ADAM LECHMERE meets the director of Château Figeac, Eric d'Aramon and his wife, Laure.
Eric d’Aramon – plump, stately – welcomes me into his office and lights the first of many cigarettes. The director of Château Figeac – ‘Monsieur Figeac’, as his friends call him – conforms to the more dishevelled type of Bordeaux aristocrat. He favours a battered jacket and a green pullover that’s seen better days. He’s charming and friendly and even smokes in a old-fashioned manner – that is, a lot. On his desk, half-hidden by papers, magazines, wine reviews, bottles and other detritus, is a brimming ashtray.
Château Figeac is an 18th-century country house in the grand style. Built of warm yellow stone, it sits behind ivy-covered gateposts, welcoming like its host, and without the threatening bulk of Margaux or the effete turrets of Palmer. The office, to one side of the courtyard, is pleasantly chaotic. On the shelves are editions of Feret’s Bordeaux et Ses Vins, Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book, Robert Parker, encyclopedias and bound journals. Eight bottles of Figeac are lined up on top of a cupboard. There’s a Rioja carrier bag in the corner, and books all over the floor. A table is covered with wine journals in a hundred different languages, every one bristling with yellow Post-It Notes, inserted by d’Aramon’s wife Laure. He offers me a Philip Morris Superlight, and we sit puffing away. I have promised the editor to get every last detail, Hello!-style, about the domestic life of a Bordeaux winemaker. But instead of finding out how he likes his eggs in the morning I ask what he thinks about the letter that a clutch of UK merchants have sent to Bordeaux négociants begging them to keep en primeur prices low.
Beating the competition
D’Aramon laughs. ‘We have the same letter from a Swiss merchant every year. Our prices aren’t too high. Look at the rest of the world – Napa, Italy, Grange. They are more expensive.’ That’s an argument they always use in Bordeaux. Another one is: ‘I can always sell my wine so why price low?”Prices remained stable throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until 1994. Then we increased 100% in two years. In 1993 we had the same price as 1987 and we were losing money. I don’t want to lose money – it’s not my role.’ It makes economic sense. Figeac’s pricing is, in fact, moderate. While some châteaux went up a whopping 80% for 2000, Figeac only increased by 7%. D’Aramon started working for his father-in-law Thierry Manoncourt in April 1988. He and Laure were married the year before while he was running the far-eastern division of yogurt manufacturer Yoplait. Before that he worked for frozen-food giant Findus, a magazine company and a bank. ‘I am in the business because I married my wife,’ he says. He started as second-in-command to the formidable Manoncourt, who, now in his 80s, still sits in the next-door office and takes a keen interest in the running of the château. Manoncourt tells me how delighted he is that the Figeac 1975 was drunk at the recent wedding of the Crown Prince of the Netherlands. Later he pops up from behind the fermentation vats with a camera in his hand, taking pictures for a brochure.
D’Aramon says he knew little about wine when he started, but he’s obviously picked up a thing or two. Figeac is universally praised. Robert Parker calls the 2000 ‘a profound effort’, and lauds its ‘pinpoint precision, finesse and purity’. Part of the reason d’Aramon is liked stems from his respect for tradition. St-Emilion is often accused of selling out to critics by making wine that will show well in the spring, for en primeur week, but not d’Aramon. ‘Figeac is made to age extremely well,’ says Anthony Hanson, senior director of wine at Christie’s. ‘It’s not created to look good at the end of March, so it’s sometimes judged harshly by critics who are used to finding more approachable samples.’ Hanson gives the example of the 2000 Figeac, which he retasted this year just after bottling, and found ‘wonderful – much better than in 2000.’ D’Aramon is also admired for the way he has dealt with the long shadow cast by his father-in-law. By 1988 Thierry Manoncourt had been in charge for 40 years, and had gained a reputation as a pre-eminent winemaker with a powerful character. A hard act to follow. ‘It wasn’t easy,’ says Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier. ‘Everybody knew his father-in-law and kept telling him what a great man he was. But Eric took over in a nice way, not too aggressive – he followed Thierry at first but now his own personality is more expressive.’
His own man
Bernard reckons Figeac ‘is doing even better under Eric – the wine is more modern in the right way.’ He keeps to the style set by Manoncourt and has resisted the ‘Parker style’ – big, tannic, extracted, Merlot-heavy wines – that many St-Emilion châteaux are following. Above all, d’Aramon has stamped his personality on Figeac. Bernard again: ‘It is easy to ask Michel Rolland to come and make your wine. There are many châteaux where the oenologist is in charge, not the proprietor. Eric is doing it with his own energy and personality.’ He’s certainly energetic, routinely putting in a 16-hour working day, and he seems to thrive on it. He says ‘life was suddenly very exciting’ when he took over running Figeac. I believe him. I want to know about his background. How old is the d’Aramon title? ‘It’s 600 years old. My family originally came from Italy, near Florence. It was already a noble family in Italy, and when they came to southern France in 1635, the King of France made them marquis.’ Eric is the second son. His elder brother Guy gets to be Marquis d’Aramon, while Eric has to make to with being a count. But didn’t they do away with all that sort of thing in the Revolution? D’Aramon smiles at that. ‘Yes, but these are courtesy titles.’ He also says his family didn’t suffer in the Revolution because ‘we were the kind of noble family that was close to the people in the villages so there was no resentment’.
