Saint Émilion’s Jewel: Château Figeac’s Rise

Exterior view of Château Figeac’s new winery with grapevines in the foreground

Château Figeac was elevated to Saint Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ last year. Raymond Blake visited the estate recently and concurs with the widely held view that the recognition was long overdue

My wife and I like to think we have some nice bamboos growing in our back garden, tall and wavy and ever so slightly exotic. But if you want to see real bamboo — and in an unexpected location — take yourself to Château- Figeac in Saint Émilion. There, a veritable forest towers way above head height and sits snug amongst the famed vineyards, on land that could actually be planted with vines. Taking a walk through it with Blandine de Brier Manoncourt (co-manager with her sister and mother) last June remains one of the most memorable moments from a visit to the famed
château, which was promoted to Saint Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ last year. Many felt that this elevation to the top spot was well overdue, a sentiment with which I concur.

Tall bamboo trees tower overhead in a veritable forest adjacent to the vineyards at Château Figeac

Irishman Maurice Healy has long been regarded as one of the pre-eminent wine writers from the early decades of the 20th century and is best known for his two books: “Claret and the White Wines of Bordeaux” and the better-known “Stay Me with Flagons”. Writing in the former, published in 1934, he says: “Château Figeac produces a wine which vies with next door Cheval Blanc. Some seven or eight years ago the Café Royal could offer both wines of the year 1905; it was very interesting to see how the individual bottles varied, the victory now going to one château, now to the other. I never remember a tie!” In the latter book, published in 1940, having again sung the praises of Cheval Blanc, he repeats his high regard for Figeac: “Next door is Château Figeac, somewhat overshadowed by the glory of its neighbour; but there have been vintages in which Figeac has been no unworthy competitor, and higher praise could not be given.”

Healy’s assessment remains as valid today as when first penned some 90 years ago; the next-door neighbour commands the most attention but nobody is in any doubt about Figeac’s quality and character. Many factors influence that character but, for me, the key ‘ingredient’ in the Figeac style is the unusual blend of grape varieties: every vintage nearly always comprises ‘30-something’ of each variety, the 2022 being a 35:34:31 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting it en primeur last April I noted: “Intense and tingly fruit supported by juicy acidity and firm tannin. Plenty of everything — and in harmonious measure. Attractive interplay between vigour and elegance. A bright future

beckons. One for the cellar.” In years to come this vintage will be a wine of celebration, marking not only Figeac’s elevation to ‘A’ status but also the 130th anniversary of the acquisition of the château by the ancestors of the Manoncourt family in 1892. Skipping forward a half-century or more takes us to 1947 and perhaps the most important date in Figeac’s history, when Thierry Manoncourt, trained as an agronomist, agreed to spend a year at the château to help out his parents. That year turned into another half-century, and then some, until his death in 2010. In that
time, he left an indelible mark on Figeac and even today, with huge developments since his death, the modern Figeac can still be regarded largely as his creation.

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Spacious reception area with a restored Pleyel grand piano and a small library of wine books and some other musical instruments

The most visible development is the new winery, completed in 2021. It is a ‘tardis’ building, bigger inside than out and, when seen from the vineyards, it hunkers low and long in three big steps to match the contours of the ground. Inside, it runs to a total surface area of 5,000 square metres, the most impressive section of which is the pristine vat room, home to four dozen vats, the majority of which are conical stainless steel, varying in capacity from 50 to 125 hectolitres. These are supplemented by eight small mobile vats, also stainless, that are used for research and development purposes. Most impressive, however, are the large, 100-hectolitre wooden vats, clustered in a circle at one end of the vat room. Quirky details have always caught my attention and in this case the installation of a see-through stave in each vat was what set me snapping away with my camera phone. Apart from being an eye-catching talking point they are unlikely to influence the finished wine — ‘a whiff of seethrough stave’ is not about to become a tasting reference for Figeac.

Nonetheless, they are a clever innovation because at Figeac, more than many châteaux, visitors are particularly welcome. In this respect the Manoncourts are ahead of the curve. Until quite recently consumers turning up at a Bordeaux château, expecting a cellar door welcome like that experienced in Australia or California, were likely to be metby closed gates and unanswered doorbells. That is now changing but not all have devoted quite the same resources to making the visitor experience so memorable as Figeac has.

Cheek by jowl with the new winery can be found two tasting rooms as well as two spacious reception areas, the latter housed in a wing of the château. A restored Pleyel grand piano graces the grandest of these, together with a small library of wine books and some other musical instruments. Depending on the weather, guests can be entertained indoors or out on the large terrace and, either way, they will be well fed from the fully equipped catering kitchen. As a destination visit for a wine club of, say, a dozen or more members it could hardly be bettered.

I have always contended that you only truly get to know a wine when you put your feet on the ground that gives birth to it. Only then, seeing the place and meeting the people, is it set in context, given focus as it were. This is particularly true of Figeac whose total surface area runs to 54 hectares, all classified, of which only 41 are planted to vines. The remainder comprises forest and lake, garden and vegetable garden. Biodiversity, which is often given nothing more than lip service by winegrowers, is taken seriously here. The woods contain 70 species of trees, though that is topped by the three kilometres of century-old hedgerows and topped again by the one thousand Bengal roses that decorate the property.

Which is not to forget the bamboo forest. Should you ever get to Figeac make that your first port of call. It will be mine when I return.