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Discovering New Wines in Bordeaux – Insights from the Inside – Part 1

Paul Smith, our Financial Director, has again had the chance to visit Bordeaux to discover new wines, chateaux and meet its wine makers. This is the first in this series of blogs about his trip and his discoveries . . .

Paul Smith in Bordeaux
Paul Smith in Bordeaux

My role buying, selling and shipping Grand Cru Classé tends to keep me at my desk but every so often I grab the chance to head into the fray and survey what’s on the ground first hand. My recent trip into the field was with a trade delegation organised by the CIVB (Bordeaux Wine Bureau). It’s a good opportunity to visit a broad swathe of wine makers ranging from the top players down to the niche petit chateaux. It also offers the chance to piece together what’s happening in the melting pot that is the Bordeaux wine industry.

More importantly meeting a wide variety of wine makers allows us insights on which chateaux are looking to export to the UK; which wine makers are making waves and which developments and discoveries we can recommend to you as the consumer.

My visit to Chateau Fonbadet in Pauillac proved to be eye opening; this is a little chateau owned by the Peyronie family that sits in a particularly choice location north of the small village of Saint Lambert. It’s vineyards are surrounded by the greatest chateaux in this region:

  • The two First Growths (Premier Crus) Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Latour are a 5 minute drive down the road.

  • The two Second Growths (Deuxiemes Crus) Chateaux Pichon Baron and Pichon Comtesse are within walking distance.

  • Fifth Growth (Cinquieme Cru) Chateau Lynch Bages is on the doorstep.

This is a prime location and this sort of land is incredibly precious to the Bordelaise.

Gateway to Fonbadet
Gateway to Fonbadet

Little Fonbadet sits slap bang in the centre of it.

Encircled by the big boys, Fonbadet is not exactly besieged but it is probably one of the last vineyards in this area that has not been gobbled up by its illustrious neighbours.

When you consider that there is a finite amount of good ground available in these prestigious appellations you can quite understand how powerful chateaux can become predatory. This is a common occurrence in Bordeaux (examples of note are Chateau La Tour du Pin was quietly absorbed into First Growth Cheval Blanc not long after it was bought out and Chateau L’Arrosee was merged into First Growth Haut Brion’s Chateau Quintus). Our guide for the whole trip was Alex Hall from Bespoke Bordeaux who explained that the manageress Pascale Peyronie almost certainly would have been bombarded with huge cash offers to sell out over the years but unlike others has resisted. There is good reason for her firm stance; the Peyronie family have been Pauillac wine makers since 1700 and have deep attachment to the area . . . and to their chateau.

Chateau Fonbadet, aspect from driveway
Chateau Fonbadet, aspect from driveway

Their attachment runs deep . . . and here’s why:

The Peyronies have been involved in wine making within Pauillac for 3 centuries. You might say that quite a few traditional Bordelaise wine making families can claim roots as far back this but in this instance the Peyronies stand out as they have a history that is indelibly entwined with the great Rothschild chateaux of Pauillac. Running the wine making at a chateau is one thing but managing a great estate in quite another.

At the beginning of the 1900s Pierre Peyronie’s grandfather was the manager of First Growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild – and the grandfather of Pierre’s wife, Jany, managed the estates of Baron Philippe at Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Three hundred years of wine making know how is impressive but the experience gained working at this level of wine production takes it to another level. So, you can see that the family have always had a serious reputation as top class wine makers in the region. The problem was they had no chateau of their own.

This was to change in the 1930s.

Pierre’s son Robert, with incredible foresight, seized the opportunity to acquire a little estate put up for auction. This was Fonbadet, an estate that had bags of unrealised potential. Down the years it had been owned by several distinguished members of the elite wine making fraternity but it had never really been developed.

  • In the Middle Ages Fonbadet had once been part of First Growth Chateau Latour.

  • In 1865 it had been owned by the widows Clarke (of Chateau Clarke – now another Rothschild estate) and Chancel.

  • In the late 19th century Fonbadet was in the hands of the Larose family (of Fifth Growth Chateau Gruaud Larose).

The Peyronie family purchased Fonbadet in the 1930s
The Peyronie family purchased Fonbadet in the 1930s

Despite its celebrated previous ownership, being so small and somewhat over shadowed by the grandeur of its noble neighbours, Fonbadet’s wines had not been submitted for inclusion in the 1855 Classification . . . even though they were considered superior to many Grand Crus Classes at the time. Prices reached by Fonbadet’s wines before the ranking of 1855 would have placed it among the future Fifth Growths.

Knowing the quality of the terroir, its history and the past reputation of the wine, Pierre made one of the wisest decisions in his life in buying the chateau.

This terroir (soil, topography and environment) coupled with the Peyronie’s vast experience in wine making could only spell one thing. A first class wine.

What I find incredible to believe is the price.

The recently bottled vintage of Fonbadet is 2013 . . . and this will only set you back £20.00 a bottle. Compare this to the exorbitant prices of its neighbours:

2013 Chateaux Pichon Baron and Pichon Comtesse £100.00+ a bottle.

2013 Chateau Mouton Rothschild £250+ a bottle

Fonbadet regularly holds tastings & welcomes visitors
Fonbadet regularly holds tastings & welcomes visitors

Prices for Grand Cru Classe are on the up for the future too. Chateau Pichon Baron’s latest 2015 vintage release price – whilst still in the barrel – is up 45.5% on last years, making it one of the most expensive vintages from this chateau. At this rate only the very well off are able to consider buying wines of this quality. Or are they?

I’d suggest that canny consumers look to Fonbadet if they are after a top Pauillac wine – the only difference I can see between Fonbadet and its neighbours is the price tag and the label.

Claret connoisseurs might be shaking their heads at me, arguing that it is the wine maker who makes all the difference in this case. But I’d like to point out that Fonbadet’s wines are overseen by world class oenologists Michel Rolland and Eric Boissenot (together with his father Jacques, Eric makes wine at two thirds of 1855 Grand Cru Classe estates, including all four Medoc First Growths).

Future Fonbadet.

During the 1970s the Peyronies carefully purchased a few more tiny chateau with potential. One of which was Chateau Pauillac. This is the hidden jewel in the Peyronie’s crown and I think the purchase was a very wise decision. To own the flagship chateau that is synonymous with the appellation is quite an achievement.

Chateau Fonbadet
Chateau Fonbadet

Chateau Pauillac is now being resurrected and the family are focusing on the rebirth of its wine. Only a small production of 2,400 bottles are made.

Other wines to watch out for made by the Peyronies are:

Chateau Haut Pauillac

Chateau Padarnac

Chateau Montgrand Milon

Chateau Tour du Roc Milon

The family’s website is at http://www.chateaufonbadet.com and you can learn an awful lot more about their history and wines there. They also host tastings and visits which you can check out here: http://www.chateaufonbadet.com/version_anglaise/atchateau.html – you can be assured of a warm welcome, I can vouch for that!

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