“Coming to Castillon is the closest thing to visiting Bordeaux thirty years ago,” Catherine Papon-Nouvel tells me on a visit to her 80-year-old vines at Château Peyrou. She purchased the property in 1989. At the time, the land just across the road was ten times the price. In fact, a lot has changed in those 30 years since she crossed the road from St-Emilion.
By the turn of the 21st century, a number of legendary St-Emilion growers had purchased properties in Castillon, their Côtes de Bordeaux neighbor to the east, including Stephan von Neipperg of Canon-La-Gaffelière, Stéphane Derenoncourt, the longtime consultant for Pavie-Macquin and many other properties, and Thierry Valette, whose family owned Pavie from 1943 until 1998. These growers bought land on the limestone plateau, believing it to be an extension of the formation locals had quarried to build the church, the town, the famous châteaus and the reputation of St-Emilion wines. The sudden demand for land in Castillon sent the average price of a hectare north of 50,000 euros (about $23,270 an acre).
Today, the land prices are once again low and the wine prices are remarkably low as well—reminiscent of Bordeaux 30 years ago. In our last Bordeaux tasting, our panels recommended more wines from Castillon than from any of the other Côtes de Bordeaux, and I rated several as exceptional—to later find out they were priced under $20. This past September, I spent a week in the region to find out how that might be possible, visiting properties whose wines we had recommended, and discovering others along the way
As it turns out, there was a time when Castillon was the seat of significant wealth in Bordeaux. You can find remnants of that time at Château d’Aiguilhe, the property Stephan von Neipperg purchased in 1998, adding it to his collection of St-Emilion châteaus. Sited on a high point in Castillon—at 315 feet, close to the highest point in the region—d’Aiguilhe was built as a walled fortress, benefitting from long views across the hills of the Dordogne. In the 13th century, it was a defense against the French at a time when Aquitaine was ruled by the English crown. The feudal lords of Aiguilhe built a castle where there once was a fort, and the property, before the French Revolution, encompassed 1,000 acres of vineyards, farmland and forest.
Only a few walls of the castle at Aiguilhe stand today, having been lost to a fire at the beginning of the 20th century. By the time von Neipperg purchased the property, it still covered 345 acres, now two-thirds under vines, the rest mixed agriculture and forest. He built a new winery in 2002, the most modern of any of his properties, and began to renovate the guard house and its vast, second-story great room. It’s an interesting place to taste the wines, as the view from the upstairs windows includes the spire of the church in St-Emilion, seven and a half miles away. Grown on the limestone plateau of Castillon, treated to the same care as von Neipperg’s St-Emilion properties, the wines don’t really taste like St-Emilion. I could appreciate the rich, fresh, merlot-based 2015, with its significant black tannins, and the 2012, bright and floral, ripe and cool, with herbal-tobacco notes. But I couldn’t find a direct association for them in my taste memories of Bordeaux wines from farther west.
Magali Malet-Serres, who handles communications for Vignobles Comtes von Neipperg, says the team has been focused on renovating the vineyards at Aiguilhe, and pointed out the vine nursery across the hill. It contains a massal selection of merlot from a parcel at La Mondotte dating to 1939, and cabernet franc from a parcel at Canon La Gaffelière dating to the early 1950s. It’s an important asset that von Neipperg has brought from St-Emilion, as the economics in Castillon would have favored -highly productive selections after the major frosts of 1956, when France was still in a post-War gloom. As Papon-Nouvel tells me, later in the week at Peyrou, “The forty-year-old vines are a catastrophe.” She prefers very old vines or very young vines, and is starting a massal selection at her vineyard this winter. Her 80-year-old merlot vines, on deep blue clay, produced a spicy, luscious, bright 2015 without any new oak to interrupt its open flavors. Like other top growers here, she is focused on plant material, and selections that will suit these hills, a transitional zone between Bordeaux’s maritime climate and soils, and continental France.
At Aiguilhe, the vineyard renewal is already producing wines that perform far above their price. Alexander Hall, who tracks land prices in Bordeaux at Vineyard Intelligence, a real-estate company specializing in vineyards, recently showed some properties in St-Emilion to clients, who then asked to see “off-the-track places.” He took them to Lalande-àPomerol, then to a wine shop, where he went straight to the selections from Castillon. “They were selling
the 2015 d’Aiguilhe for twenty-fi ve euros a bottle. ‘Fill your boots,’” he told his clients. (Stateside, the wine is available for that same price at wine.com.)
“Castillon has got the Bécot family, Thierry Valette, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Stephan von Neipperg—big names making consistently great wines,” Hall says. “They’ve broken through the ceiling of Castillon; these wines are not eight euros; they are twenty-five. But they should be priced with the St-Emilion Grand Cru Classés.
“People will not pay any more,” Hall asserts. “It’s ingrained in the market and tied to the appellation system. You go to many parts of the New World and if you make a great wine, no one will discount you for being on the wrong side of the street.”
