Monday, May 18, 2009

Chateau Figeac, 1st Grand Cru Classe B, St. Emilion

We were welcomed by Audrey, the PR director and discovered that we were part of a scheduled tour with two other couples. However I asked so many questions about clones, types of yeast, and fermentation temperatures that she fetched the enologist and the viticulturist to meet with us as well. Chateau Figeauc is unique in that it is one of the oldest chateau in St. Emilion, tracing its roots back to the 2nd century AD when a Roman gentleman named Figeacus lived there. It is also unique in that it uses more cabernet sauvignon in the blend than is normal in St. Emilion – thus earning them the title “the most Medoc of the St. Emilions.”

Audrey told us that St. Emilion has 5400 hectares of grapes and 1200 estates, and that Figeac has 40 hectares with only 30% planted to merlot. The remainder is cabernet sauvignon and cab franc. 23 employees work full-time at the estate, though the number swells during harvest. The vineyard manager said the vines were primarily planted on rootstocks of ripara, 101-14, 5B, and a few older cab francs on SO4. He mentioned that their cab franc is so special that they are trying to do a clonal selection to plant more vines like it for the future. Since they border Cheval Blanc, they have similar fine gravely soil with less limestone than other wineries closer to St. Emilion, such as Ausone. Vines are trained double guyot with 1.5 to 1.15 spacing. They average 40 hectoliters per hectare, though the difficult 2008 vintage only yielded 28 – a story that was repeated at every chateau we visited. In June they do a green harvest. Roots go 10-12 meters deep. They are trying to use less copper and sulfur and plan to phase out all weed killers by 2010.

While viewing the vineyard, Audrey told us a fascinating story that I had never heard about the roses at the end of the vines. She said that in the past when horses were used to plow, they often ran over the last vine when they turned the corner. To prevent this, old timers planted roses with thorns that would encourage the horse to skirt the bush with a wider berth in order not to be pricked by the thorns. This sounded like the most logical reason I’ve heard regarding the true origin of rose bushes at the end of vine rows – the most common being for aesthetics or because the rose will show disease issues, such as powdery mildew, before the grape vines. Audrey also told us another rather sordid legend she said was from the Medoc about a man killing his wife and lover, burying their bodies in the vineyard at the end of the row, and planting red roses to hide the bloodstains. Ugh! I prefer the other reasons.

Winemaking = Hand harvest; triage; destem and crush a little; ferment in large oak foudres 3 weeks total maceration with special wooden grid used for pump-over (specific to Figeac). They produce 120,000 bottles per year; age in 100% new French oak with 8 coopers, medium toast; ML in barrel; rack every 3 months. Top every 2 weeks in beginning, then once a month. Fine with egg whites in January. Blend in February and bottle in July. No filtering. The enologist said they do not use protective gases (e.g. nitrogen, argon) in the process and that total free SO2 is around 25.

We were only allowed to taste one wine here, but it was lovely – a 1998 Ch. Figeac selling at around $100E. Ruby red in color, it had a floral nose and palate of cedar, violets, and some minerality. I also thought it had a pleasing touch of bret that added to the complexity. Though over 10 years old, it tasted very fresh with lively acidity and a long finish. Very elegant. Audrey reminded us that the Right Bank often has different preferred vintages than the Left – and that 2001, 1998, and 1982 were better in St. Emilion than the Medoc.

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