The Secret Garden of Bordeaux
Undiscovered wines and wine regions don’t stay undiscovered forever
We all search for an undiscovered wine area. Mine has to include an enchanted countryside, which is almost everywhere in the Bordeaux region; it has to be off the beaten track away from masses of tour busses, and yet it must be easy to get to. The best way to find these areas (and sometimes it’s the only way) is to ask the locals, the ones that love wine and drive to their favourite chateaux on the weekend to pick up their case of wine.
One such destination is Fronsac, an undiscovered Bordeaux attraction, which includes the appellations of Fronsac and Canon- Fronsac. In this aptly named ‘Secret Garden of Bordeaux’ on the Right Bank, you will encounter beautiful and surprising landscapes as well as excellent wines, many undiscovered and greatly undervalued and all easily accessible from Bordeaux.
Quietly rising hills with wave upon wave of manicured vineyards, the land rises up from the confluence of the Dordogne and Isle Rivers near Libourne. Fronsac’s closest neighbours are the world renowned vineyards of Pomerol and the UNESCO territory of Saint-Emilion. Lying just off Highway E70 (or A89), Fronsac is easily missed if you are not actually looking for it.
‘The Secret Garden’ with it’s predominantly merlot wine is one of the oldest wine areas of Bordeaux and boasts an illustrious past. Of the two appellations within Fronsac, Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, Canon Fronsac at the southern end occupies hillier and steeper ground and produces stronger and more substantial wines.
The history of the Fronsac wine is long and celebrated, going back to the Gauls. The Romans built villas and a temple where today the ruins of Chateau de Fronsac stand. In 769 the Emperor Charlemagne had a fortress built on the Roman ruins at the Tertre to control the area. For over three hundred years Fronsac was the stronghold and centre of wine culture. This centre was known as Fransiasus –Chateau of the Francs – and became the most powerful fortress and military headquarters in Western France. Thus the modern Fronsac name was born. Alas, Charlemagne’s great fortification was destroyed in 1623. Some say Canon Fronsac received its name in the 1600s as the ships coming down the Dordogne River tested their canons by firing them into the marshes and western flank of the Fronsac hills. This was the only area not under cultivation at the time.
But celebrity status came back quickly to Fronsac in the mid 1600s. The superstar of the day, Cardinal de Richelieu, bought the Canon Fronsac fortification land with title for the children of his younger sister. Uncle Richelieu, after installing the family in various high positions, also took the liberty to fast track the wines of Canon Fronsac’s vineyards at Versailles and through grand parties that he held in his Fronsac chateau on the Tertre. As Richelieu held the wines of Canon Fronsac among his favourites he introduced them to all his high placed friends, including the King of France. This pleasing Fronsac wine withstood the test of time. In 1783 the court of the Dauphin at Versailles reserved the entire production of Chateaux Canon for themselves.
Fashion, politics, taste and marketing in later years let Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac slip out of sight from the world at large. Major tour operators usually focus their attentions on the celebrity chateau, the big guns of the Medoc, Graves or Saint Emilion. They tend to forget the little canon waiting out of sight on the banks of the Dordogne in the shadow of Saint Emilion and Pomerol.
Of the two appellations, Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, Canon Fronsac at the southern end occupies hillier and steeper ground resulting in more complex and full-bodied wines.
Events like the Fronsac Open Doors in October are a must-do, and have helped to open up ‘The Secret Garden’ of Bordeaux. Over 30 chateaux that are usually not open to the public welcome all for tastings and tours on that one special weekend. The highlight of the weekend is the dinner with the chateaux owners to taste a plethora of Fronsac wine along with an outstanding meal of local specialties - all comers welcome!
At the most recent Open Doors, the evening began with impressive pageantry and the introductions of the Brotherhood of Gentlemen or, La Confrerie des Gentilshommes, now men and women. These are the keepers of the Fronsac wine reputation who are elected by their peers. Dinner then commenced with four wines at each table and throughout the evening these wines were exchanged with different wines from other tables. You might taste over 20 or more Bordeaux wines by the end of the evening! (You can pick up your own personal breathalyzer gizmo when you enter the dining room).
The vineyards are mostly family owned where the average size is less than 10 hectares. There is a definite shift among many of these chateaux to make themselves more accessible and welcoming to the wine tourist. An excellent example of this is the Chateau de la Dauphine which has one of the most ultra modern wine production facilities in all of Bordeaux and offers tours and tastings plus truly excellent award winning wine. Wine critics of the region say this is a chateau to watch! In fact, Chateaux de la Dauphine was ranked higher than two of Bordeaux First Growths in a Canadian blind wine tasting of 30 Bordeaux wines in 2008.
‘The Secret Garden‘ is also a favourite destination for local hikers where you can find yourself suddenly walking part of the Route de Santiago de Compostela. Nearby this Route plan a stop for a wine tasting of Chateau Grand Renouil wine presented at the Chateau du Pavilion. Experience why Bordeaux is famous for their red wines but discover a super white wine at this Ponty family vineyard as well. Here is yet another example of a lesser known and undervalued wine.
Historical treasures like the caves of the imposing Chateau de la Riviere are hidden in the hills behind the chateaux. On a hot day the wine filled excavated stone tunnels that stretch for several kilometers let you escape to another era all the while escorted by a most entertaining torch wielding guide.
Undiscovered wines and wine regions don’t stay undiscovered forever, so if you looking for that affordable wine to lay down in your cellar, Fronsac should be high on your list of attractions in Bordeaux.