Chateau la Riviere
By George Stewart

The wine world will shortly be turning it’s gaze to the 2015 vintage campaign in Bordeaux and trying to figure out what it all means vis a vis the overall health of the wine trade. For those less interested by the skyrocketing prices of the finest appellations, perhaps seeking wines that offer better value but still the classic Bordeaux characteristics, there are communes in the region that have seemingly been left behind in the surge in price and demand which has marked the past twenty years in Bordeaux.

Poorman’s Pomerol, The Bridesmaid of Bordeaux; Fronsac has been known by many a trivialising moniker but are they fair to this oft dismissed patch of land? Even if the demand and price is yet to join the rest of the top regions in Bordeaux, the true barometer of Fronsac's success (and its daughter appellation Canon-Fronsac) is the quality of the wine. That, unlike the financial side of things, has most certainly been on the rise.

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"The true barometer of Fronsac's success is the quality of the wine...

That has most certainly been on the rise."

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The wines here can be a bit rustic compared to those of Saint-Emilion, but they are loaded with character that indicates their lack of interest in conforming to anything other than their own developing sensibilities of quality and style. Mostly made from Merlot as with the rest of the right bank, there is a bit more of a role here for Cabernet Franc than in Pomerol and a particular reverence for the quality of Malbec plantings; indeed there is far more acreage given to this neglected variety in Fronsac than in the rest of Bordeaux.

Cabernet Sauvignon does not come into the equation very much at all as it struggles to fully ripen in the heavy clay and argillo-limestone soils (known locally as the ‘Fronsac-molasse’) but it is this limiting soil type which arguably gives Fronsac its Ace in the Hole. Better suited to retaining moisture than the most enviable soils in the region it is impressively equipped for standing up to drought conditions and particularly hot vintages.

For example; 2003 (dry and blazing hot) was deemed a good vintage by many lovers of big, opulent wines, it was particularly successful in Fronsac where the wines retained a surprising amount of freshness and elegance. As vintages and the planet itself become hotter and drier, Fronsac will increasingly become the appellation of choice for those seeking elegance in the face of overly ripe, tannic vintages.

Though the modern revolution in Fronsac quality is due in large part to the influence of consulting oenologist Michel Rolland (a man whose mark on Bordeaux will likely never be unmade) the reputation of the appellation as a secondary player on the regional stage is modern itself. Historically Fronsac and it’s wines were among the finest and most well-regarded in Bordeaux; far outselling its Libournais neighbours of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion throughout the 17th, 18th and into the 19th centuries. Modern day Fronsac is an idyllic landscape that is clearly less commercial than many other parts of Bordeaux; rolling green hills, groves of woodland and relatively humble chateaux, but the history is long and venerable dating back to the earliest plantings of the region by the Romans.

Fast forward to the 20th Century and the increasing demand for the top properties in Bordeaux, this humble appellation has been the target of many an ambitious investor, seeking to make their own mark on the landscape. Outside investment from the United States and the Far East as well as elsewhere in Europe has led to some high-profile developments and renovations in the region. Chateaux La Vieille Cure, Fontenil and La Dauphine have all driven the rise in prestige for the region and are among the most well known; the latter two joining the Michel Rolland stable and benefiting from the same wine-making expertise which he has given to Pontet-Canet, Troplong-Mondot and Phelan-Segur among countless others.

The increased attention given to Fronsac is a very encouraging sign of the diversification and increased variety available in the region as a whole. If Fronsac is the poor man’s Pomerol, then it offers very good value indeed. The top-rated wines of the region are very reasonable indeed with few exceeding £25 per bottle, meanwhile this is roughly where the more sought after appellations will start in price.

If you are looking for something a little different from Bordeaux; a different terroir or a slightly different style, then Fronsac is a solid option. They live long and develop into some very engaging, enjoyable clarets with time. Those wines made ‘a la mode Rolland’ of course have a lot in common with Pomerol and naturally offer an excellent value alternative for a Right Bank lover.