On the Trail With Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal

In my quest to introduce some of Bordeaux's most heralded and respected châteaux to an entirely new generation of drinkers—those who are just now developing a thirst for France's king of wines—I thought it might make sense to talk to a new generation of Bordelais directors. In 2012, after working abroad in England, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal returned home to Château Angélus, ready to take the reigns of her family's legacy from her father Hubert. Like me, Stéphanie is only in her thirties, but she's now commanding one of the most historic and prestigious wine estates in the world. Since 1782—for eight generations—Stéphanie's family has been running Château Angélus in Bordeaux's Saint Emilion appellation. While the Right Bank of the river often takes a backseat to the Left Bank's Médoc in terms of renown, in 2012 Château Angélus moved up to "A" status—a grand cru classé wine and the highest possible ranking in the Saint Emilion region, joining famous names like Cheval Blanc and Ausone in reputation. The elevation in status happened to coincide with Stéphanie's return to the property, so I wanted to ask her about the potential added pressure of not only carrying on the family tradition, but also representing a wine of tremendous repute. Our conversation is below:

David: I know you came back home to Angélus after having worked abroad in finance. Did you know you eventually wanted to work in the wine business or were you perhaps looking for a way out having been born into such a storied Bordeaux family? 

Stéphanie: I was born in Bordeaux. I grew up at Angélus and from the time I was young I saw the passion of my father and my grandfather running through the vineyards. The passion was in my DNA and I decided very early—perhaps when I was ten or so—that I would take over later for my father and be the one in my family to be involved with the château. But I said to my father that before taking on such a responsibility I would like to prove myself and show what I was capable of, far away from Bordeaux and outside from the wine business. I was interested in finance so I decided to study something different before considering going back to my roots later on. He encouraged me on that path and thought it was a very good thing to work in another field before taking over the job. I obviously spent a lot of time in the vineyards as a youngster, but over the past four years I’ve been learning so much more about the business on a daily basis. I was definitely encouraged to develop several skills and competencies, which allowed me to have more of an international network as well as open my mind to different cultures.

David: Did you understand the prestige involved with Château Angélus as a kid? Did you understand where it stood in comparison to other producers?

Stéphanie: I grew to understand it, but not at first. Much stronger than the reputation of the château was the history and the tradition of our family, I would say. Château Angélus has been in our family since 1782 when my family first settled in Saint-Emilion. I represent the eighth generation and am the third woman to manage the château. Although I wasn’t managing anything at a young age, I understood that something important had been done by the previous generations and I wanted to be the next link in the chain that would allow to continue the family history at Angélus. I wanted to add value—to make progress and to develop the property further. At that point Angélus was famous, but it didn’t have the reputation we know today. It didn’t have the same level of fame that we’ve seen over the last ten years, as the finest wines raised more interest than ever all over the world . 

David: When did you see that reputation start to pick up and why do you think it suddenly happened? 

Stéphanie: It was something that started to be commonly accepted around 2000 or so. It started really in 1996 with the classification of the Right Bank, so that was one of the first steps. But in 2000 it really started to become among the most famous wines. When I was a child I didn’t realize as much as I did later the notoriety of the château. 

David: Do you think the job you ultimately inherited is different than the one you imagined as a child due to the increased prestige of the property?

Stéphanie: First of all I do not consider I “inherited” the job, but quite the contrary that I proved myself to be able to take over.  I think all the work and the achievements that were accomplished by the past generations have to be respected. We must respect the dignity of the previous seven generations, but for sure in the past fifteen years there has been a significant evolution and progression in terms of sustainability and consistency. The quality has been very consistent for the past 30 years, vintage after vintage. In terms of positioning, reputation, and image, all of those things have reached the highest. The business environment is more competitive now than ever. Every château owner or manager wants to achieve such results. When you look at the progression of Angélus people will surely say: if Angélus can make it, why can’t it happen for us? There’s a sense of emulation because we all strive to be the very best. Everyone wants to go in that direction which is great, but to maintain quality at this level of excellence is even more difficult. It’s much easier to grow step-by-step from the bottom of the ladder. It’s easier to go down than up! (laughs) But to clearly answer your question, it is quite obvious that a from a child prospect you can barely guess how complex the apparently simple things you have in front of you really are. But as you grow up, you tend to understand step by step that life is far more complex than it used to seem.

