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The Meaning of Chateau

Chateau Le Pin, no chateau in sight except for a small house, is named for the pine trees in front of the property.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville has a fairy-tale castle on the property to go with the great name of the wine.

Story and Photos By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

The everyday meaning of the word ‘chateau’ in

France refers to a castle or a mansion. Essentially, the word alludes to a grand building, not a wine.

However, in the wine sense of the word, ‘chateau’ denotes a wine estate or property. This means that in order to be able to call a wine ‘Chateau ABC’ or ‘Chateau XYZ’, the exact vineyard or vineyards of that wine must be registered with the wine authorities. At the same time, the name of the chateau must also be registered. Just like registering a company’s name.

If the name being registered can cause confusion with an existing chateau, it won’t be registered or if registered, may be the result of a legal challenge.

As soon as the chateau uses grapes from outside the registered, designated vineyards to make its wine, that wine won’t be able to bear the name of ‘Chateau ABC’. The wine can then only be referred to as being from an appellation but not from the chateau or estate.

There are some instances where the wine not only carries the ‘Chateau’ tag, but there is also actually a castle on the grounds. One of the grandest is perhaps Chateau Margaux. But even older is Chateau de la Riviere in Fronsac, built in 1553 but with a history going back to the 12th and 8th centuries — the latter, when Charlemagne accomplished his conquest of the Aquitaine area.

At the same time, because the word ‘chateau’ popularly refers to a castle, wine lovers are often disappointed when, for example, they finally visit Chateau Pétrus only to discover a modest — but tasteful — little house. They would be even more disappointed if they were to visit Chateau Le Pin, which is a very small house with two pine trees in front of it.

The lack of a chateau has never really bothered the people of Bordeaux nor, for that matter, the French. They are fully aware that the word refers to a wine, not a building. If there is a fairy-tale castle to go with the wine, as with Chateau Baron Pichon-Longueville, that’s fine, but more importantly, the wine must be good.

A castle on top of a great wine would be a bonus but no grand building is going to amount to anything if the wine isn’t delicious in the first place.

Another thing that you should know about Bordeaux is that in the case of the classified growths, it is the estate, not the vineyards, that is being classified.

So, for example, if a First Growth bought more vineyards from within the same appellation, they can actually include the new vineyards within the estate and go on to make First Growth wine from them. The only thing to stop them from doing so would be self-imposed quality-control.

The difference, in the case of Burgundy, is that vineyards (not estates) are classified as Grand or Premier Crus.

The usual practice in a Bordeaux chateau is that only the best wine will carry the name of the chateau. This is referred to as the ‘Grand Vin’. Anything considered less than worthy of the ‘Grand Vin’ — even though it is from the vineyards of the estate —  will either go into the second wine or if the quality is even poorer, bottled or sold off as generic wine of that appellation.

Needless to say, it is paramount that a chateau exercises the highest self-imposed quality control and integrity. If they don’t, they will lose the respect and business of their loyal customers.

When that happens, it won’t matter whether the chateau actually has a castle or no castle because no one would be interested in the wine anyway.

All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013