Denis Durantou 1957 - 2020
Sunday, 17th May 2020 by Stephen Browett
Everyone at Farr Vintners is devasted to hear the news of the death of our dear friend Denis Durantou of Chateau L’Eglise Clinet in Pomerol.
Denis was a wonderful man and he made absolutely brilliant wines, not just at L’Eglise Clinet but also in Lalande Pomerol, Saint Emilion and Castillon.
He was born in 1957 and after his university studies at Science Po in Paris, he became interested in his family’s neglected vineyard. They had owned L’Eglise Clinet since the 19th Century, but It had been farmed out by his Grandmother to Pierre Lasserre of Clos Rene since the 1940s, completely skipping his parents’ generation. After studying winemaking at the University of Bordeaux, he took over the estate in 1983. It came to my attention when I tasted, and was hugely impressed, by the 1985 vintage. I first met Denis on a visit to Bordeaux in the late 1980s and we have been firm friends ever since.
Denis was married to Marie Reilhac, a talented artist, whose work was often found hanging in the tasting room at Eglise Clinet. Their three daughters, Alix, Noemie and Constance followed the young couple’s arrival in Pomerol. Their youngest daughter, Constance, was born in 1992 and became a close family friend of ours whilst living in London.
Under Denis, L’Eglise Clinet rose from obscurity to become one of Pomerol’s – and indeed Bordeaux’s - greatest wines. His passion for, and his understanding of, his terroir and meticulous attention to detail of every aspect of the wine-making process were the keys to his success. No tricks, no gimmicks. The quality level grew dramatically under his control and the property gained cult status and world-wide recognition following a 100 point score for the 2005 vintage from Robert Parker. Since then there has been a series of brilliant wines with, for me, the 2010 being truly sublime. Denis always said to me that 2016 was his greatest vintage and at our recent “Southwold” blind tasting I was delighted and proud when it tied with the mighty Petrus. Indeed, l’Eglise Clinet has performed brilliantly on a consistent basis in many blind tastings over the years and I have no hesitation in now ranking it as one of the very greatest wines of this great appellation.
L’Eglise Clinet is a very modest estate of only 4.5 hectares producing around 1000 cases a year. In 1999 Denis purchased Chateau Les Cruzelles in Lalande Pomerol. The first vintage here was 2000 with most of the production in the early days being labelled as La Chenade. As the vines that Denis planted have aged, the quality has soared - with production of the first label of Les Cruzelles now bigger than that of La Chenade. For me, this Chateau now produces Bordeaux’s greatest wine at under 20 euros. With La Petite Eglise in Pomerol (down the hill from the plateau on sandier soil) and Saintayme from vines rented in St Emilion, the final vinous labour of love from Denis was Montlandrie in Castillon which he purchased in 2009. Quality here has grown and grown with the 2015 being a particular favourite of ours.
As Eglise Clinet is unassuming and humble but of exceptional quality, so was Denis the man. Shy by nature, but a deep thinker with an impish smile. He was passionate about his work and his family and always had a twinkle in his eyes. I can vouch for every member of the Farr Vintners team – past and present – and say that the highlight of our annual “en primeur” visits to Bordeaux was not at the luxurious First Growths of the Medoc but our appointment with Denis where the tasting of his wines was followed by a glass of Champagne and foie gras sandwiches.
Memories of Denis include an incredible tasting of ancient Pomerols (at the Saint James in Bouliac) in 1995, his surprise attendance at my 50th birthday in London in 2009 and our visit to Hong Kong together in 2012 when we held a fantastic tasting and dinner featuring his wines at the Grand Hyatt. He even became a Crystal Palace supporter, attending matches at Selhurst Park and had a hand in the production of the club’s Eagle Red and Eagle White wines. In December 2019 he travelled to London with Marie and the girls for my 59th birthday and we drank his very last bottle of l’Eglise Clinet 1959 as well as a sumptuous double magnum of the 1995 with Sophie and the boys at Chez Bruce. For my 60th a few months ago, I served La Chenade 2015 to 600 guests.
Our mutual friend, the Bordeaux-based wine merchant Simon Bradford adds “For everybody - be it Courtiers, Negociants and most of all customers, a visit to l’Eglise Clinet was a real highlight. His customers adored him - English, German, his Belgian friends, Swiss, Americans...everybody went to taste and genuinely came away with a smile on their faces. It was different, it was informative and people listened when he spoke and above all it was fun....and the wines were just great! Denis was a real breath of fresh air all round. He was very anti-establishment and firmly believed that he was making wine the right way. He was totally committed and was brave in those early days when he was basically unknown. He will be missed by literally everybody, he was an exceptional character, he didn’t suffer fools gladly but anyone who crossed his path will never forget him or his wines.”
Another great fan of Denis was the wine-writer Andrew Jefford. His article from 2015 in Decanter describes him to a tee :- https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/opinion/jefford-on-monday/jefford-on-monday-leglise-clinet-tasting-with-denis-durantou-274539/
Denis was an intelligent, kind and gentle man with a sensitive soul and a heart of gold. He loved his vineyard and he loved his girls. His memory will live on in the exceptional wines that he produced and his remarkable achievement in transforming l’Eglise Clinet from a simple wine to one of the greatest and most respected wine estates of the world. His work will be continued, as he wished, by his family and Oliver Gautrat - the Cellar master who worked alongside him every day for over 20 years. Olivier's extremely close relationship with Denis ensures the continuation of the same viticultural and vinification methods and techniques and the unique personality of the wines. Denis, we will miss you.