Friday Focus; Fronsac, Bordeaux
This week we head to one of the lesser-known regions of the wine-producing behemoth that is the Bordeaux region of France. Just a few miles west of the better known (and more expensive!) region of St Emilion and literally across the road from the tiny but mighty Pomerol region sits the appellation of Fronsac. Within these borders resides the even smaller and less-well known Canon-Fronsac sub-appellation. Fronsac is quite a fair way away from the more famous ‘Left Bank’ regions we all know and love such as Margaux, Pauillac, Graves and Sauternes- if you follow the Gironde river from its mouth at the Bay of Biscay downstream, you must sail many miles and several name changes before you reach the shores of Fronsac. Where the Gironde splits, we take the eastern fork where the river becomes the Dore. Following the winding river for around 35km we find the banks of the river come closer and closer together as they approach the city of Libourne. Just before this the river splits and becomes the Isle, and on the northern shore of the narrow hairpin turn of the river sits Fronsac. This is a region with a rich cultural heritage, with a roman temple dating back centuries located within its boundaries, as well as a fortress built by the famous Gallic conqueror Charlemagne, who is supposed to have taken a particular liking to the wines of the region. This fort was turned into a ‘luxury spa’ in the mid 17th century by the Duc de Richelieu, where he entertained the rich and famous of France, serving them the local fare and wine.
In a way, this isolated location is part of the reason why today the ‘Right Bank’ wine regions (perhaps with the exception of Pomerol and St Emilion, although those have only really had international fame in the past few decades) have never reached the levels of acclaim as their ‘Left Bank’ counterparts; the left bank was very easy to access from the ocean, and barrels and pallets of wine could be easily loaded onto boats and shipped the world over, spreading the fame and renown of the wines. Getting to the right bank further down the Gironde estuary was a challenge for trade vessels, as the rivers became smaller and more difficult to navigate. So, regions like Fronsac missed out on the 1855 classification of Growths and the resulting fame and fortune. It also doesn’t help that the region is quite small; all up between Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac there are about 1000 hectares of vines- well, small for Bordeaux at least! The final possible reason for the lack of fame in this region is the mix of grape varieties used- which I will get to in a minute.
In the past it was said the Canon-Fronsac produced fine and more elegant wines, however today with the constant improvements in technology in the vineyard and winery, in all honesty the wines are very similar. Canon-Fronsac is located in the dead-centre of the larger Fronsac region and right down by the water, however soil types, grape varieties and winemaking are all identical between the regions, meaning they are very difficult to tell apart in the glass.
Due to its fairly inland location, as well as a pretty much insignificant influence from the tiny tributary rivers to the south and east, this region can get very cold, and rainfall is a pretty regular occurrence. One of the biggest risks to production in this region is spring frost, which can kill off the delicate flowers and prevent the formation of grapes before the vintage even begins. To combat this, several steps have been legislated in the region to ensure a high standard of quality in the wines, even in difficult cold, wet years. Firstly, vines intended for AOC Fronsac or Canon-Fronsac cannot be grown on the fertile but wet alluvial and sandy plains near the river bank- grapes from these areas tend to be bloated and bland, and are therefore prevented from being added. Instead only the higher hill sites, which have soils with more limestone and sandstone, can be used for production of Fronsac wine. The other combating step taken by grape growers to offset the cold, wet conditions is the grape varieties they use. Merlot and Cabernet Franc (known locally as Bouchet) are the main ingredients in Fronsac wine, with small percentages of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon when vintage conditions allow- Cabernet is most definitely not king here! Merlot and Cab Franc ripen later than the others, meaning they miss the critical period of spring frosts. The cool sites and moisture-rich soils are not all bad however- in 2003, Bordeaux experienced one of the hottest vintages in history, with days several times topping 40 degrees Celsius. The abundant water and cool limestone soils counteracted this heat, and Fronsac and Canon-Fonsac wines did much better than most other sites in Bordeaux, producing more elegant and balanced wines; perhaps we will be seeing even greater Fronsac vintages in the future!
The wines of Fronsac do not have the same plushness to their middle palate as wines from neighbour Pomerol, nor the juicy red-fruit character of St Emilion or the complexity and ageability of a Left Bank wine, however can produce wines of great structure and intensity for a fraction of the price of wines from these regions.
Wine Sales Manager