A Janus with Soul: Figeac 1943–2016
BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 07, 2021
First impressions count. Almost two decades ago, I attended a wine event in London and arrived early on a Sunday morning to avoid the crowds. Flitting around the stands, I chanced upon a Bordeaux gentleman, advanced in years, tall and aristocratic, his wife by his side, making sure the bottles were primed. Nobody else was there, so after introducing myself, I asked if I might taste their 1988, 1989 and 1990. Though I was excited about sampling that trio, what made a lasting impression was Thierry and Marie-France Manoncourt’s congeniality, their infectious, youthful enthusiasm, and the time they were willing to spend with this nobody. They even invited me to drop in next time I was in Bordeaux.
And I have “dropped in” countless times over the years. Sadly, Thierry Manoncourt is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on. Marie-France Manoncourt stepped up to the plate and guided Figeac toward the opening of a new chapter. My plan has always been to publish an article to mark the moment their new winery project was completed. This report examines the history of Figeac, the composition of the vineyard, and particularly the winemaking, with attendant tasting notes stretching back to World War II.
The etymology of Figeac has Gallo-Roman origins, perhaps deriving from someone named Figeacus, though no one has identified who that person might have been. There is an alternative theory that it originates from figue (“fig tree”). A maison noble was located on the present site, owned by the Lescours family, who presided over Ausone (lending credence to the idea of Roman origins, since that estate is named after Ausonius). During the Religious Wars, under the proprietorship of Henri de Navarre, the estate burned to the ground and the land was subsequently acquired by the Cazes family. Marie de Cazes’s marriage to François de Carle in 1654 saw the estate pass into the de Carle family six years later, when it became known as Carle-Figeac. In the 17th century, Élie de Carle invested heavily in the property. Between 1730 and 1755, he expanded the estate to around 200 hectares in size, with approximately 30 hectares of replanted vines. Figeac rapidly became one of the most prominent names in the region. After a military career, Élie de Carle retired to Figeac and spent 26,000 livres renovating the château.
In 1803, a distant relative of Élie de Carle, André de Carle-Trajet, took over the estate and introduced a polyculture of vines, clover and madder, encouraged by a British blockade that stymied sales to that important market. He pursued a policy of quantity over quality, widening rows and zealously applying fertilizer while frittering away his fortune. When he died in 1825, his widow Félicité struggled financially and had no choice but to sell parts of the estate. The sale of one parcel in 1832 is the genesis of Cheval Blanc, and other parts went to form La Conseillante. In 1838, Félicité sold the remaining nub of land to a Parisian, Monsieur Lebel, for the sum of 155,000 francs.
The second edition of Féret (1868) lists Figeac as an estate belonging to Loyer and producing between 50 and 70 tonneaux per annum. Its ranking above Cheval Blanc is an indication of its esteem. In 1875, some 37 hectares were sold off and divided between two proprietors that begat La Tour Figeac and La Tour-du-Pin Figeac, the latter now part of Cheval Blanc. Figeac was reduced to 30 hectares. Up until 1892, the château was poorly managed and burdened by misguided decisions that took decades to recover from. Most critical was selling the gravel croupes that are the foundation of Cheval Blanc, ostensibly giving away almost all the crown jewels.
In 1892, Henri de Chèvremont, an architect based in Liège, and his wife, Elizabeth Drake (a descendant of English mariner Sir Francis Drake), purchased Figeac. A portrait of Elizabeth Drake hangs in the living room, and as Marie-France Manoncourt pointed out, Elizabeth bears a striking semblance to Manoncourt’s daughter Hortense. Henri preferred to reside in Paris, leaving the daily operations to an old school friend and agricultural engineer, Albert Macquin, owner of Château La Serre. Macquin tended the vines, wishing to eventually acquire Figeac himself. That never transpired, but he did oversee a successful replanting program using American rootstock to protect the vineyard from phylloxera.