If Stéphane Derenoncourt had settled in a corner of the Napa Valley, rather than in the eastern corner of Bordeaux, he and his wife, Christine, might be selling their wine for a much higher price. Any number of successful French winemaking consultants have bootstrapped their own labels in Napa Valley to produce small amounts of hyper=priced cabernet. The Derenoncourts take a different approach in St-Colombe, near the prow of St-Emilion’s limestone plateau where it juts into Castillon.
They founded Domaine de l’A with the purchase of ten acres of land in 1999, six of them planted to vines that were 30 years old at the time. They have since expanded to 28 acres, with 80 percent planted to merlot and 20 percent to cabernet franc, classic proportions for many vineyards in the region. By plowing the soil and managing the cover crop between the rows, they are working toward organic certification in 2020.
Christine has no preference for either technique, and says they are just different. “They provide two points of view that are complementary,” she says, adding that they have cut back on new barrels for aging. At their property in Castillon, they’ve found that less new oak gives them a more precise read on the terroir expression. “Clay is the power,” she says, pouring glasses of their 2013 and 2014. “Limestone is the freshness and longer flavors. The soils are complementary.” The 2013 shows its power in the immediacy of its chewy tannins, then lasts with pretty cherry flavors. The 2014, from a vintage Christine describes as a longer growing cycle with a lovely Indian summer, has a different structure. “You get the saltiness of the limestone at the tip of the tongue,” she explains, adding that, in Castillon, “It’s very easy to make powerful wines. The difficulty is to find finesse and elegance.”
Finesse and elegance were words used to describe Bordeaux wines 30 years ago, though, at some point, they became a euphemism for “thin,” as ripeness and richness have powered many contemporary Bordeaux wines to international success. Though they make less noise, there are some notable vignerons in Bordeaux who still use those words to accurately describe their wines, among them, the Thienpont family of Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol. Jacques Thienpont, who began Le Pin as a small side project with five acres of merlot and a garage winery in 1979, has since leveraged its success to purchase a property on the plateau in St-Emilion, L’If, and, more recently, L’Hêtre, at a fareastern edge of the limestone plateau in Castillon. He and his wife, Fiona Morrison, MW, partnered with his sister Anne’s family to buy Château Goubau, 25 acres of land—complete with an organic vineyard, a renovated winery and a guest house—to which they have since added another 11 acres. Maxime Thienpont, Jacques’s nephew, is overseeing the property and the wine. He and Morrison led me across the vineyard, then behind a bank of ancient cypress trees that protect Château Montagne, the derelict but spectacularly sited manor that came along with their latest vineyard purchase. Like L’Hêtre, it sits on the edge of the plateau, where the thick cap of limestone bedrock is visible at the cliff’s face.
While the limestone suggests a continuity of soil between here and St-Emilion, Morrison says that, in fact, farming here is very different. “The soil in St-Emilion is easier to work,” she says. “It’s pebbly and richer. Here, the soil is very compact when it’s dry; it’s more clay than loam.”
“When it’s wet,” Maxime adds, “the soil is sticky. When it’s dry, it’s hard. Because the soil swells up with water, it squeezes the roots and the vines get stressed as the roots are under pressure. Once the soil starts to dry out, it releases humidity slowly. The soil was still humid here in June this year, after two months without rain.”
Standing on the promontory of the cliff, the afternoon wind in September is cool and constant. “The wind comes from the northwest, from Scotland, a cleaning wind,” says Morrison, whose name gives away her similar provenance. The climate here is, in fact, more continental than just across the way in St-Emilion.
In the cellar at L’Hêtre, Maxime has renovated the concrete tanks and is using them, along with stainless-steel vats, to vinify the wine, though the two rotofermenters installed by the prior owners remain idle. “We prefer gentle remontage, just to wet the cap, with no punchdowns,” Morrison explains, pouring a wine with soft, juicy black-currant flavors, impressive for its depth and length of fruit, though more rustic than the wines of their other properties. It would be interesting to taste this next to Château Puygueraud, the Thienpont family seat two miles north, in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. Nicolas Thienpont, Jacques’s cousin, who makes the wines at Puygueraud, initially brought Jacques and Fiona to the property in Castillon. And, aside from the potential of the vineyard and the view, it was, perhaps, the family’s long ties to Puygeuraud that made the purchase of L’Hêtre an easy decision.
Next door to L’Hêtre, at the Château Pitray, Jean de Boigne remembers the Thienpont cattle grazing in the neighboring fields. “Their cows would escape and eat my grandmother’s roses,” de Boigne recalls. “Mr. Thienpont would come here to apologize with a case of VCC [Vieux Château Certan]. So sometimes my brother and I would open the gates because we wanted a case of wine.”
