This is what Bordeaux is all about. A unique terroir, with multiple microclimates and a passionate, instinctive wine producer with strong clear ideas as to what constitutes a true wine; a reflection of its terroir, nature’s particular conditions that season and the human translation of these elements.
Jean-Jacques Dubois is part of the Bordeaux SIP community – that is Small Independent Producers. The wine news is full of articles about the classified growths in Bordeaux. These amount to a tiny percent of what is produced in Bordeaux, about 200 or so elite wines reserved fo the richest and well out of the reach of 99.99% of us. There are thousands of smaller producers in Bordeaux that are producing wines that are authentic and well-made.
A New Understanding
Gone are the days of Bordeaux wines that were ‘hard’ and which took décades before being ‘ready to drink’. Today a new understanding of ripeness and what the vine needs to ripen its grapes produces wines which have a better balance between the ripe fruit, acidity (a signature of Bordeaux, we call it freshness) and their tannic structure. In certain pockets of special terroir around Bordeaux, these wines are not just good they are excellent.
Château Haut Cassagne Canon, Canon Fronsac is one of these relatively unknown Bordeaux gems. Jean-Jacques is a trained oenologist but more importantly he lives close to his vines, feeling the décisions he makes throughout the year from pruning to weed management in between the rows, the all important moment to harvest and how long to leave the wine on its ‘marc’. But each décision made throughout the year is important and helps to shape the wine in reflection of nature’s behaviour. Being so close to his vines means that each year Jean-Jacques is able to push these décisions to the limit. This is risky and something he admits he would be unable to do if he was not always there checking the reaction of his vines and wine in the vats.
This 13 hectare property lies on a hill high up in Canon-Fronsac looking down onto the Dordogne River (on a clear day one can see the shiny bridge of the Pont d’Aquitaine that crosses the Garonne River the main artery to and from the city of Bordeaux). The confluence of the two rivers at nearby Libourne (L’Isle and the Dordogne) and the proximity of the Dordogne just below the property reduces the risk of frost. These two Rivers cut the landscape and created the diverse soils of Canon Fronsac.
The Dubois have been vigernons in the region for générations but it was Jean-Jacque’s grandfather who purchased the Duke of Richelieu’s old hunting lodge with its hectare of parkland (and rare 100 year old trees including the rare Osage Orange tree Maclura pomifera used by the Osage Indians for its bows and arrows and its orange dye) high on the steep tertre and more importantly the 4 hectares of vineyards, pointing in each direction, that surrounded it.
Soils similar to St Emilion – natural regulation
It is a limestone plateau, similar to that found at nearby St Emilion with the limestone bedrock acting as a sponge to feed the vines just enough water, never too much during the dry summer months. It helps to naturally regulate the feed of water which helps the vine to naturally control its vigour in this terroir.
The soils are clay and astéries limestone eroded from the bedrock originally from the quartenary period (several million years ago when ancient seas covered the older molasse de fronsadais).
Fronsac; historically important loses its way
Historically this privileged terroir (referred to as the ‘historic cradle of the great wines of Bordeaux’ by Professor Henri Enjalbert, specialist in soils who did an in-depth study on the region) was one of the most important areas of Bordeaux.
Apparently the initial losing of the region’s foothold for the appellation happened when phylloxera struck in the 1860s. The only vines able to survive were those on the pallus next to the river, as the louse which ate the roots could be temporarily drowned out by the flooding of the river. Fronsac became known for this lower quality wines. It took décades before the quality wines of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac higher up on the slopes were able to re-establish themselves and by this time the damage to the image of Fronsac had been done. The region’s inaccessibility, (one needed to cross two rivers via routes that were often flooded), the overshadowing by the more accessible and prévalent St Emilion and Pomerol which made the region’s wine merchants more money and the lack of cameraderie between the properties did not help the situation.
Jean-Jacques took over from his father, married his wife Zita and extended the vineyards to 13 hectares that surround the promontary with a mix of soils and expositions giving many different micro-climates to play with. On the southfacing side of the hill close to the Château, in protected enclaves around the ancient old quarries (the limestone was excavated here too as in St Emilion) Jean-Jacques has found that even the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon has found its niche. This goes into his special cuvée, La Truffière, named after the black truffles that grow in the roots of the small green oak trees close to the plots (La Truffière – 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon).
The fatty make-up of the bloom (the powdery white flour, the pruinescence) on the outside of a grape which contains the natural yeasts explains Jean-Jacques, in fact absorbs any dominate aromas in its environment such as truffles!, wild thyme (serpolet) or the wild orchid producing fragrant herbal wines.
Biodiversity is encouraged here for this reason and the numerous habitats created gives the vines a natural protection.
The Blending of La Truffière
We were able to taste from the barrel various pre-blends from the 2012 vintage. The first barrel was a 100% blend of Merlot – soft juicy attack with lots of fresh cherry fruit. Upfront, immediate, pleasurable and gourmande!
