Through the years with Château Figeac
Going back to 1949, but looking forward to new cellars
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
17 June 2018
Some of the best wine experiences I can recall involve older vintages of Château Figeac. Take for example a dinner in Saint Emilion that did not happen: hail destroyed table settings just as participants were enjoying magnums of Dom Perignon 1988. We were then guided quickly into the cellar and away from the storm, where cheese and bread were served with magnums of older Saint Emilion. Among the wines, Château Figeac 1961: easily one of the best wines I have ever enjoyed. Two other greats are 1959 and the 1950, both of which I drank with utmost pleasure in Saint Emilion on previous visits.
The origins of Château Figeac date back to the 2nd century AD, when the Figeacus family gave the estate its name. Fast forward to the 19thcentury, and it encompassed some 200 hectares (490 acres) having once included the vines of today’s Château Cheval Blanc. This history explains several other “Figeac” wines in Saint Emilion: they once were a part of the original estate.
The golden era of great 20thcentury vintages began with the Manoncourt family, which acquired the estate in 1892 and is still running it today. Thierry Manoncourt in particular invested in the potential of Figeac’s unique terroir just after the Second World War and had urged his mother to hold on to the estate. In 1947, after graduating as an agricultural engineer, he improved wine-growing techniques at the château. His scientific approach won him the reputation of a respected innovator. In 1955, the estate became a “First Great Classified Growth”. Indeed, Manoncourt gave birth to the “traditional” Figeac blend of 30% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Located on the western tip of Saint-Emilion, bordering Pomerol, the three gravel outcrops of Château Figeac form a platform on which the prestige of the wines have been built. There is more to the soils that just that, and they have outstanding potential, which explains the unique grape blend and balance of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can read more about the estate here.
Since his passing in 2010, Madame Manoncourt and her daughters have been ably supported by highly skilled wine-growing teams to guarantee the estate’s quality.
Recent changes have altered the traditional blend a bit, nonetheless. Ever since the Manoncourts appointed Michel Rolland in 2012 as consultant, the blend has been more flexibly interpreted, with some vintages having far more of one grape variety over another. 2017 is a case in point, although one that was forced: frost damage was not favorable to Cabernet Franc, so the blend includes nearly 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. Otherwise, the slight tweaking of the Manoncourt tradition has been for the most part just that: slight. The 2015, for example, blends 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc; the 2014 blends more Merlot (40%) with 32% Cabernet Sauvignon and 28% Cabernet Franc. While I found the 2014 to be a bit glossy à la Rolland, the 2015 is a wonderful vintage, as is the 2016.
In any case, the wines remain top notch. So it was wonderful to have participated in a dinner during en primeur week at Château Figeac with legends old and new. The great chef Michel Guerard prepared an amazing dinner which perfectly matched the wines.
New cellars, more precision
What was the occasion? Following recent restructuring of the vineyard with intra-plot vinifications now a requirement, Château de Figeac needs more space. The Manoncourt family along with Jean-Valmy Nicolas and the team managed by Frédéric Faye will get more precision in the vat room. Over a two-year period, the estate will increase the surface area for vinification from the current 1,600 m² to a whopping 5,000 m². In it worth noting that the vineyard surface area of Château Figeac has grown from 32 hectares to 40.5ha since 2015.
As participants were finishing up their Krug 2004 – a gorgeous Champagne by the way – they were guided to a diorama of what Château Figeac will look like by 2020. The estate will see for example the creation of two underground floors (12 metres deep) to take advantage of the hillside relief and enable smooth regulation of temperature ; conversion of the Renaissance cellar into a tasting room for wine professionals and a tasting room for visitors with a view on the estate and the opening-out of renovated and extended reception areas onto the vineyard and courtyard. The new winery buildings have been designed in a process of High Environmental Quality (HQE).
So we should be expecting more precision winemaking, which should lead to better wines. Technical installations include the following:
- 1 vat room made up of 8 oak vats and 40 stainless steel tanks, partially underground /
vs 10 wooden vats and 16 stainless steel vats today ;
- 1 vat room reserved for research and development :
- 2 large underground barrel cellars with naturally stable temperature ;
- 1 area underground for the packaging process ;
- 1 underground bottle cellar ;
- 1 cold room to keep the freshly-harvested grapes with a capacity of 20 tons of berries to
get a better fruit extraction.
The new vinification process will be entirely gravity-flow until the wine reaches the barrels. Intra-plot vinification will be enhanced with tronconical stainless steel vats of different sizes (from 125hl to 10 hl).
Many thanks to the entire team at Château Figeac for a most memorable dining experience on 11 April this year. After enjoying the Krug 2004 and viewing the diorama of new installations, we were seated along long tables in a gorgeous setting. We had no less than seven vintages of Château Figeac, and, as each was served, the vintage was shown with lights on the walls. Kudos to the great chef Michel Guerard of Les Pres d’Eugenie, who is so often called upon by Bordeaux estates to prepare dinner.