The current generation of d’Aramons – which includes Stanislas (13), Auriane (11) and Paul (7) – live in the wing of the château not occupied by Manoncourt. The rooms, naturally, are splendid. The wallpaper is an original copy of an 18th-century design. ‘There are 15 different colours in it,’ I am told. Both the dining room and the sitting room are original – as is much of the furniture, the sofa included. ‘I don’t know how valuable it is,’ says d’Aramon. ‘I’ve never cared about that – we use it every day,’ He’s at pains to point out that although we’ve pictured him and Laure with a bottle on the table at lunchtime, they only normally drink wine in the evening.
‘For dinner we drink what the visitors leave from the tastings downstairs. At the moment it’s the 1989s.’ It’s not always Figeac, he adds. At least half of what they drink socially is from colleagues, things they want to taste, and about 10% from the New World, Spain, Italy, Greece. Which are his New World favourites? ‘No names come to me,’ he says. I am always surprised by top-rank winemakers who can’t reel off the names of their competitors. This isn’t to say he’s not informed – he knows exactly what is going on in the Americas, in Spain, in Italy. He’s visited England, Germany, Belgium and the States already this year, and it’s only March. It’s just that, like most of his colleagues, he feels you can’t compare Bordeaux with anything. ‘I stopped going to the wine fairs in America because I was considered a Cabernet Sauvignon producer. Part of my marketing is to say I have the most Cabernet in St-Emilion with my 35%. But I was being put into tastings with wines made of 80% Cabernet – no comparison.’
We get into a lengthy discussion about comparable wines that ends with d’Aramon saying: ‘Bordeaux wines are not for competitions. They need time to settle and to age,’ which I feel is unanswerable – and also par for the course for a Bordeaux producer. I’m tempted to tell him about the time at Château Lafite when I suggested my desert island wine would probably be something good and meaty from Napa. The shock around the dinner table was palpable. He’d have liked the anecdote, though I think he would have been more amused at my naïvety. For all his affability and approachability there’s no doubt I’m with one of Bordeaux’s most serious winemakers. He may be no iconoclast, but that did not stop him being one of the first to introduce regulation of temperature (still a subject he enthuses about – he wants to replace all his stainless steel with wood or concrete to achieve better temperature control), and he has all sorts of projects mooted. There’s a new anti-pollution system, and a long-term plan to build a new facility for smaller, 90-hectolitre vats for the malolactic fermentation.
D’Aramon is helped in all this by his wife, the Comtesse Eric d’Aramon – her proper title, he tells me, but one which I doubt is much used. Laure is in charge of the legal affairs, trademarking, protecting the brand, and other general admin such as providing a cuttings service. From an overflowing in-tray he produces Wein, a weighty-looking German organ, in which all relevant tastings have been underlined. He doesn’t read German but gets the gist, and his secretary translates all the important bits. On our way outside to visit the cellars and the baronial tasting room (part of which survives from the original medieval château) we see a small, heavily-armed figure lurking in a doorway. It is Paul, back from school and now in breastplate and helmet and clutching a laser gun. His dad ruffles his hair and he scoots back inside. Will the children follow their father into wine? ‘It’s open at the moment. My eldest son will definitely go into business – he can sell anything to anybody,’ and d’Aramon proudly relates how Stanislas persuaded the local shop to stump up money for a school project. He speaks equally fondly of his daughter Auriane – who he’s just picked up from ‘Classe Verte’ – green school, in which children learn about the importance of the environment. It seems for this particular class they all went skiing.
Château Figeac is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. As d’Aramon says, it is very much a family affair. Their living quarters are above and behind the office, the bedroom directly above (he can hear the phones as he lies in bed). ‘We are very closely involved in the business. The kids come back from school and come in and say hello when I’m working in here.’ Later that evening I am at an en primeur press reception at Château Carbonnieux, a jolly affair in which every member of the Union des Grands Crus brings along a few choice bottles to welcome a motley collection of wine hacks from Milan to Japan.
During dinner guests and hosts are constantly on the move, raiding tables for the best bottles. I spot Eric, in a different tie from this afternoon, and slightly redder in the face, beamingly greeting a group from Italy. ‘Alors,’ says someone, ‘C’est Monsieur Figeac.’