In the hallway of the château, I always pause to examine an original document that details the composition of the estate from 1895. Within its 48.14-hectare boundary, 32.86 hectares were given over to vines, the remainder consisting of buildings, gardens, woodland, grassland, plowed land and vimières (a kind of willow that grows in wet habitats). The document illustrates the polyculture of Figeac, which, unusually for Bordeaux, has always been maintained in order to preserve biodiversity. By the 1893 edition of Féret, the plantings had increased to 42 hectares, suggesting Albert Macquin’s long-term project was successful. Henri de Chèvremont's daughter Henriette married André Villepigue, the man who, as head of the prefecture, oversaw the laying of the first tracks of the Paris Métro. Villepigue’s son, Robert, inherited the château in 1907. Robert’s lasting contribution was to redesign the label, creating the current distinctive, eye-catching design with its bold vermillion and gold typeface that distinguishes it from others.
Thierry Manoncourt celebrating his ninth decade at Taillevent in Paris. I guess there was not a huge budget for the birthday cake, but the birthday boy was in his element that day.
The Reign of Thierry Manoncourt
Robert Villepigue’s daughter, Ada Elizabeth, married Antoine Manoncourt, whose brother owned Château Cadet-Piola. Marie-France Manoncourt told me that she has no recollection of her father-in-law as a passionate wine lover, though he would retreat down to Figeac in the summer with his three children. His eldest son died young, while a daughter still lives in Bordeaux today. The running of Figeac was handed over to his youngest son, Thierry Manoncourt. “Thierry was a prisoner of war in Königsberg,” Manoncourt reminded me. “It was terrible for him. It would be freezing cold, and the prisoners had no shoes. When we married, we decided to help him try to forget this period.”
Thierry Manoncourt’s own rehabilitation mirrored that of Figeac. He attended agronomy school, after which there was a tribunal where a random name drawing decided who would inherit Figeac after his grandmother died. It was between Thierry and his grandmother’s brother, though neither particularly wanted the estate. “My father-in-law, Antoine, gave Thierry the option to manage Figeac for one year between 1946 and 1947,” Manoncourt told me. “Afterward he could go off and do other things. Thierry agreed, but after this one year, he decided to stay and renovate the château.”
Despite a succession of remarkable post-war wines, when the Syndicat Viticole drew up the inaugural Saint-Émilion classification in 1955, the inspectors snubbed Figeac. (One wrote pithily: “Figeac – never a premier cru.” Were they so dismissive because of the Malbec in the vineyard, or perhaps the rather disheveled state of the château building?) Nevertheless, Thierry had become attached to Figeac, even if it was hardly a way to make a living. And in any case, he was about to meet the love of his life.
“My father loved wine,” Marie-France Manoncourt told me. “He worked mainly around Bergerac. He had a friend who liked wine, and that is where I saw my first Grand Vin. My grandmother came from Turkey. She had lost everything in Ataturk. My mother studied in a hospital in Paris because she loved helping people. She became the assistant of Professor Thierry de Martel [a famous neurosurgeon who invented trepanning].” Marie-France has told me several times how she met her late husband, and the story bears repeating.
“In 1955, I was 19 years old. I liked dancing, parties and picnics with friends. One day, I gave a surprise party in Bergerac. Two girlfriends told me they wanted to come, but they didn't have a car, and they suggested a driver who could take them. He arrived in a cabriolet, a gentleman in a smart white jacket. He was very elegant. The next time, there was a picnic with a group of friends in Royan, and we were to meet around the church. However, we had the same problem: no car. My friend inquired if it was possible to ask the same man to drive us in his cabriolet, which he did. But it was impossible to find the church, since it had been destroyed during the war, and we decided to go to the seaside. My friend had food but no wine, and so this man opened a bottle of 1947 Figeac. My friend and I thought that he was very interesting, and the wine was wonderful.”
“Thierry and I had a wonderful beginning. We got engaged, and the wedding was set for April 1956. It was the time of the terrible frost, and we lost 50% of the vineyard. Thierry loved to say, ‘The 1956 is catastrophic because of the frost, but not for my wedding.’ We lived at Figeac with my mother and father-in-law for a short while. The conditions were not comfortable. There were no lights, just candles in the corridor. The only running water was for my mother-in-law. I helped my husband to replant the vineyard. He had sagacity and always had a peaceful atmosphere around him. Thierry was always here in the vineyard.”
