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Jean Cao, a Mexican in the Moselle

Jean Cao is the new consultant oenologist working for the Vignerons Indépendants. Although young (37). Jean already has extensive experience – what is surprising is where he comes from: it’s not every day you come across a Mexican winemaker in our Luxembourg vineyards!

For a long time now the Organisation professionnelle des vignerons indépendants (OPVI) (Professional Organisation of Independent Winegrowers) has shown that it’s open-minded: you need only look where its recent consultant oenologists have come from: Germany, France, South Africa and now Mexico! At the end of last year, Jean Cao, 37, took up his position and has already won the support of all his employers.

The organisation’s President, Ern Schumacher (Domaine Schumacher-Lethal in Wormeldange), is most impressed by Jean’s motivation and all the winegrowers with whom he has worked acknowledge how highly skilled he is. Some of these winegrowers, who previously had hardly ever asked his predecessors for advice, are now eager to get him along to taste the wines maturing in their cellars. Jean loves this: “Being an oenologist is about offering advice and support; listening is essential because my advice is definitely not meant to steer the wines towards standardisation. Each wine maker has his own style and objectives. It’s absolutely vital that you listen to them very carefully and respect their individual personalities.”

Proof that the Luxembourg Moselle is no terra incognita for wine, Jean Cao was already well acquainted with the Grand Duchy’s wines before coming to work here. “I had already tasted Rieslings and Crémants during tasting sessions when I was studying, and also a few years ago when I stopped off while passing through. I was very surprised by the quality of the Auxerrois – which I had only read about – and the Pinots Noirs and Crémants, the best of which are excellent.”

Certain estates already enjoy a fine reputation abroad and this is essential because the greater the success enjoyed at the top of the pyramid, the more other winemakers will feel inspired to go down this path too

For his first few months working his new patch, Jean admits that he needs to gain further experience. He walks up and down the hillsides, visits cellars and is getting to know the winegrowers. And he is delighted by what he sees: “The quality of the lands, the terroirs, the choice of grape varieties, the expertise and know-how of these men and women… there is everything here to make truly great wine,” he says.

Jean is even convinced that the Grand Duchy has potential and scope for greater progress than the country imagines: “Here you could produce extremely high-quality Crémant and the best Riesling in the world,” he has no hesitation in claiming. “A Riesling with its own qualities, different from German or Alsatian Rieslings, but with a precision that could rival the best-known Rieslings. Given the weather and the different types of soil found in Luxembourg, Riesling is the perfect grape for here.”

What still needs to be done to achieve this goal? “The best winemakers are not far off, they’ve already got that talent for detail which characterises the finest wines,” says Jean Cao. “What I hope is that I can take with me those who do want to go down this route and whose ambition it is to concentrate on producing wines with great precision.” For Jean Cao, Luxembourg has everything to gain from seeing its top names win wider international recognition. “Certain estates already enjoy a fine reputation abroad [Alice Hartmann, Henri Ruppert and so on] and this is essential because the greater the success enjoyed at the top of the pyramid, the more other winemakers will feel inspired to go down this path too,” he states confidently.

However, although Jean Cao is totally committed to his work of sharing advice and expertise, one might wonder if, being an oenologist, he doesn’t also dream about making his own wine. His reply is quite clear: “Not at the moment. I’m very happy working with so many winemakers and I’m enjoying enormously all this sharing of knowledge. It’s really rewarding and I too am learning so much. About wine, but also about people, and that’s terribly important to me. When I was younger in Mexico, it was indeed my ambition to produce my own wine. In fact on the estate where my career started I was allowed to make a wine and I have to say that it wasn’t bad! However, I no longer feel the urge now. Perhaps it will come back to me, but at the moment I’m not in that frame of mind.”

The Birth of a Passion

Being Mexican and passionate about wine, this IS possible! What’s more, historically Mexico was the first country on the American continent where vines were planted. However, it wasn’t exactly the happiest of times since they were introduced by Spanish settlers in 1554, points out Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, the wine expert who has visited all the world’s winemaking areas (including Luxembourg) for his great Wine Explorer Project (www.wine-explorers.net).

In Jean Cao’s family, wine was served at mealtimes. “Around the age of 13 or 14, I was allowed my first drops. I can remember really enjoying German Riesling and Gewurztraminer.” However, it was cooking that started his passion for analysing flavours. He used to play a little game: identifying the different ingredients in the food that was being served. “Being curious in that way inevitably led me towards wine,” he believes.

Jean then became increasingly interested in how wine is produced, but in Mexico there were no specific courses covering this. So he opted for training that came close and he became a chemical engineer, specialising in fermentation and distillation.

“I decided to go and look for work in the Mexican state of Baja California, where wine is produced. I contacted all the wine estates… without success – but I was then taken on by an aquafarming company. It was a great job and I often had to go diving which I really love! However, the idea of working on a wine estate stayed with me. Finally the top estate agreed to give me a work placement and straightaway I could see that this was going to be the work for me! At the start, I used to go off to the cellar very early in the morning and then go on to work afterwards at the aquafarming company. After a while, the estate took me on full-time.”

However, Jean Cao still didn’t feel quite satisfied. “I wanted to go further and learn more, but this just wasn’t possible in Mexico.” He had no choice: he would have to leave his home country. At the end of 2009, he arrived in France and starting studying at the Montpellier SupAgro, a National Institute of Higher Education in Agricultural Sciences from where he graduated with a Master’s in Viticulture and Oenology. He also holds the Oenologist Diploma from Bordeaux Sciences Agro. “To work accurately and correctly as is required in this field of work, it’s practically indispensable to be scientifically trained,” he states.

And after several different experiences of winegrowing in various parts of the globe – South Africa, United States, Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Aude, etc. – here he is now in the Moselle!

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