When was the last time you picked up a St-Julien wine for 14 euros at the cellar door? Jane Anson visits to Château Finegrave, one of the last independent, small producers in this well known Bordeaux appellation.
Château Finegrave: behind the scenes in St-Julien, Bordeaux
A spider web of wooden wine box-ends, the kind that end up as cheese boards in random kitchen drawers, hangs on the wall as you walk in through the cellar door.
The outer boards bear the legends Talbot, Léoville Barton, Langoa Barton, Léoville Poyferré, Léoville Las Cases, Beychevelle. In the middle of them, the spider at the centre of the web, is a framed label blown up to the same size as the box-ends and clearly printed out from a home office. It reads Château Finegrave.
On reflection, scratch the spider imagery. A hen surrounded by foxes might be more accurate.
Château Finegrave is an anomaly in today’s St-Julien, a puddle of 8,000 vines covering 85 ‘ares’ owned by retired husband and wife Fidel and Marie-Claude Elicheche. Physically surrounded by the six classified estates that are hanging on the cellar wall, Finegrave is one of just two independent small producers left in the appellation. It’s both no small feat and an exposed place to be.
Ten years ago, St-Julien’s 919 hectares of vines were 85% owned by classified châteaux, with around 10 small producers alongside the 11 1855 classified growths.
Today, that figure has climbed to around 95% of classified vines, with just Elicheche at Finegrave and Jean-François Fillastre at the 1.32 hectare Domaine du Jaugaret left outside of the big names (I am including Gloria and any secondary properties owned by classified estates as among the big guns).
You can still see a few other châteaux signs displayed on the road side, but they seem to have stopped trading. Certainly there are more than a few ‘company dissolved’ notices logged with Bordeaux’s commercial court.
‘We try not to think about land prices’
Those few vines at Finegrave – located around a 1km walk from the cellars and aged between 80 and 120 years old – will be approaching €1m in value. As you might expect, Elicheche receives calls to sell up every few months.
‘But we always say no,’ he confirms cheerfully.
Fidel Elicheche wasn’t born in St-Julien. He is instead from the village of Espelette in the French Basque that is best known for its fiery red peppers, and he still speaks with the ripely-accented French of the Pryénées. He inherited Finegrave with his wife after the death of her father André Leclerc, who was long-time manager at Léoville Barton and who bought the majority of the vines around 60 years ago, when you could pick up land in St-Julien for sums that would probably get you a case of wine today. Leclerc was the one that extended the vineyard around 30 years later, but today’s owners are very definitely stewards rather than expansionists.
‘We try not to think about the price of the land too much. Rather we think about the pleasure that it brings us, and hope that our children might want to take over from us one day.’
For now the neighbours, far from pressuring Elicheche, are helping him. Before retirement, he spent the last 20 years as a member of the vineyard team (mainly tractor driver) at Gruaud Larose. Today Patrick Frédéric, the vineyard manager at Gruaud Larose, and his team work the vines on his behalf during the year. In return, Elicheche continues to help prepare the treatments that will be sprayed in the vineyards of the 1855 2nd growth.
Harvesting is usually wrapped up with a morning’s work, and is carried out by family members and friends using equipment borrowed from the neighbours. Once the grapes are in, vinification takes place in cellars that are more accurately described as an outhouse in his garden, set on a tiny side road that runs in a straggly, unobtrusive parallel to the D2. You take a step down into the vinification and ageing cellar (they are one and the same) that has been dug out two metres into the earth by Eliceche’s father in law. Here three cement vats sized between 85 and 50 hectolitres vinify just about enough wine to fill the 16 barrels that come from Gruaud Larose after a year’s usage. Just two new oak barrels are bought each year. Bottling takes place back in the main room, with a machine borrowed from Château Beychevelle care of director Philippe Blanc. The two men have been longtime organisers of the Médoc Marathon, and are good friends.
With all of this, around 6,600 bottles are produced at Finegrave in a good year. This is not a road with natural footfall, but Finegrave has plenty of visitors who manage to find the path to its door. A few years ago the family took the distribution back from négociants (they had sold 50% through the Place de Bordeaux) and now the entire crop gets sold direct, mainly to friends and family but also to restaurants, in the months following bottling. That typically means from the September two years after harvest. By March every bottle will be gone.
Questioning Elicheche about his future, it turns out that the foxes might not come in the shape of neighbouring classified châteaux, but instead that of the national appellations’ body, the INAO. Resisting offers of enrichment is easier, perhaps, than dealing with France’s increasingly draconian winemaking rules in AOCs like St-Julien. You hear the same thing down the road at Domaine du Jaugaret.
All this aside, how is the wine? The vintage I tried was Château Finegrave 2013, so perhaps not the best one to judge, but it made for an extremely enjoyable Sunday lunch accompaniment to roast chicken. Made from a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, it may have lacked the intensity and complexity of a Léoville Las Cases, but it was a good example of a silky-tannined classic claret that was not only from St-Julien but tasted like it.
And, seriously, when was the last time you bought one of those for €14 from the cellar door?
Updated 21 January 2016 to replace 850 ares with ’85’ ares.
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