Stephen Carrier: Story of an Irish winemaker

Glen Dimplex’s Lochlann Quinn loves wine so much, he bought a vineyard. Roz Crowley talks to Quinn and his winemaker, Stephen Carrier about the Bordeaux, Chateau de Fieuzal    

Stephen Carrier: Story of an Irish winemaker

He refers to the ages of his children in vintages – Gaspar was a 2003, while Jules was a 2001. And his vines are spoken of like children who need nurturing, to be kept cool and warm, dry and protected. Stephen Carrier, winemaker at Chateau de Fieuzal in Bordeaux, lives and breathes wine.

While on a flying visit to Cork to present his much lauded vintages to a wine club, he took time off to chat about his work and relationship with the vineyard’s Irish owner, Lochlann Quinn. A 1961 vintage himself, born on a night when there was a devastating frost in Champagne, Carrier is a third generation grape grower.

He saw the grapes going off to nearby wineries to have their Champagne sparkle added and dreamed of being part of the winemaking process. A degree in oenology and viticulture at Reims university followed by six years working in the prestigious Lynch Bages vineyard, and he realised his dream.

Business man Lochlann Quinn’s love of good wine led him to invest in Bordeaux. Burgundy was impossible to buy into as a non-Burgundian, and Bordeaux, a more inviting region, was his next choice. “There are no For Sale signs outside vineyards so you have to be in the know”, says Quinn, in our rare interview – he does not court publicity.

Located in the commune of Pessac-Léognan in the Graves region on the left bank of the Garonne river, at the time the Chateau de Fieuzal was owned by a bank more concerned with making money than quality wines.

“The 1966 and 1964 white wines were a revelation and had had the status of Grands Crus Classé since 1959”, says Quinn. In 2001 he bought the vineyard. “My choice of Stephen Carrier as winemaker was based on the fact that with all their information resources, he had been head-hunted by Louis Vuitton to be the winemaker at Newton Vineyard in California.” LVMH owns Veuve Cliquot, Krug, Moet et Chandon amongst many prestigious labels. Add to that Carrier’s experience at Lynch Bages and the CV was ideal.

“Wine is a big hobby”, says Quinn, “but it has to be commercial”.

So Carrier returned from California and settled into the job of winemaker, happy to work in Chateau de Fieuzal’s 82 hectares of prime real estate. You can expect to pay €200,000 per hectare for land here.

Quinn’s business acumen and resources were a good match for the property. He invested in state of the art equipment, tastefully restored the buildings and added an underground vat room. He enlisted the help of the friend of a friend and owner of the prestigious St. Emilion Chateau de Angelus. Hubert de Bouard, who became a consultant and still advises and shares the burden of problems as they arise.

“ I waited until I found my way before, in consultation with Hubert de Bouard and Stephen Carrier, we made changes in the vineyard”, says Quinn. “We could see that some of the white grape types were not suited to where they were and that red would work better. At the time I bought the property the balance was in favour of white. Now it’s of red, as it should be.”

Production is now 8,000 cases of red and 1,200 cases of white in the top range Chateau de Fieuzal (named after one of the previous six owners). The rest of the 24,000 cases is made for Abeille de Fieuzal, the second range (named after Napoleon’s emblem, the bee).

Lochlann Quinn’s investment is more likely to benefit his family: “I like wine and my friends do. I enjoy travelling to taste with them and my wife, who shares my interest. We are just back from tasting Rieslings in Germany”. He visits Chateau de Fieuzal six or seven times a year.

The gravelly hilltops and gentle slopes divided by the Eau Blanche stream have enormous advantages for winemaking. This thin, stony soil helps to drain the inevitable rainwater while storing heat. It also adds an interesting undertone of mineral flavours to the white wines.

The decision of when to pick the grapes requires sensitivity, experience and a little risk taking. “Eighty percent of the quality of the wine comes from the vineyard. Forty percent of the process is controllable and my job is to work that percentage”, says Carrier. “We are looking at what we will do from the time of flowering in May. We watch the weather forecast hourly.”

Pick too soon and wine may taste ‘green’. Pick too late and rain may cause water logging and the grapes filling up and bursting before harvesting — for a wine of this quality,it would be impossible to use. The vines, with an average age of 30 years, get the least possible chemical intervention. Organic is the aim, but not so easy to achieve.

“My reading on the flight here was on the effect of copper on the soil”, says Carrier. “While organic certification permits the use of copper sulphate, it may not be good for the soil. Sustainable farming is the key.” They use horses to till the ground in some plots, and tractors to reduce weeds. Grapes are picked and sorted by hand.

As part of the upgrading of the cellars, Carrier decided on a mix of cement tanks, stainless steel tanks and oak barrels which would give him scope during maturing of the grapes. Cement allows the wine to reduce and so concentrate the flavours, oak promotes gentle oxygenation and reduction.

“Adding stainless steel to our cellar means we have a choice of keeping some of the wine more static, preserving flavours in controllable conditions –all designed to maximize the advantages we have in the vineyard at Graves.”

Later in the cellar it’s about fine-tuning:

“What I want is for the grapes, the ‘terroir’ [terrain] and the conditions of the year to speak through the wine”, says Carrier. “It’s up to me and the team to adapt to the conditions. We anticipate how the wines will mature. When the grapes are picked I have a good idea of what I will do with them.”

The grapes from each plot are vinified separately, like marinating foods separately, that will later be mixed together. “My approach,” says Carrier “is the same as cooking. I don’t want the wine to taste the same every year, but I do want it to always be a good wine.”

In a warm year Cabernet Sauvignon is likely to predominate the red wine. In a cool year, such as the 2010 I tasted, he added more Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. A delicious decision.

A portion of the red wine is usually aged in new oak barrels for 12 to 18 months, but not always. “We even have red wines which have not seen oak at all. No two kids are the same!”

Chateau de Fieuzal’s white is perfectly balanced with a fruity depth and aroma, minerality (from that stony soil) and weight (from the Semillon and Muscadelle grapes) while remaining fresh and lively (from the Sauvignon Blanc and good wine making). It’s a wine that will deepen with age when it rounds out to a silky smoothness, but is a joy to drink young.

The reds need time (at least five years) and are a typical Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit-Verdot which in these hands deliver extraordinary fruit balanced with elegance and restraint suited to fine dining – wines to invest in when a baby is born, to open at celebrations, to drink ‘a deux’.

Carrier loves his job. Apart from sharing a sense of humour, he likes how his Irish boss makes decisions quickly. “Lochlann asks good questions. I am still learning about his approach to problems and proposals. Once he is satisfied with the answers I get to make the rest of the relevant decisions.In France it would take weeks before deciding on when to have a discussion!”

The staff of 20 is added to by 50 for white grape harvesting and 100 for red, mostly students from Bordeaux university.

Carrier and Quinn enjoy tasting wines together.

“Recently we had a magnum of 1982 Haut Brion in the Merrion Hotel (owned by Quinn). Magnificent! It’s one of the perks of the job!

“Lochlann is first a wine lover, then an owner. He is shy, but I know he is proud of what we do together. His wife Brenda too. He is a wonderful family man and the names of his grandchildren are on the tanks.

“Our small staff likes being part of an Irish family business.”

The wines, imported by Febvre & Co, retail in Terroirs, Dublin at about €40 for L’Abeille de Fieuzal, to €90 per bottle for Chateau de Fieuzal.

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