Bruno Borie has charm. He makes you feel that what you say is of importance. When you interrupt him in mid-flow, he stops, listens, and nods emphatically. ‘You’re right, you’re right, you’re right,’ he says, before picking up his thread again. This gift (it’s not something you learn) must have stood him in good stead when he took over Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in 2003 and found himself up to his ears in the midst of the toughest vintage in decades. It was, as everyone remembers, a fiendishly hot year, one that demanded radical measures. ‘I remember the vineyard manager coming to me and saying, “We’re ready to do the leaf thinning,” and I said, “I don’t think we should do too much thinning”, and he said, “This is how we’ve been doing it for many years.” I said, “Well, this year is different”.’
Ducru, 50ha of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon sitting on clay and gravel in St Julien, and one of the most ancient of properties in the Medoc (it dates back to the 13th century) was bought by the negociant Borie family in 1941. Bruno-Eugène (to give him his full name) took over in 2003, when his brother François-Xavier moved to Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, where he still is. In the early 1980s Bruno had had a stint in California working for Peter Sichel; he’d also taken over the aperitif maker Lillet when he was 25, turned it round and sold it in 2008 for what he calls ‘a nice price’.
Today he’s in London for a 20-year vertical in celebration of his two decades in charge. We’re sitting over coffee in Oswald’s, the ultra-exclusive Mayfair club; Borie’s looking spruce and dandified in a well-cut suit, his rich but modest silk tie pierced by a single gold pin. He’s a very handsome man with the easy manners of the aristocrat, and a smile that some writers would call ‘rogueish’. He reminds me a little of the actor Telly Savalas playing a fascinating baddie.
Borie was 40 when he took over Ducru, so he wasn’t wet behind the years – but he admits to being ‘a little bit scared’. It didn’t take him long to stamp his personality on the property, however – on taking over he almost immediately lowered yields and cut production from 18,000 to 10,000 cases. Under his stewardship, the wines have hugely increased in reputation. I find them splendid: the words ‘dense’, ‘perfumed’ and ‘savoury’ crop up again and again in my notes from the tasting.
That’s not all. Ducru-Beaucaillou (it means ‘lovely stones’ – a reference to the excellent pebbly terroir) is, inside, surprisingly different to what you might expect from an august St-Julien super-second. Borie employed the designer Sarah Poniatowski to overhaul every room in the great 19th-century pile. He’d been collecting modern art for some time – the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat before he became fashionable, for example. Poniatowski’s thing was contrast, so in one of the spacious reception rooms Frog Table by Hella Jongerius (an enormous carved frog squatting at the end of a polished table) sits alongside a massive – and rather ugly – 19th century dresser. There are three Keith Harings and ‘a couple of Americans, but you’ll see it’s pretty French,’ Borie tells me. Other artists include Carl André, the bad boy of the avant garde who shocked the British with his Equivalent VIII, the famous ‘pile of bricks’ bought by the Tate in 1972.
Borie too sets out to shock (he used to employ models as greeters during En Primeur week; they were known by the London trade as ‘Bruno’s Babes’) but he has a deep and informed interest in viticulture, its history and modern applications. He mentions the Marshall Plan (the American post-war strategy for restoring the shattered economies of Europe), which ushered in the widespread use of chemical fertilisers. ‘It was needed – people were starving’, but there now needs to be a re-think. He talks about physiocracy, a French doctrine of the Enlightenment that held that the wealth of nations is derived solely from the value of agriculture and the land. He champions artisanal methods but is very interested in robotic solutions for vineyard management: ‘we need robust technology.’
In fact, Borie wouldn’t have been out of place during the Enlightenment, those heady days of discovery in both arts and science. He views each idea on its merits and isn’t in the least concerned with the orthodoxy. On climate change, for example, he appears disconcertingly out of touch, bringing up the old canard that we’re in the midst ‘of a 5000-year cycle’ and noting that the warmest years have meant the best vintages.
But what an interesting, refreshing man this is, well-read, well-informed, unpretentious, a good cook by all accounts, with a proper eye for art and a sense of humour that causes him, when amused by a question, to issue short, Gallic barks of laughter.
Which is strongest in him, I wonder, the entrepreneurial instinct or that of the castellan, the guardian of the flame? ‘Well, when I was at Lillet I had a compass showing south; managing Ducru, you need a compass pointed towards the north. The first is easier, it’s about an immediate return on assets. The other is looking to be the dynasty, eventually have your sons following the footsteps of your grandfather, and your father, and to prepare for their sons to follow. It’s more difficult.’
What was your childhood ambition?
I am a country man and my ambition has always been to live in the countryside.
We were not raised with the idea that someday we would take over the estate. My parents were discreet and didn’t want us to be arrogant. My father would have preferred that we become lawyers or doctors. We had to forge our own place in wine. I believe that this was a good education. I believe that it is dangerous to transfer our own ambitions onto our children. My ambition was to be a gentleman farmer, in a vineyard, but not necessarily at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
I was 21 in 1977. It was just following the oil crisis and the world was open and prosperous; it was a wonderful era, and I am grateful that I was a young adult during that period.
