ARNAUD de Butler once worked in the futures market of the Paris Stock Exchange. But even he would have struggled to foresee how one day he would head up an impressive wine-making operation in the historic Bordeaux appellation of Graves. That said, moving from high finance to wine production was not a total surprise as he had been raised in a family steeped in viticulture.
His agronomist father, Ralph, from an Irish wine-geese family, had worked in the Rhone and the Gironde for many years before the Franciscan Sisters asked him in 1982 to help them ‘professionalise’ the wine-making operation at Château Crabitey. Crabitey, although run as an orphanage by the sisters from 1872, had been producing wine for generations, but both the winery and the vines were badly in need of regeneration. His father did what he could and when the nuns took their leave of the property in 2008, Arnaud de Butler, knowing the quality of the land well from his father’s experience, made the leap from Paris to Bordeaux and joined up with his father. In the past ten years €1.4 million has been invested in the property, upgrading the winery and the vines, and there are plans to renovate the buildings in the future. They have increased the land under vine from 10 hectares to 30 hectares and today produce two excellent wines, a red and a white, both blends. Crabitey is at the forefront of a revival in Graves winemaking following the decision of the star-studded Pessac-Léognan area in 1968 to go it alone.
Q: We first asked Arnaud about what has been a disastrous year for many vignerons in France and Germany. How had it been for Château Crabitey?
A: It has been a very challenging year for us, on two levels. First, like many winegrowers, we have been affected by frost. It is the first time at Crabitey we have experienced frost on this scale, as there is usually very little frost here. Also, Covid and health measures had a big impact on our activity because bars, hotels and restaurant represent our main market. Thankfully we could count on our faithful partners to consolidate markets and even develop new ones in which we were not so well established.
Q: Are you happy with the harvest and how does it rank in your experience?
A: Because of frost, the harvested quantity has been low, but the quality was actually very good. At Crabitey, in particular for this vintage, the parcels of Cabernet-Sauvignon have been very good quality. So, it is a little bit frustrating not to have more wine but working with nature is the pure definition of being a winegrower.
Q: How important is sustainability to your viticulture?
A: Sustainability is at the heart of our activity, and it depends on three pillars:
- Environment: we work with and according to our environment. Thus, our activity’s sustainability is dependent on our capacity to take our environment into account and to protect it. So, as an example, we do care a lot about our soils by bringing a natural fertilizer through plant cover.
- Social: First internally, because it is key to transmit our know-how and recruit people at key tasks, such as work in the vineyards. And outside of the company, because we are at the heart of rural villages, and we do have a role to play in the relations with our neighbours, in the landscaping. Château Crabitey is situated in Portets, the village in the Graves Appellation with the highest number of winegrowers.
- Economical: The company’s first aim is to have a durable activity, and this goal is only possible today if we consider the first two points.
Q: What impact will climate change have on the Bordeaux wine industry in general and on you in particular?
A: We can observe here in Bordeaux warmer winters and drier summers, so climate change is a fact and already has an impact on our activity in the day-to-day care given to the vine. Of course, it forces people to think long-term, but wine-growing is already a long-term oriented activity. When we plant vines, we only see the results many years later, so any decision must be well reflected... When we arrived at Crabitey, Merlot was the only grape variety. Based on agronomical observations, it seemed obvious to us to plant more Cabernet- Sauvignon, a more suitable vegetal material for our gravel soils. Today, it represents the main implantation in our vineyard, and it turns out that this variety gets better and better year after year. So today, we consider our vineyards in good condition for the coming years.
Q: What are the blends in your wines? And are they consistent from year to year?
A: As mentioned previously, Merlot was once the unique variety here…The planting of Cabernet Sauvignon has accelerated in the 2000s to reach more than 50% of our grape population today. More recently, we have even planted Petit Verdot, included in our blend since 2018. The planting reflects the kind of blends you find today in the Crabitey style. Cabernet Sauvignon produces high quality wines, in particular when it is planted on gravel soils such as ours. It brings fruitiness, volume in the mouth and makes the wine well-structured. It goes wonderfully with Merlot which brings roundness and a nice aromatic palate. And that little bit of Petit Verdot that we have added since 2018 gives a nice freshness to the finish. Château Crabitey also produces a white wine composed of 70% Sauvignon blanc and 30% Sémillon. The Graves region (and Bordeaux at large) is little known for its white wines, but the two varieties go nicely on our soils. Year after year the Crabitey white wine is characterised by the roundness of the Sémillon, freshness and fruity aromas. About our blends, they have characteristics of course, but are not fixed, depending on each vintage. It is a very pleasant side of our job. We must experiment to find the good balance and when it fits, it is wonderful!
Château Crabitey Red 2017
Château Crabitey White 2019