The little known Libournais appellation of Fronsac is providing not only quality, but also a good value alternative for the Bordeaux Vintage lover. DAVID PEPPERCORN MW explores
Bordeaux Vintage Facts
- Fronsac’s exceptional terroir produces wines with a tannic structure that makes them unattractive for early drinking in most years.
- The 1997s showed how dangerous it is to generalise about Bordeaux vintage wines.
- Prices carry, for the present, no investment premium, so they are wines for wine lovers and not for speculators and investors.
- This is also a deeply traditional place where some families have owned properties for generations.
Ever since Bordeaux began to emerge from its long economic depression in the late 1950s, its spread of prices has been expanding like a concertina. If you were to look at a 1955 price list, the first growths of the Médoc would have been 50% higher than the best seconds. Then the Bordeaux vintage prices were very closely bunched, all within 20% of each other, with lesser wines snapping closely on their heels. Cheval Blanc did not aspire to Médoc prices, and only Avery’s carried Pétrus. As prices rose, so wine lovers often decided that their favourite Latour or Beychevelle was now too expensive and looked for a better value replacement. And so the process has continued, and our American friends, who were responsible for that first wave of price rises, have been joined by a fresh group of new wine enthusiasts with deep pockets from the Far East.
These thoughts went through my head as I tasted a group of wines from producers’ group Expression de Fronsac in preparation for this article. Everyone knows that the best red Bordeaux repay keeping, but the practice, deeply ingrained in many wine lovers who buy to put away, is that you only keep the so-called grands crus from the Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Other, cheaper wines are bought to drink, not keep.
Fronsac has never fitted very easily into this rigid pattern, for the very good reason that its exceptional terroir produces wines with a tannic structure that makes them unattractive for early drinking in most years. Until the 1980s many wines were too austere, the victim of ageing too long in old oak barrels. But tastes were also different, and some consumers liked dry tannic wines without much fruit.
With the investment led by Libourne négociant J P Moueix in the 1980s, prices and quality improved. Michel Rolland, already emerging as the wine guru of the Right Bank, created Fontenil in 1986, and two years later was one of the founders of Expression de Fronsac. The fruits of this investment are now beginning to show through.
1997 and 1995 Vintage Wines
What my tasting of the 1997 and 1995 vintages from Expression de Fronsac showed was that virtually none of the 1995s were yet ready to drink after approximately two and a half years in bottle. However, their structure, with very attractive and individual fruit flavours matched to powerful, rich tannins well set off by the judicious use of new oak, promised wines that should begin to give a lot of pleasure in four to five years, and keep for many more. They were the unmistakable product of one of Bordeaux’s great terroirs.
The 1997s showed how dangerous it is to generalise about Bordeaux vintages. There was not a poor wine among the 14 châteaux. They were certainly more forward and more appealing at this stage than the 1995s, with less power and depth, but then delightful fruit already beckoned, and most of them should be highly enjoyable in one to three years time. They may well be better than the 1996s.
Before mentioning individual wines it is as well to say something in general about what to expect if you do not already know Fronsac wines. Although a glance at the map shows that Fronsac is only three kilometres outside Libourne, their point of reference is much more Saint-Emilion than Pomerol. The main vineyards are perched on a giant limestone bluff overlooking the Dordogne with its small tributary, the Isle, separating the area from Libourne and Pomerol on its western boundary. The vineyards, themselves, are on chalky clay soils with a limestone or sandstone subsoil. Something of a cross between the Saint-Emilion Côtes and parts of the communes of Saint-Christophe and Montagne-Saint-Emilion. This means that while Merlot dominates, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc have an important role to play, and help to give the wines their distinctive structure and character.
As in the adjoining Right Bank, this tends to be an area of small vineyards. Of the 14 members of Expression, six have under 10 hectares (ha), five between 10 and 19ha, and only three are 20ha or over. For this reason most members distribute wines direct. All four of Moueix’s Canon-Fronsac properties are under 10ha, with only La Dauphine at just 10ha in Fronsac.
How important is the distinction between the two appellations? Interestingly, Expression de Fronsac makes no differentiation between its members: all are listed alphabetically. Among a group of wines where the character of the region came through strongly, and the personality of the individual cru was very evident, I did not detect any marked differences between the appellations given that the winemaking was of universally high standard.
My highest scoring wines came from Château La Rousselle, but unfortunately this is also the smallest vineyard, with only 3.5ha. Here, it was the gorgeous fruit flavours displayed over a dense supple base that earned my only five stars for the 1995. The delicious but lightly textured 1997 scored a good four.
For consistency in scoring four stars for each vintage I was strongly impressed by Tour du Moulin, a recent newcomer to the group. The 1997 shone with its scented, ripe, crisp fruit and sheer charm, while the 1995 was a slumbering giant of a wine with magnificent dense, textured tannins. This is a six hectare vineyard.