Figeac became home for their four children. Daughters, Laure, Claire, Blandine and Hortense, are involved in Figeac to varying degrees. Marie-France Manoncourt tells me that neither she nor her husband was ever really interested in money, but they enjoyed life at Figeac. Blandine remembers how she and her sisters would gaze out of their upstairs bedroom window, watching their father roll barrels into the courtyard so that they would stay cool overnight. Temperature control was never easy. In a private handwritten letter, shared by Blandine de Brier Manoncourt, that her father wrote to Bipin Desai, who organized his 90th birthday lunch at Taillevent, Thierry explained how in 1947, the alcoholic fermentation temperatures reached 30°C to 33°C and that residual sugars could lead to unpleasant acetic notes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Thierry would drive into Libourne to buy blocks of ice and submerge them in the vat. He was aware of the importance of controlling temperatures because of his engineering background, but most winemakers were either ignorant or unwilling to do this. In fact, Thierry recollected meeting only the best-known Pomerol châteaux purchasing ice. This precious commodity was not just given out gratis. The glacière, or ice vendor, was reluctant to sell to winemakers and therefore deprive his regular customers – fishmongers and butchers, inter alia, who needed it just as much during the warm weather. The winemakers had to wait in line. Imagine: maybe Madame Loubat of Petrus and Jean-Pierre Moueix were standing in the same queue.
During the 1970s, Figeac underwent some overdue improvements that, most importantly, included the installation of ten stainless steel vats, making Figeac the third château to introduce them, after Haut-Brion and Latour. The old bottle cellar was established in 1971. Thierry Manoncourt prudently maintained a library of mature vintages, the oldest being a bottle of 1893, the first produced after Henri de Chèvremont. A second-year chai was built, and the expanded space permitted the use of 100% new oak. Automated temperature control was finally added in 1998.
I met Thierry Manoncourt several times after that first encounter in London, and I once described him as a Gallic Sir John Gielgud. He dedicated his life to promoting Figeac and was always piqued that Cheval Blanc was held in greater esteem. As he approached his autumn years, it was time for a new generation to take over, and in 1988, his daughter Laure, along with her husband Eric d’Aramon, took over the running of the property. I am probably not alone in the opinion that around this period, quality became inconsistent and potentially great vintages slipped through their fingers. In the late 1990s, there was still great affection for Figeac, yet too often the quality of wine did not meet expectations.
I have no idea what Marie-France Manoncourt was saying at the precise moment I took this photo, accompanied by Frédéric Faye.
Frédéric Faye Takes the Helm
Figeac needed someone with hands-on experience who lived and breathed Figeac, and that man was Frédéric Faye, whose tenure began in 2002.
“I was born in 1981 in Bordeaux and grew up there because my father was an engineer for an aerospace company,” he told me. “I come from a farm family in Périgord and I’m proud of that. On the maternal side of my family, we have an estate at Saint-Astier that my farmer ancestors bought in the 18th century. I spent all of my weekends and my vacations in the countryside and still do. I studied in Bordeaux and passed a High National Degree and a Bachelor in Viticulture/Oenology, training at Le Bon Pasteur and Fontenil and also at Yacochuya in Argentina with Michel and Dany Rolland. I got a master’s degree as an agricultural engineer, and my training period was at Figeac. The Manoncourts allowed me to stay during my studies, and I worked in the cellar as quality control manager. On the first day, I remember cleaning the windows of the cellar. I got to know Thierry Manoncourt well, and we spoke a lot about vine growing and wine production. I learned many things from him. After my studies in 2008, the Manoncourts asked me to stay at Figeac and promoted me to vineyard manager, which was my first real professional experience. In 2010, they made me the technical director, and in 2013, I became head winemaker and general manager.”
