There's literally a breath of fresh air at Château Figeac these days. As I walked through the chai, the scent of wood was light, gentle and pure. The heavier layer of warm bread dough and slightly stuffy air that used to hang here has been blown away, thanks to new temperature-control units and ventilation put in by general director Frédéric Faye.
I caught the first whiffs of change here when I stopped by to taste during the 2013 en primeur campaign to discover that Figeac has made one of the biggest surprises in that difficult year. Faye has kept himself busy since then, and as we walked the vineyards and toured the updated chai, the scale of Faye's undertaking began to take shape.
Faye started at Figeac as a trainee in 2002, was promoted to vineyard manager in 2008, then technical director in 2010. He was moved up to general director in 2013 amid a flood of (rebuffed) sale rumors and by the owning Manoncourt family, who wanted a shift in direction for the estate. At just 33, Faye is among the youngest general directors of an A-list château. And he's attacking the job head on.
First, he's upping the Cabernet Sauvignon percentage in the vineyard from 35 to 40 while decreasing Cabernet Franc in areas where it isn't well-suited. Since 2009, malolactic is being done in stainless steel tank only, before moving to barrel, for better consistency. In addition, individual parcels are not only being picked separately, but sometimes are harvested in two or three smaller blocks, for better precision, and then fermented in smaller vats. Starting in 2014 the winery will be gravity flow only—no more pumps to move the juice.
And perhaps most telling, as the aromas in the chai indicate, is the oak regimen. Faye put his coopers to the test, having them blind taste the wine from barrel. Some coopers gave bad marks to the wines from their own barrels. From there, the field was culled down to just five coopers while competition was spurred amongst the cooperages to make sure Figeac was getting the best-quality barrels.
Lastly, there is no longer a set blend of one-third each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot for the grand vin. Since 2012, Faye has tinkered with the blend to suit the vintage—40 percent each Cabernet and Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc in '12, while the surprise 2013 was an ample 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and just 30 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc.
"Figeac is a puzzle," said Faye. "Because of the three varieties and the three terroirs we have. We have a site that handles extremes well. In 2003 when it was hot, we have clay with water reserves. In 2012, the gravelly spots atop the hills drained best. Cabernet Sauvignon likes drought, Cabernet Franc likes water and Merlot likes everything. And our harvest can stretch over four weeks, because of the varying terroir and cépages combinations. The key is to adapt to each vintage."
Figeac is indeed a puzzle. A beautiful 99-acre vineyard with three rolling hills of sandy gravel of varying depths located just across the road from Cheval-Blanc, Figeac is capable of producing a wine of both power (as in 2009 and '10) and gorgeous perfume (try the '01 and '04 now if you can). The puzzle has resulted in a lack of consistency from year to year. Figeac should be regularly among the elite wines of Bordeaux, but it's been passed by other St.-Emilion estates with more focused and driven direction, such as Pavie and Angélus.
But today Faye seems to be figuring out the puzzle. And he's doing it quickly. As one prominent négociant told me when I chatted with them about Figeac this past spring, "Frédéric Faye has been there a long time. He is young and very passionate. He knows the property like the back of his hand. This could be something special in the making. Let's wait and see."