Much larger and better known is the splendid La Vieille Cure with 20ha, where fine wines have now been made since soon after the present American owners took over in 1986. The gloriously scented, silky textured 1997 just asked to be drunk yet has the structure to evolve further. It was my top 1997. The 1995, while having more structure and very concentrated tannins, also showed a fine aromatic quality. A great pair. In the 1980s I often thought the wines of Cassagne-Haut-Canon La Truffière over-concentrated and charmless, but these showed all the lovely fruit flavours that had first appealed to me. The lovely, succulent 1997 was already enjoyable, the 1995 has ripe, concentrated tannins but the quality and charm of the fruit was unimpaired. This is a 13ha vineyard well placed on the heights of Canon-Fronsac.
Château Mazeris-Bellevue is unusual in several respects. In its 11ha vineyard only 45% of the vines are Merlot, with 25% each of the two Cabernets, the rest is Malbec. No new oak is used. I tasted some outstanding wines from here in the 1980s, including an unusually fine 1987. The 1997 was brimming with glorious flavours including raspberries and liquorice, but was still firm. The 1995 was more intense with powerful tannins rather masking the fruit. The style of both wines was impressive.
Several very good crus only scored four for one vintage, usually 1997, because the 1995s were so closed it was hard to tell just how good they will be. Leading the field was another Canon-Fronsac, Moulin Pey-Labrie, a 6.7ha vineyard. The 1997 had lovely harmonious, succulent fruit, a very polished wine. The 1995, with some lovely highlights on the nose, had very dense tannins and was decidedly dry at the finish placing a question against its harmony.
La Rivière is the show place in Fronsac, with its spectacular site on a terrace below the limestone plateau, and its turreted château with its origins in the 13th century. There are some nine hectares of old quarries providing a vast storage facility. Impressive but angular, slow maturing wines were made here for many years, but in the 1990s a new owner seems to have brought a little more style. Certainly the 1997 has a distinctive spicy fruit and length combined with vigour and some richness to make this an appealing wine for drinking sooner, a good four star wine. The 1995 was very solid with vigour and breadth of flavour but rather rustic fruit, so I only gave it a three star at this stage.
Château Dalem is an old friend and has produced some marvellous wines in the past. I particularly recall a 1945 that could have been mistaken for a great Saint-Emilion, as well as an excellent 1964 and 1970. The 1997 was succulent and delicious, yet concentrated and dense textured, an excellent 1997 and a comfortable four stars. The 1995 is still very four square and tannin dominated, still quite closed. Michel Rolland’s Fontenil 1995 was a good four star wine with lovely ripe fruit, very harmonious without excess oak, and tannins well covered. But I found the vanillary succulent 1997 rather one-dimensional at present.
Other crus producing consistently solid three star wines in both vintages were Moulin Haut-Laroque, where the wines were still rather light; Renard Mondésir where there was some nice fruit but the 1997 was short and 1995 had more length with solid, yet harmonious tannins, receiving a four. Les Trois Croix is now being made by Patrick Leon from Mouton. Both vintages were solid, four-square wines with more potential in the 1995. Château Villars’ wines are very concentrated but with rather hard-edged tannins and rather course-grained. Barrabaque produces very concentrated rich wines, I found 1997 more attractive while 1995 had rather unyielding tannins.
This tasting of these 14 crus across the two Fronsac appellations gave a very encouraging picture of the current situation. Their 212.5ha represents some 16% of the production of the district, and shows what Fronsac is capable of. Consistency across different types of vintage, individuality between crus as well as a marked regional character, and the ability to age well, making the wines attractive to lay down, especially since their prices carry, for the present, no investment premium, so they are wines for wine lovers and not for speculators and investors.
As a footnote I want to add something about the wines in the J P Moueix stable. With one exception, they have concentrated on Canon-Fronsac. The first was Canon, bought by Christian Moueix personally in the 1970s. It is a mere pocket handkerchief with only 1.4ha and is now producing some of the best wines in the appellation. Then in the 1980s Moueix bought the highly reputed Canon-de-Brem and Pichelèbre, which they renamed Canon-Moueix. Of these, Canon-de-Brem produces rich, tannic wines which age splendidly. I remember drinking a lovely 1962.
Canon-Moueix now fetches a slightly higher price en primeur and tends to be a little more showy early on. The latest acquisition, in 1993 was Bodet, now renamed La Croix-Canon, and regarded as a jewel by Christian Moueix, perhaps the best sited vineyard in Canon-Fronsac. The 1998 is particularly perfumed with wonderful complex fruit flavours over a big structure. One should also mention Mazeris, a very good cru now regularly bought by, without being owned by, Moueix. In the Fronsac appellation there is La Dauphine, a beautiful property where the 1998 was the finest wine I have seen here. All these wines are offered en primeur by Corney & Barrow.
I have only had time here to write about the trail blazers for Fronsac. There are many other excellent crus now beginning to benefit from more investment. And while new people and new money is being attracted into the district, this is also a deeply traditional place where some families have owned properties for generations. Names such as Coninck, Roux and Trocard are part of the history, and they, too, are moving forward. This is a beautiful area well worth spending time in, where many more gems will doubtless be unearthed in the near future.