Faye is one of the most affable, down-to-earth men operating in Bordeaux today, and it doesn’t take long to realize that he is totally dedicated to Figeac. Seeing him interacting with the Manoncourts, especially Marie-France, you might easily assume that he is part of the family. Despite that devotion, he is able to give an outsider’s perspective, remaining more objective than if he actually was a relative. He is also a renowned “axe man,” having learned guitar since the age of 11, and owns a large collection of guitars. (If you hear Eddie Van Halen’s solo from heavy-metal anthem “Eruption,” Faye’s favorite guitar solo of all time, ricocheting around the ancient walls of Saint-Émilion one night, it is probably emanating from Figeac.)
Thierry Manoncourt passed away on August 27, 2010, with an innings of 92. Over 1,000 mourners attended his funeral, paying their last respects to a figurehead not just of Figeac or Saint-Émilion, but the region of Bordeaux, insofar as he was a founder member of the Union de Grand Cru and long-term president of the Jurade de Saint-Émilion. Since his passing, Marie-France has taken the helm and made important decisions, not least green-lighting the complete overhaul of the winery, and guided Figeac toward a status that is higher than just a decade ago.
The oldest Merlot vines in the vineyard, due to celebrate their century in the near future. The 2001 fruit is ready for picking.
I have made two or three tours of the vineyard with Frédéric Faye, inspecting the 40 hectares of vine that have remained unchanged for decades, except for two parcels exchanged by Thierry Manoncourt with his neighbors. The highest point of the Günzian gravel ridge (or croupe) that extends from Cheval Blanc is 39 meters in height and forms three distinct slopes within Figeac. The alluvial gravels originate from central France and mainly consist of quartz and flint with some iron deposits. “It makes us a Pomerol,” quipped Faye. “Gravel enhances drainage and creates a warmer microclimate. It is why more Cabernet is planted at Figeac, while parcels with a little more clay are planted with Cabernet Franc. The average vine age is 40 years.”
The vineyard consists of 30% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, all cultivated organically. Almost three-quarters of the vines are located on the three gravel croupes, the lower sectors on sandier soils that habitually enter the second label. Inter-row grass is cultivated to enhance drainage and reduce vigor, fertilized with manure from local cows and horses. Around 2.3 hectares has recently undergone replanting, two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest a mixture of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. “We have good rootstock at Figeac,” Faye explained. “In the past, we had SO4 and 5BB, and we are now using more 101-14, 161-49 and Gravesac. These tend to be a bit more powerful, so they are mainly planted on poorer soils. Now I feel that everything is planted on the right rootstock.”
The chef de culture is Christophe Lafon, who joined the château in 1991, having worked his way up from vineyard worker to technical director in 2010. “He is very sensitive to nature,” Faye commented, “very keen on protecting the environment, and he feels that Figeac is his own vineyard. He is in charge of all the work outside the château, including the vineyard, garden, forest and lake.”
Interestingly, in 2018, Figeac completed a study of its terroir, conducted not at the University of Bordeaux but at the University of Dijon. Asked why, Faye explained that he felt a Burgundy-based university would be more objective, and not swayed by the standing of their client. “This study included a climate change study for the next 30 years, specifically at Figeac,” Faye informed me. “A better understanding of the effect that climate change will have on our terroir, especially the soils, allows us to improve the orientation of our replanting. For example, a plot that is now planted with Cabernet Franc might be replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, as we see already that the parcel is drier and drier.”
The massal selection program was incepted in 2009 in order to preserve the DNA of the oldest vines across the three grape varieties. “Massal selection is still ongoing and I am very excited about the capacity of this research to improve our vineyards in the future. We already use clones from the massal selection for inter-planting, and in each new parcel planted, a proportion of the vines come from our clones. We are focused on aromatic and tannic quality, alcohol potential, and disease resistance – particularly resistance to wood diseases like esca. Massal selection is a guarantee of the continuing quality and identity of Figeac, to help us prepare for the future. But it is a very long project. On a related note, this year we have a parcel of Merlot that is celebrating its 100th birthday, and we have vinified this parcel separately, just for fun.”
