“When we decide to harvest, we know exactly what is 5 metres below the ground”, says Yann Schÿler, putting in a one-liner how deeply well they know their terroir. He’s the General Director of Schröder & Schÿler, wine négociant and one of the owners of Chateau Kirwan, Grand Cru Classé Margaux, in Bordeaux. He’s the 8th generation of his family in the French wine industry and was recently in Dublin for a wine dinner. He’ll be back soon to share more about his wines at the highly anticipated O’Briens Winter Wine Fair.
Yann speaks in detail about what lies below the terroir his family came to own in 1925, and he also shares some insights about his own roots: his family has 277 years of history in the wine trade, and while originally from Germany, by the time his grandfather was in charge they had been based in France for five generations. “In prewar days, négociants would bottle a whole harvest of fine wine”, he explains, and adds that back then it wasn’t uncommon for fine wine to be shipped in barrels to its different markets, where it would then get different labels. Yann’s grandfather had the initiative of making contracts with different chateaux to bottle their wines exclusively, and even before it was bought by the family, Chateau Kirwan was one of those chateaux.
Back in this millennium, we are about two try to different vintages of the Chateau’s second wine, Charmes de Kirwan. As a very attentive sommelier at Restaurant FortyOne pours glasses of the 2012 and 2011 vintages, Yann explains that Schröder & Schÿler manages a portfolio of over 200 products from Grand Classé to mid-range Bordeaux, and they “are very fortunate in owning a Chateau”, a privilege not every négociant can enjoy. He points out that at Chateau Kirwan, “there’s no need for a third wine. Our first label is made with the best bunches and the rest goes into the second.”
When asked about how is that possible (many Chateaux feature a third wine and a fourth is not unheard of), he points out the brilliant labour of Philippe Delfaut, Managing Director of Château Kirwan, a “very skilled winemaker and agronomist” who entered the company in 2006 after working with other premium Margaux labels.
Under his watch, extensive research was conducted to study the soil carefully in order to accurately “plant the right grape in the right place.” To explain this research, Yann grabs a slice of bread and compares it to a plot of land. Then he breaks it with his hands to show how what they thought was one plot, could be two or more when you analyse it. In total, they identified 35 plots in the 38 hectares planted.
“We harvest separately and vinify separately”, he says, speaking of the recently installed 35 new vinification tanks made out of concrete in which the wine from each different plot is made. This painstaking method allows them to get the most out of the grapes from each particular plot before blending. Yann speaks of the wines from each wine glass shaped tank as his “35 babies” and he points out that both the top wine and their second wine are vinified as one and it’s in January when they are assembled and the decision of what goes where is made.
“Our process has never been as natural as it is today”, he says, mentioning how they now benefit from gravity instead of pumping and how their knowledge of the land means there’s more done in the vineyard.
“2010 is the vintage for us”, Yann says emphasising the “the”. “It’s a classic vintage”, he adds, comparing it to Beethoven or Bach, while “2009 would be Mozart.” While he considers that wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon can last forever, and that “the longer you wait, the better”, he is aware of the need to balance consumers’ expectations as nowadays people tend to buy wines and drink them straight away.
For Yann, “the biggest task” is to produce wines that can age for long but that can also be “sustainable”, meaning that there is no astringency and they are balanced even when relatively young, “Buy a case, try a few bottles, but enjoy the last six when it’s fully matured”, he suggests.
One of the “drink now” vintages he points out is 2012. As we try it on the day he explains that the vineyard suffered from a very dry summer but grapes were able to recover thanks to a bit of rain near harvest time. “It’s easy to understand and good value”, he adds, calling it a “good vintage.”
For those looking for older and more complex wines, he suggests 1996, as “it’s similar to 2010, and it’s now ready for drinking.” And if 1996 is great, we can only think that 2010 will be astonishing when it reaches full maturity, thanks to the deeper knowledge and advanced technology that they have now.
The Quest for Purity of Fruit and Precision
“We asked Philippe to find the style of Margaux”. At Chateau Kirwan, the aim is to create wines that are not over-extracted and instead show “finesse, length and elegance.” Yann calls the large investment recently made at Chateau Kirwan “a turning point” as he deems it “a reconstruction, not a renovation.”
Last years’ vintage was the first one vinified in the new concrete tanks, a key part of this investment. Regarding the feedback received en primeur, Yann is delighted. We asked Lynne Coyle, Master of Wine and Head Buyer for O’Briens Wines about it and she said: “I’ve seen a change in the style of the wine, fruit, authenticity of the terroir. The wines have become very, very elegant, nuanced and precise.”
Kirwan, an Irish Connection
Chateau Kirwan has a name more often seen in the shores of the West of Ireland than in the left bank of Bordeaux. As Yann explains, the Kirwans from Galway were one of the Irish families that came to France during the times of the French Revolution and one wine merchant with the surname eventually inherited the chateau in the mid 18th century.
Although the Kirwans sold the chateau in 1802, this heritage makes Chateau Kirwan one of the Wine Geese, a name that serves as a nod to the “Wild Geese”, as Irish soldiers serving in European armies in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were nicknamed.
Yann mentions that some members of the Kirwan family that owned the chateau are still in France and that at Chateau Kirwan they care a lot about this Irish heritage. Nowadays, they’ve a close relationship with Ireland thanks to O’Briens; Yann mentions that they’ve worked with them for the last three decades and he believes that the chateau’s link to Ireland “it’s part of its history, when you’re part of the Wild Geese, you can’t neglect that relationship.”
You can meet Yann Schÿler at the O’Briens Winter Wine Fair this 10th of November in Cork and 11th and 12th in Dublin.
Les Charmes de Kirwan is available at O’Briens Wines.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.