INTERVIEW WITH ALINE BALY OF CHATEAU COUTET
Your father and uncle owned Chateau Coutet, did you ever envisage joining the family business or did you think that your brother was more likely to join?
My brother would spend his summers working at the vineyard when he was in high school. We all assumed that he would become a winemaker. However, when he got older my brother decided to stay in the States and pursue other interests. It was at this point, that joining my uncle at Château Coutet became an opportunity for me. It was hard to imagine myself in Bordeaux after having spent 20 years abroad; I could not imagine what life on an estate from the 13th Century would be like… Luckily, I got to spend the summer between my first and second year of business school to see for myself the beauty and magic of wine, and most importantly our region. Once you’ve experienced, you can never go back.
Tell us how you went from helping your uncle as a translator at a London wine fair to joining Coutet as a co-owner.
In November of 2005, I was on a work trip that coincided with the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter. In turned out that my father could not make this tasting thus I was recruited to pour but also translate for my uncle. Within the first two hours of the tasting, I realized I was having way too much fun to ever consider this work. Here I was surrounded by some of the best producers in the world; my cubicle could not compete. I turned to my uncle and asked if he thought we could get along and continue Coutet’s history together. Little did I know that this is exactly the reaction they (my dad and uncle) had anticipated from me; a Baly never turns away from a challenge… Considering my experience, along with my cultural and generational differences, coming to Coutet was exactly that. But being a Baly I welcomed the obstacles that were in front of me. I first headed to business school and then made the final move to Bordeaux in 2008. Today, I consider myself extremely lucky for the privilege of representing one of the oldest Sauternes estates and, more importantly, communicate on behalf of our team that has transpired a heritage of excellence from one generation to another.
What’s it like to be a woman and an American in the Bordeaux Wine Trade?
When life gives you Noble Rot, make Sauternes… My culture, experience and personality allow me to communicate and transmit our know-how to a new generation and demographic of wine enthusiasts. These differences have allowed my uncle and I to cultivate a very successful and rewarding work environment; we compliment each others’ expertise, strengths and weaknesses, to reach and to share with a broader range of people our team’s hard work.
Coutet is a sweet wine from the village of Barsac, what makes your wine different from some of the others in the Sauternes region?
A Barsac terroir consists of mostly clay and limestone. Without the presence of gravel, as found in Sauternes, our appellation does not have a way of capturing the sun’s heat and releasing that warmth to the vines during the night. Also, clay is excellent composite for retaining water. These two elements impact our fruit; our berries have a beautiful minerality and acidity. This can be seen in our wines’ liveliness. Actually, the word “Coutet” comes from the word knife in French. The terroir gives our wine vivacity, such that the freshness “cuts” right through the wine’s sweetness for clean and crisp palate.
Our region has plenty of traditions, but there are no rules. Personally, I love pairing a glass of Coutet with a savory dish. Here are two of my ultimate favorite matches: lobster and turkey. Both of these offer a pairing that highlights the beauty of contrast when it comes to texture. In terms of flavors, a turkey will allow one to explore the contrast of sweet with salty, while lobster’s sweet meat compliments the wine. There is no need to be Michelin star chef – a grilled lobster or a roasted turkey will do the job. Also, let us not forget pairing these wines with cheese; Sauternes is the best hostess-trick. When offerings your guests a diverse cheese tray, our wines are the safest to serve as they will go with the most cheeses. For a bit more perfection, don’t forget to toast your bread for a bit of a texture contrast.
12×75 decided to accept your challenge in pairing your sweet wine with Japanese food, would you say it is difficult to convince drinkers to follow suit?
I accept the challenge of showing new pairing opportunities to wine enthusiasts so that they can discover for themselves what they might like! I’ve never turned down a lunch or dinner invitation to do just that!
What would be your #7wordwinereview be for Chateau Coutet?
I only get seven words?
“Bliss, Delicious, Fresh, Vivacity, Lively, Sweet, Minerality”
What’s it like working with family?
The advantage of working with your family is that you are always focused on the future — on the next generation. This is the perfect approach for successfully managing a vineyard when considering that you need to wait at least 15 years for a new vine to produce fruit that will attain the complexity necessary to make a first growth like Coutet. A family business’ long-term vision is optimal in the wine industry as we are only custodians of the land and the fruit it bares. Thus we must consider the future tenants’ capacity to continue the tradition by ensuring a succession of the soil and the vines productivity. As a family, we can stay focused on this long-term objective: making sure that whoever is next can make a wine that embodies Coutet, both in quality and style.
You and your uncle get on extremely well, how would you say the two of you compliment each other?
There is never a dull moment when you are working with me or my uncle as we are definitely cut from the same cloth: we are enthusiastic, perfectionists and goal oriented projects. This can result in a lot of energy that to an outsider could be interpreted as chaos. However, do not be fooled! Even with our differences, my uncle and I are completely in sync and for that I am very grateful. He has a very French approach to everything – I balance this out with my very American viewpoint. He represents the generation that has the experience, while I am from the generation that sees no limits due to our lack of experience. I tend to be a never-ending source of ideas, and he identifies the diamonds in the ruff. When he wants to go fast, I slow him down – and vice versa; we use each other as sound boards to analyze everything.
Later on this year you will be releasing your new white wine called Opalie de Château Coutet. What inspired you to start this wine?
Over the years, we had a number of wine lovers and professional point out that we had an excellent terroir for a dry white. We had experience in this type of vinification as a result of a plot of land in the Graves AOC that my family had bought early on in our tenure at Coutet; we make a nice dry white for a family member who has a restaurant. Eventually, our experience, combined with encouragement, led us to take on the challenge of producing a dry white representing our terroir both in terms of style and quality. First and foremost, we saw an opportunity to offer something new to the loyal Coutet wine lovers. In addition, my uncle and I started this project early on in our working together. It was an opportunity to build something together and to better learn how to collaborate.
As a chateau owner how much stock do you put into the scores of wine critics? Do you have any favourites?
I believe that wine critics play an important role in educating those individuals new to wine or to certain wine regions. They are educators, guiding individuals in their journey to discover their own preferences.
You have an American education (undergraduate and MBA) and are very tech savvy, living and working in Bordeaux, how do you balance old traditions with modern technology?
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn… I love social media. But – beware – these technologies do not and cannot replace in-person contact. Lasting relationships are not built on virtual interactions alone. They can facilitate encounters but to truly know each other and share our passions and interests, you must come and visit us at Château Coutet. Only then will you understand the magic and beauty of our region and its wines. For all those that are not able to travel down to Bordeaux, my uncle and I will come and visit. We can’t bring all 38.5 hectares (95 acres) in our suitcase, but we can certainly fit a couple of bottles to share.
Other than 12×75.com – tell us some of your other favourite wine publications?
In the online space, I am a big fan of the Wine Doctor. This is a thoroughly researched site that I regularly refer to; this website was especially important when I first arrived in Bordeaux. Decanter will always occupy a soft spot in my heart as it is the reason that I came to Château Coutet.
Tell our readers something about yourself that no one else knows?
I fenced in high school and the épée was my weapon of choice. Unfortunately, I would have a hard time with the foot work now..
What do you do for fun?
I can be quite the couch potato when I have some down time. And in those instances, I love to read or catch-up on my favorite television series.