The Manoncourt family, owners of Bordeaux's Château Figeac, has hired Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker with their eye on lifting the sleeping legend to the highest ranking in the next St.-Emilion classification. And family members want Bordeaux to know that Figeac is not for sale, despite rumors to the contrary.
Rolland, who begins work April 5 but has already helped blend the 2012 vintage, told Wine Spectator that Madame Marie-France Manoncourt, widow of longtime owner Thierry Manoncourt, approached him with a clear task. “My job is to make the wine as good as possible," said Rolland. "I think the terroir is incredible and I’ve always had a good relationship with the Manoncourts.”
Madame Manoncourt and other family members are also clear on another salient point. "It’s not for sale," said Hortense Manoncourt Idoine, president and co-general manager. “We get offers, but the answer is always the same. Figeac is a jewel and we have greedy neighbors.”
Rolland’s arrival comes not long after the family hired Jean-Valmy Nicolas as co-general manager and promoted Frédéric Faye from technical director to CEO. The shake up is part of a larger strategy to improve the quality and distribution of the wines while paving a steady fiscal path for the next generation. “We’ve taken steps to keep Figeac in the family,” said Idoine. “We realized we needed to be more present but also make it more professional.”
Figeac has been the focus of speculation since the 2010 death of owner Thierry Manoncourt, leaving his wife and four daughters as heirs to the estate, which was acquired by the family in 1892. It looked as if daughter Laure and her husband, Eric d’Aramon, would gain control of the property, but not everyone was happy with d’Aramon’s management.
Figeac, for decades considered a leader in St.-Emilion, was eclipsed in recent years by its neighbors. Wine merchants have complained that inconsistent pricing and uneven quality make it difficult to sell.
“The first thing to do is raise the quality of the wine to a high level. And they need a new cellar. That’s important when you are a premier cru,” said Jean-Christophe Mau, a château owner and négociant at Yvon Mau. “Michel is not a magician. He doesn’t have a magic wand. The estate has to decide to make great wine.”
The decision to make changes came last September when the new St.-Emilion classification promoted Châteaus Angelus and Pavie to Premier Grand Cru Classé A while Figeac remained ‘B.’ “It was a bad surprise,” said Idoine. “It was the last straw.”
When d’Aramon’s contract came up for renewal last November, the family made the painful decision that his era was over. He had been working at the estate since 1988. While heartbreaking on a familial level, Marie Manoncourt and her daughters are excited professionally, and believe that what is good for Figeac is ultimately good for the whole family. “Figeac has just turned a new page,” said Idoine. “It’s time for Figeac to regain its place in Bordeaux.”
Their plans are ambitious, hoping to usher in precision and modernity to Figeac but maintain its personality. The property dates back to the 2nd century, but its current boundaries took shape in the 19th century, having been divided several times, spawning La Tour-Figeac, La Tour de Pin-Figeac and Cheval-Blanc. Today, the estate has 99 acres of sandy gravel soil. The plots of warm, well-drained gravel soil excel at ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, a rare grape to find in significant amounts on the Right Bank.
A high-tech soil study, launched in 2008 and scheduled to finish in 2014, will redraw the plots based on soil and subsoil, allowing more precision in the vineyards. Plans are underway for a new cellar that will house vats matched in number and size to the plots, giving Faye and Rolland the means to improve fermentation and perfect the blend. “We’ve hired Michel for his experience and expertise,” said Faye. “The idea is not to change the style, freshness and elegance of Figeac.”
The hiring of Rolland has raised more than a few eyebrows in Bordeaux, as the well-known consultant is both admired and criticized for his polished, sometimes flashy style of wines. “I don't understand the move,” said one négociant. “There are other consultants on the Right Bank who would understand Figeac better, from the inside. You can't just write a check to someone and have them walk in and say, 'Do this, do that.' You need the kind of person who will be there all the time and work the property every day.”
But others think bringing in Rolland is a smart move. “Figeac needs help and everyone knows it," said another négociant. "Rolland is a master at blending and he will also give expertise in the cellar, in the vineyard. There is more to it than just his name. Figeac is a jewel and everyone would love to work the property and bring it back. And 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.”
The estate is also undertaking a new sales and marketing strategy, led by Jean-Valmy Nicolas, who was hired after approaching Madame Manoncourt with a business plan. Nicolas is the co-general manager of his family’s estate, Château La Conseillante. He said the goal at Figeac is to promote the estate while working with a small group of six or seven négociants who will sell 50 percent of the production, giving them large allocations, and “applying a cautious pricing strategy.”
Nicolas said his goal is to put the right person in the right job, and remove the family from day-to-day operations. It’s much easier to fire an employee than a family member. And there is no reason why the estate should not figure amongst Ausone, Pavie, Angelus and Cheval-Blanc as a Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ in 2022, he said. “It’s definitely possible. It’s a fantastic estate and one of the best terroirs in St.-Emilion.”
With additional reporting by James Molesworth.