First published Decanter magazine September 2013
It might have been expected to cause a reaction in Saint Emilion. This is a village where no new development goes unheeded, and the latest gossip is routinely handed out with your morning coffee. But news of Michel Rolland’s appointment as consultant for Chateau Figeac seemed to radiate outwards from Bordeaux within seconds, and prompted an outcry normally reserved for politicians’ expense accounts.
‘If all the people complaining about changing the style of Chateau Figeac actually bought some of it,’ one négociant commented dryly at the time, ‘then there might have been less need for such drastic measures.’
That, in a nutshell, is the irony of Figeac. It is seen as the epitome of elegance on the Right Bank, the standard-bearer for the ‘old way’ of doing things in a region that is sometimes held hostage to new oak and pumped-up fruit. And yet it seems to have been punished for that very same quality.
Certainly Figeac has its eccentricities. Even driving to the chateau tells you that things are different here. The stone gate-posts are easy to miss, with the letters proclaiming the chateau name careworn with age.
Managing director Frédéric Fage tells a story about the first time he drove to Figeac, back in 2002. Unsure exactly of where to go, he called in at the tourist office in the village to check directions. There they told him, ‘To get to Figeac, you first have to be expected.’
Madame Marie-France Manoncourt smiles softly at this. ‘For a long time we were content with the idea of, ‘if you are looking for Figeac, you will find it.’ She pauses, before continuing, ‘but that no longer works in today’s market.’
The ‘old ways’ unraveled on September 6th last year. This was when Saint Emilion published its 2012 classification – that ranks the best wines of the region into three levels, and is redrawn every 10 years. It was no secret that Figeac had been hoping for promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé A. Madame de Manoncourt’s husband Thierry Manoncourt, who had run Figeac since 1946, was instrumental in setting up the original ranking in June 1955, when the chateau was given a ‘B’ ranking. It has remained there ever since, despite his firm belief that it deserved to be at ‘A’ alongside Ausone and Cheval Blanc. It must have rankled a touch that in the 19th century, Cheval Blanc vines were part of the Figeac estate, until they were divided up for inheritance purposes.
Thierry Manoncourt died in 2010 without seeing his ambition for promotion realised, and instead, in the latest round, his widow watched as Pavie and Angélus instead took up the top spots.
There was no immediate public reaction. A lawsuit was launched by a few chateaux complaining about the results, but Figeac wasn’t among them. Madame de Manoncourt was saving her ammunition, it turned out, for somewhere altogether closer to home.
First up, long-term managing director Eric d’Aramon was ousted. This was a man who had been running the chateau since his father-in-law Thierry Manoncourt retired over 20 years previously,. A brief letter in March 2013 was sent out to the local wine trade announcing his departure, but the decision had been apparently taken the previous November, just two months after the failed classification.
Then in quick succession came three new announcements. Figeac was to have a new managing director, a new non-executive director, and Michel Rolland was joining the team as consultant winemaker.
‘Of course we can’t deny that the classification had an impact,’ said Madame de Manoncourt when we met in June, drinking Earl Grey tea in her impossibly perfect drawing room. Madame is just as well-kept as her furniture, perfectly composed in that effortless way that only the truly wealthy can pull off. ‘It had an effect on our internal strategy, but really just brought into focus the fact that certain things weren’t working.’
‘I was here for 55 years with my husband, and after three years without him I saw things that I wanted to change, to improve. I have ambition still, and like to be moving forward. Of course Eric (d’Aramon) has done so much for Figeac, and we are hugely grateful to him. I have four daughters, and four son-in-laws, and I love them all. This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but it seemed the best way forward.’
As things stand, Madame de Manoncourt is still director along with her four daughters, who now legally own the property (this is fairly usual in France, as early transfers cut down on inheritance taxes). Her daughter Hortense Idoine-Manoncourt is now president, while longtime technical director Frederic Faye has stepped up to become managing director, looking after the day-to-day needs of Figeac and the estate’s two sister properties, Chateau la Fleur Pourret and Chateau de Millery (a one-hectare clay-limestone plot which they call ‘the Romanée Conti of Saint Emilion’).
More surprising was the appointment of Jean-Valmy Nicolas as non-executive director, a role that he also has with his family estate Chateau La Conseillante (located in the appellation of Pomerol, but physically a next door neighbour to Figeac). Nicolas is based in Paris, where he works at Vespa Capital investment fund, specialising in growing assets of small to medium sized businesses in France and the UK. And here again, Madame de Manoncourt shows her steely side, and her determination to put Figeac first.
‘The two chateaux will have no financial link, and there has been no transfer of capital, but I felt we needed someone in this role. The Manoncourts have been in Saint Emilion for 120 years, since 1892, and the Nicolas family at La Conseillante since 1871. Inevitably we know each other well. Jean-Valmy has no full time involvement; he is acting as an advisor on a business and strategy level. The objective is that the chateau remains a family enterprise,’ she explains, neatly swiping aside rumours that Figeac is for sale. ‘This is a living family home, people have grown up here and we hope they will continue to do so.’
‘My priorities are to define a new commercial strategy for Figeac, and above all to reestablish close ties with the Bordeaux négociants,’ Nicolas said upon assuming the role. ‘It needs to be once again at the heart of Bordeaux, and give négociants a reason to invest resources in its promotion.’
‘We may have made some pricing mistakes in recent years, we can see that,’ Madame says with admirable understatement. Exit prices have certainly been ambitious – most likely with an eye on promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé A, which takes pricing into account among the criteria. The 2010 vintage saw a €168 ex-chateau price, while 2012 underlined their new strategy, coming back down to €48.
