By Nicolle Croft First published in Gilbert & Gaillard International magazine
Once upon a time there was a beautiful land of castles and forests where two deep rivers wound their way through hillsides of grape-clad vines that made wine fit for kings.
Today few have even heard of Fronsac, which through history was so revered, and it is perceived as old fashioned compared to its glamorous neighbours of Pomerol and St Emilion. But a recent dynamism led by a band of new investors is taking hold in some areas of this ancient beautiful wine region which is being helped by wine tourism from nearby Bordeaux. Wine connoisseurs are turning to this region and finding its good value ‘hidden gems’.
Fronsac Landscape, Bordeaux’s most beautiful
Fronsac lies on the ‘Right Bank’ of Bordeaux’s wine region, ten minutes’ drive from Pomerol and 20 minutes from St Emilion. The Right bank of the Dordogne River forms its southern boundary and its Eastern boundary is the meandering Isle River. It is undeniably one of Bordeaux’s most beautiful wine regions with its green valleys, fairytale castles, panoramic views over vine-covered hills of its beautiful rivers. One never knows what view lies around the next corner. Its landscape was shaped by its two rivers the Isle and Dordogne which join together in the market town of Libourne and give the region its plateaus and slopes and its rich mix of soils. There are many underground springs that feed the area with water. Many vineyards are not far from the rivers and their positive effects of tempering the heat of the summer and reducing risk of frost in the winter. The grapes ripen gently and slowly over a long growing season in the temperate climate. The limestone plateau, that made the region of St Emilion so famous, continues westwards to the neighbouring wine region of Fronsac, cut by the River Isle just past Libourne before it rises up again to form Fronsac’s hilly landscape. Fronsac has three ‘tertres’ the highest, ‘le tertre du fronsac’, a tree-covered hillock can be seen from many miles around and is the site of an ancient defensive castle since the times of Charlemagne in the 8th century. It is ironic that it is the region’s close proximity to such famous appellations of St Emilion and Pomerol and more importantly in in terms of its ‘terroir’, that has proved to be its downfall in recent times.
Fronsac Soils common to neighbouring St Emilion
Referred to as the “the historical cradle of the great Bordeaux and Libourne wines” by the prominent geologist Professor Henri Enjalbert, the ‘terroir’ of Fronsac has been long recognized as being amongst the best in Bordeaux for quality wine making. It even has given its name to a soil that grows some of the region’s most expensive grapes! The soils on the slopes are made up from the ancient ‘molasses of Fronsadais’ a well-drained clay, chalk and sand mix that is common to many of St Emilion’s top properties (Pavie, Ausone, Bel Air, Beausejour, Canon). This ancient soil was laid down over 60 million years ago. The top of the slopes are made of limestone (often over ten metres thick) originating from the days when the entire Bordeaux area was a large tropical sea. The ‘asteries’ limestone, identical to St Emilion’s, is in fact crushed fossilized shells and marine organisms. It acts as a sponge feeding the vines just the correct amount of water.
Merlot, the Queen of the Grapes in Fronsac
Rather like St Emilion, mostly Merlot (78%) is grown in the appellation with Cabernet Franc making up most blends (13%). Some Cabernet Sauvignon (7%) is grown in warmer plots and a touch of Malbec (2%). With its many different aspects and mix of soils even on one property (such diverse plants as Banana trees can be found in warm pockets and wild strawberries in the woods) the perfect vineyard location can be selected for the different grape varieties grown here and their different growing needs.
Jean-Jacques Dubois at Château Canon Haut Cassagne grows three grape varieties in his 12 hectare vineyard which covers each side of a high hill. He chooses the ideal spot (soil and aspect) for the different grape varieties for his ‘La Truffière’ wine.
He blends Merlot (which provides the attack on the palate), Cabernet Franc (provides the middle of the palate) and Cabernet Sauvignon (which lengthens the wine creating a long spherical finish) creating the special cuvée of ‘La Truffière’. The Green Oak trees in the garden of his Château, an old hunting pavilion of Richelieu set in a panoramic location, produce truffles and impart, some say an exotic perfume to this wine. Jean-Jacques, a trained oenologist, explains that the fatty layer that holds the natural yeasts on the surface of the grape (the ‘pruine’ in French) can absorb aromas from its environment. He plans to create a new wine which he will name after the wild orchids that grow naturally in the biodiversity that he encourages in his vineyards. So how with so much going for it, did the wine region of Fronsac lose its Way? Fronsac wines have developed a reputation of wines that are powerful, rustic and only can be enjoyed after many years of ageing. Unfashionable, they are considered the poor cousin of the glamorous wines of St Emilion and Pomerol nearby. In fact merchants used to bolster the lighter St Emilion wines in the past with the more powerful Fronsac wines.
Unwanted Competition & Lack of Communication
If you talk to any Fronsac producer, they all have a list of reasons as to the demise of Fronsac. The main reason given is that the fame of their near-neighbours, St Emilion and Pomerol. As Stéphanie Barousse of Château La Dauphine states ‘In the past they did not only steal the limelight but put this appellation firmly in the shadows and one could say right off the stage’
The wines were traditionally all sold through the wine merchants of Libourne and they preferred to promote the more expensive St Emilion and Pomerol wines where they made more margin than promote wines from Fronsac that only served to reduce prices due to the added competition from such similar style wines. When the large appellation of St Emilion in 1955 established its own classification system (100 years after the famous 1855 classification of the Medoc) it stepped on the acceleration leaving even further behind the appellation of Fronsac. The 150 wine producers in Fronsac have never been sufficiently united to achieve such an agreement, more focused on the more internal matters of the differences between the region’s sister appellations, Canon-Fronsac and Fronsac. A member of a dynamic grouping of many of the leading properties in Fronsac ‘Expression of Fronsac’ (www.expressionfronsac.com), Pierre Rebaud of Château Gaby calls for the unification of the two appellations. ‘We need to present a clear message to the consumer of what Fronsac is. While St Emilion was proactive in marketing and communication over the years, Fronsac has lacked a clear communication to the trade and the world’s consumers and fallen into the shadows. Stéphanie Barousse of Château La Dauphine agrees, ‘There are good wines in both appellations. It is geographical not based on quality. At La Dauphine some of the vineyards lie in Canon-Fronsac. We have chosen to call them all Fronsac rather than create two separate wines keeping it as clear as possible for the consumer.’
Two Appellations in one area which causes Confusion
The 1000 or so hectares are in fact divided into two distinct appellations: Canon Fronsac (250 ha) which lies mostly on the high limestone plateau of the region which lies to its south (named after the canons used here by the English during the 100 years’ War) and the larger area of Fronsac (800 ha). Each appellation has its own rules to abide by. Although the land prices are higher on the attractive hills and plateau of Canon-Fronsac, the price of the wines (in bulk at 1600€ per hectoliter which worryingly only equates to a generic red Bordeaux) and the quality are similar. At the end of 19th century Fronsac’s Reputation was linked with less qualitative wines from the fertile river banks The ravaging of the French vineyards by the phylloxera vastatrix (an aphid-like insect that fed on the roots and cut the absorption of nutrients and water to the plant) in the 1860s destroyed the vineyards of Fronsac, as 40% of the vineyards in France. One of the solutions found initially was to submerge the vineyards situated on the banks of the River with water and literally ‘drown the culprit’. This meant that it was only the vineyards on the fertile river-banks (the ‘palus’) that survived not the more qualitative vineyards located on the slopes. This lesser quality wine was the only Fronsac available for over a period of 20 years during the late 19th century whilst the lengthy ‘reconstitution’ of the vineyards on the slopes and plateau took place.
Difficult Access To get to Fronsac there are two rivers to cross and in the past the roads beside the rivers were prone to flooding. Even today there is only one bridge that crosses the Dordogne which is difficult to locate in the one way road system along the quays in Libourne.
