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Chalk and Clay, Legs and Thighs

In the 1960s I used to buy wine for the British market directly from growers on what was then known as the Côtes de Fronsac, one of many small, often overlooked wine regions that complete the viticultural patchwork of Bordeaux. Its two- or three-thousand acres of vines are at the eastern end of still largely neglected territory separated from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion on one side by the river Isle, a tributary of the Dordogne, and from the Côtes de Bourg, the prolific source of Bordeaux's workaday wines lying to the northwest, by the old Bordeaux-Paris highway.

It is possible to reach Fronsac by taking that Paris road from Bordeaux (now duplicated by an autoroute, imperiously abstracted from its surroundings) just for the pleasure of looping high across the Dordogne near Cubzac-les-Ponts on the long girder bridge built by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel in 1882; but then, at Saint-André-de-Cubzac, one must deliberately separate from traffic on its way to the easier pickings of the Côtes de Bourg and slip away on an ill-marked side road toward the town of Libourne.

Alternatively, one can take a direct, and shorter, route to Fronsac, crossing the Dordogne at the stone bridge of Libourne, fifteen miles upstream. But many set out that way only to be diverted at the last moment, alas, by the appeal of signs to Saint-Emilion and Pomerol as they come off the bridge. Because both routes from Bordeaux, then, so strongly tempt the traveler in other directions, it is not surprising that Fronsac sees only the most determined visitors.

In the eighteenth century, buoyed perhaps by the influence of the Duc de Richelieu, owner of considerable estates in Fronsac until they were seized and sold in the Revolution, the region's reputation for wine had been high above that of Pomerol, the neighboring village now particularly distinguished for Château Pétrus, its chief growth. In Richelieu's day, Fronsac wines were bracketed for quality and price with what were described as the third growths of the Médoc. (The official 1855 Médoc classification still in use today was preceded by constantly revised groupings with no formal status.) William Franck, whose Traité-published in several editions starting in 1824-is one of our best sources of information about Bordeaux in the last century, went so far as to claim that Canon-Fronsac wines, despite what he called their "lack of lightness and bouquet," had formerly been preferred to those of the Médoc. That was probably so; but then the majority of the great Médoc growths now familiar to us, hardly established until well into the eighteenth century, had not won their honors until the nineteenth.

"They are deeply colored, firm, with a strong, heady flavor," Franck wrote of the Fronsac wines he knew. "They develop well, and do not begin to lose their power until after fifteen or twenty years."

Morton Shand had much the same to say of Fronsac a hundred years later in his 1928 volume, A Book of French Wines. "These big, round, and powerful wines, coarse and rough though they are during their infancy, have for long been extremely popular in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Great Britain.

"They have been called the Burgundies of Bordeaux," he went on, warming to his subject, "and there is a certain superficial aptness in the parallel, for [brokers] are fond of saying of a good and promising Fronsac that it has 'plus que de la jambe, de la cuisse' [it has more than "legs," it has thighs], by which is signified that it is a decidedly stout-bodied wine, buxom and lusty as a fine strapping peasant wench."

By the time I was squandering my youth scouring Fronsac properties for wines, however, the appellation had lost something of this earlier sex appeal. The deprivations of wartime, following years of economic depression, still clung to many wine regions of France in the fifties and sixties. The owners of the internationally reputed classed growths of Bordeaux could finance quality winemaking by selling their annual production before its release (as they still do). For a time in the fifties they went even further and presold their annual production while the grapes were still forming on the vines, so badly did they need cash advanced to finance vineyard cultivation as well as barrel aging.

But elsewhere growers had no such pull in the market. With neither capital nor sales assured enough to convince the banks to help them, many were hardly able to maintain appropriately, much less replace, essential vineyard and cellar equipment. In any case, lacking the means with which to hold onto their wine for aging and bottling, they were compelled to sell it off in bulk as quickly as possible after the vintage, usually at prices based on nothing more subtle than color, condition, and alcoholic degree. If their wines had lost their brilliance since Shand wrote his book, there lay the reason. The growers could hardly have been expected to extend themselves to preserve local character or vineyard individuality-assuming it had been possible for them to do so-when distinction of any kind would have been no more than a nuisance to the négociants-éleveurs, the Bordeaux merchants, who were buying the wines only to replenish their anonymous blending vats.

The growers I most often dealt with had well positioned vineyards and produced impressive wines from time to time-firm, with high color and good flavor. But they were inconsistent. Whether it was because of the condition of their tanks (there were few barrels and those there were did not inspire confidence), their rule-of-thumb methods, or for some other reason, I usually found that on one property, in one vintage, there could be both delicious and worse than doubtful lots. It was of constant concern to me to ensure that the batch I selected was the one actually shipped to London.

I had little reason to return to Fronsac after moving to the United States in 1970. A strong dollar had made the classed growths of the Médoc and Saint-Emilion so accessible that few American Bordeaux lovers were interested in going beyond them. Increased demand for such a restricted group of wines soon pushed up prices, however, and, when these were magnified by exchange rates, a broad gap opened between the fashionable growths and the minor properties of the Côtes de Bourg that Fronsac was perfectly positioned to fill. One of the first to see Fronsac's renewed potential was Jean-Pierre Moueix, the distinguished Libourne merchant and vineyard proprietor who had led the renaissance of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol after the war. With his son Christian he showed his faith in Fronsac by investing in two or three properties there. He counseled the proprietors of other vineyards and undertook distribution of their production to make sure there would be enough good Fronsac wine on the market to be noticed.

Fortunately, the Moueix firm's reputation and strength were themselves enough to revive interest in the appellation. But they could not have sustained it had the generation now in charge of Fronsac's vineyards and chais not pursued vigorously the opportunity before them.

Partly from curiosity and partly from nostalgia, I went back to Fronsac for a few days last spring. In the mostly low-lying landscape of the Gironde, Fronsac's two "peaks" are exceptional. Though barely two to three hundred feet high, they are so compacted on their tongue of land between the Isle and the Dordogne that they seem dramatically lofty. In the eighth century Charlemagne had built a fort on one of them, dominating the confluence of the two rivers. The Duc de Richelieu, before his exile, had imposed on its ruins a decorative Italian pavilion for what Féret, the Bordeaux Bible, describes coyly as "elegant, witty parties, which were gossiped about well beyond the confines of Aquitaine"-perhaps thereby giving rise to that later confusion of legs, thighs, and Fronsac wine.

It is pretty country, much favored by Bordeaux families for their secluded and unpretentious summer houses. The lanes that twist down the hills are mostly enclosed, English-fashion, by hedgerows overgrown with wild roses, and the vineyards are punctuated by old Romanesque churches and ruined windmills.

In 1976 the word Côtes was dropped from the appellation in favor of plain Fronsac, but the smaller, associated appellation of Canon-Fronsac can still be described with or without it. There are fewer than two thousand acres of vines within the Fronsac appellation, and another 750 produce the wine entitled to be called either Canon-Fronsac or Côtes de Canon-Fronsac.

Despite the superiority implied in Canon-Fronsac, the permitted grape varieties (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot), the permitted yields, minimum concentration, and all the other legal paraphernalia used to prop up French wine appellations are the same for both. Canon-Fronsac is distinguished from Fronsac by the squiggly outline of an eroded limestone plateau. Overlapping the villages of Fronsac and Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac's location is described by Henri Enjalbert in his great tome on the wines of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, and Fronsac as a "privileged viticultural terroir."

What really distinguishes it from Fronsac, however, is no more than an exposure of the chalk elsewhere hidden under a thin layer of reddish soil and the surrounding steep abutments that give its vines a springtime advantage by draining away cold air. In Fronsac, as in Canon-Fronsac (and as in Saint-Emilion), among those layers of limestone deposited by ancient incursions of the Atlantic, there are mixtures of clay, sand, and gravel contributed by millennia of wash brought down with the Dordogne from the Massif Central.

On the first morning of my recent visit to Fronsac, Christian Moueix had arranged a tasting of a few 1985s put in perspective by a group of 1982s. His own Château Canon-Moueix stood out among the 1985s, closely followed by Château de la Dauphine, another Moueix property. Château Canon-Moueix, the firmer and fuller of the two, had a complex flavor; Château de la Dauphine relied more on its light, tender fruitiness. Among the 1982s, Château Mausse intrigued me with its marked bouquet and long flavor of violet-scented pastilles, but I especially liked the elegant Château Canon de Brem, now also a Moueix property, its vineyards adjoining those of Château de la Dauphine, of which it had once been a part. The wine's structure seemed somewhat severe at first, but it had an intensity of fruit that charmed away all resistance. Delicious though it was, however, it had been placed at a disadvantage for tasting after the outstanding Château du Gaby, a richly concentrated, long-lasting wine that succeeded in dominating the entire group.

I lunched with Christian Moueix, who was generous enough to offer me his Château Pétrus '71 with roast lamb. Having prepared my palate with what is considered to be one of the greatest vintages of Pétrus in the last twenty-five years, he then produced, to my astonishment at his Thurberesque bravado, a bottle of Château Canon de Brem '64. It stood up to the Pétrus admirably: The mutual check of fruit and structure that had so impressed me in the 1982 tasted earlier was here melded by time into a richly balanced and lively whole.

The following day the associations of growers of Fronsac and of Canon-Fronsac had arranged for me a comprehensive tasting of their 1985s, again with a backdrop of older wines for perspective. Reviewing the high and consistent quality of those wines while remembering others from those same properties tasted twenty-five years before, I felt I had strayed into a school of frogs turned to princes.

Later, when I visited some of the properties, I understood the transformation. Behind the same crumbling stone walls and unruly gardens were new presses, gleaming fermentation tanks, and well kept-many new-barrels. I sampled some 1986s still in wood and was heartened that there was now the wherewithal to hold and age these wines as they deserved. The proprietors seemed better informed, too. Whereas, in the sixties, their fathers would each have kept much to himself, even eyeing other growers with caution, they were now familiar with their neighbors' wines, ideas, and strengths and willingly talked of them as enthusiastically as they talked of their own.

To list and describe each wine tasted would be both tedious and pointless, because few of them are yet available in the United States. But among those that stand out in my memory, in addition to those I had already tasted with Christian Moueix, were the wines of Château Moulin Pey Labrie and Château La Grave (both, I discovered, made by Paul Barre, son of the man who had made that magnificent Château Canon de Brem '64); the big, intense wines of Château Dalem, their quality and structure reinforced by the proprietor's policy of using only new wood; the fleshy wines of Château Rouet; and the full-flavored wines of Château de la Rivière, presently one of the best, and best known, Fronsac wines already distributed and widely available here.

Jacques Borie, the ebullient proprietor of Château de la Rivière, who has packed into one life what most of us would have difficulty in accomplishing were we given, like cats, the boon of nine, persuaded me, while I was temporarily lulled at the close of lunch by a piece of cheese and his remarkable 1962, to get a better grasp of Fronsac topography from his ULM.

For the benefit of other innocents who might presume, as I did, that a ULM is another well wheeled European alphabet car, let me explain that it is nothing more complicated than a midget motor, with what seems to be a toy propeller facing the wrong way, attached unconvincingly to a single canvas wing held by two struts above a long pole. The pilot-if that word can be applied to the manipulator of a few pieces of wire-and his passenger, sitting one behind the other astride the pole, whizz through the treetops on this contraption like a pair of sorcerers on a broomstick, the passenger, as I can tell you, preoccupied most of the time wondering what he is to do with his feet when (if?) they ever come down to land.

I shall look forward to tasting again, and soon I hope, the wines of Canon-Moueix, La Dauphine, Rouet, De la Rivière, Canon de Brem, La Grave, Moulin Pey Labrie, Mausse, Du Gaby, Dalem, Arnauton, Villars, La Fleur Cailleau, Du Pavillon, Mazeris-Bellevue, and all the rest. But next time I pray I shall be spared having first to inspect the roof tiles of each one in close-up.

Originally published as "Fronsac" in Gourmet, March 1989.

The Moueix family has now divested itself of its Fronsac properties. Jacques Borie sold the Château de la Rivière. A modification of law allows owners of properties in the Canon-Fronsac appellation to sell their wine as plain Fronsac if they prefer.