David: It’s interesting to watch new customers try to wrap their head around Bordeaux because we’re still using a classification from 1855 to rank the so-called “best” wines from the Médoc region. But that ranking was done more than 150 years ago! It may still have some validity, but so much has changed since then. There are so many wines that have improved in quality and that are far better now than they were back then—and vice versa, of course. 

Stéphanie: It would be difficult not to agree with that assumption indeed.

David: Do you feel that ultimately classifying the wines of the Right Bank has helped customers to better navigate the wines of Saint-Emilion?

Stéphanie: I think the intention was there at the beginning. Taking into consideration the evolution in quality of the different châteaux and vineyards, the intention and initial inception really worked. As you know there are always controversies regarding any classification, but the fact that the ranking is often attacked isn’t good for Saint-Emilion because then the consumer starts to wonder whether they can trust it. It brings into question the validity of the classification, which I think is a shame. Once the château owners begin to complain about the results of the classification, then of course they start changing some of the rules and you’re not sure if it’s to make everyone happy or if it’s really about the correcting the original classification and getting it right. So I think it’s a shame that there have been so many complaints about it because originally I think it was meant to present to the consumer which properties had really improved their quality.  Truth is it is the best classification one can imagine, as it is regularly evolving thus creating a strong emulation which has considerably benefited all the appellation, and subsequently the region as more rigorous viticultural practices started here, andspread far away from Saint-Emilion.

David: As time continues to pass we’re beginning to see more properties do business differently from the way they had traditionally done things for centuries. An example would be Château Latour ceasing their en premier sales, or maybe it means another historic property changing the way the wines are made. Are there changes that you’ve made at Angélus that have altered direction from the château’s historic precedence?

Stéphanie: Something I undertook when I joined the management of Angélus in 2012, or one of my early missions I should say, was to change the distribution of Angélus because we had a large number of different negotiants handling our affairs. I thought after taking time to analyze the data that there were too many, especially considering our supply and production, so I decided to cut the number of negotiants we dealt with by almost half. This was difficult to do because some of them were cousins of the family or close personal friends, so I said, “I understand, but if we’re talking about the best interests of Angélus I’m making the decision to do this because having this wide of a net isn’t of any benefit to us.” I wanted to be much more selective in terms of distribution. I received letters and phone calls from various negotiants who were very upset about being removed. I took all the calls and answered all the letters to be as diplomatic as possible because it wasn’t an easy decision. It was definitely not the traditional decision, but I knew it was good for Angélus and already after just three years I can see that we’ve progressed.

David: I understand as well as anyone that doing things the old fashioned way doesn’t always make business sense. What were some of the benefits you saw from making that decision?

Stéphanie: I really wanted to have a selective distribution with higher standards. I am much closer with the negotiants that I’ve kept and I can keep tabs on where they’ve placed our wines. It’s much more qualitative in terms of where Angélus is being sold within this network. Unfortunately I don’t have enough wine to fulfill global demand, so it’s a repositioning of our distribution. It’s more strategic. Instead of selling wines in places where we don’t have much customers, we’re redirecting bottles to markets where people are trying to get more of our wines. I’ve worked on this closely with each negotiant. 

David: What about changes in the vineyard? What changes have been made to the viticulture that have increased the quality of Angélus?

