A Wine Wizard Speaks Luck, Genius And Fortune

“Show me a great man and I will always show you one or several women who have made him,” Henri Duboscq said when we recently spoke within Château Haut-Marbuzet in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France. The theme of women, wine and gratitude is prevalent in convivial conversations with this man who, together with his father, revolutionized winemaking in the Saint-Estephe region of the Médoc. The pair proved that, even for those who lack cash, patience melded with quiet objectives can lead to fortune and satisfaction.

In the fourth edition of his book titled Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines, wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote “Haut-Marbuzet produces one of the most obvious yet sexiest wines of the entire Bordeaux region.”

Henri Duboscq recently completed his 55th consecutive wine harvest. In a spacious room before ample windows with a stunning view of outside vines, he spoke fondly of past times spent with the wine critic Parker. He speaks with a lively and intelligent grasp of history melded with his own colorful personal philosophy. Duboscq is poetic and wise, philosophical and astute, bawdy and unafraid to speak of his love for love, as well as for vines.

“Everything has arrived in life. I don’t know from where. But that is the story of my life. Afterwards I believed I had decided, but I did not.”

This modest self-summation belies the challenging decisions and laser-focused attitude that transformed the modest plot his father acquired in 1952 into the successful, sprawling Médoc château that today is ten-fold greater in size, at 170-acres (70-hectares).

Henri’s father, Herve Duboscq, was a railway stationmaster who, at the age of 42, decided to make wine. In 1952, seven years after the Second World War ended, the French rural economy was dire. Local farmers were selling their plots and moving to Bordeaux city or Paris to find income. Contrary to this trend, Duboscq acquired 17-acres (7-hectares) in the Saint-Estephe region of the Médoc without payment. Instead he promised to supply the land provider with a quarter of his wine production.

This property, Château Haut-Marbuzet, had not been included in the famed 1855 classification of Bordeaux vineyards because it was too small. Such viticultural anonymity turned out to be a benefit; it allowed Duboscq to acquire this renowned land without cash.

Herve Duboscq decided to distinguish his wine. Unlike many neighbors, he began bottling his wine before selling it. Next, while most wine producers in that region doted heavily on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Herve Duboscq planted ample Merlot, recognizing the suitability of the moisture-retaining clay soils of Saint-Estephe. Finally, in an era when only top wine châteaux bought new oak barrels for aging wine, he did alike. He recognized their ability to add and enhance flavors.

Credit: Tom Mullen

Henri Duboscq, proprietor of Château Haut-Marbuzet

Duboscq was also blessed with good land. His soils were laden with gravel to absorb heat and reradiate it at night, while nearby waters of the Gironde estuary stabilized extreme temperatures. Humidity from the Atlantic Ocean, further west, attenuated summer sunlight; blue clays facilitated healthy crops of Merlot.

As he grew up, Henri Duboscq’s father told him that vines would be their salvation.

“He said, ‘You know Henri I was born very poor, but we’ll have fantastic vengeance because of the vines and the wine.’ He galvanized me all my youth! Every time I was a bit sad he said to me, ‘One day, thanks to the wine, I will be number one!’ ”

Yet Henri’s decision to enter medicine almost altered the course of that destiny.

“I was good at science. When I passed my baccalaureates I said I was going to the university to register for medicine. My father said, ‘That’s good news. I’m going to sell everything because if you’re not going to continue my devotion, there is no need that I continue.’ ”

On the brink of the sale, Henri decided to stay at the château and continue his father’s profession. He did so, and soon afterward the two embarked on a secret enterprise.

Their 17-acres once belonged to a parcel of 170-acres, owned in the 19th century by the MacCarthy family from Ireland. After sibling disputes, this family sold their land to the only viable purchaser, a group of eight separate farm workers. The land was then subdivided into eight separate wine châteaux. Over a period of more than 40 years, Henri and his father re-purchased each of the other seven land parcels. Their goal was to reconstitute the land that once belonged to the MacCarthys.

Yet to achieve that goal, they needed funds. To secure these, Duboscq decided to create a premium wine. He succeeded, eventually selling his wines to Cunard Cruise Lines and British Airways; he aslo  received admirable reviews from such influential critics as Parker.

Credit: Tom Mullen

The vines of Château Haut-Marbuzet after harvest

Duboscq remains the winemaker and hires no other winemaker or consultant. In the cellar, he stands before a sturdy and ancient wood desk to organize his work—with pen and paper and no computer. He uses natural yeasts, and believes that a judicial addition of less than optimal juice can add character and quality to wine.

“Winemakers today focus on selection. They produce a great wine only with a vat of great juice. I am convinced that well installed, marginal—including mediocre—juice, can make the great even greater.” He provided the analogy of how  the addition of small quantities of musk can improve perfumes.

Duboscq remains a fan of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (‘Talleyrand’). He keeps dozens of books about this 19th century French diplomat, and has mounted paintings of him on walls. This historical figure’s words appear to echo his own situation regarding taking over the reigns of a vineyard.

“Talleyrand, said some privileged men never create the event, they adapt to the event. And when they are clever, drive them.”

Duboscq’s facility with literature and history make him an engaging host who relishes company.

“The visitor must leave you believing he is a member of your family,” he revealed.

Yet he belittles his own social strengths by professing he has only one focus.

“I have only been interested in one thing: my vines,” he professed.

In speaking to author Gilles Berdin, author of Sharing a Bottle with Henri Duboscq, Duboscq said, “For 50 years I have endeavored to be a supplier of dreams through my wine and, if possible, a generator of voluptuousness.”

To find out whether this was true, we tasted his 2013 Haut-Marbuzet together. I later sampled the 2014. The 2013 includes a 90% Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend with the balance made with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. This is firm and fruity, with a zippy edge of Merlot and a mild streak of spice. Though tannic on opening it soon turns supple, and asks you to pour another glass. Voluptuous? Indeed.

The 2014 is a hefty and commanding classic Bordeaux, riddled with powerful cherries, blackberries, tar, cocoa and plum. This is a robust and reassuring dose of Saint-Estephe, with high backed tannic authority. Wait an hour (if you can, though that’s unlikely) and it will include tastes of brick and mocha—soothing and even remedial.

Before we finished our glasses, Duboscq summarized his colorful trajectory through life. It is one that outwardly appears to epitomize the creation of quality through hard work, dedication and vision. He has two sons and is, whether aware of it or not, facilitating an emerging dynasty.

He craves little credit for his past efforts.

“My story is of a modest man in complicity with a fantastic vineyard, soil and extraordinary terroir. My story is just luck. What is genius? Just luck that lasts.”

Indeed. Luck that has endured for at least 55 harvests; luck that appears likely to last several more years.

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