The Future of Fronsac Most of the wine properties in Fronsac are small (the average is only 7 hectares) and it suffers like many of the other less known appellations in Bordeaux (there are over 8000 in total). A recent spate of small vintages ending in the disastrous 2013 did not help, family domains are going bankrupt and being bought out. But over the last ten to fifteen years there has been a certain dynamism in the region with investment in ultra-modern wineries and a turn to biodynamic wine production. Outside investors have come into the region, fallen in love with the properties and invested heavily renovating the châteaux and bringing the wineries ‘bang up-to-date’. An established British wine merchant and member of the Brotherhood of ‘Les gentilshommes de Fronsac’ Hamish Wakes-Miller says ‘there is a reason why someone like the famous flying winemaker Michel Rolland would choose Fronsac to have his family château at Fontenil; They found one of the hidden gems of the region. Another is Château La Rivière, the region’s most impressive château which makes an excellent wine. There are many to be discovered that represent cracking good value for money.’ The chateau was recently purchased by the chinese group Brilliant. There are plans underway to build a luxury hotel and restaurant. The company produce a high end tea ‘Pu’Er’ and Director Madame Lau has plans to make the most of the beautiful location (one can see the setting sun behind the Dordogne River from its terrace) with tea ceremonies and winetasting events. Others have been attracted to the region over the past few years. The now famous winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt first arrived in Fronsac in 1982. He always felt there was potential in the region. Since 2001 he has been winemaking consultant at Château La Rousselle. In 1999 the Jean family purchased Chateau de la Chadenne investing money made in industry into the winemaking facilities. In 2000 business man (owner of the family business Picard) and owner of Mas Amiel in Languedoc Roussillon, Olivier Decelle purchased Haut Ballet in St Michel de Fronsac. In 2000 business man Jean Halley fell in love with Château La Dauphine its avenue of Parasol Pine Trees and its elegant 18th century château which overlooks the Dordogne River. Today it is one of the most recognised wines of Fronsac. His son Guillaume lives in a wing of the château and welcomes visitors to enjoy special dinners in the beautiful surroundings. More recently Canadian David Curl took over at Château Gaby renovating the facilities and making it a wonderful place to visit for wine tourists.
Wine Tourism is important in Fronsac Wine tourism plays an important role in the region. Fronsac is one of the closest and most beautiful wine region to Bordeaux and unlike the more famous regions, you get to often meet the owner or winemaker and taste the wines face-to-face with them. There are plans to set up a Fronsac Wine Route and more clear signing from Libourne. There are many ideas but with only 150 producers contributing marketing budgets are limited. Clever social media marketing helps. ‘It really works’, says Stéphanie Barousse of Château La Dauphine, ‘to get customers to visit us. Once they come here, they love the place and the wines.’ Fronsac wines are well-made and offer exceptional value for money. These dynamic, pioneering and hard-working new owners are leading the way in Fronsac and slowly the wine consumer’s judgements are changing. Pierre Rebaud of Château Gaby remains confident ‘We have all that we need in Fronsac and more. We are working hard to catch up on the delay we suffered in the past. We can use our proximity to St Emilion to our advantage particularly now that many of their prices have escalated there to such an extent.’ So the end of the Fronsac fairy story may well be a happy one.
The Best Properties in Fronsac
Château La Dauphine Owner : Jean Halley Location: Fronsac Grape Varieties : 90% Merlot – 10 % Cabernet franc Size : 40 hectares Website: www.chateau-dauphine.com Wines : Château de La Dauphine & Delphis de La Dauphine Maison du Vin de Fronsac
Château Gaby Owner : David Curl Location: Fronsac Grape Varieties : 85 % Merlot – 10 % Cabernet sauvignon -5 % Cabernet franc Size : 16 hectares Website: www.chateau-dugaby.com
The Best Properties in Fronsac Château Moulin Haut Laroque Château Barrabaque Château Cassagne Haut Canon Château Dalem Château Villars Château Moulin Pey Labrie Château Haut Carles Château De la Rivière Château La Vielle Cure Château Belloy Château Fontenil Château La Dauphine Château Chadenne Château Les Trois Croix Château Gaby Château La Rousselle Cru du Monge
FRONSAC FACTS & FIGURES
