Saint Emilion – magical place, marvellous wine
Its hard to believe that St Emilion and the Medoc can fall under the same generic banner of Bordeaux. For all its majestic chateaux and swanky addresses, there is very little else to the Medoc… St Emilion on the other hand is absolutely stunning! Set amid the most attractive landscape of rolling hillside, St Emilion and it’s surrounding vineyards was the first wine region to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. While the average size if a vineyard in the Medoc is around 40 hectares, in St Emilion this figure shrinks down to 5 hectares.
There is actually more to St Emilion than wine, even though it is said there is a wine shop for every eight residents of the town! St Emilion is steeped in history and is named after an 8th century monk – if you ever have the fortune to visit this amazing place then be sure to sign up for a guided tour of the biggest monolithic church in Europe, catacombs and hermitage crypt – signing up is the only way to see these spectacular sites due to ownership rules after the French Revolution. The cobbled streets are also a wonderful place to gently stroll through, with enough wine shops, bars and restaurants to last a lifetime!
And the wine is sumptuous. My only real experience of top quality right bank Bordeaux was at a 1995 horizontal tasting earlier this year; out of the 10 wines tasted, two of them came from the right bank of the Gironde, and they were my top 2 wines of the evening. The Cheval Balanc from St Emilion and the Trotonoy from Pomerol shone brightly above their right bank cousins, which included Mouton Rosthchild. So it was no real surprise to me that I have fallen head over heels for these (mostly) Merlot dominated wines.
The wines of St Emilion were first classified in 1955 and are updated every 10 years (with a few exceptions). The latest classification was announced in Autumn 2012. At the bottom of the pyramid is the generic St Emilion appellation, then comes Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classes (64 estates), and finally Premier Grand Crus Classes (18 estates)…. which are divided in to Premier Grand Crus Classes “A” for the very best (Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angelus, Pavie) and Premier Grand Crus Classes “B”.
I visited three producers while I was in St Emilion – Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Crus Classes “B”), Chateau Fonplegade and Chateau Fombrauge (both Grand Crus Classes). Below are short write ups for each visit along with tasting notes for the wines offered at the end of the tour.
Figeac is a 54 hectare estate (40ha under vine) situated on the edge of the St Emilion appellation, right in-between the right bank superstar estates of Cheval Blanc and Petrus (in Pomerol) – at one time many years ago, the Cheval Blanc vineyard was home to the stables at Chateau Figeac… Hence the name! Many commentators believe that Figeac under performed in the 1980’s and 1990’s but are getting back to their best in the past ten years.
The soil at Figeac is dominated by gravel and lends itself to a rather unusual variety ratio for a St Emilion estate with 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot. Vinification is carried out in a 50/50 mixture of open oak- and stainless steel-vats, which takes place after a careful manual selection process. 100% new oak is used to age the first label for 18 months, which us sourced from 7 different coopers to attain the greatest levels of complexity in the final wine. The estate also produces a second label, La Grange Neuve de Figeac, some of which is bottled especially for passengers of Emirates Airlines.
The tasting started with a wine from another chateau owned by the same family and made by the same winemaker, followed by a glass of the 2007 Chateau Figeac (cost of tour and tasting was €15 per person):
Chateau La Fleur Pourret 2003, St Emilion Grand Cru
55% Merlot, 35% Cab Franc, 10% Cab Sav
From the super-hot vintage of 2003 where temperatures reached a startling 46.5C during the harvest, La Fleur Pourret is a more conventional blend for a St Emilion wine. The wine has lots of elegance but a deep, almost dark and jammy fruit concentration – you can definitely taste the heat of the vintage. It still tastes surprisingly young but has nice smooth tannins and a good length finish. Good for another few years yet. 90 points
Chateau Figeac 2007, St Emilion
40% Merlot, 35% Cab Franc, 25% Cab Sav
First of all, hands up here – I think this wine is great, but looking through some other reviews I seem to be in the minority! 2007 is developing into a very attractive vintage with some good value available – the Figeac has lots of fruit concentration with plums, blackcurrants and raspberry acidity. There is also some very attractive leathery evolution. The fruit is sweet and delicious and the structure is beautiful with delightfully silky tannins. The finish is long and intense and I would quite happily drink this now. My favourite wine of the tour so far. 95 points
This Grand Cru Classe property has been owned by its American owner, Steven Adams, since 2004. Adams has spared no expense in either the vineyard or the winery in his effort to get the estate a Premiere Grand Cru Classes rating in ten years time. The estate is in its fourth year of organic conversion and hopes to gain its organic certification later this year. It is only one of two estates at this stage in the entire St Emilion appellation. Yields have been cut by half in less than a decade and they are undertaking an annual replanting scheme to ensure the long term of the estate’s production. And best of all for the visitor, you get to see all of this courtesy of a lift in the estates military looking golf buggy, which takes you on a marvellous cruise around some of the property’s 18 hectares.
