This tiny appellation contains some big names. Its wines are similar to those of Castillon, but with a stronger Cabernet influence. There's also a limited production of good whites.
The full title of the smallest of these five appellations is Bordeaux Côtes de Francs. The region could have been part of the appellation Côtes de Castillon, but in 1967 decided to go its own way, retaining the ‘Bordeaux’ tag for identity. Size and location make it somewhat insular, but the top wines are without doubt of interest.
Located north-east of Côtes de Castillon, this is a remote realm. There are three tiny villages – Francs, Tayac and Saint-Cibard – few signs of human life, and a pleasing countryside of copses, gently rolling hills, a little mixed farming and the vine.
The soils are mainly limestone-clay, lending credence to the notion that Francs should really be part of Castillon, but there are subtle differences. As a unit the vineyards are at a higher altitude (between 105 and 127m), meaning temperatures are a little cooler, and the rainfall is one of the lowest in the Gironde, due to local airstreams, so the number of sunshine hours is high.
If climate has a bearing on wine style, so too does the blend of grape varieties. Merlot is still the principal variety, but with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for almost half the vineyard area, there is a stronger Cabernet influence here than in Castillon. Cabernet Sauvignon needs an earlier ripening season, but when successful adds that little extra complexity. This means the wines are a little less exuberant aromatically than Castillon, but have a firm, linear presence on the palate with reasonably good ageing potential.
Another difference is the right to produce dry and sweet white wines. Pre-phylloxera, the region was known for its sweet wines; these are now rarely made, but there is a limited production of good quality, barrel-fermented dry white wines, notably from the châteaux Les Charmes-Godard, Francs and Puyanché.
As for producers, the region has seen one or two high-profile investors who have helped enhance the reputation for quality. Hubert de Bouärd of Saint-Emilion premier grand cru classé Château Angélus owns Château de Francs, and Jean-Marie Chadronnier, CEO of Bordeaux négociant CVBG Dourthe-Kressmann, owns Château Marsau.
The pioneers and pace-setters in the Côtes de Francs, though, are without doubt the Thienpont family. George Thienpont acquired Château Puygueraud in 1946, but initially cleared the run-down vineyard and did not replant until 1979. This remarkable, long-ageing wine is now a reference in the appellation, but has been joined by others in the Thienpont stable. These include Châteaux Les Charmes-Godard, Laclaverie and, most recently, La Prade. Winemaking and management of the properties is handled by George’s industrious son Nicolas, who also manages Saint-Emilion grands crus classés Bellevue, Larcis-Ducasse and Pavie-Macquin.