Photo: Phillippe Roy
Fronsac: A Modern Renaissance
Yields Wines of Fruit, Character and Charm
By Clive Coates, M.W.
Surrounding Pomerol and Saint-Emilion and the town of Libourne, 40 miles east of Bordeaux, are the Libourne satellites Lalande-de-Pomerol, various Saint-Emilion neighbors such as Montagne-Saint-Emilion, and Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac. Of all these, the two Fronsacs west of the town of Libourne, across the River L'Isle, offer the most interest and the best value. As a wine merchant in the 1970s and early '80s, I bought buckets. With their combination of soft merlot fruits and cabernet backbone, they offered the best value at the cheaper end of my Bordeaux list that I could find. They still do.
Two centuries ago, Fronsac's leading wines were the stars of the Libournais. References to "Canon" denoted Fronsac's most famous wine owned then by the Fontemoing family, and not the Saint-Emilion premier cru. Indeed, the very first Bordeaux wine to appear in a Christie's catalog in 1780 refers to "a hogshead of Canon Claret." This can only be the Fronsac wine, for what is now the estate in Saint-Emilion was known as the Domaine de Saint-Martin until 1857.
The rise in fame of Saint-Emilion wines in the mid-19th century and those of Pomerol somewhat later was paralleled by a decline in the prestige of Fronsac. By the end of the century, a good Fronsac wine could fetch between 500 and 1,000 francs per tonneau (100 12-bottle cases), roughly equivalent to a Pomerol satellite or Saint-Emilion grand cru, but by the 1950s the price was little more than that of Bordeaux Supérieur. Most wines were sold in bulk to the négociants, standards were poor and the wine rustic. It was not until after the frost disaster of 1956 when Fronsac, because of its elevated geographic position, was affected least of all the Libournais wine areas, but still severely enough that an organized effort to improve standards and promote the wines was made.
Of all the non-classic areas of Bordeaux outside the districts of Haut-Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol Fronsac offers wines with the most definition, the most personality. The wines have fruit, character and charm, and are increasingly well made. Today a good Fronsac wine will usually cost less than a Médoc cru bourgeois or a Saint-Emilion grand cru classé, and is normally a better wine. So the area has value for money, too, on its side. This is an exciting part of Bordeaux. There has been considerable investment in the area of late and the wines deserve to be better known.
Fronsac lies west of Pomerol, across the River L'Isle, a tributary of the Dordogne, which it joins at Libourne. Viewed from the river or from the opposite bank in the Entre-Deux-Mers, one can see the land rising sharply. On this limestone bluff, the Tertre de Fronsac, and on the land behind it, descending gradually toward the village of Galgon, are the Fronsac vineyards. The Fronsac plateau dominates a bend in the Dordogne and the surrounding countryside. More than twelve centuries ago, the Emperor Charlemagne commanded a fortress to be built to control the neighboring area and to defend the Libournais against marauding pirates. The site was known as Fransiacus.
In 1623, the fortified castle, which had evolved from Charlemagne's stockade, was razed. Ten years later, the great Cardinal de Richelieu bought the land and the title of Duke of Fronsac for the children of his younger sister.
In the Fronsac area there are many elegant, 18th- and early 19th-century edifices. The countryside is idyllic with carefully tended vineyards interspersed with woodland and smaller, more formal parks surrounding the larger mansions. The views from the higher ground across to the Entre-Deux-Mers and along the Dordogne in both directions are well worth a detour.
In recent years, real progress has been made both in the vineyards and in the cellars. Comparisons of the comprehensive tastings I have undertaken since the mid-1970s show more and more establishments vinifying under controlled conditions, investing in new oak casks and producing wine with which to be reckoned.
Fronsac's modern renaissance was set in motion in the 1970s when imaginative, wine-minded real estate investors began staking claims in the area.
The company of Jean-Pierre (J. P.) Moueix, established in Libourne, has long been a source of good Fronsac wines. It is now the owner of several estates, as are the d'Arfeuilles, négociants and owners of Château La Pointe in Pomerol. As well as Moueix, other Libournais merchants, such as Horeau-Beylot, Janoueix, Armand Moueix and René Germain, are also owners or farmers of wine estates in the Fronsac area.
Fronsac's small population of négociants, growers and vintners live in an area that's about the same size as Pomerol and consists of two appellations spread over six communes. The better of the two appellations, in theory if not necessarily in practice, is Canon-Fronsac, formerly known as Côtes Canon-Fronsac, and comes from the two communes of Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac and Fronsac itself. Surrounding Canon-Fronsac and producing about two-and-a-half times as much wine is the plain Fronsac appellation contrôlée which, until 1976, was known as Côtes de Fronsac. This appellation covers a portion of the commune of Fronsac, plus La Rivière, Saint-Germain-La-Rivière, Saint-Aignan, Saillans and part of Galgon. The soil is clayey-limestone, with some sand on the lower-lying land nearest to the Dordogne, on a limestone base, the Molasses de Frondasais. Like Saint-Emilion, the area is honeycombed with quarries and man-made caves, many of which are now used for the cultivation of mushrooms.
Where Fronsac differs from the rest of the lesser Libournais wines is in its encépagement. While the remainder of the region concentrates on merlot with cabernet franc, or bouchet, as an important subsidiary grape, and malbec, or pressac, as it is known locally, as a minor partner, Fronsac wines possess less merlot and plenty of cabernet franc in their mix, and many have cabernet sauvignon, too; though growers, as in Saint-Emilion, consider the former superior for their terrain. This sturdy blend of grapes gives the wine more backbone and a better acidity than the satellite Saint-Emilions, as well as more masculine richness and longer life.
The Leading Properties
Château Canon-de-Brem lies on the main road between Fronsac and Saint-Michel with its vineyard on the slopes in front of it. What lies on the flat land running down to the river is the vineyard of Château de la Dauphine (A.C. Fronsac). In old editions of Cocks and Féret, the frontage of the elegant, Empire-style château illustrated Canon-de-Brem, the rear façade La Dauphine. The property is owned by J. P. Moueix and makes a rich, generous wine, one of the appellation's best.
Château de Carles
Château La Croix Canon (formerly Charlemagne)
Château La Croix Canon is potentially the best of the J. P. Moueix lot, the vineyard being splendidly situated in a little amphitheater above the River Dordogne. This is a rich, generous, abundantly fruity, very classy wine.
Château de la Rivière
Château la Vieille Cure
Contributing European Editor Clive Coates, M.W., is editor and publisher of The Vine and author of Grands Vins and Côte d'Or.