Not far from St Emilion, one of the France’s most well-known wine villages, lies a simple family winery that has withstood the test of time.
Leaving the village and passing infront of the prestigious classified Château Pavie, then Larcis Ducass and Bellefont Belcier, take the next on the right at the crossroads – its the plain brick building, otherwise known by the locals as Château Béard la Chapelle. Don’t even try and find it yourself, it has no name on it.
Franck Moureau, 9th generation Bordeaux vigneron in St Laurent des Combes, is the winemaker here. He is one of Bordeaux SIPs, Small Independent Producers, the ones with soil on their shoes. It is here, like in many non-descript buildings across Bordeaux that some of its finest, most authentic wines are made.
Bordeaux, more well-known for its 200 or so Grand Cru Classé whose châteaux are majestic (their prices too) sold uniquely by the busy industrious 300 or so wine merchants of Bordeaux (les négociants) is also home to 7000 or so other smaller producers in Bordeaux making great smooth, structured yet fruity elegant wine for around 20€ a bottle.
Some like Franck have similar terroir as their illustrious neighbours. Over the hundreds of years of history they never built up the prestige or the renown of their wine selling intially to the cooperative and then to a single wine merchant. Its perhaps just a question of marketing – and that’s where we come back to the reason why there is no name on the front of the building.
When making wine in Bordeaux, it is said that you need three heads. One for the barrels in the cellar for last year’s wine. One for the wine just finished fermenting in the vats and one to oversee the vines for the next vintage to come. These smaller producers certainly have their hands full. They are totally hands-on knowing each plot of vines and the effect of each vintage on them intimately. (In the bigger châteaux these roles are usually separated out. You lose then the instinctive feeling that these smaller producers build up inately during the vine’s annual cycle.)
In addition, these busy guys (and gals) have to sell the wine they produce. The region’s specialist wine sellers, the négotiants of Bordeaux, are not interested in these wines in the main part. Neither do they benefit from the pre release sales of their wine in barrel (the futures) reserved only for the top classified wines. Many of these authentic wines made by real people with passion never make it out of France. It seems that the professional wine buyers of the world seem to prefer to deal with one wine merchant than a number of wine producers direct. The world is missing out on some of Bordeaux’s best natural treasures that sell for 15 to 20€ a bottle.
These SIP producers are so busy in the production of the grapes and wine that sales and marketing are often thought about at the end of a long day. Franck is lucky, the appellation of St Emilion’s image is sexy and well recognised around the world. Today without a clear brand image though, you can easily get lost in the sea of offers. The competition is fierce. Even on the doorstep. St Emilion is known as the ‘hillside of a 1000 châteaux’.
Franck’s château (for this is what this building is as the wine is made uniquely from his vineyard’s grapes) will never be a Grand Cru Classé like the ones on the way to St Emilion. Since 2012 the wine in the St Emilion classification only counts for a part of the points to become classified. It does not matter that his terroir is next to some of St Emilion’s finest or that he makes a wine pure of fresh fruit that has a perfume of roses. These winemakers are in touch with their vines and see the process through from the first bud to the last drop into the bottle. They are instinctive, making decisions by feeling. Yes they have the technology too and do most of what the big boys do. They have to run a tight ship ready for the vagaries of the Bordeaux maritime climate. (Global warming seems to be helping ripening 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 all are very good vintages though frost and hail are more frequent).
Many SIP producers are being bought out by companies or luxury brands. The small families producers days are numbered.
Being so close to the vines, they make their wine naturally caring for the soil that their ancesters tended before them with horse and oxen.
2019 is Franck’s 12th vintage having taken over from his father before him. Consumers who have so enjoyed Château Béard la Chapelle at home, are beginning to ask to come to see the cellar and the vines St Emilion. Or in some well-known Michelin starred restaurants in Paris like Guy Savoy or l’Arpège (its even been served in the Matignon!). They dont mind the u turns and manouvres to find this special château that does not have a name on its building but that lies on the main crossroads in St Laurent des Combes (remember just take a right). They love to see the behind the scenes of a smaller passionate producer. They love to hear from Franck about how naturally the wine is made without added yeasts or sulphites durng the winemaking. He is so busy growing the grapes and making the wine that he has not the time to communicate this important information via the website or social media….
Perhaps its time for a sign on the Château, Franck.
Château Béard la Chapelle, St Emilion Grand Cru
St Laurent des Combes – plots near to Tertre Roteboeuf. Premiers Larcis Ducass and Troplong not far away.
*old vine Merlot 90% and Cabernet Franc (average 60 years)
*complexity 40 different plots of vines in different terroir from limestone côtes and pied de côtes to deep sands
*conversion to organic and biodynamic
*no sulphites used during reception or fermentation
*natural indigenous yeasts and natural malolactic fermentation
*minimal racking to preserve fruit
*no fining or filtering
*part aged in cement, one third new oak
*10th generation winemaker in the making