His cuisine was, as ever, top notch, and one of his signature dishes – the Oreiller Moelleux de Mousserons et de Morilles – perhaps shined brightest. More on that below, along with wine tasting notes … Needless to say, the closing of my short video – below – from this dinner shows Michel Guerard receiving justified applause just before hugging Madame Manoncourt.
Château Figeac 2009: It certainly needs air, even if it had been decanted prior to the dinner. About one hour into dinner, in glass, it developed deeper fruit expressions and was bright as well, always youthful. The tannin was still prominent, but the wine exhibited lovely grip, while the mid palate had a certain 2009 creaminess that appealed. Over time it actually gains in density- although that could be because I went back to it, after having tasted the older vintages later in the dinner. An excellent Figeac, still primary. No need to rush. Going back on my notes, I recall not liking it too much en primeur, liking it more when tasted from bottle during a UGCB tour in Moscow, and then even more over dinner with Eric d’Aramon, who was then director of the estate, in Washington D.C. The first course of soft boiled egg with truffles and a consommé of vegetable matched it rather well: this was the youngest vintage of the dinner.
Château Figeac 1990: This has some champignon and wet earth aromatics but also a core of fruit that’s more prominent on the palate, which is brighter than what the nose suggests. The intensity of the aromas do fade a bit with time in glass. The palate also exudes endearing dark chocolate sweetness, but I believe that at least the bottle we had lacked the vigor of the 1998, leading me to think that this wine is on a faster evolutionary track than the 1998… It is important to note that the 1990 was served from a six-liter Imperial bottle, so evolution here is certainly slower than if you crack open a 1990 from a regular sized bottle. Based on this experience, I would not hesitate with your 1990 Figeac.
Château Figeac 1998: Also served from a six-liter Imperial sized bottle, this vintage was just gorgeous. The aromatic complexity included new leather, herbs, basil, black olive as well as baked dark berry fruit. There is excellent sap to the mid palate, and a nuanced texture. Much vibrancy and youth to this wine even if you have increasing perfumed like aromatic complexity that puts this squarely in a very pleasing – if still early – drinking window.
In terms of food pairing, this was more symphonic that the first course: Here we enjoyed the famous signature dish since 1979: Oreiller Moelleux de Mousserons et de Morilles. Homemade ravioli served in a creamy emulsion with a variety of mushrooms (including delectable morilles), green asparagus, truffle shavings and chervil. The earthy tones of the 1990 matched the dish well, but the more youthful vigor of the 1998 also stood up well to its creamy rich aspects. Just delicious! I could have stopped just here.
Château Figeac 1970: This wine just got better and better in glass! Served from a 4.5-liter Jeroboam bottle, it was poised, ripe and vibrant. I loved the acidity here. There is grip along with such lovely (fresh) earth expressions. Over time, sweet herb, bacon, and jus de viande, which proved a perfect match for Michel Guerard’s next serving … See below ?
Château Figeac 1982: Opens up as it was a bit cold (and closed) at first. This was served from a larger, Imperial sized bottle, so not surprising that it may be on a slower evolutionary track. But then a cornucopia of floral, thyme, herbal, baked fruit, oregano and other spices intrigue the taster. The palate is full, yet layered, and fresh with herbs de Provence. It gets better in glass. Sweet herbs. Now, as with any older vintages, people reported bottle variation, but our group at the long table certainly got a damned good 1982.
In terms of food pairing, I could not get enough of the succulent duck surrounded by its pie-like crust, cooked to perfection. Served with pear, which lent it a certain refreshing note, this Tourte Chaude de Canard à Peine Sauvage à la Royale. Both wines went well with this dish, although the 1970, with a more pronounced earthiness, did better.
Château Figeac 1949: Our bottle – again there was bottle variation – started out amazing, but the volatility at first just a bit noticeable became more pronounced as time went on. Fellow taster and friend Miguel Lecuona was just in awe beckoning me to smell his glass as well as my own! Served from large format Jeroboam bottles, our wine revealed complex aromas including savory umami soy, baked dark cherry and truffle juice.
The texture was refined albeit with just a hint of thinning on to the finish, but what the hell! This wine was nearly 70 years old. The volatile acidity got more pronounced over time in glass, as said. But there was this amazing feeling that you are drinking a fine wine that was harvested but four years after the end of World War II.
As one can say: wine is the only time machine that works. A great experience indeed. As for the food pairing? I do not recall ever seeing such a large Brie de Meaux, all covered with truffle shavings. Any diets went out the window that evening…
The Château de Fargues 2007 was almost an after thought, but it was delicious to be sure, and paired very well with the homemade verveine ice cream and red fruits along with a crunchy gaufrette.