Château de Bel
The winemaker who sees himself more as a craftsman than an artist.
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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Olivier Cazenave fell in love with wine when he was just 17, yet when he finally bought his land in 2003, a lot of people thought he was crazy. The region was in a state of drawn-out crisis, with sales and prices in decline, as international audiences turned their backs on wines perceived as expensive and old-fashioned. Olivier saw an opportunity though, and today his Château de Bel is helping rewrite the famous region’s future, with innovative small-batch wines, progressive viniculture and a true commitment to the land.
“In 2003, after endless searching and visiting, my wife and I came across this property, and from that moment, it was clear that it would be this one and no other,” recalls Olivier. “Not only was it perfect on paper, it also has an indefinable feeling, the one that makes this place perfect.”
With the estate, the vineyards and the cellar all in place, there was only one piece of the jigsaw remaining: a winemaker. Thanks to his prior wine industry experience, Olivier already had an excellent grasp of the final product – selecting, packaging and selling – but only basic knowledge of how to actually make a good wine. Undeterred, he signed up for an intensive six-month course at the winemaking and oenology school in Montagne Saint-Émilion.
“I wanted to do everything during that first year, in order to learn and discover as much as I could. Today, I know the value of each task in the vineyard or in the cellar,” he says.
“Being a winemaker isn’t only about knowing the vineyard, the wine or even being able to drive a tractor. It’s also about learning to be self-reliant when everything goes wrong, from machine breakdowns to unreachable technicians. Human nature provides capacities you wouldn’t expect.”
Olivier remains the winery’s only full-time worker, though his wife is heavily involved during key parts of the year, such as harvest and packaging.
The winery and Olivier’s own vineyards are nestled in a crook of the meandering Dordogne, around 20km east of Bordeaux, and he also sources grapes from other local growers.
“It’s a very interesting region for wines, as it’s a bit colder than Bordeaux, and its limestone-rich soil is good for minerality,” he says. “Also, the region is not solely focused on vines – it has other agricultural activities, such as fruit, cereal crops, animals farms and extensive forest. For me, that’s a really important point because it brings more diversity, which the soil then gives back to the vines.”
Since 2016, all of Olivier’s own vineyards have been cultivated using biodynamic techniques, under the guidance of noted local experts Anne Calderoni and Thomas Le Gris de la Salle.
“It’s a more a practical way of life than a philosophy, to be honest,” says Olivier. “For me, the idea is to respect plants and soils and the future generations who will live and work here. So as a winemaker, I see myself more as a craftsman than an artist; I work with a fantastic material and that I must respect in how I treat the soil, plants, grapes, and wine.
“I try to adapt myself to the vintage and the characteristics of the grapes I receive from the nature. I don’t want to control all the process and apply the same recipe each year. That means sometimes I’ll be very creative and adventurous, and other times returning to very old methods, depending on what I feel will be best.”
While Olivier believes that his wines should, first and foremost, be excellent on their own, he also recommends the Sémillon AOP Bergerac in this month’s box be paired with grilled white fish, a young cheddar, or British asparagus and artichokes.
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