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A St.-Emilion Fixer-Upper

Olivier Decelle dusts off Château Jean-Faure
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 27, 2011 12:30pm ET

We all have the dream—to maybe one day buy a little rundown winery in some out-of-the-way wine area and spend our time fixing up the place. Maybe a few acres of Grenache in the Languedoc for example, where costs and expectations would be relatively low and you could probably make your way without much trouble.

But how about a Bordeaux fixer-upper? One in St.-Emilion, located right next door to the famed Château Cheval-Blanc? Now that's jumping into the deep end. But it's exactly what Olivier Decelle and his wife, Anne, have done.

The Decelles were living in Paris while Olivier was working in another industry when he purchased the Mas Amiel property in the Maury appellation of southern France in 1998. It was supposed to be a weekend project and get-away home. But the wine bug quickly bit the Decelles hard.

Olivier soon cashed out of his business and took the full plunge into wine, buying two small estates in Bordeaux, Château Haut-Maurac in the Médoc in 2001 and then Château Haut-Ballet in Fronsac in 2002. He learned winemaking as he went, hooking up with consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt for help along the way.

As he started to put down roots in Bordeaux, Decelle met the well-respected winemaker Jacques Boissenot, who gave him a tip. There was a property in St.-Emilion that was for sale, in the Figeac sector, located right behind Château Cheval-Blanc. Decelle was intrigued and he went to visit. He saw 45 acres of vineyards featuring sandy top soil over heavier clay. There were 50-plus-year-old Cabernet Franc vines. The vineyards needed some work, but they were in relatively good condition. Then he went to the winery.

"I took one look at the buildings and said 'never,' and walked away," said Decelle. For proof, he showed me pictures of rotting beams and floors and decrepit fermenting tanks.

"But Jacques told me the most important thing was the terroir. It nagged at me. A few months later I went back to take another look, and I decided to take the chance," said Decelle, a thin, handsome 56 with a coiffure of neatly combed white hair. It was 2004 when Decelle bought Château Jean-Faure, and he's been fixing it up ever since.

History counts for a lot in the world of French wine. The 1855 classification of Left Bank châteaus remains an integral part of the Bordeaux culture today, for example. The St.-Emilion classification riles up the Right Bank appellation every 10 years when it is redone. Château Jean-Faure was originally a well-respected grand cru classé, but it was dropped from the classification in 1986 and it had languished ever since.

Decelle is looking to regain a higher standing for Jean-Faure when the new classification is released in 2012. France loves its dogma and, consequently, a château without a ranking can struggle for acceptance with négociants and sommeliers, making its wines a hard sell. Decelle has learned first hand how to make a small fortune in the wine business (start with a large one) and he feels the pressure to see Château Jean-Faure listed among the great names of St.-Emilion once again. The dossier he has filed to argue his case for the 2012 classification is a thick, heavy spiral-bound tome, with soil analysis from top vineyard experts such as Claude Bourguigon, Xavier Choné and others, and scads of articles and research. But ultimately, the quality needs to be in the bottle.

"I know what we can do here with the wine," said Decelle, calmly yet firmly. "When we got here, we saw how deep the roots were on the old-vine Cabernet Franc. The vineyards were in good shape, much better than the buildings. We started replacing the dead vines, vine by vine to bring the density back up but keep the average age high. We are doing a sélection massale (selecting buds from only the best vines for grafting) for the Cabernet Franc. We added new drainage as well. We are bringing this place back to life."

Decelle spent the first two years renovating the winery and château, installing new small wood and cement vats for smaller parcel fermentation, buying new barrels and bringing the production side into the modern era. He still works with Derenoncourt and has also hired young Aymeric Roborel as the in-house winemaker.

From there, Decelle began to focus on the vineyards. By the 2007 vintage, he feels he had the control he wanted. As we tasted through a vertical covering the 2004 through 2009 vintages, it was clear that Decelle has Jean-Faure on an upward trajectory.

The Château Jean-Faure St.-Emilion 2005 shows the power of the vintage, though it doesn't quite capture all the density and complexity it could have, a function of the deficiencies in place when Decelle took over. The Château Jean-Faure St.-Emilion 2007 shows the improvements made in the cellar—it's a very solid wine despite the weaker year. And then with the Château Jean-Faure St.-Emilion 2009, the changes in the winery and vineyards finally come together to produce the best wine yet under Decelle's stewardship, with dense but rounded blackberry and red currant fruit and a strong, polished, grip-filled finish that lets lots of tobacco lurk in the background (the wine earned a Wine Spectator barrel rating of 90–93 points, and my formal review of the now-bottled 2009 will appear soon).

The 2010 is also very promising; I tasted through several components during my visit. In 2010, Decelle and his team began using demi-muids and foudres for the élevage, as well as barrels, employing Burgundian and Rhône methods in addition to traditional Bordelais techniques. (The Decelles are good friend with Christine Vernay and Paul Amsellem in Condrieu, and they also partner with Pierre-Jean Villa in a new small Burgundy operation.)

A sample of the 2010 Merlot is dense and sappy. A small section of Malbec vines, 50 years old, deliver punchy briar and cassis. The core of the wine, the Cabernet Franc, shows sleek currant and anise notes with a very strong spine when tasted from barrel. The same Cabernet Franc parcel tasted from demi-muid shows a lusher profile, with more fig cake and spice notes and a well of tobacco. It could well surpass my initial barrel rating of 88–91 points from my 2010 en primeur tastings last March.

We all have the dream to buy a vineyard and fix it up. For most of us, it is just a dream. For the Decelles, it's real life.

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

switzerland —  January 3, 2012 10:27am ET
What a pleasure to read this! This is a wine that is a hit here in Switzerland. Bordeaux lovers were quick to realize the outstanding potential of this wine. All the horses are not white ... Bravo for this article

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