“He who is guided by a star never looks back” : a perfect description of Olivia Le Calvez’s career. Mrs. Le Calvez is the creator of the boutique Hotel de Toiras and its gourmet restaurant, La Table d’Olivia on the Ile de Ré. This Relais & Chateau hotel is the first 5* hotel on the Ile de Ré and in the whole of the Poitou-Charentes region. Having made one dream a reality, Olivia has just fulfilled another : creating her own wine in Saint Emilion, the illustrious wine region in Bordeaux, and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Driven by her passion for wine and love of a challenge, Olivia forged her path in the wine world with the support of her husband, Didier Le Calvez, an iconic figure in the world of luxury hotels. After ten years in New York (1988-1999) where he was first manager of the Plaza Hotel and then General Manager of The Pierre, Didier Le Calvez moved back to Paris where he directed the George V Hotel until 2007, during which time he propelled it to the forefront of the most luxurious hotels in the world. While at the George V, Didier was encouraged by Enrico Bernardo and Eric Beaumard, two of the world’s finest sommeliers, to grow and develop the George V wine cellar. Didier comments about this period:
“Being in contact with exceptional sommeliers and the most skilled and knowledgeable wine growers only increased and affirmed my passion for wine. It made me very enthusiastic for Olivia’s project. So exciting was the challenge, I realised it was time for me to step down from the George V. I had to pretty much start from scratch again in order to act upon the full potential of this project.”
Olivia’s dream took shape in 2009, with the purchase of an authentic Girond house (with its characteristic white stone and blue shutters), nestled in the green countryside along the curves of the river. This old wine-making property, endowed with excellent storehouses (previously owned by the Estager family for over a century), is surrounded by a beautiful vineyard on the heights of the Puisseguin plateau, at 89 metres altitude. One of the four ‘satellite’ villages of Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin is separated from the famed town only by La Barbanne, a humble stream and a sub-tributary of the Dordogne.
Olivia says of the area: “I am particularly attached to the region, as I spent much of my childhood here. My husband was born in neighbouring Perigord. It made perfect sense to set out on my mission to find our little gem here – a two hour drive from the Ile de Ré where we have Hotel de Toiras, Villa Clarisse, and also from our truffle grove Chapdeuil.
After many months of looking, we fell in love with a vinyard that has ideal soil and climate as well as a perfect grape variety – 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Each piece of the puzzle fit perfectly to create the wine I had dreamed of, rich in flavour and yet still subtle in taste.”
The renowned winemaker, Stéphane Derenoncourt, joined forces with Olivia and Didier, bringing his sought-after elegance, harmony and sensitivity to the table : a new feminine Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion was born. Her name : Chateau Clarisse, named after their daughter, 3 years old at the time.
One of the highest points of the Gironde river valley.
The village of Puisseguin owes its name to Puy, meaning “hill” or “mound”, and to Sergeant Seguin, lieutenant of king Charlemagne who built an imposing castle on this strategic place. The story of this village is rich and varied. One can still visit the castle dating back to feudal times : the 16th century Château de Monbadon.
Puisseguin, facing the famous Plateau of Saint Emilion, received its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1936, cementing its reputation of excellence in the world’s wine community.
Sitting on one of the highest points of the Gironde river, dominating the Barbanne Valley, the Puissegun-Saint Emilion vineyard is situated to the northeast of Saint Emilion, enjoying a south-facing orientation, a clay-limestone soil, with gravel in some areas. It benefits from a microclimate of mild winters and sun-soaked inter-seasonal periods. These excellent conditions allow for a harvest of grapes to the perfect ripeness.
Finding and renovating the property
Upon arrival, Olivia and Didier discovered a wine cellar with stunning wood beams overhead, equipped with concrete vats in perfect condition, and two storehouses full of wine barrels. The couple completely restored the farm buildings and storehouses in 2013. We installed thermotaxis in the fermenting room, sandblasted the storehouse, installed new barrels (80 % from Taransaud, 10 % from Ana Sélection, 10 % from other barrel-makers). Small vats allowed us to make fragmented selections. The adventure was about to begin !”
