We sometimes come across people from the Nordic countries who have changed careers and are now seen among the vineyards somewhere in Europe. Riku Väänänen left Finland around five years ago and now owns and runs Château Puybarbe in Bordeaux together with his wife, Anna. They bought the chateau in 2014. Now, they are about to become organically certified, and they are actively working with different ideas about sustainability. And, not to forget, they make excellent wines.
Quite a few years ago, we organised in Paris “The BKWine Scandinavian Wine Fair” . We did three edition of this wine fair, the last in 2006. The intention was not to compete with all the other professional wine fairs but rather to showcase in a fun and entertaining way some of the amazing life stories you come across in the wine world. People who venture out into the unknown. Who pull up roots and start a new project in a new place. It brought together, at the Swedish Club in Paris, Scandinavians making wine outside of Scandinavia, in “real” wine regions. (Wine growing has progressed much in Scandinavia over the 15 years since the last edition, of course.)
This is a longer version of an article published on Forbes.com.
This made it particularly fun – much more recently – to come in contact with Riku and Anna Väänänen from Finland, who are since 2014 winemakers in Bordeaux.
“We are a normal Finnish family who wanted to start a business together”, Riku replies when I ask how they ended up in Bordeaux. Neither he nor Anna had any connection to the wine industry before, but Riku’s father was a farmer, actually the first biodynamic farmer in Finland.
Château Puybarbe is located in the Côtes de Bourg, an appellation on the right bank along the Gironde estuary. On the other side of Gironde is Margaux. Bourg was an important port for shipping wine in the Middle Ages. Vineyards grew around the town. Château Puybarbe is on a small hill with most of its vineyards around the châteaux. “When we harvest, it never takes more than 30 minutes before the grapes are in the fermentation tank,” says Riku.
They started with 36 hectares, and now the surface has increased to 41 hectares. The production is 200,000 to 250,000 bottles a year.
They looked at 30 estates before deciding what to buy. Bordeaux felt like a good choice. “It is a large region; you find expertise if you need it,” says Riku. They fell for Château Puybarbe, not least because they liked the wine.
The Côtes de Bourg is not so well-known. For a wine lover, it pays to take a closer look. Here the wines are in a different price range than the more well-known neighbours in Médoc on the other side of the Gironde, or Pomerol and Saint Emilion to the east.
Vineyard prices, average, per hectare, 2019
- Bergerac rouge, 8,000 eur
- Bordeaux rouge, 15,000 eur
- Côtes de Bourg, 21,000 eur
- Sauternes, 30,000 eur
- Graves rouges, 34,000 eur
- Haut-Médoc, 75,000 eur
- Pessac-Léognan, 500,000 eur
- Saint-Emilion, 290,000 eur
- Margaux, 1,300,000 eur
- Pauillac, 2,300,000 eur
“The Côtes de Bourg is unknown and therefore underrated,” says Riku. But he and Anna like it here. “There is a good atmosphere. We are about 200 chateaux. We blind taste and rate each other’s wines. We work together, and we borrow machinery from each other.”
Some of the estates belong to a cooperative, and others sell in bulk to négociants. “Those who are well known today started bottling their wines early,” says Riku. François Mitjavile at Château Roc de Cambes is the big star. He put Côtes de Bourg on the wine map for many consumers.
Riku and Anna worked the first year together with the former owners, two brothers; an excellent way to get to know the business and to have time to sell their home in Finland. When the purchase was completed, they kept the old team. Simon, the winemaker, is now the technical director. They have four full-time employees. One of the brothers, now in his 80s, still comes and drives the tractor. And he’s a good mechanic, which, I can imagine, is priceless at an agricultural estate.
Also, Puybarbe is one of the chateaux that get trainees from Bordeaux University. This summer they will have three extra persons for five weeks. ”They are ambitious. They are a big help, and they give us fresh ideas.”
Organic farming and sustainability are essential issues for Riku. He tells me that he and Anna are good friends with the people at Château Palmer in Margaux, an organic pioneer in Médoc. They meet regularly and discuss. “We work very much the same”, says Riku, who already works according to the organic rules and will now certify his chateau.
Puybarbe belongs to a pilot group for the sustainability label HVE, Haute Valeur Environnementale. And the chateau may obtain a label also for social responsibility.
The soil is calcareous clay. “It is perfect for merlot, but cabernet sauvignon also ripens almost every year,” says Riku. Over time, he plans to plant more cabernet sauvignon. Right now, he has 72% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon and a little cabernet franc and malbec. The vines are 40 years old on average, the oldest being some 80-year-old cabernet francs. “The balance is good, we do not need to make a green harvest, and the flowering is homogeneous.” This calcareous soil is different from some other parts of Bourg that is famous for it brownish-red sand and gravel soil.
Recently, he has decided to adhere to the concept of no-tilling. “We will let the grass grow and compete with the vines. The roots will be pushed further down.”
More and more people are advocating for minimal tilling of the soil. There are many benefits to this. You don’t disturb the lives of the small animals down there; you reduce carbon dioxide emissions because you do not drive as much with the tractor, and the soil becomes less compact, to mention a few.
Riku is a big proponent of machine harvesting. “We harvest late to optimize tannin ripeness. This can be risky given the weather. We harvest by machine from 3 at night to 11 in the morning. The grapes are then the coolest, which means that they are least likely to be crushed.”
He considers the harvesting machine to be a good investment. “The machine helps us make better wine. It is fast, and we can decide exactly when to harvest. We now use the third generation harvesters. They are as good as hand-harvesting. ”
The wines ferment at a low temperature, below 25 degrees C. They raise the temperature to 28 degrees for two days right at the end of the fermentation to give the wines a good tannin structure. The result is wines with refreshing fruit, a lovely drinkability but still, wine an excellent structure.
Red is the colour of the Côtes de Bourg wines. But the Väänänen couple also makes a lovely rosé, Annabel de Château Puybarbe, with the help of which they are now hoping to enter new markets.
The wines of Château Puybarbe
Château Puybarbe 2014, Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux
A delightful, fruity and rich wine with ripe dark berries and some tannins. It is balanced and excellent to drink now.
Château Puybarbe 2016, Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux
Generous and refreshing fruit, black currants not least, combined with a dense texture. A splendid Bordeaux in a fresh, complex and modern style.
Le Roc de Château Puybarbe 2017 Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux
This is an attractive wine for many occasions with fresh fruit, plums, spices and, a certain softness. Discreet oak aromas. Very enjoyable.
Annabel de Château Puybarbe, Bordeaux Rosé
Full-bodied, savoury rosé with intense aromas of red berries and melon and some white flowers. Fresh acidity and a dry and pleasant finish.
Bordeaux is a fascinating mix of the world-famous and luxurious chateaux that grab the world’s attention and a wealth of lesser-known wine estates that often produce wines that are incredible value for money, if you know where to find them. You will experience the best of both the famous wines and chateau and the most ambitious family estates on a wine tour to Bordeaux with BKWine.
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