, through which he advises more than 80 producers, mostly around Bordeaux; see here for details of one project. He turns 65 in July, and while he has now handed over the day-to-day running of the estate to his daughter Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal, he is a long way from retiring.
The backlash begins
Reaching such heights has not been easy, he says. ‘There have been so many attacks against me, from all quarters.’ The 1996 promotion ‘really annoyed people’, he recalls. ‘The day after that happened, people refused to speak to me, including some members of the premiers grands crus. I would hear remarks from neighbours like, “Look, Hubert, you are a nice person, but you should just be grand cru classé.”’ It was worse when the estate was promoted to premier grand cru classé A, a decision that he describes as causing ‘an earthquake’. ‘People found all sorts of excuses to oppose it,’ he says: ‘that the estate does not have a worthy terroir, that Hubert de Boüard is just a showman…’
Franck Dubourdieu was among them. Writing in the French newsletter Bordeaux Classic Wine in 2014, the Bordeaux oenologist decried the classification as ‘an obvious decline in the notion of terroir’, questioning the ‘modern’ style of Angélus (along with that of Pavie) and querying whether its terroir could match that of the ‘illustrious’ châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc. Wouldn’t châteaux Canon, Clos Fourtet and Figeac, ‘revered by great amateurs from France and elsewhere’, have better deserved a promotion? ‘The promotion raises many questions [over conflicts of interest],’ Dubourdieu wrote, adding that he was ‘surprised’ that de Boüard was president of the Regional Committee of the INAO and a member of the National Committee of the INAO, which ratified regulations and appointed the committee responsible for ‘validating’ the new classification.
Over the past 35 years, I have given my time to others, not just Angélus. To be taken to court, to be questioned and accused – that hurts a lot. So, yes, I took it pretty hard
Neither Cheval Blanc nor Ausone would comment about the ranking for this article, although even before news of their withdrawal from the 2022 edition emerged, Ausone co-owner Pauline Vauthier had pointed out that, since 2012, her estate had removed its ‘A’ rating from the front label. Now, with the pair having failed to submit their dossier for the 2022 classification by the end-of-June deadline, their feelings on the validity of the ranking system are clear. Nonetheless, de Boüard maintains that Angélus is of commensurate quality with the two other estates. ‘We have a different style, but we are at their level,’ he says; he also added, before news of Cheval Blanc and Ausone’s withdrawal, that Château Figeac had been aiming to make it five ‘A’ estates in the 2022 classification.
Legal battles – and court appearances
Beyond unfriendly faces and criticism, de Boüard and Angélus have faced an eight-year challenge in the courts. Dubourdieu’s attack echoed that of three plaintiffs – châteaux Croque-Michotte, Corbin-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac – that were demoted in the 2012 classification. The trio question the legitimacy of the ranking in one case and charge de Boüard personally – along with Philippe Casteja of Château Trotte Vieille – with conflict of interest in another.
‘This is a serious challenge to the classification and to St-Emilion’s image,’ says Franck Binard, general director of the Conseil des Vins de St-Emilion. ‘Consumers may not care about classifications, but they mean a lot to the estates, because a higher rating raises property values.’ A final judgment in the conflict-of-interest trial is expected in September this year, while a final judgment about the classification itself is on hold for ‘about another year’, according to Binard, who remains stout in his defence of the integrity of the classification. ‘There is nothing we could do today that would be any better than we had done in 2012,’ he says.
Nonetheless, the experience has been painful, de Boüard admits. ‘Over the past 35 years, I have given my time to others, not just Angélus,’ he says. ‘To be taken to court, to be questioned and accused – that hurts a lot. And we are talking about a criminal court. So, yes, I took this pretty hard.’
He says he has become better at responding to his adversaries, developing a much thicker skin – ‘It’s like leather now.’ He feels optimistic about the outcome, noting that after each appeal thus far, ‘judges say that I was not violating the law’, and points out that since modern classifications were introduced in France in the 1930s (the INAO was established in 1935), ‘no one was ever questioned about being a member of the INAO’. Ultimately, he argues, ‘If the classification is annulled and I am condemned, it would be more hurtful for the image of St-Emilion than it would be for Hubert de Boüard.’
His daughter Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal shares the sense of injustice, recalling how, as a young girl after school, she had little family time with her father because he was always occupied in altruistic pursuits. ‘He would often come home late after meetings for the Jurade, or the wine council, or the INAO. He spent a lot of time working for the community,’ she says.
‘Just because he succeeded in elevating Angélus to an “A” estate, to have to endure false accusations that he was somehow corrupt is totally unfair. We cannot comment further on this, because it is in the courts, but when we see evidence that he was not part of [any conflict of interest], it is very difficult for us to accept [the accusations].’
Passing on the baton
De Boüard-Rivoal took over the running of Angélus from her father in 2012. After an initial focus on the business side of affairs – during which she recalls sporadic resistance from some parties on account of being ‘a mere 30-year-old’ – she has dedicated herself more recently to fine-tuning the quality of the wine itself. And within this, one element that sometimes bugged me about Angélus has been to the fore: the degree of oak extraction.
‘When I joined in 2012, I told my father and the technical team that I wanted to work on the wood impact,’ de Boüard-Rivoal recalls. ‘Not that it was too much, but some vintages showed less fruit at the beginning of their lives. I was convinced that if we had a bit less new oak, the fruit and aromas would be more present earlier.’ There was a healthy disagreement between her and her father at first, but they came to embrace the concept of using larger oak vats to age the Cabernet Franc – moving from traditional 225-litre barrels to 3,000-litre oak casks, or foudres.
While de Boüard was initially unconvinced, he now recognises the benefit of what he says is a subtle shift. ‘We didn’t change the wine, but we changed its direction a little. Since 2015, we have cooler temperatures during fermentation to maintain aromatic freshness, and maybe the wine has become a bit more balanced,’ he acknowledges. With bigger oak vats, the freshness of the Cabernet Franc has certainly improved, and the tannins are also finer. Angélus, in fact, is no longer truly a 100% new oak wine, since the larger foudres are not replaced each year.
De Boüard-Rivoal has also moved the estate towards organic viticulture, which the property officially started in 2018; it is expected to achieve certification later this year or in 2022. Again, de Boüard credits his daughter for the undertaking; he admits he thought the process would be too much trouble.
But amid the triumphs, de Boüard-Rivoal has not been without her own travails, with a recent saga bringing into focus the strength of her ambition. The sale of St-Emilion premier grand cru classé Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse in April shone a light on a protracted affair that again saw the family coming up against disgruntled neighbours. Ultimately, the property was bought, for €75m, by the daughter of one of the heirs of the estate, Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse, with the financial backing of the cosmetics conglomerate Groupe Clarins. But not before the co-owner of Château Clos Fourtet, another interested party, saw fit to question the ethics of how the de Boüard family does business.
Clos Fourtet had at one stage seemed set to purchase the historic 6.5ha estate. ‘We had been working for months negotiating the purchase,’ says the premier grand cru classé’s Matthieu Cuvelier, adding that ‘92%’ of the heirs had agreed to the deal. But under French law, proposed sales involving agricultural land must be approved by the French land management agency SAFER (Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Établissement Rural), which has specific criteria, including the promoting of young winemakers – meaning those under 40.
When the bids were referred to SAFER, Cuvelier says he was ‘shocked but not surprised’ to learn of what he claims was a new ‘Angélus’ bid, which he says was amended from its original version when resubmitted and was then favoured by an intermediate SAFER committee decision. Cuvelier claimed that the so-called ‘Angélus’ bid ‘lives up to the family reputation as doing business ni foi ni loi’ – that is, without ethics or fair play. In particular, he says his bid specifically agreed to respect the estate as its own entity, while claiming that de Boüard-Rivoal would have integrated the property into Angélus in an arrangement with Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, a neighbouring estate that had also bid for one part of Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse.
De Boüard credits his daughter with the move to organic viticulture, which the property started in 2018; he admits he thought the process would be too much trouble
For her part, de Boüard-Rivoal categorically denied any such plans, stressing that the bid was not by Angélus but was ‘a personal project led by my husband and myself’ and had always been so. A press release from Angélus repeated de Boüard-Rivoal’s points and threatened legal action against anyone repeating ‘defamatory allegations’ – a threat that Cuvelier says he also received.
New cellars, bigger vineyards
If there is a vaulting streak running through the family, it is one that bears results. De Boüard-Rivoal has built on her father’s success: a significant estate restoration in 2014 was followed by another overhaul in 2019, with a new cellar constructed for the second and third wines, Carillon d’Angélus and the No.3, to accommodate vineyard acquisitions, which increased the plantings for Carillon from 7ha to 15ha. As for the grand vin, Angélus continues to garner critical acclaim.
At the 2019 gathering of the renowned Southwold Tasting of Bordeaux wines by UK critics, a panel comprising Steven Spurrier, Jancis Robinson MW and Neal Martin among others placed the 2015 Angélus third out of some 200 wines, outscoring all five first growths from the Médoc and Graves and behind only Ausone and Petrus on the Right Bank. (See the full article in our latest issue for a vertical tasting of the estate, from 2000 to 2019.)
Beyond the property itself, de Boüard-Rivoal has taken the family into hospitality, buying Logis de la Cadène, the oldest restaurant in St-Emilion, in 2013, and following it in 2016 by adding a clutch of rooms and suites at La Maison de la Cadène. In 2017, she added the local hotel L’Auberge de la Commanderie to the portfolio before, in 2019, purchasing the town-centre fine-dining restaurant Le Gabriel, which overlooks the river at Bordeaux’s Place de la Bourse and promises to seduce visitors with both the luxury of its ambience and the scale of its culinary ambition.
It all suggests that de Boüard-Rivoal shares her father’s ambition – and perhaps his thick skin. She might just need it…
This article is taken from the summer 2021 issue of Club Oenologique magazine, which also includes a vertical tasting of Château Angélus, together with tastings of prestige-cuvée Champagne and recent vintages of white Burgundy, as part of a focus on the best of French wine, food and travel