I believe that the wine industry, and me personally, experienced 30 glorious years of prosperity and development beginning in 1975. For Bordeaux, the 80s brought us mythical vintages, during a period of globalisation and the incredible opening of China and Singapore….it was la belle epoque. For me personally, I developed Lillet, a wine-based aperitif, between 1985 to 2005 and I assumed the head of Ducru in 2003.
At 21, I wanted to travel and to see the world. I was fascinated by the US and London. I was fascinated by other cultures around the globe, which led me to my first career in wine, working in distribution and specifically the Bordeaux negociant business.
I am perfectly happy with my childhood and young adult life. I would not change my path. It is key to the person I am today.
What exercise do you do?
I work out with a coach for two hours every week. In fact, we have a fully equipped gym at the château, and we offer our employees the services of a coach and a kinesiologist every week. I’m proud to say that 50 percent of our staff practice some form of sport at the workplace. On 2 April, we had a team of four in the Paris Marathon and many other members of the team travelled to Paris to support them.
I am also an avid hunter. Every weekend during autumn and winter, I walk about 14km a day with my English Setters in the wild, dark, humid Brocéliande Forest in Brittany.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I do not take enough pleasure in my accomplishments. I’m permanently unsatisfied, always looking to the next challenge.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Ducru-Beaucaillou. I love the Medoc. It is in my DNA. When I am travelling, I always take a moment and picture myself here. There are three periods when it is impossible for me to travel: March when the vine starts to develop – budbreak and the first grapes. Then May when the vines are flowering – I love the intoxicating scents of the vine flowering; if I must be away, I regret not being on the property. Finally, during the harvest – it is impossible to not be here.
Also at Christmas, I cannot imagine being anywhere else but at the château.
If you could do any other job, what would it be and why?
I am the happiest man in the world as the head of Ducru-Beaucaillou. I am also satisfied to have had two careers, here and as the head of Lillet, where I could have stayed. I believe that I would have also enjoyed a career as either a lawyer or a doctor. My job at Ducru allows me to take on so many diverse and fascinating roles. I am afforded so many opportunities to express my different talents. For example, I work intimately with our oenologists and our vignerons every day. I work alongside architects for the planning and construction of our new winery. I work closely with lawyers when expanding or developing new businesses. I assume the role of a curator when buying art, a chef when receiving clients…and the list goes on.
My role allows me to nurture my many passions, which ultimately leaves me professionally satisfied. I am very fortunate.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Over the last 20 years, we’ve modernised the winery and vineyards and restored the château and the park, among many other things; by 2025 we will have finished our new winery, vat room and barrel cellar. The final big project for 2025-2030 is to transform Ducru into a multi-agricultural operation with a winemaking branch. We will have multiple productions: agro-forestry, market gardening, orchards and fruit gardens etc. The goal is to become a large agricultural exploitation, which would produce wine of course but not only. This was the philosophy and raison-d’être of our forefathers, dating back to Roman times.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
My wife, a knife, and a dog. I’m happy spending time alone. Of course, I love to be with my family and my team at Ducru Beaucaillou but as a coureur des bois I am accustomed to being by myself, so I would not be unhappy on a deserted island: with a lighter, a knife, and aspirin I could do anything.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
I would take the example of Louis XI who sent his échanson (sommelier) to negotiate peace with Edward IV of England. The same échanson also negotiated a free trade agreement for the wines of Aquitaine. So if I were king, I would nominate Jeremy, the sommelier at Ducru-Beaucaillou, as Prime Minister. I am convinced that he would be a better negotiator than our current politicians, ensuring that we have both peace and trade.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
Together with my wife Frédérique, I’d invite Rihanna and [rapper] ASAP Rocky. Rihanna is fascinating to me. She is not only a talented singer and performer but also a very clever businesswoman. She has succeeded in creating an empire that aligns her music with her cosmetic and fashion brands, all delivering the same messages of inclusion and open mindedness. Of course, I’d try to convince her to drink only Ducru-Beaucaillou instead of Barbados rum.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I’m too fond of Gascony cuisine, which is on the fatty side and perhaps a little too much in terms of quantity… but it’s delicious.
What’s your secret talent?
I have an eye for art. Independent of markets and trends, I can easily spot talent and am rarely mistaken.
When were you happiest?
When I cut my son’s umbilical cord.
Who do you most admire?
My mother. Her role was behind the scenes but she influenced my father in a very positive way. She could have done beautiful things with the property and could have taken a more active role but that wasn’t the way things were done at the time. Since my father’s death, my mother has demonstrated her capacities through her handling of the inheritance of Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Sans deconner. It’s a French expression that loosely translates as ‘Are you kidding?’. I also say, ‘On y va!’ (let’s go!) all the time.
What’s your greatest regret?
I have no regrets in life. All my choices and experiences have brought me to where I am today.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
That never happens. But I love music and enjoy many different genres and am an opera enthusiast. However, if I am home alone, I prefer to watch Netflix. Specifically, I enjoy watching series produced in other countries – India, Mexico, Turkey. They allow me to experience so many different cultures.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
My hunting outfit. Specifically, my leather hunting trousers.
What time do you go to bed?
Between 10pm and 10.30pm. I wake up at 6.30am.