Stéphanie: There are several. In a vineyard you have a terroir that needs to be expressed by human hands. You can use the example of music and an orchestra as an analogy. The musical score is the terroir and the orchestra is the humans who are going to express it. I think at Angélus there are two important terroirs: one for merlot and one for cabernet franc. They are specific and not quite the same. We took the time to really understand this starting around 1985 when we were undertaking a lot of new practices in the vineyard, starting with green harvesting. Angélus is one of the pioneers of green harvesting on the Right Bank. People thought we were fools—that we were crazy—for doing that, but now most producers do it. They thought we were wasting our grapes by cutting them before they were ripe. Even my grandfather didn’t understand it. He had lived during the war and couldn’t understand why we would reduce the crop by fifty percent. Around that same time we started deleafing as well to increase the quality of the grapes. We also added a sorting table which was the first on the Right Bank close to thirty years ago. Of course now when we talk about sorting tables everyone has one, but that wasn’t the case back then. In the cellar we changed the size of the vats, the shape of the vats, how much new oak we use in the maturation of the wine, etc. Many aspects of production have changed over the last few decades that have lead to the progression of the wine, but it’s really understanding the terroir of the wine that was key for Angélus to produce consistent wine from vintage to vintage. If you look at the past thirty vintages from any château it’s not for certain that you’ll find consistent quality among the wines. At Angélus it’s been very consistent, however. There are differences between the vintages, of course, but you’re not going to be disappointed with the wine even in some of the tougher years. In fact, it’s within those vintages that I think the character of Angélus really becomes particularly apparent. And that’s the difference between a good wine and a great wine—un grand vin

David: Thank you for saying that. I’m a big believer that the so-called “bad vintages” are far more interesting for Bordeaux wines because you get to see who really showed up to make good wine. You can taste complexity beyond just the fruit. I have a problem with the idea of “good years” and “bad years” because I think few people who look at the wine world that way truly understand what that even means. You can’t taste terroir if it’s buried under ripe and sweet fruit flavors. 

Stéphanie: I would not express it another way.

David: What do you think Bordeaux customers who primarily drink Left Bank wines tend to mis-understand about the Right Bank? 

Stéphanie: I don’t know if they’re mis-understanding anything. It’s a little more complex than in other illustrious appellations within the region as it is the biggest one in size, hence there are so many châteaux and so many vineyards, many of which are quite small in comparison to the Left Bank. In terms of promotion and distribution we have so much more work to accomplish because there’s a lot of producers, but not a lot of wine to sell. 

David: What about those customers who have sworn off merlot? What would you say to them?

Stéphanie: (laughs) I think that’s giving too much credence to one line from a movie. Merlot is common to both the Left Bank and the Right Bank, but of course you have more of it over here. Then you have cabernet franc which is not nearly as well-known with consumers. I think it’s an absolutely wonderful grape—very fine, very elegant with a lot of freshness and a bit of spiciness as well. I think when you have a good balance between merlot and cabernet franc you’ve got a great wine in your glass. I think more people should try a blind tasting with wines from right the Left and Right Bank so they can see if merlot is really that boring, or if it’s just a conviction they picked up from a popular movie.

David: What are your plans for introducing new generations of wine drinkers to Angélus?

Stéphanie: I’m spending time with universities and business schools lately. We regularly organize tastings and master classes in these venues and we welcome students and young people who want to know more about the wine. We try to communicate our passion as well as the savoir faire. We also have trainees and young people from all over the world who come to Angélus for the harvest each year. We’re happy that young people continue to be attracted by the wine industry and we try to spend a lot of time with them to explain the history, as well as the way we work, what we want to achieve, and our thoughts on the constant progression of our wine. We’re always pushing ourselves to be better, and as you mentioned before we started we’re both fairly young—I’m in my thirties as are you—I’m the third woman to manage this château, I’m an heir of course, but I’m also an entrepreneur because I’m taking a lot of risk. I bought all the shares from my father six months ago, so I’m really strongly committed. I think when people see someone taking risks who also has a high level of investment in that success, it endears them more to the message and it helps me of course with my convictions. My goal is to continue the success of Angélus for many generations to come. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll