Finding forgotten wine regions that have ancient claims to fame seems to be a popular pursuit at the moment. With good reason. These shadowy places from the past hide prized estates that once produced celebrated wines. Many still do – and thanks to their obscurity they don’t cost a bomb.
Long lost terrains that were once held in high esteem fall out of fashion but experts are quickly rediscovering why these regions were once great. Fronsac is a perfect example. This region, comprising of the AOCs Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, was once one of Bordeaux’s most respected wine producers. It has an incredible wine making pedigree dating back to Charlemagne (and beyond – there are some who claim that Fronsac was the very first vineyard in Bordeaux). It’s also claimed Fronsac was the first place to discover the concepts of ‘cru and chateau’.
Without doubt Fronsac held a privileged position in the past; the wines were the first ever Bordeaux to appear in a Christie’s catalogue in 1780 and were enjoyed by nobility and royalty alike across Europe. Even the infamous Cardinal de Richelieu owned a Fronsac chateau (which, by the way, still produces wine!).
However times change.
There are lots of reasons why wine regions become eclipsed and with a history of wine making stretching back centuries Fronsac suffered under the French Revolution, the Phylloxera epidemic, the World Wars and from economic decline. A once great entity, Fronsac lay forgotten.
Fronsac’s re-awakening began in 1964 and slowly snow balled over the next decades. Now the producers from this area are benefiting from much interest in their powerful, concentrated and complex, darkly coloured wines.
Finding Fantastic Fronsac
Good terroir (climate and soil) doesn’t change and wine makers began to revitalise Fronsac’s fortunes in the mid 1980s. This attracted the attention of the Bordelaise mainstream and chateau owners began to buy up vineyards in the area. The Moueix family for example own several properties in Canon Fronsac; they are also world famous for producing Chateau Petrus in Pomerol. Interest grew from further afield too – the Cardinal’s Chateau Richelieu was bought by Hong Kong A&A with an eye to providing for the Chinese market.
Unsurprisingly with all this attention Fronsac has started to attract British buyers and its wines have begun to make inroads on merchants shelves.
Bordeaux-Undiscovered began introducing Fronsac wines back in 2006 with Chateaux Toumalin and Les Tonnelles. Fronsac is still not well known and remains undervalued to the majority of the wine buying public which means that it is a good source of high quality yet affordable wine.
Fronsac and its little sub appellation of Canon Fronsac are strategically placed where the Dordogne and the Isle rivers meet, neighbouring Saint Emilion and Pomerol. The soils are clayey-limestone, with some sandstone, and like Saint Emilion the area is honeycombed with quarries and man-made caves.
Canon Fronsac sits on higher terrain and gained the name ‘Canon’ thanks to ships using the western flank of the hill (Tertre de Fronsac) as a landmark to fire salvoes into the marshes during the 1600s. The aim of these trials was to test the ballistics and power of the ships’ canons.
Thanks to its position on the river trade routes Fronsac was a rich and productive area. Its Gaulish market attracted the Romans who settled there and built a temple on the hill top of le Tertre. Charlemagne, King of the Francs, built a mighty fortress over the temple in 769. This fortress was the most powerful in Western France and Fronsac probably took its name from ‘Fronciacus’ meaning ‘Castle of the Francs’.
Fronsac’s golden age revolved around the charismatic Cardinal who purchased Chateau Richelieu in 1632. Under his influence the popularity of Fronsac’s wines soared – in 1783 the entire output of neighbouring Chateau Canon was reserved for the court of the Dauphin at Versailles. On the crest of this wave the wine makers turned their attention to quality control and the notion of ‘Cru’ (Growth) and subsequently that of ‘Chateau’ (Wine Estate) were born. In other words Fronsac wines had to be made from selected grapes grown in a single year by a specific Fronsac chateau. Before this wines could be made from a variety of vineyards and from different years’ harvests – which meant they were a very mixed bag!
Quality is still paramount in Fronsac today. Fronsac wine producers have to set a high standard in order to get their wines discovered. Therefore, wine lovers in the UK benefit from fantastic Fronsac wines at great value for money.
My most recent find from Fronsac is a prime example of a classic Fronsac petit chateau producing high quality wine bearing all the hall marks of this region’s superiority: Chateau Haut Gaussens
Chateau Haut Gaussens lies in the village of Verac which sits high on a limestone plateau at the edge of Fronsac. This was once the seat of the Lords of Fronsac, the Pommiers, who held court here from the 11th century right up until the French Revolution. Chateau de Pommiers still stands in Verac and beneath it lies a Roman villa belonging to Veracus, who gave his name to the village. Swords, javelins, vases and medals were discovered there in 1740 thought to date from the times of Emperor Antonius.
History & Awards:
Typical of Fronsac, Chateau Haut Gaussens is a tiny chateau that has been reborn, not once but twice. First restored in the 19th century, Haut Gaussens was saved by the Lhuillier family during the Second World War in 1941. Stephane Lhuillier, who represents the third generation of this wine making family, took over the reins in 2000. Having undertaken a substantial restructuring of the property, including the winery, wine tasting room and vines, Stephane is now seeing the rise in fortunes of the little chateau with a cluster of awards in France. Newly awarded the Macon Bronze Medal, Haut Gaussens is also a newcomer to the UK, having been recently introduced by Bordeaux-Undiscovered.
If you are a Claret lover and have yet to discover Fronsac, the 2012 vintage from Haut Gaussens is a great wine to try in order to get to know the appellation. Bordeaux-Undiscovered has it at the introductory price of £7.99.
Supple, sensuous, fuller bodied Claret with lovely balance. Aromatic and generous. Rich flavours of ripe blackberry, truffle, damson and dried fig melting into sweeter tones of liquorice, clove, roasted hazelnut and red currant jelly. Soft, mellow tannins and a good finish.
Haut Gaussens is a formidable match for beef and steak, roasted, barbecued or pan fried. It also pairs beautifully with game such as venison, duck, pigeon, pheasant and wild boar sausages. Being heavier than most Clarets it is great with richly flavoured dishes, garlicky pates and terrines, nutty or fruit infused cheese and hearty vegetarian fare (especially nut cutlets).
*Price correct at the time of writing.