A wine-making process respectful of the locale
The vinification takes place using the whole grape, before it’s strained. The fermentation is done in thermo-regulated vats; the extraction (of the tannins, the precursors of scent & pigments), by pumping-over, extraction of the colour and tannin and pressing the grapes, ending with maceration at the end of the fermentation process. The malo-lactic fermentation takes place in both new wood barrels (10%) and old (90%).
From the very first year, the attention to the grape selection drove the young winemaker to introduce a “Vieilles Vignes” batch from a south facing hectare where the vine stocks have been cultivated for over seventy years. 4000 bottles were produced.
“2013 will be our third year of harvest,” says Didier Le Calvez, “Today we are getting to know our twenty different plots better and better, and refining the wine-making process to fully respect and bring out the best in each one.”
“Chateau Clarisse is a Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion,” confirms Olivia with pride, “and we are doing everything in our power to make it the best quality possible. This starts with the ruthless selection of the cuvees to make sure we are only keeping the most successful and most accomplished. Our aim is to make a wine equal to any of the best, at an affordable price of about 25€. Our wine is now a real competitor in the realm of les Grands Vins!”
With such a perfectionist attitude, how can this wine not rise from the depths of this ancient soil, the oldest in Bordeaux, and shine as a new star?
Vines High on the Saint Emilion Plateau
Situated on the famous Saint Emilion Plateau, at 80 to 100 meters altitude, the Chateau Clarisse property benefits from the best land in the area with huge development potential. The vineyard originally covered an area of 5 hectares, and is progressively being enlarged to 14 hectares. It benefits from a well-drained clay-limestone and clay-siliceous soil. «A lounge chair of soil» is how the famous oenologist, Michel Rolland, described this soil, producing great wine with minimum input. The vines, composed of merlots and cabernet francs, have an average age of 25 to 30 years old. Nine rows of 70-year-old Merlot vines were also added in 2013.
Olivia, who can now use the title ‘land-owner and farmer’, is meticulous when it comes to taking care of the vineyard. She does it with the same attention to detail as she does as a luxury hotel owner. She says, “Since 2010, I have been working with a genius, Stéphane Derenoncourt, helping us with the vine-growing and the vinification. I follow his method, which consists of listening to the ground, bringing the grape to full maturity, interfering as little as possible with the soil, the gathering, and the wine itself. His golden rule is that a wine must express the subtlety of its land, with freshness and harmony. By keeping this rule, respecting this harmony, we are able to produce wines that can both be drunk immediately and be kept for later consumption.”
Following the advice of Stéphane Derenoncourt, the work at Chateau Clarisse concentrated first and foremost on the vine itself. A great process of racotage was undertaken in 2010, planting new vines where missing, and enriching the soil with compost to stimulate bacteria. In 2011 and 2012, a grand series of replanting was done.
“We coax the plant to extract the inherent quality lying in the depths of the bedrock : to seize its aromatic finesse and the high-quality tannin”.
“Regarding the soil, the more discreet man is, the better the wine is,” – the philosophy of Stéphane Derenoncourt. The work is meticulous : the vine is trained in the specially adapted Guyot style. The removal of excess buds, thinning of shoots, and removal of unwanted leaves are all performed by hand. When permitted, the vendages are done while the grapes are still green after the selection process, to harvest yields of 30 to 38 hectolitres per hectare (for a plantation density of 6666 to 5500 feet per hectare), which is well under the authorised maximum yield.
“We carried out our first grape harvest on a sunny day in October 2010 . . . the next day it was pouring rain ! Clarisse, our two-year-old daughter, and our son George, four and a half were with us : they plucked their first grapes that day. Wine growing is both an art de vivre and a school of rigor and excellence. It’s also a link to tradition and a connection with the actions of our ancestors. We are happy to be able to pass on this world to our children.”
 The maximum authorised yield for a Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion is up to 45 ho/ha.