A very fine Saint-Emilion vineyard, with illustrious immediate and near neighbours such as Cheval Blanc, La Dominique, La Conseillante and Chateau Figeac, has been saved from near total obscurity by Olivier DECELLE, formerly CEO or Chief Executive Officer of Picard Surgeles, the French specialist in frozen, ready-to-eat food.
"Whatever the work undertaken in each of our domain (Decelle also owns Mas Amiel in Roussillon in the south of France, and Chateau Haut-Maurac and Chateau Haut-Ballet in the Medoc and in Fronsac respectively), we abide by the same philosophy. This is to preserve the living organisms in the soil and ensure careful vine-growing to make wines that we can relate to and which reflect our appellations. This is the price we have to pay if we want to truly say that our wines express the taste of their terroirs."
I had, in the past, visited Chateau Jean-Faure on three separate occasions in as many years. Tasting the wines then, including a vertical of 20 vintages in 2004, they were oxidative, dry and quite austere. It was certainly not the fact that the grapes lacked fruit, just that their quality was not matched by equal expertise in the winery.
Rated a Grand Cru Classe in the original Saint-Emilion Classification of 1958 Jean-Faure was dropped in the revised classification of 1986. By then, the wine's quality was sliding to the point of ignominy, certainly not worthy of a vineyard that is practically surrounded by those of Chateau Cheval Blanc, the famous Premier Grand Cru Classe "A".
JACQUES BOISSENOT'S RECOMMENDATION
Olivier Decelle acquired Chateau Jean-Faure in February 2004. Jacques BOISSENOT, perhaps the greatest winemaker in Bordeaux (whose consultancies include Chateau Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Leoville Las Cases, Ducru Beaucaillou, Cos d'Estournel, Leoville-Barton, Pichon Baron, Brane-Cantenac and Giscours just to name a few), had recommended Jean-Faure to Decelle and spoken of its great, unrealized potential.
A man of terroir himself, Olivier Decelle also turned to two of the most respected soil specialists in the world, Burgundy's husband and wife team Claude & Lydia BOURGUIGNON. At the same time, Stephane DERENONCOURT was roped in as consultant winemaker, with Stephane GALLET as full-time manager of the estate.
Although he would not be drawn to the exact figure, Decelle informed that he had paid Euro 0.5 million for each hectare of vines. As the entire estate - unbroken 18 hectare-vineyard, buildings and grounds that total 20 hectares - I think it would be close to the mark to assume that the price paid for Chateau Jean-Faure was around 9 or 10 million euros.
BURGUNDIAN CONCRETE VATS
More money was lavished on rebuilding the winery, cellar (their former state was shocking) and the chateau. Indeed, the new 80-hectolitre or 8,000-litre concrete tanks are built to Burgundian shape, broad and wide, so that pigeage or plunging the skins back into the fermenting must is better achieved with greater contact of skins and juice, instead of remontage or pumping over which is the tradition in Bordeaux (which, some people believe, results in more aggressive tannins).
When Decelle bought Jean-Faure, one of the first things he did was to also drained the vineyard so that the vines (40 years old) would produce more intense, flavoursome fruit. Since the 2004 harvest, the average yield is 35 to 40 hectolitres per hectare. The grapes get a 4-day pre-fermentation soak and following fermentaton, is aged 18 months, two-thirds in oak (60% new barrels) and one-third in concrete vats. Annual production is around 70,000 bottles.
Today, given all the improvements made to the vineyard, winery, cellar chateau, buildings and, most importantly, the wine - the estate has tripled, perhaps even quadrupled, in value (apparently, Decelle turned down a prospective Russian suitor).
"Although Chateau Jean-Faure is in Saint-Emilion, the wine is more like Pomerol," Decelle opined.
My own feeling is that Jean-Faure (the soil comprises small gravels, sand and clay), belongs to that handful of Saint-Emilion wines where the Cabernet, not Merlot, is dominant. This would, of course, include Chateau Cheval Blanc (57% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot and 3% comprised of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon) and Figeac (about one-third each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot). In the case of Chateau Jean-Faure, the make-up in the vineyard is 54% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot and 6% Malbec. If it reminds of Pomerol, then Vieux Chateau Certan, on the border with Saint-Emilion, comes to mind (where the vineyard is planted to 60% Merlot, 30 % Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon). This is because while the wine can be fleshy, it is never too voluptuous and counts on structure, as much as fruit, to define its personality.
Having acquired Chateau Jean-Faure, Olivier Decelle now lives on the estate. The change in lifestyle from cosmopolitan Paris to pastoral Saint-Emilion cannot be more dramatic. Then again, Decelle has a very ambitious goal.
"Our challenge is first and foremost a delightful one. We plan on producing a unique wine embodying the spirit of Jean-Faure. All of the team and I are dedicated with enthusiasm and perseverance to restoring Jean-Faure's legitimate place amongst the Grand Crus Classes of Saint-Emilion."
If present form is anything to go, and project, by (full potential to be realized in the next few years when vineyard improvements bear, literally, even better fruit), Chateau Jean-Faure should be on target to break open the champagne in 2016 when the Classification of Saint-Emilion is due for revision.
The 2005 and 2006 are quite closed, both the nose and palate. Even so, the former is the greater wine, the tautness full of intensity of fruit, tannins and freshness. The overall sensation are of well-balanced wines made in the classic, harmonious mode, rather than the heavy hand of over-extraction.
CHATEAU JEAN-FAURE 2007
Scented oak and whiff of violets. Lovely soft sweetness of fruit balanced by ripe, fresh tannins. Lovely freshness. Medium-bodied.
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