An American in St. Emilion

Could it be that an American, Stephen Adams, will bridge–and bring together–the two faces of Bordeaux’s major Right Bank appellations?

St. Emilion and Pomerol have long been known for producing some of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines, such as Château Cheval Blanc, Château Ausone and Château Pétrus. Recently, it has also been known as home to a new wave of ‘garage wines’ such as Valandraud. These highly extracted, highly concentrated, small production bottlings have been criticized by some French detractors as ‘New World’ interlopers in Bordeaux. There are formidable advocates on both sides of the debate sparked by wines of this type. Christian Moueix, whose family owns Château Pétrus, also owns the classically fashioned Château Magdelaine in St. Emilion and is clearly not an advocate of ‘garagiste’ wines. Among those taking the ‘more is better’ approach is Gerard Parse of the not-so-garage-like property, Château Pavie.

Stephen Adams

Enter Stephen Adams, a low profile but very wealthy American businessman who was bitten by the wine bug relatively late in life on a honeymoon trip to Bordeaux in 1999. Unlike most wealthy Americans who opt for Napa or Sonoma when they want to ‘get into wine,’ Adams chose Bordeaux and started collecting properties there. As with many ‘collectors,’ Adams started low, with Château Lagarosse, a property in the down-market appellation of premier Côtes de Bordeaux, but rapidly started buying in the more upscale St. Emilion and Pomerol appellations.

Adams now owns 6 properties on the right bank (Château Roylland, Château de Candale and Château Fonplégade in St. Emilion, Château L’Enclos in Pomerol, and Château Bel-Air in neighboring Lalande de Pomerol in addition to Château Lagarosse), and is now looking for sites in the Médoc. His flagship, Château Fonplégade, is perfectly situated in the heart of St. Emilion, on the south-facing slope adjacent to Château Arrosée and just down the road from Perse’s Château Pavie. Neighboring Château Canon and Ausone attest to Fonplégade’s ideal location.

A Change in Style

Adams’ early wines, the 2004s, are a poster child for the ‘new wave’ Bordeaux–big and boisterous–very oaky and extracted. But the more recent wines are rich and lush, with beautiful balance and reflect their individual appellations. The change could be due to the usual ‘learning curve,’ a conscious effort to change the style, or as Marjolain de Coninck, who, as Adams’ general manager, oversees all of his properties, believes, ‘Better vineyard management, which has resulted in a higher quality of fruit.’ Whatever the reason, they have turned down the volume with their 2005s–and especially their 2006s–so you can hear the music. Their 2006s are superb across the board–even better than the 2005s in my opinion, although de Coninck prefers their 2005s–with a wonderful glossiness and exquisite harmony.

De Coninck is pleased with the change in direction and believes their wines from the 2007 vintage, a difficult one because of variable weather, will be even better than their excellent 2006s because they are still seeing beneficial effects from changes they’ve made in the vineyard. She says ‘Adams has given us enough money to spend time in the vineyards so we can find the balance in the wine.’

De Coninck notes their vineyards are not organic, nor do they practice biodynamic farming. ‘We use common sense and employ treatments when necessary.’ It’s a maritime–read, wet-area, and the soil and vines need to be treated periodically to prevent mildew and odium. She notes, rather pragmatically, that you need to accept it and not be tied blindly to a particular philosophic approach.

Lower Yields and Better Selection

They prune and use other techniques to reduce yields–previous owners were more interested in quantity over quality. Olivier Nouet, Adams’ CEO, stressed the importance of reducing yields, ‘The first thing we did at Fonplégade after we purchased it in 2004 was to reduce production by a third, from about 45 hectoliters per hectare (hl/ha) to about 30 hl/ha.’ The other major decision that increased quality was to reduce the amount of wine destined for the grand vin and put more into a second label, Fleur de Fonplégade, which now accounts for anywhere from 40 to 50% of the production. They are repeating that refrain–lower yields, better selection–at their other properties.

Château Fonplégade

Château Fonplégade, classified as a St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé, has 18 ha (about 45 acres) of vineyards planted primarily (91%) with Merlot and a little (7%) Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Sauvignon rounds out the blend. Marine Dubard, the winemaker at Château L’Enclos, points out that Cabernet Sauvignon planted in a vineyard in St. Emilion is a good sign because–although it doesn’t comprise much of the blend–it’s a marker for a warmer area, which means better ripening of the other varieties. The vines at Fonplégade vary in age from 15 to 30 years. The older ones’ roots go deep through St. Emilion’s prized soil, shallow clay overlying limestone.

The newly renovated winery sparkles and is the ideal setting for the modern vinification methods Adams is embracing. They replaced the cement fermentation tanks with wooden ones in time for the 2004 harvest, their first vintage. Gleaming stainless steel tanks stand like small missile silos surrounded by pale wood and granite. Since the wine is aged in 100% new oak for about two years, they spared no expense on the barrel room, which is humidified and air-conditioned. The Château itself, with French and American flags flying high, dates from 1852 and has been lovingly restored by Adams. It is grand in style, more in the Médoc tradition than the modest properties sprinkled on the Right Bank. It should be on every traveler’s itinerary for St. Emilion.

Château L’Enclos

Pomerol, a miniscule town with only about 15% the vineyard area of neighboring St. Emilion, is dominated by its church with its high, prominent solitary steeple projecting over the flat landscape. It’s known now for its wines, but formerly was such an important stop on the way to Santiago di Compostella that the Knights of Malta protected it, which explains why the symbol of the town is the Maltese Cross.

Château L’Enclos, with its 9 ha of vines (Merlot 85%, Cabernet Franc 12% and Malbec), is actually sizeable for Pomerol, where the average property has only half as large. Traditionally European customers have purchased almost all its wines–even before they’re bottled–but hopefully now under the Adams umbrella we will see more of these gems on our shores.

Adams purchased L’Enclos in 2007 and is already embarking on the program that worked well at Fonplégade. They plan to renovate the winery so they have more space for smaller tanks to allow ‘more precision in blending parcel by parcel, ‘ according to winemaker Marine Dubard. The first purchase Dubard made was a small stainless tank so she could ferment Cabernet Franc separately instead of cofermenting it with the other varieties as had been done previously. They plan to replace the Malbec because it was a poor clone that was planted in the 1970s. They eventually will select wine from the lesser parcels and younger vines for a second label.

The Future

Adams’ overall strategy for his other properties is the same: modernize, select and make a wine that reflects the locale. At Château de Candale, located in a satellite commune of St. Emilion, half the wine goes into a second label. At the less well-situated properties, Château de Bel-Air and Château Roylland, their aim is to make a wine that’s good value for the money.

With Château Fonplégade, Adams has revitalized and modernized the wine without eviscerating and obliterating its character. He has taken advantage of the property’s exquisite exposure and terroir to make concentrated wines, but has resisted the temptation of making wines that are ‘over the top.’ He’s repeating this successful formula at his other properties. Other ‘new wave’ producers on the Right Bank should take notice.

January 13, 2009