In the last five years, winemaking stars from Saint-Emilion have been rushing to invest in Castillon. The cool-climate wines produced here today have earned an enviable reputation.

In the last five years, winemaking stars from Saint-Emilion have been rushing to invest in Castillon. The cool-climate wines produced here today have earned an enviable reputation.

In the minds of many, the Côtes de Castillon is as much Saint-Emilion as neighbouring Saint-Emilion itself. There’s the same profile of plateau and hillslope, cool, calcareous soils and a majority of Merlot with a complement of Cabernet Franc that’s given vivacity by the terroir. What has been lacking in the past is the necessary investment, technical expertise and motivation, but that’s now arrived in a big way, taking the quality of the appellation’s output on an increasingly upward journey.

Centred on the Dordogne riverside town of Castillon-la-Bataille, scene of the last battle of the 100 Years War (in 1453), Castillon may, as a whole, have a guaranteed terroir. But there are variations: about 20% of the vineyards lie on the Dordogne’s silty plane and on a sandy area in the east of the appellation. The rest mainly lies on a limestone plateau which twists around a number of wooded hills and valleys, and, after going through varying elevations and exposures, eventually rises to 117m at Saint-Philippe-d’Aiguilhe.

If there is one key difference with Saint-Emilion, though, it’s climatic. Castillon is cooler, making the harvest a little later, and good vineyard management obligatory. Translated into the character of the wines, this means that if the fruit isn’t ripe enough, the tannins tend to be robust and the acidity marked.

Castillon, like the other Côtes, has technically and viticulturally changed gear over the last five or six years. When the appellation was officialised in 1989, green harvesting and leaf plucking were not on the agenda. They have now become widespread. Techniques like micro-oxygenation and lees stirring have arrived, and there’s been investment in new oak barrels and cellar equipment. For most local producers these changes are expensive and have to be implemented over a number of years; what’s recently pushed Castillon into a state of overdrive is the arrival of a number of Right Bank investors with the money and expertise to make changes in an overnight kind of way.

Stephan von Neipperg, owner of Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and La Mondotte in Saint-Emilion, was the first on the scene when he bought the 30ha Château d’Aiguilhe in 1998. He’s been followed by other Saint-Emilion luminaries including Gérard Perse of premier grand cru classé Château Pavie, who acquired Sainte-Colombe, Clos l’Eglise and Clos des Lunelles (formerly Lapeyronie), and Gérard Bécot of Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, who launched Château Joanin Bécot with his daughter Juliette in 2001.

On a smaller scale, winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt has his own biodynamically run Domaine de l’A; oenologist Christian Veyry has Château Veyry; and Thierry Valette, formerly of Château Pavie, is making something of a name for Clos Puy Arnaud.

The quality of all of these is high, with pricing to match, but the new standard is rubbing off onto keener-priced competitors.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW