The Angel of St-Emilion
- Friday 25 February 2005
Chateau Angelus is in many ways the symbol of modern St-Emilion. A pioneer in work methods on the land and in the cellars, Angélus has provided the consumer with a darker, denser, more concentrated and exotic version of the wine, at the same time demonstrating to other producers that aspiration can be rewarded with success. In 1996 the estate was bestowed with the status of premier grand cru classé and it hasn’t looked back since.
The name itself derives from a 3ha (hectare) parcel of vines which in times past was dubbed l’Angélus as from here vineyard workers could hear the angelus bells ringing simultaneously at three local churches: Mazerat, St-Martin de Mazerat and St-Emilion. The plot was acquired by Maurice de Boüard Laforest, owner of 15ha Château Mazerat, in 1921.
After World War II production from the two vineyards was amalgamated under the name Château l’Angélus (the ‘l’ was dropped in 1990) by Maurice’s sons, Jacques and Christian. Classification as grand cru classé followed in 1955 and further acquisitions of land in the 1960s and 1970s including 3ha from premier grand cru classé Château Beauséjour.
Today, the official surface area of premier grand cru classé Château Angélus is 23.4ha and the estate is run by Maurice’s grandson, Hubert de Boüard, and his cousin, Jean-Bernard Grenié. The vineyard lies on St-Emilion’s south-facing hillslopes starting at a parcel of 5ha on the côtes and gradually tapering through the pieds-de-côtes. The upper slopes have the classic clay-limestone soils, the lower clay-sand-limestone with the clay diminishing as the slope descends. A separate 3ha parcel right at the bottom of the slope was not included in the 1996 classification and now constitutes a major part of the second wine, Le Carillon de l’Angélus, vinified in a separate cellar.
So does Angélus have a great terroir? ‘The upper 13ha where the Merlot is planted is clearly of premier grand cru classé status, the lower 11ha equally grand if planted with Cabernet Franc which needs warm, well-drained soils with some water content so as to avoid stress,’ explains Hubert de Boüard. The implication clearly being that man also has a say in the notion of terroir. Needless to say the majority of Angélus’ low-yielding (under 35hl/ha) Cabernet Franc is located in this stretch with the added advantage that it is now over 40 years of age.
To the manor born
Born on the property and with a detailed knowledge of each parcel of vines, Hubert de Boüard has made the vineyard a major preoccupation since taking over the management in 1985. Four years of strained co-management preceded this but when his father and uncle finally handed over the reins he was given carte blanche to make the improvements he desired. Much of what has been implemented helped pioneer a general change in work practices in St-Emilion and elsewhere in Bordeaux.
The first step was to cut out the use of fertilisers. The second, using a more scientific approach gleaned at Bordeaux’s Faculté d’Oenologie, was to have the soils and vines analysed. The results led to certain parcels being drained and a return to the use of organic manure when and if needed. The selection of individual parcels was introduced and the soil either ploughed or seeded with grass. An organic approach has been instilled at Angélus, but not in a dogmatic way. ‘The work started to pay dividends from 1990 onwards but I estimate the vineyard to have reached a complete state of balance only from 1995,’ states de Boüard.
Changes in the vineyard were matched by those in the cellars. Temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks were brought in as well as sorting tables for the harvest, and with the wine going into barrel as early as possible and a greater use of new oak (up to 100% in some years) a new barrel cellar was built in 1991.
The cutting-edge approach in the cellars continues today. There are now wooden and concrete as well as stainless steel vats. Since 2001 an innovative system of reception for grapes during the harvest has been put in place which sees the use of three vibrating sorting tables (with a team of nearly 30 working in shifts) and a conveyor belt system to transport the grapes to the vats where they are lightly crushed over the receptacle. ‘In the last six or seven years we’ve become more concerned with the selection and maturity and try to avoid pumping in order to help fix the quality of the fruit and taste of the grape,’ explains de Boüard.
As a trained oenologist he’s also not shy in using modern methods of vinification but never in a systematic way. A cold pre-fermentation maceration can be used on certain cuves, or micro-oxygenation when the maturity is not quite at an optimum (as in 1999). He leaves the wine on the lees until June following the harvest without racking as they provide protection against oxidation which allows a reduction in the level of sulphur dioxide, again enhancing the fruit element.
The average production of Angélus is between 6,000 and 7,000 cases (of a dozen bottles), with a further 1,000–2,000 cases of Le Carillon. These are sold en primeur on the place de Bordeaux where Angélus has established a strong ‘brand’ image and following. Of the 13 St-Emilion premiers grands crus classés, only Ausone and Cheval Blanc (with Pavie in one or two recent vintages) sit above in terms of market value. This places Angélus on a par with and sometimes beyond the Médoc super-seconds.
As to the style of the wine, the new work methods ushered in a richer, darker, more full-bodied and opulent Angélus than in bygone years. This was best highlighted by the super-ripe and generous 1989 and 1990 vintages.
Angélus’ detractors, however, complained that these were simply too ripe, concentrated and extracted. For lovers of classical St-Emilion this would clearly be the case and even Hubert de Boüard in hindsight, although being proud of the wines, agrees that today he would ‘work them in a slightly different way’.
As de Boüard oversees his 20th vintage at Angélus (2004) it’s clear that the work practices are as meticulous as ever and the wines are still just as dark hued and concentrated. But since 1996 the fruit has been more precise and the wines probably do have greater harmony. The maturity of the Merlot has been reined in a little to avoid the confit, prune side of overripeness and greater expression achieved with Angélus’ generous wealth of Cabernet Franc. ‘It’s important to gain a maximum level of ripeness, but you should never overstep the threshold that leads to a different world of wine,’ concludes Hubert de Boüard.
James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter, based in Bordeaux.