François Despagne owns the estate today and conducts all aspects of this subtle wine growing symphony. His devotion to this land, passed down to him from his ancestors, embraces a deep respect for the vineyard’s natural environment. Describing himself as a modern traditionalist, this ambassador of terroir nevertheless keeps a constant eye on modern solutions to enhance and perfect his wines.
“My family is one of the oldest in Saint-Emilion. We have found documents showing that our family roots go back to the 17th century. Depending on the generation, we have done all sorts of winegrowing jobs. We were often vineyard workers, day-labourers and ploughmen.
It was my ancestor, Louis Despagne (whose family were smallholders at Cheval Blanc), who purchased the first family parcels in 1812 at a place named Grand Corbin, just a few acres away from that prestigious Saint-Emilion First Growth. His son extended the vineyard taking it from just a handful of hectares to around twenty, a surface area which has remained largely unchanged ever since. The wine in those days was called “Cru Grand Corbin – owner Despagne”. Towards the end of the 19th century, the name became Château Grand Corbin-Despagne. My grandfather, Paul, brought recognition and renown to the growth when he received several awards for the estate, one of which was the title Great Classified Growth at the time of the first classification of Saint Emilion growths in 1954.
After completing my studies in molecular biology (with a specialisation in microbiology, oenology and ampelology) and doing work experience in advising and managing wine properties, I was asked by my family in 1996 to take over this estate. I am today the seventh generation of the same family on the land of Grand Corbin.
From the moment I arrived here, I developed a passion for the estate’s vines and different terroirs and very quickly set up an in-depth survey of all those different terroirs that make up Grand Corbin-Despagne.
This vineyard is located in the north of the Saint-Emilion appellation, adjacent to Pomerol; and there are two main soil-types: clay-sand with iron deposits and thin superficial layers of ancient sands over clay.
A study of 150 soil pits drilled into the soils, together with a measuring of the soils’ water supply constraints, enabled us to establish the viticultural identity of 53 parcels, whose variables were the grape variety, rootstock, vine age and terroir. With this data we were able to put into place a system of plot by plot management of the vineyard.
From 1996 the vines were grown according to integrated and sustainable farming principles (with AFAQAFNOR certification since 2005) as part of a sustainable economy approach (Terra Vitis charter). No herbicides have ever been used. In 2004 we conducted trials on a part of the vineyard following the principles of organic farming, before converting fully to organic farming in 2010. In 2013 we acquired “Organic Wine” certification. Since 2018 we have trialled a number of plots using biodynamic practices.
From the pruning to the harvesting, all necessary vineyard tasks (de-budding, removal of double buds, de-leafing, crop thinning and de-suckering) are carried out with the sole aim of achieving grapes of the highest quality.
Before the harvest, grape ripeness is tested by tasting the berries on the vines, followed by a chemical lab analysis of the fruit to ascertain the optimum date for picking. After being handharvested in small crates, the bunches are sorted firstly in the vineyard, followed by a second sorting at harvest reception before being de-stemmed. The berries are then given a further number of consecutive sortings as they pass along a vibrating table, then through an air-knife sorting process and finally along a manual sorting table. Depending on the batches harvested (each one coming from separate parcels of the vineyard), the berries are distributed in the vat cellar to 27 different temperature-controlled vats. Each batch is vinified according to its potential and carefully monitored through regular observation, analysis and tasting.
After the skins have macerated and the wine has been run off the skins, the batches are preblended and sent to the barrel cellar, comprising 312 oak barrels, for around 12 to 18 months, depending on the batches and the vintage. The final blending is then carried out. The wine is finally bottled some 21 months after the harvest.
The common thread in my work as a winemaker is anticipation, respect and stability, to enable me to produce the best possible wine in each vintage. Through careful monitoring and decisionmaking during the whole of the growing season, I aim to make a precise wine that reflects the wine’s terroir and the identity of our Grand Corbin area and is worthy of its origin, which has given it its renown for nearly 200 years.
Technical cellar tours and tastings at the estate are possible with a previously arranged appointment. We are partners with the Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion tourist offices, particularly for Bordeaux Grands Crus – UNESCO visits, and we are certified members of Vignoble et Chai in the Bordeaux region. Our efforts were rewarded with a gold medal by the Best of Wine Tourism award by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce in its category “Promoting environmentally-friendly practices through wine tourism”. Grand-Corbin Despagne is a member of the First Association for the SME (Environment Management System) of the wines of Bordeaux, which was awarded ISO 14001 certification in July 2013 and we have HVE3 (High Environmental Value Level 3) certification.