Thierry Manoncourt, at the grand old age of 90, is still at the head of St-Emilion premier grand cru classé Château Figeac, and still producing world-class wines, as SERENA SUTCLIFFE MW can attest.
Reaching the age of 90 does not occur to many of us, and the few that make it are usually slipper-bound. However, the redoubtable Thierry Manoncourt, who celebrated this milestone in September 2007, still prowls the chais of his beloved Château Figeac, when not travelling the world with his sparkling wife, Marie-France. Lean and spare, impeccably mannered and twinkling with anecdotes, Manoncourt nevertheless has firm views and huge experience, with an acute mind that is technically trained and rigorous in its respect for fact. He is also a devoted family man, a loyal friend and a great French patriot (in spite of a British greatgrandmother called Elizabeth Drake).
When not driving forward his vision for Figeac, he is playing bridge or tending his garden, listening to music or devouring a book. There was no certainty in Manoncourt’s youth that he would one day run the family château. Figeac is the great château of St-Emilion, a glittering property under the old regime that was split up in the 19th century, spawning other growths such as Cheval Blanc. Its position is pivotal to the appellation.
In 1942, thee young Manoncourt was a prisoner of war in Germany when his grandmother died. It was unclear whether his uncle or his mother would inherit. He returned to France to make his first vintage in 1943 and then went to Paris to study at the INA (Institut National Agronomique), qualifying as an ingénieur agronome, as his father had done before him. In December 1946, his mother gained responsibility for the estate. Thierry’s uncle, however, continued to contribute much to St-Emilion, constructing the cooperative to help those less favoured with great terroir, especially growers struggling to make a living down on the flat plain.
Thierry Manoncourt’s uninterrupted era at Figeac began with the landmark vintage of 1947. At this time, he was one of very few agricultural engineers to be in control of a great vineyard. Manoncourt now reflects that this solid technical foundation was always at the heart of everything he did and it led to innovations that were revolutionary for the epoch. His use of stainless steel cuves must have come as a big surprise in St-Emilion – Figeac was only the third property to install them after Haut-Brion and Latour.
It is difficult now, with clients and journalists traipsing through the cellars of châteaux, to recall that the chais of yore were closed to outsiders – those who worked there preferred mystery behind thick wooden doors. Manoncourt put in new glass doors to his cellars, enabling people to see what was going on. He kept up with scientific research, first reading about malolactic fermentation in a Swiss book, and recalls that both Peynaud and Ribereau-Gayon came to Figeac to receive instruction. He even managed to crack the little problem of rot in 1968 – only Figeac obtained the 1er grand cru classement in this blighted year. In 1947, 10ha (hectares) of Figeac’s vineyards were lying fallow.
The disastrous frost of 1956 caused Figeac to lose 100,000 vines, so in 1957 and 1958 50% of the vineyard was replanted. Now, 40ha out of 53 are under vine and the vineyard is in one parcel around the château. The estate lies halfway between St-Emilion and Libourne on three gravel ridges, which is unusual for the region, giving rise to Thierry Manoncourt’s equally atypical choice of grape varieties, with its high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard composition now is 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot, with an average vine age of 35 years. The harvest starts later here than at other properties in the area, sometimes with a difference of as much as 15 days, since the Cabernet Sauvignon needs more time to reach ripeness.
Thierry Manoncourt remains president at Figeac and his son-in-law, Eric d’Aramon, is executive director – d’Aramon is married to Laure, the oldest of Manoncourt’s four daughters and the couple will celebrate their 20 years together at Figeac this April.
It is, of course, a comparative rarity now to find the owning family in permanent residence in a top château in Bordeaux, and it does confer a touch of ‘soul’ to a property. D’Aramon has, I think, edged Figeac towards producing a wine that is a little more round and welcoming in extreme youth, while keeping the Cabernet character of the cru. This, of course, has always been a talking point around Figeac, inevitably posing the question that if the Cabernet Sauvignon were decreased, and the Merlot and Cabernet Franc increased, would the result give a more voluptuous note in the wine, à la Cheval Blanc? A six-month-old cask sample of Figeac can appear more lean than its illustrious cousin, but less so in the last few years.
Figeac is, par excellence, a true vin de garde, filling out and becoming stupendously rich in top vintages, always magnifying its strong flavour and myriad dimensions.
This was shown to dramatic effect at a pre-Christmas lunch chez Taillevent in Paris, organised by renowned collector Bipin Desai for a small group of international ‘friends of Figeac’, with Thierry and Marie-France Manoncourt as guests of honour. They were in fact the hosts, since they had provided all the wines direct from the château. All the corks were original and if ever one needed proof that this is ideal practice, this tasting emphasised it. Figeac’s wine is the absolute reverse of uniformity – it interprets the vintages in its own inimitable, and often breathtakingly beautiful, way. And Thierry Manoncourt, a great Frenchman, interprets its essence with the élan and flair of his race