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The Bordeaux Diary: Back to Terra Firma, With a Stop in Fronsac

World-renowned consulting enologist Michel Rolland and his wife, Dany, call Château Fontenil home
Photo by: James Molesworth
A sweeping view of Fronsac stretches out from Château Fontenil, the home of Michel and Dany Rolland.

Posted: Dec 17, 2012 12:30pm ET

Finally, after 11 straight days of all-day tasting, it was time to get some fresh air. I slammed my laptop closed to punctuate the end of the tasting, put on my vineyard shoes (it's rained steadily since I've been here and the vineyards are muddy) and headed over to Fronsac to get back in touch with terra firma. After all that, my first stop is Fronsac, you ask? Not a first-growth or Sauternes estate?

With 2,000 acres of vines and 71 producers, Fronsac is just a blip in the overall scheme of Bordeaux. It pales in size and reputation to its cross-river neighbor St.-Emilion, for example, and the wines are often overlooked by the marketplace. But there must be something to Fronsac, if Michel and Dany Rolland call it home.

Michel Rolland is a prominent consulting winemaker, known for his orangutan arm's-length client list and a penchant for producing clean, polished, well-fruited wines sometimes derided by some critics as too modern or too uniform in style. While Michel is often working abroad, Dany minds the store—as CEO of the Rolland Collection she overseas the couple's five Bordeaux estates as well as their projects in South Africa, Spain and Argentina, all while also running the Pomerol-based lab the couple have had since they started it first in Libourne in 1973.

"When we bought this place, we were just looking for a house," said the charming Dany, 64. Despite being petite, she's standing outside on a dull, gray, cold day without a coat. A knifing breeze played with her dramatic swoosh of bright blond hair, but she was unfazed by the weather, gesturing instead to the sweep of vines that starts just outside the door of Château Fontenil, the Rollands' home in the town of Saillans. "The house was dilapidated and there were [17 acres] of vines that needed to be restored. It needed a lot of work."

The couple bought the estate in 1986 and began making wine there right away, first in fiberglass vats before eventually renovating the cellars to stainless steel in 1997 and then additional wooden vats in 1999. Today they produce just under 2,500 cases annually from 25 acres of vines including a few thousand bottles of a cuvée called Defi de Fontenil, sourced from a single plot of old-vine Merlot. In-house winemaker Thierry Haberer, 35, has been at the estate since 2008, moving up from South Africa where he first connected with the Rollands when they consulted with Johann Rupert during his dramatic changeover at L'Ormarins in Franschhoek.

"We have a special heavy clay soil here, but the bedrock of limestone is just 50 centimeters below," said Haberer. "We also have the bottom of a hill, slopes and then a flat plateau above. We have a slightly more northern exposure on one of the parcels. There's a little extra freshness and austerity to the wine, with a good backbone, because of that. And also, the Merlot ripens at least seven days after Pomerol. Because of that later ripening and the terroir, Fronsac has much more in common with St.-Emilion, even though Pomerol is closer."

In tasting through a mini-vertical, we started with the Château Fontenil Fronsac 2000, which shows a sauvage note on the nose and a sweet peppery edge through the wine's plush, dark, mulled fruit.

"Ah, c'est brett," said Dany plainly.

The note of brettanomyces is distinctive and obvious. But seeing the spoilage yeast, considered a technical flaw by many wine professionals, rear its head in a Rolland wine is jarring, since the couple handles analysis for numerous wineries and has that "modern-styled" reputation for their wines.

"Yes, but before 2000, Bordeaux did not really deal with brett. We hadn't done much research on it and didn't really understand it. Plus, things then were done more by tasting back then, not by testing," said Dany.

"And also, while it may seem rather recent in terms of dealing with brett, don't forget that for a long time, the Bordelais explained it away as part of the terroir," said Haberer. "Personally, I don't mind it in small amounts. But don't get me wrong, I am not pro-brett. I don't want it in our wines. A viable population, especially after bottling, is not acceptable."

"The problem is sometimes the treatment is worse than the problem," said Dany. "Before, the wine would be tested only before bottling, and if there was brett, you had to decide if you wanted to filter the wine to remove it, but also strip the wine of character and depth at the same time. Now, we test every lot after the malolactic, before the blending, and we can deal with it sooner, before the yeast population becomes viable. We are working so much better today than we did in the '90s or even 10 years ago. And today's young winemaker is much more sensitive to things like brett. They won't accept it. The older winemakers were more accepting, or less sensitive to it."

The Château Fontenil Fronsac 2005 is still firm, with the prominent tannic spine of the vintage. Its chalky frame is just starting to meld into the core of linzer and red currant fruit and the finish is beginning to yield a perfumy spice. Another few years and it should be fully on stride, and it seems clean and fresh, without any signs of brett at all.

"I think eight to 10 years is a good aging potential for Fronsac. Maybe a little longer in the big years," said Dany. "The wines have always been meant for aging. After phylloxera, many négociants came to Fronsac to buy wine to take and blend into other wines for strength. So, at the same time, insiders knew that Fronsac had a good reputation, but over generations the appellation also lost its identity because it didn't stand on its own. It has struggled to get it back ever since."

The Château Fontenil Fronsac 2009 is still quite taut, despite the generally plush, flattering style of the vintage. It stands squarely in the red fruit spectrum for now, with red currant and red licorice notes and will need a full decade to stretch out. It is plusher and more flattering though than either the 2005 or Château Fontenil Fronsac 2010, which shows a darker fruit profile, more sinewy feel and long chalk frame on the finish. The 2010 seems destined to unwind at a slower pace than the '09.

"Today, the problem is you have to work the vineyards so hard for great quality, but then the economic viability becomes an issue," said Dany. "When we started here, the estate was producing much more wine. In '90 even, we made [5 tons per acre]. In 2010 we made under [2 tons per acre]. We prune better, we green harvest now. Things that weren't done before. But there is a limit for what the wine can sell for in the marketplace, because no one knows Fronsac. At [2 tons per acre], you don't survive in Fronsac. We are lucky we have other parts of the business to help keep this going."

After a pause, she added with an air of wistful pride, "But Fontenil is our home. The vines are right by the side of the house. So despite the other stuff, we just love to work them as best we can, and make the best wine from them that we can."

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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