The wines may all say St-Emilion on the label, but the Right Bank
satellites have a tough job stepping out of their neighbour’s shadow.
JAMES LAWTHER MW asks whether their makers want to – or need to
The satellites may seem like an addendum to St-Emilion but they are one of substance all the same. The combined area of Lussac, Montagne, Puisseguin and St-Georges totals a respectable 4,000ha (hectares) of vineyard, with annual production averaging 25 million bottles of red wine. It’s clear that the famous suffix helps them sell but can they match their august neighbour for quality – even offering better value – or are they obliged to play a subordinate role? Seen at their best, the satellites should be considered ‘serious’ wines and not a pale imitation of St- Emilion. They are firmly structured, food-friendly wines and benefit from a minimum four to five years’ bottle age, making 2001 the ideal drinking vintage right now. There’s more complexity and finesse than is found in the wines of the Côtes, and the wines have the potential even to rival Fronsac and Castillon in terms of quality. That this has yet to happen on a grand scale owes a great deal to the economic structure of the region. Properties in the satellites are, in the main, small, family affairs averaging 8–9ha. Output per estate is consequently modest, as is the retail price (on average €10/£7.80 direct to the consumer). Hence investment, yields (an authorised 54hl/ha) and labour costs are carefully balanced against returns. The situation is further sustained by the fact that half of the satellites’ production is sold in bulk and a large percentage of the rest by direct sale to local clients (export represents a mere 20%). Bordeaux’s distribution channels also impose a pricing structure that keeps the satellites lower in the pecking order than St-Emilion, whatever the quality. For the consumer, this means that a well-made wine, particularly one from a good vintage, can represent real value for money. And despite thepaucity of investment, compared with all the money that has gone into Castillon and Fronsac in recent years, progress has been made. The vineyards are
generally better tended than they once were, cultivation techniques such as leaf removal are relatively widespread, and work in the cellars is more proficient. And, as is the case in most appellations, a number of producers have pushed to the fore in the race to establish the satellites as viable, value Right Bank alternatives. Separated from St-Emilion by the tiny Barbanne River, the satellites
are essentially the northern extension of the former’s hillslope terrain. The family resemblance is close: the wines are Merlotdominated and the grapes grown on a mix of clay, limestone and sandy soils. Similar to St-Emilion’s limestone plateau, the potential for quality and finesse is at its greatest where a cap rock of calcaire à asteries (starfish limestone) occurs. The region has some grand terroirs but, as in St-Emilion, the picture is not uniform, varying within
and from one satellite to the next. With only 200ha of south-facing, clay-limestone slopes, St-Georges has the most homogenous terrain. Montagne, with 1,592ha, has a good percentage of calcareous soils and with it the capacity for finesse, but there are also zones of heavier clay and sand. Puisseguin’s 756ha harbour a dominance of clay-limestone, while Lussac’s 1,471ha have the least propitious terrain: limestone outcropping around the village but heavier clay and fertile sand elsewhere. Taken as a whole, soils in the satellites are generally cooler than in St-Emilion and, consequently, the harvest is often late, so the autumn weather is an important element. ‘We usuallywait to pick the Merlot in the first week of October and the Cabernet Franc a week to 10 days later,’ says Jean-Baptiste Bourotte, whose family owns Château du Courat in Lussac St-Emilion. The harvest date and quality of the grapes are critical, as high acidity and robust tannins are two elements that need careful management in the satellites; the ripeness of the fruit helps round these out. Of the leading lights, several have properties in other appellations, the expertise and economies of scale working to theie advantage. Bourotte’s family also owns Clos du Clocher
and Château Bonalgue in Pomerol, and Château Les Hauts Conseillants in Lalande de Pomerol as well as the 15ha Courlat, enabling the cost of sorting tables, grape trays and even pickers (the satellites are mainly machine harvested) to be spread across the estates. ‘If we didn’t have a stable of châteaux we wouldn’t be able to manage Courlat in the same way,’ he says. Pascal Delbeck of St-Emilion premier grand cru classé Château Belair also owns Château Tour du Pas St-Georges in St-Georges St-Emilion. ‘Don’t think of this as a sub-appellation,’ he says. ‘The coteaux are reminiscent of what you find at Belair, Magdelaine and Pavie so I’d much rather have land here than some corners of St-Emilion.’
Hand harvesting is de rigueur and he’s investing his own funds in new cellars, but the 14ha estate still has to be managed
in a pragmatic way. ‘The potential is here but the returns are low so I’m obliged to push the yields a little more than I would really like, doing an average 49hl/ha rather than 42hl/ha, from which I could make a really great wine,’ he declares. A minority of producers, however, have seen their strategy for quality compensated by improved income. In 1997 Pierre Taix took over the 10ha family property in Puisseguin, Château Rigaud, and created La Mauriane. ‘This is not a “garage” wine but the principle cuvée, derived from half the estate,’ he stresses. The parcels for La Mauriane were carefully selected after soil analysis. Yields are kept to 35hl/ha and the wine is matured in 80% new oak. Dark and dense with a voluptuous texture (a hint of Le Tertre-Roteboeuf perhaps?), the yearly output of 18,000 bottles now has a solid following overseas; 70% is
exported. The price for the quality of wine is fair, but closer to €20 (£15.70) than €10 (£7.80).
Outsiders, too, have created a success story for their wines. Exbusinessman Thomas Thiou bought the 11ha Château La Couronne in Montagne St-Emilion 15 years ago and is now one of the leaders in the appellation. The number of working hours in the vineyard has been doubled and modern methods
of vinification have been applied. The 100% Merlot Reclos de la Couronne is the top cuvée.A more recent rise to fame has been that of Château Beauséjour, also in Montagne. Following a career with Microsoft then a two-year search for a vineyard in Bordeaux, Pierre Bernault acquired the 12ha estate in 2004. His wine consultant, Stéphane Derenoncourt [see All in a Day’s Work), p84], informed him that Beauséjour’s terroir was so good he could ‘buy it with his eyes closed’. But much work was needed in the vineyard, which Bernault has personally undertaken. The soil has been decompacted, yields reduced and chemical fertilisers, insecticides and weed killers abandoned. It also transpired that 3ha of the vineyard were planted in 1901, so these are vinified apart to produce the wonderfully intense, harmonious, pure-fruited Cuvée 1901, which retails at
more than €40 (£31). The regular Château Beauséjour is also a quality wine, with the second label, B de Château Beauséjour, in the value-for-money mould. Merlot is the dominant grape but the quality of the old clones of Cabernet Franc has even raised the interest of Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. If the satellites are yet to be teeming with large-scale investment projects (land prices are two to three times more expensive than Castillon, with few big estates) there has been a smattering of activity in recent years. André Lurton acquired an interest in Lussac’s Château de Barbe Blanche in 2000 and, in a softlysoftly manner, Baron Benjamin de Rothschild bought the 40ha Château des Laurets in Puisseguin in 2003. Two other sizeable ventures are likely to throw a bit more of a spotlight on the satellites. Formerly produced and sold by Etablissements J-P Moueix, the 26ha Château de Lussac was purchased by Hervé and Griet Laviale, owners of St-Emilion grand cru classé Château Franc Mayne, in 2000. The property has since had a major overhaul and, with a renovated château, looks the epitome of a classed growth. Investment in the cellars and surrounding vineyard has been colossal and the wines, which have a certain elegance, are much improved. In 2006 another neo-St-Emilionnais, Stephan von Neipperg of Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, in partnership with a group of investors, acquired the 21ha Château Soleil in Puisseguin. Investment in the vineyard and new cellars will eventually outweigh the initial price of the property, but the potential is felt to be there and the situation viable in the long term. ‘The clay-limestone soils produce wines of colour and power but the name of the game is to refine the tannins, and for that you need perfectly ripe grapes,’ says von Neipperg. A further 20ha in Lussac have just been added which will be vinified at Soleil but as a separate wine. The picture in the satellites is varied. Clearly the potential is there (particularly with the aid of global warming), but stepping out of the shadow of St-Emilion isn’t easy. ‘Value for money’ remains the comfort zone for the majority of these wines. For those with more ambition, deeper pockets and an open-minded attitude from consumers are required
Written by James Lawther MW