The next barrel was a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Here we had a richer fragrance, aromatic middle palate but falling away at the end.
The last barrel was made up of Merlot like the others but this time with some Cabernet Sauvignon. Slow to take off but spherical in shape and with a wonderful long finish.
It was only when Jean-Jacques put the three together that we had a complete wine with a beginning, a middle and a finish. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, (an idea known since Aristotle though attributed to Gestalt) brought to life in Fronsac!
Controlling the Vigour of the Vine Naturally vs Corrective Action
Jean-Jacques believes that the vine’s vigour can be controlled naturally without the need to perform green harvests (where whole bunches are cut) or much deleafing. This can be done early on by effective pruning leaving only 6 buds, that is 6 bunches of grapes per vine.
It can also be controlled allowing grass (the grass which arrives naturally with its range of species) to grow beween the rows of vines as a sort of competition, casuing roots to go deeper and to soak up any excess water.
But treating the vine severely like this means that when nature deals an additional blow such as drought, coulure (aborting of berries such as this year) hail or frost, there is no buffer and yield falls. It is much easier to leave the excess on the vine and correct it at time of veraison by cutting bunches. It is a corrective action. Or to harvest too much and to bleed the vat and do a saignée.This does not take as much attention, less effort and more constant yields but produces a less interesting unique wine each year according to Jean-Jacques, a more standard wine. In addition the vine will compensate and the grapes will swell in size which will be more diluted. The wine becomes more of a technological wine, less terroir and nature based.
What pushes Bordeaux to its heights and makes it unique in the world are these natural limits which pushes the vine to express its unique self.
The Dilema of Harvest 2013
This year Jean-Jacques chose to harvest ripe grapes. That may appear a strange thing to say but there were not many producers who did so. With the rains and the risk of rot on the horizon there was a rush to harvest at the beginning of October, two weeks before the ideal ‘ripe’ harvest date. Jean-Jacques chose to wait knowing full well that his decision may cost him his crop. “I preferred to harvest ripe grapes and lose a lot and to make tiny quantity of a good wine than to make larger quantities of a wine made from unripe grapes. His team of local pickers (everything is picked by hand here due to the steepness of the slopes and the natural philisophy) started to pick when everyone else had finished around 12th October. There was not a lot to pick and even less when the workers had finished sorting. See below photo of the pickers on the hill below the Château.
Sticking to his beliefs
Jean-Jacques is pleased with the results, now just finished fermenting and its lengthy period on the skins, as usual six weeks double the usual time. This gives the wine enough time to nourish itself particularly from the decomposing yeast cells (autolysis as found in wines sur lie and champagne!) the manoproteins in the degarding cell walls of the yeast, serves to give the wine a certain silkiness and thickness (gras). These help to enrobe or coat the tannins. Jean-Jacques believes in giving the wine all the time it needs – not to precipate things.
Balance that comes down to a hair’s breadth
He believes that with lengthy ageing (not a lot of new oak is used) there is then no need to fine or filter. “Everything that we do to the wine, takes something away”, he says. “Just because we want to bottle quickly, we fine the wine with egg whites or similar. If we give the wine the time it needs, this fining or clarifying should not be necessary.With a long post-fermentation maceration, the tannins become coated and the wine tastes silky. Fining with egg whites can have the same effect taking out the biggest, often most agressive, tannin molécules that stick to the egg white molécules and fall to the bottom of the barrel to be removed. However using this method Jean-Jacques believes is detrimental. “When I blend my wine”, he explains, “a balance is created that comes down to a hair’s breadth. If at the end of the process I take something away, the balance is detroyed and the balance tips”.
Harvest 2013: the Moment of Pressing
It is now the time for the ‘ecoulage’ when the free-run wine is drained off and the skins, pips (the marc) is pressed to remove any wine (press wine). The dry ‘marc’ forms cakes of dry skins and pips which is collected for further pressing and distilled into industrial alchohol (this also serves as a payment of a tax, yes another one, to the French government).
It is the moment when you do the maths and realise what nature has really given you.There is not a lot of it this year, 6 hectolitres per hectare rather than 40 (in a good year) for Jean-Jacques. That is 34 hectolitres less per hectare, which if you do the maths is around 4500 bottles less per hectare to sell. Everyone produced less this year. But when your losses amount to such figures, it just shows you the degree of passion and belief of producers such as Jean-Jacques who do not have large corporations to fall back on.
It will be a rare vintage. But in the land of the small producer, prices do not go up accordingly. It will never sell as a ‘garage wine’. It just means that the cost of production will be very high per bottle. But this will be a problem in two years time when the wines have finished their ageing and are ready for sale. In the meantime there are other more pressing matters to deal with.
Jean-Jacques and Zita Dubois