Wine Club: Promotion favourite

Historic St Emilion, surrounded by vineyards
Historic St Emilion, surrounded by vineyards
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Chateau Figeac has brought in some expert help in a bid to emerge from its sleep, and the results should be spectacular.

Chateau Figeac is one of St Emilion’s loveliest and most prestigious properties. But managing director Frédéric Faye says it has been sleeping for too long. “Now we are looking for more precision in our wines, and that is why Michel Rolland has been brought in to help us,” he adds. “There is tremendous potential at Figeac and we need to awaken it.”

The choice of world-famous consultant Rolland is hardly surprising. Not only is he extremely good at seeing just where and how a property’s wines can be improved, he is a very close neighbour and friend. “There are some evenings when Michel rings me and tells me that he has wandered into our vines to inspect them. His office is just 500 meters from our vineyard,” adds Faye.

The need for a new consultant has become evident over the last few years. Owner Thierry Manoncourt, who inherited the estate in 1947, died in 2010. Although he had passed the day-to-day running to his son-in-law Conte Eric D’Aramon some years before, he remained as the “face” of the estate and was still involved with decision-making. Last year, after being in place for 25 years, Eric d’Aramon suddenly left Figeac and is now focusing on his own property in Entre-Deux-Mers. Meanwhile Thierry’s widow, Marie-France Manoncourt, has taken on an ambassadorial role, while her daughter Hortense Idione-Manoncourt is now President of Ch. Figeac.

St Emilion is the undoubted jewel of Bordeaux. Located on the right bank of the Gironde, the town rises majestically above the plain on a limestone escarpment topped by a tall church spire. The town itself is a Unesco world heritage site; its narrow cobbled streets twist around shops, restaurants and the vineyards. During the summer the streets are thronged with tourists, but in the evenings and out of season St Emilion reverts to its quiet quaintness.

Stand on the terrace by the church spire and you can look out over the jumble of terracotta-tiled roofs to the close-packed vineyards beyond. Properties on this side of the Gironde are generally smaller than in the Médoc and are more likely to be family owned and run. Merlot shines on the limestone soils of the region, but at Figeac, situated on streaks of gravel soils, there is a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This often means that in blind tastings younger Figeac wines are overshadowed by their softer Merlot-dominated neighbours, but Figeac has the potential to age magnificently.

What sets St Emilion apart from the rest of Bordeaux is its classification. The Left Bank was classified almost 200 years ago and despite all the changes in ownership, property boundaries and the complete devastation of the region through phylloxera, the classification holds, with just one promotion of Mouton Rothschild in the 1970s. In St Emilion the vineyards were classified in 1955 and there is regular revision of that classification every 10 years or so, with movement up and down the scales depending on wine quality and various other factors. Because the fortunes of an estate rest on a wine’s classification there are inevitable arguments and court cases. After many such cases the 2006 classification was eventually declared invalid and revised again in 2012.

Ch. Figeac has been classified in the second division of the top classification – Premier Grand Cru Classé B – since the system started and it was Thierry Manoncourt’s ardent wish to be promoted to the top division, Classé A, along with Ausone and Cheval Blanc, but this did not happen. Other châteaux have been promoted and there does seem to be a correlation with the presence of Michel Rolland on the consulting team and promotion, but Faye refutes suggestions that Rolland has been brought in to engineer a promotion. “Not at all, we have not discussed the classification,” says Frédéric. “The focus is on consistent wine quality alone, but to achieve that we need someone to take an overview of the estate. There is a plot of land that is fallow at present, and we need to decide how to plant it to make the most of its potential. We also want to make the wine more charming earlier without changing its personality and we are planning a new cellar soon so it is important to have the right team in place. Michel Rolland is a master at blending, he seems to have a computer in his head, knowing which vats should be blended with others and that is what we need help with.”

Rolland blended the 2013 vintage at Figeac. While 2013 is generally regarded as a “difficult” vintage it was much better on the Right Bank than the Left. Tasting the 2013 Figeac it shone with elegance, silky tannins and ripe fruit with grippy tannins showing its potential. Going back through the vintages 2010 stood out for its harmony and deep cassis fruit; 2008 was starting to get into its stride with rich, Merlot-dominated flavours and a meaty, savoury finish. Tasting the 1985 and 1983 over lunch showed just how well the wines from this property age, maintaining their fruit and finish, while accumulating depth and complexity.

This change of direction at Figeac is bound to take time to filter through to the wines but all the signs are good. Faye has been in charge of the vineyards and winemaking in the past and now with Rolland at the end of the phone and at the far end of the vineyards, the wines from this property are bound to improve.

With only 100,000 bottles produced each year, this is not a wine that will crop up on supermarket shelves. Instead you will need to seek it out at specialist merchants such as Bon Coeur in Masham and Berry Bros in London but if you are looking for a property on the rise, then Figeac is probably one to check out.