The Wine News

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 Barrabaque
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 9
Encépagement: 80% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: B de Barrabaque
Barrabaque is a substantial château situated on the hill above Fronsac, overlooking the river Dordogne. Nicole Noël and her team produce a nicely substantial, sometimes slightly foursquare wine under the basic Barrabaque name. Rather better is the new, oaky Cuvée Prestige.

Château Canon-de-Brem
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 4.7
Encépagement: 65% merlot, 35% cabernet franc

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 Canon-Moueix
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 4.0
Encépagement: 90% merlot, 10% cabernet franc
Owned by the same J. P. Moueix of châteaux Canon-de-Brem and La Croix Canon, and with vineyards very near to the former, this is always one of the most refined and profound wines of the appellation, and it is usually priced accordingly.

Château de Carles
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 20
Encépagement: 65% merlot, 30% cabernet franc, 5% malbec
The château, situated in the commune of Saillans, is medieval in origin with round towers at either end. The wine is plump and attractive. The Chastenet de Castaing and Droulers families also produce an oaky tête de cuvée, Château Haut de Carles.

Château Cassagne-Haut-Canon
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 13
Encépagement: 70% merlot, 25% cabernet franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon
"Cassagne" is Old French for oak, and there are some venerable examples in the park of this attractive mid-19th century château. My experience of Jean-Jacques Dubois' wines rests entirely on the Cuvée La Truffière, in which there is 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and quite a bit more new wood. This is a sturdy wine with plenty of depth.

Château La Croix Canon (formerly Charlemagne)
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 14
Encépagement: 70% merlot, 25% cabernet franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: Château Bodet

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 Dalem
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 14.5
Encépagement: 85% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: Château La Longua
Michel Rullier's wine has for a long time been one of the most reliable Fronsacs. I have notes going back to 1971 when I first sampled (and bought) the 1970. The property lies in Saillans near Châteaux Villars and La Vieille Cure, equally consistent properties. Château Dalem is round and full of fruit. One-quarter of the casks are renewed each year. Château de la Huste, in the same commune, is another Rullier property.

Château Fontenil
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 8.5
Encépagement: 85% merlot, 15% cabernet franc
This is another Saillans property that belongs to local enologists and wine consultants Dany and Michel Rolland. Never a blockbuster, but always balanced and succulent, this is a Fronsac banker. One-third of the casks are renewed annually.

Château Mayne-Vieil
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 26, Fronsac; 14, Bordeaux
Encépagement: 90% merlot, 10% cabernet franc
Second Wine: Château Moire-Martin
This is the producer from whom I bought another 1970 Fronsac, a purchase that turned out to be highly satisfactory. It was later that I visited the Sèze family in its elegant, 1860 Chartreuse in Galgon, right at the northern limits of the appellation. Today there is a super cuvée known as Cuvée Aliénor – a delicious drink.

Château Mazeris
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 15
Encépagement: 85% merlot, 15% cabernet franc
One will find both Mazeris châteaux (see below) up on the slopes above Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, the vineyards facing west over the River Dordogne. Christian de Cournuaud's wine, like Château de Carles, is sold through merchants J. P. Moueix; this means they can call on the Moueix team for advice. The wine, refined and supple, is all the better as a result. La Part des Anges (the angels' share) is a cuvée made from vines 40 to 80 years old.

Château Mazeris-Bellevue
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 9.5
Encépagement: 45% merlot, 15% cabernet franc, 35% cabernet sauvignon, 5% malbec
Jacques Bussier makes quite a different wine from that of Christian de Cournuaud's. There is much more cabernet, and sauvignon at that, and more new wood. This is a Fronsac that needs time; proportionally better in the finer vintages.

Château Moulin-Haut-Laroque
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 15
Encépagement: 65% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 5% malbec
Second Wine: Château Hervé-Laroque
Jean-Noël Hervé's wine is another example of the strength in depth of the village of Saillans: once again wines of plump fruit, gently oaky (one-third new) and medium to medium-full body; a stylish wine for the medium term.

Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie
Appellation: Canon-Fronsac
Hectares: 6.7
Encépagement: 70% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 20% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: Château Moulin
The Hubau family, which also owns two other properties in the area (châteaux Haut-Lariveau and Combes-Canon) makes its best wine, indeed one of the appellation's top examples, here. A severe selection and one-third new oak produces a wine with more depth and concentration than most. (Moulin-Pey-Labrie should not be confused with its neighbor, Château Pey-Labrie.)

Château de la Rivière
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 53
Encépagement: 65% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 8% malbec
Second Wine: Prince de la Rivière
The large, much-turreted Château de la Rivière dominates the parishes of La Rivière and Saint-Germain, and would not look out of place in Disneyland. For a long time it was run by the mercurial, fiercely proud Jacques Borie, who used to embarrass his guests by serving his wine blind alongside First Growths. Borie sold out to Jean Leprince a few years ago. Rivière is a big wine that keeps well. Today the vineyard is machine-harvested, which is a pity as it makes a severe sorting-out of the best grapes almost impossible.

Château la Vieille Cure
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 19
Encépagement: 80% merlot; 15% cabernet franc; 5% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: Château Coutreau
Much money has been invested in the Saillans-based Château La Vieille Cure since it was taken over by a consortium of Americans in 1986. The improvement in quality is now clear to anyone who tries this charming, medium-bodied, fruity wine.

Château Villars
Appellation: Fronsac
Hectares: 29.5
Encépagement: 70% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon
Second Wine: Château Moulin-Haut-Villars
Jean-Claude Gaudrie's Château Villars is yet another estate in the commune of Saillans and is longer-established than most. The vines are old, the wine given one-third new oak, and the results are rich and substantial. Villars keeps well.

Contributing European Editor Clive Coates, M.W., is editor and publisher of The Vine and author of Grands Vins and Côte d'Or.