We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the third in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .
Above the medieval town of Saint Emilion, about 5 miles away as the crow flies lies Lussac. This little village is the centre of the small wine making region of Lussac Saint Emilion, one of the famous town’s satellite appellations. Wine lovers will have noticed more wines coming into the UK from Lussac Saint Emilion and spotted that they are a good buy when it comes to getting more for your money.
Chateaux from this area often pull good vintages out of the bag that don’t cost as anywhere near as much as the Saint Emilion’s down the road.
What’s more a truly good Lussac can upstage your basic Saint Emilion given half a chance. Years ago, it was only the French who knew about the good quality wines available in Lussac but things are changing. Nick was one of the first to bring in Lussacs to our customers and visiting this region was one of the top priorities on my list.
To get a picture of where Lussac sits in relation to Saint Emilion was important to me. I knew it was the most northerly of the satellite appellations but had no idea what the area was like. The town of Saint Emilion is a popular holiday destination; it’s a UNESCO World
Heritage site and it’s idyllic. It is reminiscent of our Cotswold villages as all the buildings in Saint Emilion are built in a honey coloured limestone. It’s more ochre in colour to that of the Cotswolds but its remarkably similar. Its cobbled streets are terribly steep in places (I have the blisters to prove it); it’s riddled with underground catacombs and heaving with tourists.
This is a town that seems to be totally dedicated to wine – there are little shop windows bristling with bottles everywhere. Stand at the top of the town and you can see a patchwork of green as tiny vineyards crowd into every available space between the buildings. Further beyond they ripple out like a green blanket into the distance. Step outside this area and you start moving into the sticks: the outlying, sparsely populated, hilly slopes that sit far from the madding crowd. This was what I wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed.
Lussac is home to about 1300 inhabitants and it’s quite rural. The region rolls up and down on undulating hills and is steeped in antiquity. Lussac’s name comes from deep in the past. It could have derived from the Roman Luccius who established his villa and estate there. The village’s boundaries still mirror the extent of Luccius’ estate. Alternatively, Lussac’s name could even pre-date the Romans. Above the village lies a huge old stone amongst the woodland on the mound of Picampeau. The stone has a mysterious basin carved into it on top it and it’s said that the Gauls held sacrifices here. Lussac could have come from the Gallic term for ‘sacred wood’ which is ‘Lukus.’ Either way, this is ancient turf.
Radiating out from the village the terrain is dotted with farms and pockets of vines clinging to hillsides. It was hot, scorched and dusty as we pulled off the small, winding road into a gravel strewn yard. Surrounding it were a cluster of what looked to be ancient chais and barns. The glare off the limestone gravel and the blazing sun made me wish I’d brought sunglasses with me and the heat hit you like a brick. I had come to visit Chateau Tour de Grenet, named for the 19th century tower soaring 18 metres high over the vineyards. The tower is actually located on the site of an ancient Roman villa about 1000 metres north of the village.
There are two stories about the tower; one is that it was raised by Pierre Favereau, the owner of the estate (and mayor of Lussac), in 1850 so that he could contemplate his property and observe the work in the vineyards. He was buried at the tower in 1870 and, thanks to local gossip which said he had been interred with his gold snuffbox and his gold-headed cane, the tower was broken into in 1950 by tomb raiders. The other story is that the tower could have played a role as a Chappe Tower – a precursor to the telegraph system. Invented by Claude Chappe in 1794 this system transmitted via 535 towers and it took 9 minutes to send a message from Paris to Lille.
The property belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Faize in the 16th century and was purchased by the Brunot family in 1970. The Brunots have been involved with wine for several generations. Originally from the Corrèze, Jean-Baptiste Brunot first became interested in wine at the end of the 19th century. He was one of the pioneers of direct sales to the private customers in the North of France, Belgium and Switzerland. In 1900 he took over producing fine wines at Chateau Hermitage de Mazerat in Saint Emilion. Jump forward a generation or two and one line of the family runs Chateau Cantenac whilst the other, headed by Vincent Brunot, is based at Chateau Tour de Grenet.
Tour de Grenet’s vineyards cover 26 hectares (64 acres) and lie on one of the highest slopes in the region. Under the ground sit ancient tunnels that were dug to mine the limestone blocks used for building in the villages. The entrance to the tunnels is embedded in a bank of limestone rock that juts out near to the chateau. Remnants of a more glorious past mark it’s mouth with carved finials poking through the over growth above the locked iron gates. Vincent told me that years ago, the tunnels were used to store the wine barrels and bottles; he is currently working on restoring them so that they can once again be used for this purpose.
Whilst he went to hunt for the key I waited by the gates and a wonderfully icy cool draught poured through them from the darkness – a welcome relief from the heat! Once inside you could see the relics of wine making dotted about in the dimly lit passageways. Above our heads water from an old spring dripped through the rock, carving a hole as it did so and splashed down onto the floor. Any object placed under the spring slowly turns to stone thanks to the high mineral content of the water. It reminded me of Mother Shipton’s Cave in Yorkshire and the Petrifying Well there that does the same thing.
Liquorice laden Lussac
Chateau Tour de Grenet’s wines are circa £13 a bottle and tend to be quite powerful. Dark, deep and intense; they have spicy undertones of oak and, particularly, liquorice. Energetic, keen and perceptive, Vincent has raised the profile of the chateau and it has gathered quite a few awards. I’d expect to see more of Vincent’s wines making their way over the waters to the UK not before long.
Tour de Grenet is not the only chateau Vincent owns – the family purchased another fascinating property in 1978: Chateau Piganeau. This chateau was once owned by the painter, poet and historian Emilien Piganeau (1833 -1911). He was a big personality in the region, being Director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux and he produced numerous paintings and histories of Saint Emilion. This chateau is located near the old port of Saint Emilion near Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens and the Menhir of Pierrefitte.
This standing stone is the largest in the Gironde and unlike other menhirs, it is carved. Its huge sides are also worn down from centuries of rubbing as Pilgrims touched the stone with their wrists, marking them with chalky dust from the stone, for luck and protection. Locals still gather at the stone for the summer solstice. Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens takes its name from the saint and from the old French Occitan ‘faleyres’ meaning fern. This area was once shady woodland and the ferns that grew here were used to make Medieval wine glasses – fern ash was an important ingredient in the process, along with sand from the river banks.
Chateau Piganeau sits on very different terroir to Tour de Grenet. Closer to the River Dordogne the microclimate here is warmer and the harvests are very early (similar to Pomerol). The light soils are bands of gravel and sands and they make quite a distinct wine to that of Lussac. Elegant and aromatic; Piganeau reminded me of the flavours of roasted coffee and red currants. It was lighter in style than Tour de Grenet but very polished on the palate. Piganeau is a good example of the difference in price between the well-known Saint Emilion AOC and the prices commanded by its satellites. Piganeau’s wines are circa £17 a bottle – the price tag reflects the fact that these are Saint Emilion AOC rather than Lussac Saint Emilion AOC. However, both wines were equally as good in their own right!
You can check out Vincent’s website at http://www.vignobles-brunot.fr if you’d like to learn more about his wines. He also has two more chateaux which are worth discovering in Lalande de Pomerol and the Entre Deux Mers: Chateaux Le Gravillot and Maledan.