‘Now we hope to look forward. We believe that Figeac should be on the list of the 20 best restaurants in the world on a permanent basis, and for that it needs the right price. This year we sold out within 24 hours, something that hasn’t happened for a long time’.
It seems uncharitable to point out that €48 was still judged too high by most consumers. ‘I think négociants are betting on this being a big brand again in the future,’ one of the leading players told me. ‘There is no doubt that is should and could be making great wines, and we are putting our faith in the new team, notably Nicolas and Rolland.’
Ah yes, Rolland. Rumour has it that the extreme reaction to the news prompted Madame de Manoncourt to waver in her resolve, something she firmly denies.
‘We were heartened by the extreme reaction, to know that the style of Figeac is so appreciated and admired. But our long-term oenologist Gilles Pauquet was retiring, and we were looking for an experienced, talented replacement, someone who loved our wine – and who would be close by and readily available to us. Michel and I have known each other for a long time, and he is a family friend, as well as a hugely talented professional.’
‘Figeac is 300 metres from my office, so easy walking distance,’ Rolland confirmed (on his mobile phone from Argentina). ‘And it will be me personally working on the wines, not a member of my team.’
Managing director Faye is due to meet Rolland after our interview to walk through the vines together, beginning the thorough assessment of what needs to be done. They have worked together previously. In 2003, after his first traineeship at Figeac, Faye went to Argentina to work at Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya, one of Rolland’s first consulting projects outside of France. Even earlier, Faye spent time at the Rolland laboratory in Pomerol, and admires his ‘skills as a taster, and his meticulous approach. He can help us develop our new cellars over the coming years, making use of his global vision of wine. And we all know his palate is exceptional.’
Rolland is certainly known for his legendary ability to blend, but even this is being seen as a red light by Figeac traditionalists. Is Rolland going to lower the cabernet sauvignon (famously the highest in Saint Emilion, often up to 70% of the blend together with cabernet franc), and plump up the merlot?
‘I don’t have specific changes in mind yet,’ says Rolland, managing to sound both reassuring and provocative at the same time. ‘The blend is the spirit of Figeac, and the key to its originality. Perhaps we can vary these a little over the years, but it will only be a finesse.’
‘Judge us in a year,’ Madame de Manoncourt says on more than one occasion. ‘We did a vertical of our wines with Michel before selecting him as consultant, and the 2010 vintage was the style he most wanted to model for the future. That was important for me. It has freshness and elegance. No one can say that vintage is all about power.’
She is a little more coy about the one obvious question surround Rolland’s appointment. Is it in the hope of getting Robert Parker back on board? ‘We are aware that it would be good to return to Parker’s radar. And we have found some of his notes during en primeur oddly low, when he gives them. It’s has been a question for us as to why he is so out of step with many other critics, even though at times he has said how much he appreciates our wines.’
Rolland is more direct. ‘I’m not sure if I can help with getting Figeac closer to Parker. Of course I always present my wines to him, but whether he notes them well or badly I can’t say. But my challenge is not to work out personal issues between them, but to make the best wine that I can. It’s as simple as that.
Whether that means Figeac realising its ambition of becoming Premier Grand Cru Classé A is another question. ‘Figeac has one of best terroirs of the appellation, so I believe of course that it is possible to become an ‘A’. But there are so many factors independent of owners and consultants, and there are no guarantees. Certainly promotion is not written in to my contract!’.
Almost as an afterthought, Madame de Manoncourt has one more thing to say on the appointment of Rolland. ‘We’ve had our moments of surprise before. We were the third to have stainless steel tanks after Latour and Haut-Brion, the first to systematically carry out malolactic fermentation, and one of the first in the region, in 1945, to introduce a second wine. We have infrared cameras installed in the vines to track vigour, have used optical sorting since 2008, and have encouraged biodiversity for decades, long before the current fashion for it. We have all the right tools, but need to look more carefully at our presentation.’
And is Rolland ready to reassure people that he will keep the traditional style of Figeac? You can almost see his eyes glinting down the phone as he answers. ‘I can reassure you on only one thing – and that is that people will always talk, and have their own opinions. We will concentrate on making wine.’
The New Players
Jean-Valmy Nicolas, joining as non-executive director of Chateau Figeac. Nicolas comes from La Conseillante, and has been tasked with setting up a new management team and a new sales strategy.
Frédéric Faye, promoted from technical director to director general of Château Figeac.
Michel Rolland, new consultant.
Hortense Idoine-Manoncourt. Hardly a new player in the same sense, as this is Theirry and Marie-France’s daughter, but she has been promoted to president of the company.
Château Figeac At A Glance
1er Grand Cru Classé B
Owners: Manoncourt family, most notably by Thierry Manoncourt (1917-2010), who was one of the founder members of the Union des Grand Crus, and a key figure in the Jurade of Saint Emilion, where he was president from 1964 to 1987. He received the Legion of Honour in 2009.
Size: 54 hectares, with 40 hectares of vines (making it the largest vineyard estate Saint-Émilion)
Oldest vines: 91 years (currently being used for massal selection for future plantings)
Wines sold via Place de Bordeaux, average of 70 négociants.
Member of Union des Grands Crus and Académie des Vins de Bordeaux.
History: Figeac supposedly takes its name from a Roman called Figeacus who built a village here, and remains of a Gallo-Roman water-supply can be found on the land.
Second wine: Le Petit Figeac (discontinuing use of La Grange Neuve du Figeac)