Caroline de Villeneuve Dufort, a class act at Chateau Cantemerle.  

Following on from my recent the blog post about Francois Josephine d’Yquem, I would like to introduce you to another dynamic Bordeaux widow: Caroline de Villeneuve née Lalande.

Like Francoise Josephine d’Yquem She also rose above great grief to defend the reputation and status of her beloved vineyard.

Records dating from 1147 show The Seigneur Pons de Cantemerle owned the estate. There are two legends behind the name. The more romantic one comes from the song of the Merle (Cante=Sing Merle= Blackbird), less romantically it may be a reference to a black canon, known as ‘The Merle’, used during the 100 years war, its ‘song’ being the sound when it was fired.

In 1570 the Villeneuve Dufort family purchased the property for 600 thousand francs.

Chateau  Cantemerle.

The medieval Chateau de Cantemerle, 500m nearer the River Garonne than the current chateau, was destroyed during the French revolution, all that now remains now is a mound or ‘Motte’. After the revolution, the Villeneuve family moved to the 18th century Chateau de Sauves. This is the Chateau Cantemerle as we know it today.

During the French revolution Jean de Villeneuve Dufort, fled to the safety of Holland. While he was there, ever the businessman, he established close trading links with the Dutch and, through this seafaring nation, a flourishing international market for the wines of Chateau Cantemerle.

When he died back in France in 1834, he left the estate to his son, the new Baron Pierre Jules. At just 19 years old, he was a minor so it was his 51 year-old mother who took over the management of the property with him.

Caroline Josephine Francoise Josèphe de Raymond de Lalande (hence forth Caroline) was a force to be reckoned with. For Bordeaux enthusiasts, her name may sound familiar. She was née de Lalande; her sister was married to The Baron Pichon de Longueville. She was certainly no stranger to wine and when her son came of age, she continued to run the commercial side of the property and he ran the technical side of the vineyard.

Sadly this partnership didn’t last long. In 1844 just ten years after the death of her husband, her son died. She planted two beautiful trees in the grounds that bear witness to her grief, one for her husband and one for her son. Poignantly the two trees have grown into one another. She also built the two towers to the front of the property, perhaps another homage.

The ‘father and son’ trees in front of Château Cantemerle

But Caroline was not alone, she continued to run the property with her daughter, Jeanne Armande and Jean-Baptiste Fleuret, Comte de Lavergne, Mayor of Macau who became her estate manager or ‘regisseur’. She needed all the support she could get.

In 1845, Pierre Chadeuil, the owner of a neighbouring property, started using the name Cantemerle to sell his wine. Caroline was having none of it. Chateau Cantemerle had established a reputation for quality and thanks to the time her husband spent in Holland, healthy sales to the low-countries. The usurper was trying to hi-jack this success. Caroline challenged his use of the name in the courts and won her case. The first Bordeaux copyright case perhaps? He was ordered to not only to remove all mention of Cantemerle from the labels of his wines, but to also pay compensation to the family.

It was not common practise to sell directly to export markets rather than taking the more traditional route of selling through the Bordeaux market place of courtiers (brokers) and negociants (merchants). It still isn’t, 70% of Bordeaux wines sales go through the broker and negociant system today.

By the 1850s Château Cantemerle was an important property in both size and reputation and the negociants were keen to work with her.  In 1853, for the very first time in 300 years, Caroline gave in to the pressure and started selling her wines over ‘La Place de Bordeaux’. Now in her 70s perhaps she thought that it would make for a quieter life? The change was a success, the wines sold at 100 francs higher price than Chateau Croizet Bages in Pauillac.

Just two years later, in 1855, on the occasion of the Universal exhibition in Paris, the famous Medoc Graves and Sauternes classification came into being. Written up on April 18th 1855 by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, helped by the Bordeaux Courtiers, the classification included 68 red wines (in 5 levels) and 21 sweet whites (in 3 levels) *.

This now famous list was drawn up based upon the sales prices that the courtiers recorded over several vintages for each of the wines.

Château Cantemerle was not included. When our heroine Caroline found out, she was not happy and, at 72 years old, she still had enough character to let her discontent be known. In the original documents the red wines take three pages with Chateau Croizet Bages being the last on the list of the 5th growths. Were her wines not selling at a premium above Chateau Croizet Bages?

She had the foresight to understand the importance of the classification. Today we know how influential this classification has been for the whole region, as well as the reputation of the participating chateau.  At the time not everyone thought so; it was a new phenomenon. She clearly saw the interest; armed with a history of sales prices she attacked the syndicat of courtiers and negociants until she obtained satisfaction. In September 1855 Château Cantemerle was included in the classification as a 5th growth.

The Page from the 1855 Classification showing Cantemerle

The mention is written in a different hand at the bottom of the list of classified properties as Cantemerle Madame de Villeneuve Durfort Macau.

The property was added late, but not too late to send her wines to Paris for the Universal Exhibition alongside the other classified growths.

As well as being very innovative commercially, Château Cantemerle was at the forefront of technical progress against odium, a plight on the vines in Bordeaux to this day due to the humid climate.  In 1857 her regisseur, Jean-Baptiste Fleuret, Comte de Lavergne, invented a blower allowing the efficient sulphuring of the vines. He won several medals and a prize from the Bordeaux Academy.  Sadly this didn’t help when between 1879 and 1887 phylloxera hit the property.  Fortunately Caroline didn’t live to see the destruction. She died in 1876 at 83 years old, a remarkable age for the time. (I am sorely tempted to add a quip about red wine being the elixir of a long life)

Her daughter, Jean Armande, Baronne d’Abade died in 1891, followed by her grandson in 1892. After 300 years in the family the vineyard was sold to the Bordeaux negociant Calvet who sold it almost immediately to Dubosc.

In 1980 the property was purchased from the Heritiers Dubosc by Les Mutuels d’Entreprise des Batiments et Travaux publiques, also a historic organisation, created in 1854. In 1866 the property was 400 ha including 110 ha of vines, now there are a total of 180 ha including 90 ha of vines.

In the Haut Medoc Appellation, Château Cantemerle is one of the first classified growths you see in the Medoc as you drive up the famous D2 ‘Route des Chateaux’. You can’t see the Château from the road as it is still surrounded by a beautiful park where a 500 year-old Yew tree bears witness to the religious origins of the property of Chateau de Sauves before the revolution. Once in the park, you can also still see, in front of the chateau, the two trees Caroline planted to honour her husband and son a poignant reminder of the Dame de Cantemerle.

The Allée leading to Chateau Cantemerle

* The current classification is 61 red and 27 sweet white due to various mergers, acquisitions and splits over the years. If you would like to get into more details I highly recommend Dewey Markham’s book 1855.

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