The vineyard team has trialed sexual confusion to control insect pests, although the results were unconvincing and have been halted for the time being. More than half of the vineyard is farmed organically under Lafon and technical director Jean-Pierre Romain. Historically, Figeac had fairly high yields, in part because Thierry Manoncourt was never totally swayed by green harvesting and only begrudgingly accepted the practice.
The early-picked Merlot entering the reception area of the new winery.
“Sorting begins in the vines,” Faye explained. “We do a huge amount of work before the harvest, passing through the vines multiple times to take off any diseased or dried bunches. This means that when our harvest team actually harvests, although they still need to be careful and select only good bunches, the state of the harvest is already very clean. At the winery reception, we first use a vibrating sorting table, and then a sorting table with eight people for hand-sorting and checking on the bunches. After de-stemming, the berries pass through an optical sorter. This system is the same every year, so we have a lot of experience with this method, and it works very well at Figeac. I want to stress that the most important work is in the vines before the harvest. If we start thinking about sorting only when the fruit arrives at the winery, it’s already too late.”
Figeac Winery 3.0
In the summer of 2018, I attended the dinner held in the old barrel cellar, the last hurrah before it was demolished. A glass-encased model of the new winery indicated the scale of the new facility, which is essentially the third incarnation after Thierry Manoncourt oversaw modernization in the 1970s.
This picture, taken in the upper level of the new vat room, gives an idea of the size. Somehow it reminded me of the deck on an ocean liner.
In subsequent months, I returned to the building site with Faye to see the progress, and I recall peering into an excavation that gave an indication of the enormous size of this project. To put figures on that, the size of the new winery is 5,500m2 compared to 1,600m2 before the renovations. I was able to tour the winery in June 2021 and, more importantly, again in September 2021, when it was fully operational and receiving its first fruit. I asked Faye about the goals of the new winery.
“The three biggest goals are, firstly, more precision for vinification, particularly strengthening our ability to vinify by plot and even within plots. Secondly, increasing the quality of barrel aging, especially through better temperature and humidity control, and the ability to easily access each barrel to taste them regularly, something that was very difficult in the old barrel cellar, as the barrels were stacked on three or four levels. Thirdly, to improve the workplace for our employees, providing more space and natural light and less noise pollution.”
The new winery is equipped with 32 stainless steel vats ranging from 50 to 125 hectoliters in volume. For research and development, Faye has the use of eight small stainless steel vats of 570 liters to 10 hectoliters. Finally, there are eight 100-hectoliter oak tanks. There is also far greater use of gravity to transfer fruit. Faye explained: “We have small, rolling, 400-liter stainless steel baskets that we can pull up with an electronic arm. Once the basket is on the top level, we roll it to our desired tank and open the bottom of the basket, which releases the must into the tank. All of our tanks have a unique conical shape, which was specifically developed for us to optimize maceration and extraction.”
“In the oak tanks, we do a traditional and, nowadays, very rare extraction method called submerged cap after fermentation. This has been an important part of vinification at Figeac forever, although it was Monsieur Manoncourt who truly mastered the method. To do this extraction, the oak tanks must have a completely open top, which means that the stainless steel cover is huge and weighs more than 200kg. For the new winery, we had two goals for these lids: to create a lid that could hermetically seal (with the aim of eventually testing the aging of wine in oak tanks rather than barrels) and to find a system by which the lids could be opened and closed by one person without risk of injury. We did not want to use a motorized system, as these can easily break and create pollution in the cellar. So we worked with a theatrical stage equipment company. They usually create background scenery for theaters, which works using pulleys and levers. They invented for us a system that uses a large counterweight that allows a single worker to safely open and close the lid, and also holds the lid in place when open.” Indeed, on my visit in June, Faye invited me to lift one of the vat lids, and it was remarkably light, needing hardly any effort to raise and lower.
The new Figeac vat room.
In the Barrel Cellar
Next we toured the extensive, almost labyrinthine barrel cellar. I might have gotten lost if Faye had suddenly vanished among the interconnected rooms. The cellarmaster is Jean Albino, who grew up on the estate because his parents worked at Figeac. Albino started in the cellar in 1983 and was promoted to cellarmaster in 1995, while the technical director is Romain Jean-Pierre, who originally comes from Dijon.