De Boigne is an aristocrat with little pretense; he carries himself like a tall, well-bred hippie and is serious about taking back the land, farming 75 acres of vines here and, since 2013, another 75 at Château Castagens. It’s another grand château farther south, above Castillon-la-Bataille, where there is an annual reenactment of the battle of Castillon, the effective end of the Hundred Years War. “In 1830, there were twins,” De Boigne explains. “One took Pitray and the other took Castagens. For us, we always said Castagens was lesser terroir than Pitray. It was sort of a family thing.” De Boigne changed his mind when he tasted a wine Stephan von Neipperg made from the vineyard. “I realized it was a great terroir,” he says. Von Neipperg had a deal to take fermage [a lease] for 25 years. But we talked and he was elegant—he is a family person, so he realized it would be better for Castagens to stay in the family. I took the fermage when I was forty and will give it back when I am sixty-five.”
Since de Boigne has taken over, he’s experimented with different vineyard selections and barrel regimes. He pours a bottle of his top selection, Madame, over a lunch prepared by Jean-Christophe Loste, a local chef, whose wife, Céline Lydoire, joins us with the top wine she produces at Château Bellevue. The Madame is de Boigne’s selection from seven parcels planted at Pitray between 1965 and 1970, vinified in cement tanks and aged in new 400-liter barrels. Lydoire opens Cé Ma Cuvée, a selection from Bellevue’s old merlot plots, and cabernet franc from southern exposures on gravelly soils. It spends 18 months in new 400-liter oak barrels. Both wines confuse me, as I wonder why these two talented vignerons are masking their best fruit behind oak. The 2015 Madame is a generous merlot delivering oak richness, though I prefer the fresher, basic Château Pitray, which may be more rustic, but reminds me that I’m drinking Castillon.
I had a similar reaction when I visited Céline Lydoire at Bellevue, not far west of Pitray, near the town of Belvès. She farms 34 acres of vines, most of them in a 20-acre parcel, with clay and limestone at the top of the hill, and what Lydoire describes as limoneux at the base of the hill, where the limestone has degraded into silt.
She and her parents came to Bellevue in 1998, and started by fermenting their wine in cement and storing it in stainless steel before bottling. Lydoire still makes her Cuvée Tradition that way, and the 2015 is spicy, cool, zesty and refreshing. It’s one of the most joyous Bordeaux wines I’ve tasted on this visit, not ambitious or heavily extracted, just easy and delicious. So I ask Lydoire about the backstory on Cé Ma Cuvée. It turns out, she sells 80 percent of her production direct to consumers, and it’s a wine she started to make at their behest. “The French think, to buy a good Bordeaux wine you have to spend a lot of money,” she tells me when I praise the Cuvée Tradition. “They worry that the wine is too cheap. We were selling wines at six or eight euros and people would ask, ‘Can we try the fifteen-euro wine?’ So we started to do Cé Ma Cuvée. We had wanted to make this wine, but we weren’t sure there was a market for it.”
In between these two wines, Lydoire also pours the Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, which spends from 12 to 40 months in one- to three-year-old barrels.
—Jean de Boigne
I thought of that wine when I tasted a young cabernet franc from a nearby vineyard, Clos Puy Arnaud, just to the west of Bellevue. Thierry Valette started here around the same time—in 2000. A talented jazz singer and vigneron, he is one of only two biodynamic growers in Castillon, although the region is rife with organic farmers—the syndicat reports that 25 percent of the region is farmed under organics, the highest proportion of any region in Bordeaux.
Valette speaks with quiet intelligence; he’s slim, with fierce blue eyes and gentleness in his manner that seems to carry through to his wines. Speaking about biodynamics, he tells me that, when he first came to Castillon, he was among the last to harvest his vines. Since he began converting his property to biodynamics in 2005, he finds his vines mature their fruit more completely earlier in the season, so that last year, he says, he harvested before any of his neighbors. “We can get not-too-much alcohol; we keep the aromatics, and the tannins are already mature enough.” He now farms 28 acres, Demeter certified, the vines 70 percent merlot and 30 percent cabernet franc. Given Castillon’s higher elevations, with fresh winds and less humidity than much of the rest of Bordeaux, it may be easier to grow organic and biodynamic wine here. But this year, due to the mildew that was rampant throughout the Gironde, he lost so much of his merlot that he has only two tanks of wine, the majority of it cabernet franc.
The franc performed particularly well in 2017. He describes it as a Libournais massal selection, though the nurseryman who provides it is not allowed to share the provenance. “The combination of the limestone plateau and the franc very often gives floral wines and white fruit,” he finds. “Merlot is more productive and gives wine that is easier to drink sooner.”
He made only 2,500 bottles of 2017 Cabernet Franc, so it’s not a true measure of the vineyard or the region. But it’s the first Castillon wine I’ve tasted that sent a numinous shiver down my spine. Whether or not you believe in the practices of biodynamics, sensitive farming on a human scale is hard to match when it comes to interpreting a place. And Valette’s sensitive farming was powerfully registered in the glass. His 2017 Cabernet Franc is a wine of quiet brilliance and floral delicacy. There’s a lovely relaxation in the tannins that makes them feel ethereal. And it made me want to spend more time in Castillon, as growers come to get it right.