These two Right Bank appellations aren’t the first that come to mind when you think of Bordeaux. But in terms of value and potential they should be, says Jane Anson, who finds renewed interest and investment in this corner of the Gironde
Location Right Bank of the Garonne River, 25km northeast of Bordeaux.
Area under vine 800ha in Fronsac with 106 winemakers; 250ha in Canon-Fronsac with 47 winemakers.
Annual production 5 million bottles in Fronsac (37,350hl); 1.68 million (9,800hl) in Canon-Fronsac.
Export: 20% for Fronsac; 30% for Canon Fronsac – main markets are China (20%), US, Belgium, Germany for Fronsac; and England (22%), Belgium and China for Canon-Fronsac.
Grape varieties Merlot covers 60% of the area, the rest of the vines are Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, on clay-limestone soils.
Chinese owners 13% of the appellations.
For a place that is referred to as ‘the Tuscany of the Gironde’, Fronsac can be a mystery at times. It has a more consistent limestone terroir than neighbouring St-Emilion, with stunning vineyards set on high slopes overlooking the Dordogne and Isle rivers. The Tuscany reference comes from the way its land unfurls in great waves along the river’s edge, its valleys, copses and knots of truffle oaks providing shelter to the lush rows of Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines. Spend a day visiting châteaux here, and you’ll be spoiled by the number of courtyards you are taken to with views stretching out over the valley and down to the river below. If you’re lucky, you’ll be handed a glass of wine to help ease the property envy.
It is also historic vineyard country, with links to the Romans, to Charlemagne and to the Palace of Versailles; in the 1660s the Duke of Richelieu built a theatre here to entertain the visiting court of Louis XIV. The geographer and wine writer Henri Enjalbert called it the ‘historical cradle of great Bordeaux and Libourne wines’ and the ‘sacred hill of the region’.
Yet today Fronsac, together with its sibling appellation Canon-Fronsac, has slid down the priority list of most buyers: just 24% of the region’s production is exported, compared to 40% of Bordeaux as a whole, and more than 50% for Médoc cru bourgeois – a group of wines that should, in theory, be similar to Fronsac in terms of price and prestige. A maximum 10% of the appellation sells en primeur, and average prices barely surpass that of basic AC Bordeaux and AC Bordeaux Supérieur – negociants would expect to pay €2 to €3 (£1.50-£2.50) a bottle for a basic Fronsac, compared to an average of €8 to €10 (£6-£8) for a cru bourgeois.
The size and splendour of the châteaux give you a good hint that this situation was not always the case, so what happened? And might it be good news for those of us looking for undervalued wines among the sea of highly priced Bordeaux?
Renewal and potential
‘St-Emilion really pulled away from Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac in the 1950s and 1960s with the Jurade [St-Emilion’s ambassadors], the classification and the tourist attractions of the medieval village,’ explains Michel Ponty of Château Grand Renouil in Canon-Fronsac. ‘But where St-Emilion is a large appellation and so inevitably has a wide range of excellent and pretty average terroir, it’s striking how homogneous our terroir is, with starfish limestone and the ‘Fronsac molasses’ of claysand- limestone. We are five times smaller than St-Emilion, and much of our land is hugely undervalued. There’s an increasing feeling that our winemakers are starting to realise that they have a great story here, and are sat on huge potential.’
If you want to explore the emerging potential of the region, head to the village of Saillans, on one of the highest points of what is already one of the highest appellations in Bordeaux. Here you will find Château La Vieille Cure, Château Fontenil, Château de Carles, Château Dalem and Château Villars – all making exciting wines that are pushing the boundaries of what is expected from an area that was dismissed for too long for its clunky, drying take on the Right Bank grapes.
One of the clearest signs of renewal in the area is that the two appellations of Fronsac and Canon- Fronsac, which were rivals at certain times in the past, have realised they are stronger together. The two regional wine bodies have joined forces and the winemaking charter – or cahier de charges – is the same for both in every way except the geographical boundaries. Says Nicolle Croft, an author and wine expert living near Fronsac: ‘Canon-Fronsac versus Fronsac is a non-subject nowadays. There are excellent estates in both.’
This is an opinion shared by the many young winemakers who are returning to the area to take over family properties. Arnaud d’Arfeuille has come back from Paris to join his father’s family estate Château Tessendey, along with his uncle’s classified St-Emilion property La Serre. ‘It’s striking how much easier it is to sell our St-Emilion than our Fronsac wine,’ he says with a rueful smile, ‘but both appellations offer similarly generous fruit structure from the same red grape varieties and the best Fronsacs have excellent ageing abilities.’
A few châteaux have done away with the differences entirely. Olivier Decelle of Château Jean Faure in St-Emilion owns the excellent Château Haut-Ballet, with vines in both Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, and recently chose to bottle both under the simpler AC Fronsac. Guillaume Halley at Château La Dauphine took exactly the same approach in 2009, when he stopped bottling half of his vines under Château de Brem in Canon-Fronsac, and instead put them all under the La Dauphine label in AC Fronsac.
‘La Dauphine got the benefit of the excellent quality vines at Château de Brem,’ says director Stéphanie Barousse, ‘and it made things simpler for our customers. We also got significantly more wine to sell under one label, so were able to introduce a second wine. The move transformed our sales.’
There are other signs that Fronsac is starting to enjoy wider interest and attention. This is the appellation with the single biggest presence of Chinese owners in Bordeaux, with 13% of the vines Chinese-owned. It includes the biggest single estate in the region, the 65ha Château de la Rivière, as well as the 50ha Château Plain-Point. Both owners have said that they intend to keep distributing the wines in Europe and the US as well as in Asia (although it’s worth noting that Fronsac was the only Bordeaux appellation to see sales in China rise in 2013).
And the Chinese are not the only international owners in Fronsac; two of the highest profile estates – La Vieille Cure and Gaby – have American or Canadian owners. A few weeks ago Château Gaby (which benefits from one of those oh-so-alluring courtyard views) sold out a special cuvée with UK merchant Bordeaux Index in 24 hours.
This renewed sense of interest may increase even further if Château de la Rivière, with its 24ha of forest and 22ha of underground cellars, opens its planned luxury hotel in 2019. But for now, as Barousse says, ‘Fronsac offers the sense of history and tradition that Bordeaux does so well, without complication or fuss. In many ways we are closer to Pomerol than St-Emilion in terms of small properties where the owners work their vineyards like a garden. We hope to be certified organic this time next year, because when you are lucky enough to have vineyards like these, you should treasure them.’
Jane Anson is Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent and Decanter.com’s newest columnist
Written by Jane Anson