Faye continued: “First of all, the barrel cellars are now underground. The first is at six meters in depth, and the second is at 12 meters, so that the barrels can be filled by gravity. The cellars are equipped with very precise temperature and humidity control systems, even though we use much less energy than previously, due to their subterranean nature. As the barrel cellars are now much larger in surface area, we will only have one level of barrels, making both daily work and regular tastings much easier.”
Figeac has been matured entirely in new oak since the 1960s, irrespective of the growing season. I asked about the types of barrels used.
“We have five main coopers who produce barrels specifically for Figeac, and this year we are testing three new coopers. [Previously, Faye told me that they use Sylvain and Nadalie for the Merlot, Demptos and Tonnellerie Bordelais for Cabernet Franc, and Seguin Moreau, Taransaud and Bel Air for Cabernet Sauvignon.] Our list of technical specifications for the barrels is 35 pages long. We are a nightmare for the coopers, but they somehow stay very good friends. Every year, we invite our coopers to come and blind-taste all of the barrel lots of a certain variety. The last time it was Merlot. Everyone grades the lots based on many taste and olfactory factors. Our R&D director then analyzes the statistics so that we can ascertain the effect that each type of barrel has on the wine. Based on these results, we can work with our coopers to make their barrels, so that they are even more adapted for Figeac. We need the micro-oxygenation from new barrels to make the wine more harmonious, but we definitely don’t want the aromas or flavors of new oak. Based on many years of experience with our coopers, we know even before barreling which variety will go into which type of barrel. Going forward, one of our areas of research will be testing larger-format 400-liter barrels for aging, specifically for Cabernet Franc before the blend.
One of the vats on the cusp of fermenting its first vintage. Note the transparent window that enables the team to observe what is happening inside.
“We have added a lot more storage for bottles, so we have larger capacity to age wine at the château, as well as a dedicated labeling room that greatly reduces the noise of the labeling machine. We’ve also integrated a new R&D center into the winery, where we continue scientific research in the spirit of Monsieur Manoncourt. One important result of our project is that from A to Z, from the winery reception to bottling and labeling, everything happens in one facility that is connected and open, where we have total control over temperature, humidity, light, sound and so on. The Manoncourt family took advantage of the project to renovate our reception facilities to improve the visitor experience and our capacity to host Figeac lovers.”
“One of the biggest self-imposed constraints was to respect our natural and architectural heritage. No trees were cut for the construction, no vines were uprooted, and we actually reduced our total roof size by 20%. As 70% of the new winery is underground, we can rely on natural temperature moderation to limit our energy expenditure. The new cellar is mainly made of recycled materials from the previously existing buildings, and all new stone came from a local quarry. Ninety percent of suppliers and artisans are local companies. We should be certified HQE in the next year. We wanted to do this earlier, but it was too much paperwork during the construction! It was the decision of the family to build the new facilities attached to their château. For them, it is extremely important that the winemaking is at the physical center of the domain, as it is at the spiritual center.”
Approximately 30% of the production is bottled as a second wine labeled Petit Figeac. Thierry Manoncourt had introduced a second label as far back as 1945, which he christened La Grange Neuve de Figeac, and it was renamed Petit Figeac from the 2012 vintage. It is raised in 20% new and 80% one-year-old oak for 16 months. The Manoncourt family also owns two other properties. Firstly, there is the 4.5-hectare Château La Fleur Pourret, located close to the town of Saint-Émilion on limestone soils; it yields a blend of 54% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon that sees around 10% new oak. Secondly, there is Château de Millery, which Thierry Manoncourt acquired in 1942. This little-known, one-hectare property is located in Saint-Christophe des Bardes and is an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Only 4,000–5,000 bottles are produced each year.
These tasting notes are culled from different sources, the main ones being a vertical at the château in June 2021 and another organized by Figeac’s Austrian/German importer four months later. These are supplemented by notes from private dinners and tastings, including one or two of the ancient vintages from Thierry Manoncourt’s birthday lunch at Taillevent in Paris. If we take the purview as the post-war era, then for this writer, the high points of Figeac are from 1947 to 1971 and then from 2009 to the present day. Within these two high plateaus, there are what you might term “golden eras”: 1947–1964 and 2014–2020.
