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A Southern Rhône Weekend Fixer-Upper

Bordeaux star Frédéric Engerer's Domaine Fontbonau is a passion project
Sophie Mage has overseen the Fontbonau makeover.

Posted: Jul 27, 2017 1:20pm ET

When you run Bordeaux first-growth Château Latour, you're a busy person. Throw in additional vineyards in the region, a domaine in Burgundy and Château-Grillet in the Rhône, and you probably don't have a minute to spare. So far Frédéric Engerer has proven up to task, with his combination of intensity and energy.

But still, everyone needs a little down time. So what did Engerer do? He bought a fixer-upper in the Rhône, of course.

Domaine Fontbonau is his personal project, outside the rubric of François Pinault's Artemis Group, which owns the estates noted above. Teaming up with his longtime friend Jérôme Sarda, Engerer found an estate in Monbrison-sur-Lez, a 40-minute drive north from Gigondas, near Domaine Gramenon. Sarda sold his family estate Sarda-Mallet in the Languedoc and was looking for a new project as well.

"Both Jérôme and I are concerned about climate change, so we were looking for a cooler area. And we wanted space, to build and create something," says Engerer. "So here, [99 acres], old Grenache, and an old house—it was perfect."

Of the 99 acres, 57 are classified in the Côtes du Rhône AOC. Purchased in 2008, there were 40 acres of old-vine Grenache at the time, with some of the plantings dating to the end of WWII. Several had to be pulled out right away, as they were dying. Replanting began, with 15 acres of new vines going in, bringing the current total to 43 acres. The rest of the estate has been planted to lavender, olive and truffle trees. In addition, the old stone farmhouse on the property has been renovated, so it's basically your southern France dream home.

"When you arrive in a new place, outside of what you are used to, you have to consider the culture," says Engerer. "And the Southern Rhône is poly-cultural."

Sophie Mage, 38, who'd previously worked at Latour, took the plunge and moved to Fontbonau to manage the estate from the beginning. Among the first things on the to-do list was to build a winery facility, completed in 2009. In went a range of small stainless steel vats so she could break down the existing vineyard parcels into small lots and see what they had to work with. At the northern limit for ripening Grenache, and at elevation of 240 meters and up, the site is late-ripening.

"We can have big differences between sugar and phenolic, so we have to pick harvest dates carefully," she says. "And we never use stems, because they simply don't get ripe enough."

"Coming from Bordeaux, I thought it would be easier in the Rhône [to manage a vineyard]," admits Mage. "But now, in comparison, I see that in Bordeaux after a rain, you have a few calm days and you can treat the vineyard. Here, the mistral blows right away and that makes things difficult. And this area is cooler and gets a little more rain than the rest of the Southern Rhône."

In addition to Grenache, Syrah accounts for about 25 percent of plantings. A little Roussanne and Viognier were added as well. The vineyards are situated on sandy soils, deep, with varying amounts of clay throughout, and limestone here and there. The resulting profile is fresh in feel, with silky tannins and alluring raspberry fruit.

As for setting up shop in an area he didn't know, and one that was the antithesis of first-growth Bordeaux, Engerer is sanguine.

"It was a bet. There was no reference point for us. And there was no reference point for the estate even as the grapes were being sold to a co-op, so we have nothing to judge it by," he says. "But it's a friendship [with Jérôme]. The joy of staying in your activity and doing what you know, but in a totally different setting, was perfect."

"Still, in an AOC like Côtes du Rhône, the market puts you in a bracket that is very hard to get out of. Our cost per bottle is just over 8 euros. Yet the market won't generally accept Côtes du Rhône above $25 retail (where an 8-euro bottle ex-cellar would likely wind up at U.S. retail). The schedule for a project is usually just quality. But here, it is both quality and economic sustainability. I have found a lot of respect for people who work in this area."

As new plantings come on line and reach full production, the goal is 2,000-plus cases annually, split between a first and second wine.

Quality has slowly crept up here since the initial vintages—to be expected as Mage learns the ins and outs of the vineyards and the plantings stabilize. The 2016 Fontbonau is very juicy and youthfully compact, with plum coulis and blackberry compote flavors. Its minerality is expressive and the pieces are all there, they're just bouncing off each right now rather than in harmony (élevage will tame that). The 2015 Fontbonau offers pure, sleek plum and raspberry fruit with a light mineral edge, a touch darker in profile than the '16, with light lavender and violet shadings through the finish.

Follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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