Hectares of Vineyards: AOC Fronsac: 807 hectares AOC Canon Fronsac: 258 hectares Total: 1065 hectares Over 7 village communes (St Aignan, La Rivière, St Michel de Fronsac, Saillans, Fronsac, St Germaine de la Rivière, part of Galgon) Average Production: 45,500 hectolitres Number of Producers: 147 producers (29 sell their grapes to the local Cooperative in Lugon) Average size of Vineyard: 7 hectares Grape Varieties in the Vineyards: Merlot (78%) Cabernet Franc (13%), Cabernet Sauvignon (7%), Malbec (2%)
Key Dates in Fronsac’s History
1st Century: A Gaul market was developed at the junction of fluvial routes in Fronsac and a Roman altar and defensive fort was constructed on the highest point, the ‘tertre’ of Fronsac. 56 AD: Latin poet Ausonius writes of the region of St Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac as one of the greatest Gallo-Roman cradles of wine production in Bordeaux. He had a villa on the plateau of St Emilion near to the site of Château Ausone today. 769 AD: building of a defensive fortress by Charlemagne on the high ‘tertre’ of Fronsac (‘Fronciacus’ the camp of the Francs). It was Charlemagne who was said to have developed here the use of barrels encircled with the metal hoops for the transport of wine. 8th Century: Fronsac was located on one of the most frequented axis of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestella bringing wealth to the region. Château Lariveau is an ancient hostel from these times 9th Century: A château replaces the fort on the ‘tertre’. 1152: Eleanor of Aquitaine brings the southwest of France as her dowry on marrying Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and two years later the entire West side of France passes into the hands of the English king as Henry becomes King Henry II of England. Britain provides a good market for the wines of Bordeaux including Fronsac during 300 years. The light coloured wine from Bordeaux was known as ‘claret’. 1269: Creation of the harbour of Libourne and bastide town by British Roger Leyburn which opened the routes. 1453: The end of the long bloody so-called Hundred Years’ War at Castillon (near St Emilion) between the French and English, with France regaining the territory of the entire West of France. Until the mid 1600s (end reign of Louis XIII) a large castle existed in the ‘tertre’ covering the whole hilltop. 1663: the Duke of Richelieu took possession of the Duchy of Fronsac for his family. On the wreck of the fortress his great nephew, Marshal Armand de Plessis, Duke of Richelieu had a folly built here for extravagant parties. Fronsac wines were very fashionable in the courts of Versaille and are known as the ‘herbal tea of Richelieu’. 18th Century: 1750: Surge in demand from the Dutch and English markets lead to significant vineyard expansion. Three notables from Fronsac (Sirs Lafon, Boyer and Mathieu) start a revolution by transforming their estates into small-scale crus with the development of châteaux wines as we know them today with single estate bottlings and brand recognition. Fronsac sells for higher prices than Pomerol and St Emilion. 1860: insect phylloxera ravages the vineyards in the whole of France (and beyond) destroying the vines by eating the roots. Only the vines planted on the lower quality fertile ‘palus’ next to the river survive due to a drowning of the insect by letting the river invade the vineyards. Fronsac develops a bad reputation. 1937: appellation of Fronsac was created 1939: appellation of Canon-Fronsac created 1969: creation of the Brotherhood of ‘Les gentilshommes de Fronsac’ for a group of 20 wine producers (both men and women) from both appellations that promote the region dresses in their historic red robes with blue lapels and wearing the medal of the Marshal of Richelieu, Duke of Fronsac. They celebrate the harvest festival, the ‘Gerbaude’ on the third Sunday of October. 1988: Creation of ‘L’Expression of Fronsac’ bringing together 15 key properties in Canon and Fronsac. http://www.expressionfronsac.com
VISITING FRONSAC Where to Stay in Fronsac Château la Riviére Château Richelieu Le Bassin de Tertre Petit Garros Château La Closerie du Fronsac Where to Eat in Fronsac Chez Carles, La Rivière La Bonne Fourchette (Chez Gaby), Fronsac Bord’Eau, L’Oiseau Chez Servais, Libourne Not to miss: Fronsac’s Open Doors (Portes Ouvertes) is the last weekend in October. Around 25 properties open their cellar doors for tastings and visits including horse and cart rides through the vineyards and local specialities to sample. See the cart horses ploughing the vineyards (Cheval des Vignes is based in Fronsac). Maison du Vin de Fronsac: displays over 20 of the region’s wines which are available to purchase. Tasting available. Loctaed in the centreof Fronsac. Libourne: a bustling bastide market town founded by Sir Roger Leyburn in the middle ages with more medieval monuments than Bordeaux including La Veille Tour on the banks of the Dordogne.