Figeac has always been an endlessly fascinating Bordeaux wine because of its unorthodox blend of grape varieties. There is a kind of duality at play, part Left Bank, part Right Bank. A bit like a lenticular picture, it is different depending on what way you look at it, sometimes undoubtedly Saint-Émilion, another day more Pomerol-like, and then a doppelgänger for a Médoc. A great Figeac is a Janus, marrying the virtues of the Left Bank and Right Bank to make a wine that is more than the sum of its parts. In these instances, the wine repays decanting, as if there is some kind of internal interaction between these two elements, the Merlot reacting with the Cabernets, to create a wine that is uniquely Figeac.
Among the older vintages, my personal picks have been the 1947, 1949, 1950, 1955, 1961 and 1964. Of course, provenance plays a crucial role, and I have been fortunate to have tasted nearly all of these vintages ex-château, but what you often find is a spellbinding, ineffably complex wine that does not forget its primary duty to be delicious. These are all testament to the sagacity and fortitude of Thierry Manoncourt. When his peers were being inveigled to replant their Cabernet with Merlot, as the INAO was advising at the time, he remained true to the field blend of his vineyard. Now, with global warming, those same peers are regrafting their Merlot with later-ripening Cabernet Franc and, more recently, Cabernet Sauvignon. But you have to possess the terroir to do this, and in this respect, Figeac, and for that matter, Cheval Blanc, are the natural homes of these varieties thanks to their gravel croupes.
The 1970s do have one or two gems, not least the 1970 and, yes, the 1971 Figeac. After that, I feel that inconsistency started to creep in. Some bottles of the 1982 Figeac have been great, but others come across a little green. Vintages like the 1983 and 1985 Figeac are pleasant, though they never demand superlatives like Cheval Blanc in those years. By the 1990s, there are vintages such as the 1996, where it was clear something needed to change lest Figeac’s reputation be permanently damaged.
And that’s exactly what happened. At the turn of the 21st century, Figeac started regaining its mojo, commencing not with the 2000 but with the very fine 2001 Figeac. Then the 2009 and 2010 put Figeac back in the top league of Right Bank producers; the former was glorious when served blind at the château in June, like a star athlete limbering up for the long run. There was audible gnashing of teeth when it was announced in 2013 that Michel Rolland would be consulting at Figeac, and grumblings that he would be driving the bulldozer himself through the Cabernet to plant more Merlot. This was utter rubbish, of course. Rolland’s appointment coincided with the modern golden age, in which Figeac has not only remained loyal to the Cabernet/Merlot blend that forms its DNA, but in fact meliorated the quality of the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Under Frédéric Faye, the wine has attained more harmony and, without question, much more precision, and this will surely be enhanced by the new winery, which will allow a more bespoke Figeac to be crafted. My scores for recent vintages are self-explanatory: They represent some of the greatest wines being made on the Right Bank today. Period.
The new winery gives Faye and his team a new toolkit to tailor an even more precise wine. Though it looks impressive, it is a functional winery, and as Faye escorted me through each process, it was clear that there is nothing superfluous to requirements. That functionality was evident as I observed the maiden harvest entering the reception area in September, when everything appeared to be ticking away like clockwork. Faye exudes an air of calm, as if nothing could ruffle him, and that translates across to team members who know their roles and just get on with it. To Faye, a happy team is the one that obtains the best results.
As both Faye and the Manoncourt family pointed out several times, it was important that modernization would not be at the expense of the original château. Though the family dwelling is conjoined with the modern winery, it remains a separate entity and visibly unchanged. In 2021, it is still a genuine family home, revealing mantelpieces strewn with family photos and ornaments and the pianola where the late Michael Broadbent could never resist tinkling the ivories. I hope it remains this way. Something would be irretrievably lost without the Manoncourts at Figeac, something that money cannot buy, a virtue that this Saint-Émilion has more than any other: soul.
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