Fronsac Vintners Making Comeback
Today the wines of Fronsac and the neighboring village of Canon-Fronsac are unknown to most wine lovers, but 200 years ago they sold for higher prices than some of the more famous wines of Bordeaux.
Set on clay-limestone knolls and slopes overlooking the Dordogne and Isle rivers, the vineyards are arguably the prettiest in Bordeaux and have the potential to produce great wines. Unfortunately, Fronsac is isolated; even today, to get there from Libourne, the wine center of the eastern Bordeaux region, you have to cross the river Isle on a two-lane bridge and then wind along a narrow country road.
While the great cha^teaux were being created in nearby St. Emilion and Pomerol, Fronsac remained a backwater of small peasant holdings and antiquated winemaking practices. Yet Fronsac has outstanding soils and terrain and well-tended, often very old vines. Its weak point was always the winemaking. This century, Fronsac’s wines have had the reputation of being heavy and rustic; many still are.
But starting in the 1950s, and especially in the last 20 years, some vintners in Fronsac have become determined to make wines that once again can compete with those from their neighbors in Pomerol and St. Emilion.
In their vineyards, these Fronsac producers forgo quantity to grow grapes of the highest quality and concentration of fruit. In the winemaking process, they avoid shortcuts. For example, the harvested grapes are picked over as many as three times before being put in the fermenting tanks.
Traditionally, wines from Fronsac were aged in vats; now they are aged in barriques, small oak barrels that are typically replaced every third year. The result is a wine that is full-bodied but also has balance, delicacy and finesse.
These innovators are surprisingly diverse. Some are from families that have been making wine in Fronsac for generations. Others are outsiders who never made wine before they came to Fronsac. One of the best cha^teaux, La Vieille Cure, is owned by two American investment bankers. What unites all of them is a passion to realize Fronsac’s potential.
Jean-Jacques Dubois has a very simple strategy: “‘I do everything possible to bring out the best in my property.” His Cassagne Haut-Canon sits on a knoll with a striking view across the rolling hills of Canon-Fronsac to the distant Dordogne.
At the top, where the soil is better suited to truffles than vines, he has planted a grove of oaks. His vineyards are composed of a number of small parcels with different soils, slopes and orientations. The bulk of his vines are Merlot, but in certain favored locations he grows Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His regular bottling is almost pure Merlot. His superb reserve, “La Truffiere” (named after the truffle oak grove), includes up to 40% of the two Cabernets, much more than is typical in the area. These Cabernets introduce a complexity that makes Cassagne Haut-Canon “La Truffiere” one of the most captivating wines in the Fronsac area.
In 1956, Jean-Jacques’ father, Charles, bought less than eight acres of rather sickly vines and set about learning how to make wine with the help of his father-in-law, who had a vineyard in Pomerol. Over the years, the Duboises have upgraded and enlarged their holdings. They now have about 30 acres in vines, with an average age of more than 30 years.
Jean-Jacques, who has been in day-to-day charge the last few years, is an earnest-looking man in his 30s. His painstaking methods are characteristic of the new approach in Fronsac. Cassagne Haut-Canon’s grapes are picked entirely by hand. He does not rely on laboratory analyses to decide when to harvest; he tastes the grapes in each parcel until he decides that they are ready. After the grapes are brought in to his meticulously clean chai (the building where the wine is made and aged), they are gone over bunch by bunch and any unripe or spoiled grapes, as well as all stems, are discarded. He tastes the developing wine every day.
“Fortunately, we are a small producer,” he says. “I could never taste 40 tanks every day if I had that many.”
He is almost fanatical about his barrels. When he first got out of winemaking school, he experimented with finding his own sources of oak. Today he works with four or five different barrel makers, each of whom makes barrels that contribute slightly different qualities to the wine.
While the Duboises have owned Chateau Cassagne Haut-Canon for 40-odd years, Michael Rullier’s family has been making wine in Fronsac for five generations. He is a stubborn, disciplined, rather conservative man who raised his children without luxuries so they would learn that nothing comes without work. But he has also left in a row of oaks that shade two or three rows of his vines in the morning because he likes the way they frame the view of the river Isle below the chateau.
In 1955, he bought 300-year-old Chateau Dalem in the Fronsac village of Saillans. It was a stretch for him.
“You have to spend money to make good wine,” he is fond of saying, but he and his wife were not rich. For more than 40 years, they have devoted their resources to their wine, plowing back the profits year after year. Now they have 36 acres of beautifully tended vines and a modern, well-equipped chai that sends its wines to more than 20 countries.
He is proud of what he has achieved. He shows a visitor piles of discarded grapes at the end of each row of vines. These are the remains of the first culling, which is done before the grapes even go into the carts. Back at the chai, grapes are picked over two more times before they go into the fermenting vat.
“My methods unite the most modern technical approach with the best of the Fronsac traditions,” he says. His wines are dark and rich, wines to lay down in your cellar. I tasted the Dalem 1995 from the barrel: an explosion of fruits and tannins, for the moment totally unbalanced, but in 10 or 15 years. . . .
Unlike Dubois and Rullier, Benedicte and Gregoire Hubau were not born to winemaking. Nevertheless, they make exceptional wines. Ten years ago, while in their early 20s, they bought the already-excellent Chateau Moulin Pey-Labrie in Canon-Fronsac. Coming from a grain-growing region in the Loire Valley, they didn’t know much that was useful about growing grapes and had no idea how to make wine.
So they hired Michel Rolland, the best-known wine consultant in the Fronsac area, and followed his advice. They were quick learners, and from the start they, like Rullier, understood that you have to spend money to make good wine.
Guided by Rolland, they installed the most up-to-date equipment in their chai, adopted a policy of replacing two thirds of their barrels every year and upgraded their vineyards.
“We have made a heavy investment,” they admit. One French wine critic has already called their regular label remarkable. They make a small amount of an even better reserve wine, which they have named “Benedicte” after Mme. Hubau.
When you meet them at the property, they are dressed like peasants. Unlike most vineyard owners, they don’t invite you into the cha^teau, receiving you, instead, in a cluttered, rather run-down office. It is as if they are embarrassed to be able to spend so much.
When outsiders come to a wine-growing area and spend a lot of money, their neighbors sometimes speak scornfully of them. But the Hubaus are respected for what they have done, and Benedicte has acquired quite a reputation with the Fronsac wine fraternity for her knowledge of the local wines.
The wines of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac will continue to improve. The small peasant holdings, too small to make economic sense, are being consolidated. And outsiders are continuing to come in.
Among these outsiders are members of the Moueix family, best known for Chateau Petrus in Pomerol. Since 1985 they have bought four chateaux in Canon Fronsac and are now planning a fifth. This troubles some of the local owners, but the Moueix name, to the extent that it serves as a kind of seal of approval, will make the public more aware of Fronsac, push prices up and generate more revenues to invest in further improvements.
The better wines of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac--including Moulin Haut-Laroque (a third of whose vines are more than 60 years old), La Dauphine and Fontenil, in addition to the ones already mentioned--are extraordinary bargains. These are wines that will improve with serious aging, wines that critics can rate with grands crus classes of St. Emilion. This kind of quality is not easy to find at $15 to $20 a bottle.
But these bargains won’t last. As Fronsac becomes better known and the wines improve even more, prices are sure to go up. But for the moment, it is worth seeking out the remarkable ‘95s that are just beginning to arrive on the market.