In the cellar the money has also been spent on new wooden and steel tanks as well as the magnificent looking cement eggs, which as they have no corners or edges, give a better uniformity to the liquid, especially in terms of temperature. New barrels are also a big investment for every new vintage – Adams is leaving nothing here to chance. He also allows the winemaker Franck Jugelmann to experiment, and along the tour you are shown the latest new techniques from egg-shaped oak vats to a revival of an all in one fermentation and ageing system.
Fonplegade must be one of the best setups for wine tourists in the whole of Bordeaux. From intelligent and knowledgable guides, the trip to the vineyard, the tour of the facilities and the marvellous tasting room and boutique, the estate has put customers at the heart of a fantastic experience. The visit is topped off with a tasting of four wines, and all of this for €15 a person (free if you purchase any wine on your visit).
Chateau L’Enclos 2009, Pomerol
79% Merlot, 19% Cab Franc, 2% Malbec
Made by the same winemaker from fruit in an estate owned in Pomerol. Intense nose of red cherry fruit with an earthy, mushroom undertone. In the mouth its full bodied but soft and has a beautiful balance. Tannins are still prominent but the freshness is there to bring this together beautifully over the next few years. The finish is big and a bit warm at present (kirsch) but give it time. 91++
Fleur de Fonplegade 2007, St Emilion Grand Cru
85% Merlot, 10% Cab Sav, 5% Cab Franc
Second wine of Chateau Fonplegade. Huge aromas of stewed strawberry and fresh, ripe raspberry with a lovely backup of young leather and hint of vanilla. Really soft texture and really easy drinking. It’s not complex but its very tasty. 89 points
Chateau Fonplegade 2004, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe
91% Merlot, 7% Cab Franc, 2% Cab Sav
Bright cherry and raspberry aromas with a hint of blackcurrant. Then come the animal and leather notes and a delightful waft of truffle. On the palate its smooth and silky, beautifully fresh and enormously concentrated. An excellent wine, the real deal. 92 points
Fleur de Fonplegade Rosé 2012, St Emilion
100% Cab Sav
There’s not much rose in St Emilion but maybe there should be more! It probably helped that it was 36 degrees but this was so fresh, bright and refreshing. Bright notes of strawberry and hint if citrus. The acidity and freshness are delightful – I’m becoming a big rosé fan! 88 points
One of 18 chateaux in the Bordeaux owned by Bernard Magrez, Fombrauge is one of the biggest and grandest of them all! The chateau itself is an impressive single storey building but the newly furnished rooms are gaudy (or if you were being pleasant, traditional!) in the extreme. As well as the usual visit around the winery, there is an impressive display of Roman remains that were found during excavation work at the property, and the views from the back of the chateau from a Pomerol to Castillon are truly breathtaking.
The winery as you would expect is state of the art but with plenty of nods to tradition with well laid out wooden vats along with the huge concrete tanks and modern stainless steel. The trip into the chateau’s bottle cellar is also impressive with bottles dating as far back as 1871. Our guide was excellent and knowledgable but I didn’t warm to the chateau or its wine – there is too much Magrez about it all. Whether its framed photos of Margrez with this president, actor or famous chef, or his cross-keys “crest” that adorns every bottle, glass and paper napkin… I’m here for the wine Bernard!
Chateau Fombrauge 2006, Grand Cru Classe St Emilion
77% Merlot, 14% Cab Franc, 9% Cab Sav
Very toasty oak on the nose with very brooding heavy, overripe red fruit. There’s the flavour of stewed plums, cherries and some red berries but its overdone. The texture s soft but this is a big fruit bomb of a wine – definitely needs food and maybe a warm fire. 86 points (the first time The Fish left anything in a tasting glass!)
Chateau Fombrauge Blanc 2008, St Emilion
40% Semillon, 30% Sauv Blanc, 30% Sauv Gris
The fruit for this wine is grown on the Fombrauge estate but is vinified elsewhere due to the strict controls and regulation on the red classification. There is more evidence of the big oak here with a very smokey initial nose… But there’s a good amount of citrus behind it and a hefty dose of pink grapefruit. Lots of body and fruit on the front palate and a delicious toasty, warm finish. Very nice indeed. 90 points
Chateau Cheval Blanc
Look, I tried! When we came out of Figeac I thought we’d see how close we could get… When I pulled into the driveway, the metal chain rose from the ground and denied access to this adventurous Wine Geek!