One of the things that greatly fascinate me about wine is the fact that the oftentimes, it is a reflection of the personality of the winemaker… Or the owner of the château.
This thought particularly resonated with me during my recent trip to Bordeaux. Interestingly enough, I met winemakers and château owners who are the living embodiment of their wines: The remarkably elegant Véronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly, the effervescent and poetic Alexander Van Beek of Château Dutertre and Château Giscours, the understated but immensely legendary Hubert de Boüard of Château Angelus… And the amiable winemaking genius that is Frédéric Faye of Château-Figeac.
Before I went to Château-Figeac, I decided to spend whatever time I could (which wasn’t much, given that I was either in transit on a plane or a train, or doing research in Paris) watching some of the label’s videos. Most of the videos featured this soft-spoken, gentle looking man, talking about the grapes and wines of Château-Figeac (in French, so it was also a good review on my end). It turned out that the man, Frédéric Faye, was the person I would be meeting in the celebrated château in Saint-Émilion.
I’m getting way ahead of myself, though. Let me talk about the wines first.
Château-Figeac is a celebrated Bordeaux wine estate that enjoys the prestige of being the first Great Classified Growth (or Premier Grand Cru Classé*), which was established in 1955, indicating the best wines of the Saint-Émilion region. They can trace their origins all the way back to the 2nd century AD, to a family called the Figeacus (hence the name).
“Look at this gravel… This is the uniqueness of Figeac’s great terroir. Three outcrops, a blend of quartz and flint, some ancient sands and a trace of blue clay. A layer of gravel up to seven metres deep – unique in Saint-Émilion! And the planting: 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and only 30% Merlot. These three grapes, these soils, this climate, you will find this combination nowhere else in the world.” – Thierry Manoncourt, Owner of Figeac (1917-2010)
The estate was passed on to many hands, until the Manoncourt family finally acquired it in 1892. This was significant, because of Thierry Manoncourt, the visionary who made the first Château-Figeac vintage in 1943. He was instrumental in making crucial discoveries in maximizing the potential of the terroir in their vineyards. Their soil, Günzian gravel (a sandy-gravel alluvium), is conducive to planting vines that would eventually make their signature blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, and 30% Merlot (their oldest vine is a Merlot which dates back to 1921). This is most unusual in Saint-Émilion, which normally would require a 60% Merlot in the blend.
Today, Thierry Manoncourt’s influence can still be seen on every bottle of Château-Figeac: The Manoncourts’ family crest, Thierry’s signature, and of course, the blend.
“The work of a goldsmith involves precision, obsessive attention to detail and artistry. Thierry Manoncourt made wines like a goldsmith. His innovative approach to viticulture and wine-making, his skill and a creative curiosity enables us now to continue in our search for excellence.
I and my team are conscious of how lucky we are to carry on the work and of our responsibility to fullfill our commitments.
Our task is to achieve the best possible Figeac in every vintage, through meticulousness, innovation and passion, while faithfully respecting its unique terroir.” – Frédéric Faye, Managing Director and Winemaker, Château-Figeac
The arrival of current winemaker Frédéric Faye in 2002 continued and developed the Manoncourts’ “scientific and qualitative approach to wine growing”. His friendly nature puts people who meet him at ease, and he is more than eager to share a few things with those who ask.
For instance, upon visiting their estate (I was deeply honoured and incredibly lucky to be toured around personally by Frédéric himself), he taught me that a winemaker could tell if it’s time to harvest through the consistency of the grapes. He asked me to crush one with my fingers (once again, a deep honour to have touched one of their grapes), and the specific sticky consistency it had indicated that it was ready in a week or two (note: this was in 14 September). He showed me what Günzian gravel looked like, and explained how their estate is the exception to the general predominantly-Merlot Saint-Émilion rule.
My best experience with Frédéric, however, was sampling some of the estate’s wines.
We started off with the Petit-Figeac 2012. Petit-Figeac is the “accessible” Château-Figeac for those who want to try the estate’s emblematic wine without breaking the bank. Still made with the same exacting detail that the house is known for, the wine has a graceful concentration on the mouth, with notes of dark fruits rounded out by structured tannins.
We moved on to the Château-Figeac 2011. I learned from the winemakers in Bordeaux that people tend to overlook this vintage, favouring the 2012 (more on that in another article)… But the 2011 is great. It’s floral, fresh (like the smell of the forest), flinty, and round, with just a mild hint of red berries.
The pièce de résistance was one of most renowned of estate’s recent vintages, the Château-Figeac 2009. Having slowly aged gracefully, the bottle we had showed an excellent structure that beautifully complimented the signature black fruits of a predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wine, with hints of austere freshness, and notes of liquorice and cigarboxes.
Much as I would like to share the experience beyond what I can write (trip to France anyone?), it’s not financially sound (unfortunately). However, allow me to inform people that the wines can be purchased from any Wine Story branch. Those who would like to tour the château can set an appointment through firstname.lastname@example.org.
That being said, stay tuned for more Bordeaux adventures. Cheers!
Merci Beaucoup to Mr. Frédéric Faye for everything, and Ms. Cécile Loqmane
Figeac vu du Ciel film used with permission from Château-Figeac (www.chateau-figeac.com)
Source includes the primer for Château-Figeac
For Carla Perez Santos
*The Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AC (a separate appellation for the region) has two classifications (from lower to higher): Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, and Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. The latter is further subdivided into A (enjoyed by Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone; & B for the rest, as with Château-Figeac).