With no big-names promoting the region, Fronsac can be a hard sell. CLIVE COATES MW looks through the producers’ eyes, and asks how the smaller estates survive
We must start with the downside. In 2002, local firm JP Moueix decided to divest itself of its Fronsac estates. The Moueixes own, farm, consult for and market a wide range of the top Libournais wines, from Château Pétrus downwards. You would think that a few Fronsacs in the portfolio would appeal to those customers looking for something less astronomically priced. But the Moueixes were losing money on them. As Christian Moueix told me, it cost as much to produce a bottle of Canon de Brem or La Dauphine as to produce a bottle of La Grave or other minor Pomerols. And while the latter sold at a profitable price, the market would not pay enough for the Fronsacs. So they cut their losses. And when Pomerol château Certan Giraud came on the market a short while later, it helped to have the funds to hand. Moueix bought the estate and has since renamed it Hosanna. Yet there has been considerable interest from others in acquiring a Fronsac domaine. Back in 1986, Colin Ferenbach and a group of fellow Americans bought Château La Vieille Cure. In the same week Michel and Dany Rolland took over at Château Fontenil (their prime objective was to move out of a noisy apartment on a main road in Libourne, but Fontenil happened to come with a vineyard attatched.) More recently there have been changes at La Rivière, Gaby (twice),Richelieu, Arnauton, Vrai Canon Bouché and Bellevue. And, of course, at the three ex-Moueix properties, Canon de Brem, La Dauphine and La Fleur Canon. Most of these new arrivals are people who have made money elsewhere. They have the means to invest long term, so can afford to be patient. So how do the locals view the problem cited by Moueix, if, indeed, there is a problem? And crucially, how do they see their future?
Let’s look at the basic economics. It costsaround €6 to produce a bottle of Fronsac. You can save half a euro if you pick by machine( as some 50% of Fronsac producers do), and this, if you have 10ha (the average Fronsac estate), adds up to no mean sum – some €30,000. This €6, incidentally, is not significantly less than it costs to produce a bottle of Mouton Rothschild (probably around €10). As Dany Rolland told me, apart from the proportions of new oak (50% at Fontenil, 100% at Pomerol’s Bon Pasteur), the Rollands’ costs are identical. But Fontenil sells for €15, Le Bon Pasteur for three times as much. Is it that much better? I normally mark Fontenil 15.5/16 out of 20, Bon Pasteur 16.5/17, so it seems not.) This €6 represents just the running expenses. Initial and ongoing investment is not included, nor is marketing. And everyone wants to tour the world to promote their wines. This raises the ‘real’ cost to €9–10, the going rate for a Fronsac on the Bordeaux market place. Fontenil’s €15 is exceptional, and is due largely to Michel Rolland’s reputation. Arnaud Roux-Oulié, a local rising star, sells his Carlmagnus at €12.50, but his Montcanon (which I rate higher than both Rolland wines) at €6. Jean-Jacques Dubois is owner of Château Cassagne-Haut-Canon and the president of the local growers’ association. All the professionals know, he says, that Fronsac produces one of Bordeaux’s real value-for-money wines. But the punters (I translate his French) still don’t realise it. There has been a failure of communication. ‘We’ve also had some small harvests recently,’ he adds, ‘especially in 2002 and 2003, and so in
real terms revenues have been declining.’ What about 2005? ‘Yes, we raised prices by 25%, and our economies are a little more comfortable (though there has been little interest in 2006), but remember that price levels had been static since 2000.’ Perhaps Fronsac producers woud be better off selling direct rather than through the merchants in Bordeaux? ‘We need the négociants,’ says Dubois. Others are less traditional. A number of the new arrivals point out that the Bordeaux wine trade has been singularly inept at promoting anything, let alone Fronsac, and has only been in the market for bog-standard wine at less than bog-standard prices. In common with a lot of the better estates in the minor areas of Bordeaux, many see the négociants as an irrelevance. They would
prefer to deal direct with customers, like everyone else in France. One of the best ways to ensure local sales, and at best prices, is to build up a mailing list of French private customers. And the way to do this is to exhibit at the fairs that take place every autumn in northern cities such as Lille, Paris, Rouen and Nantes. The French wine drinker is not as vintage conscious as the average Decanter reader, and is much less likely than the average American to class everything as either black(undrinkable) or white (insist on buying).
But it’s a bit of a vicious circle. Colin Ferenbach has a poster in his office: ‘To make good wine you have to have money. To make money you have to have good wine.’ As Jean-Noël Hervé of Château Moulin Haut Laroque says: ‘Do I live comfortably (vivre)? Well, I survive (survivre).’ A grower in St-Emilion can downclass lesser wine, say from young vines, and sell it off in bulk as generic, for all merchants have their own house St- Emilion. No one produces house Fronsac. Producers can only downgrade to Bordeaux Supérieur. In St-Emilion and Pomerol, minor châteaux hang on to the coat-tails of wines like Cheval Blanc and Pétrus. Fronsac is bereft of a superstar. Fronsac is unusually hilly for aBordeaux vineyard. Drive across Entre- Deux-Mers and you will see the hunched bluff of Fronsac on the other side of the Dordogne, a few kilometres downstream from Libourne. The incline facing you is Canon Fronsac; the lower lying land and the plateau behind is Fronsac. Canon is supposed to be the best bit: the limestone is purer and the drainage better. In fact the wines are not necessarily better, nor is there any marked difference in price. The one thing that is true is that
there are fewer underachievers in Canon. Those who have arrived from outside see the profitable production of Fronsac as a long-term achievement. Guillaume Halley, new owner of the Moueixes’ Château de la Dauphine, says his current
concern is, ‘to get my wine onto the tables of wine drinkers. If they like it,
they’ll come back for more. If so, I can gradually increase prices, say by €0.5 a
bottle, and eventually Dauphine will be properly profitable at last.’ James Gregoire of La Rivière believes it’s a five-year project. His is by far the
largest property in Fronsac, producing 20– 30,000 bottles a year. He also believes that the current poor status of the dollar could encourage US wine lovers to trade down from St-Emilion and Pomerol to Fronsac.The latest arrival in Fronsac is David Curl, an English investment banker, who bought Château Gaby at the end of 2006. Curl estimates his running costs at €9 a bottle. He can sell his grand vin at a little over this, but loses money on the third of
his production that is set aside. At present, though, he doesn’t need the cash flow. For him this is a long-term investment, and he is happy to build up a stock of wine in bottle. As he points out, he paid hardly a third of the price of a St-Emilion grand cru or its Pomerol equivalent. Today there is a rising number of really good Fronsac estates, whereas not so long ago there were only four or five you could call first division. This will gradually aid the expansion of the commune’s recognition and push prices up to levels where the economics work. Curl can afford to be patient, and he deals direct; in the UK with Berry Bros.
Fronsac will survive, essentially because the wine is both good and individual, and ages much better than lesser St-Emilions and Pomerols. But the growers could expect more if they improved the basic product. There are many very good Fronsacs (see sidebar, above, for my recommended picks). But out of 73 wines from the 2005 vintage that I tasted in February, I marked only 30 as better than good and 22 as utterly beneath contempt. This, especially in such an excellent vintage, is ridiculous. ‘Could do better’, as it used to say on my childhood homework.
Written by Clive Coates MW