Exploring Château La Tour Figeac & La Chartreuse de St-Emilion: Field Notes from Bordeaux 2023

By | 25 April 2024

Simon Field MW is impressed by a (relatively) lesser-known grand cru.


Simon Field MW

In his latest dispatch from the Bordeaux 2023 en primeur campaign, Simon Field MW visits Château La Tour Figeac, an over-performing, but under-hyped estate in St-Emilion.

Bordeaux 2023 Field notes: Out of sorts?

During a primeur campaign, it is a common occurrence for people to be enamored by targeted adoration, usually directed at a similar set of targets, cheered on by peer pressure and nagging doubts about whether it’s premature to rate a category distinguished for its long-lived wines and their propensity to age gracefully under little stress. The less famous estates that account for the lion’s share of Bordeaux’s yearly yield of 3.84 million hectoliters can be easily overlooked.

For instance, consider St-Emilion. Its potential top accolade, the Grand Cru Classé, has a limited worldwide appeal, with just a few of its 72 recipients garnering global acknowledgment. Only by climbing to the higher league of Premier Grand Cru Classé, currently with 14 members, one can enjoy universal commendation.

It is, therefore, opportune that we honour one of these less recognizable grands crus prior starting the campaign. Château La Tour Figeac, with a name that invokes two of the most revered, Latour and Figeac, is indeed a marketer’s delight. Regardless of another synonymous name in Château La Tour du Pin Figeac nearby, La Tour Figeac offers many attractions. It is family-owned rather than corporate, boasts enviable neighbours including Figeac, Cheval Blanc, and the plateau de Pomerol, and shares their prestigious soil composition. Furthermore, for over two decades, the estate has been practicing biodynamic viticulture. What’s not to love?

Interestingly, whether it’s the friendly and generous owner Otto Rettenmaier, the committed and scholarly winemaker Pierre Blois, or the wine itself, a true gem of gravelly western St-Emilion terroir, which until 1879 was part of the larger Figeac estate. From then on, the “separatist” element was divided in two, with today’s 14.6ha (36 acres) La Tour Figeac, passed down almost untouched in terms of terroir to a succession of owners, most of them from Bordeaux.

The Rettenmaier family was intrigued by the Counts von Neipperg, hunting companions and now owners of Canon La Gaffelière. They purchased the estate in 1973, and the first vintage under new management was the 1974. The current patriarch Otto took over in 1994. Otto has overseen a refurbishment and upgrade program that includes significant replanting, a modern vat room development, and most importantly, full organic certification (as of 2021). Renowned figures such as Emile Peynaud in the early days and, recently, Stéphane Derenoncourt in the winery and Claude Bourguignon in the field, have been consulted.

True to Otto’s character, he celebrates the 50 vintages under his family’s ownership with a grand tasting of each of his vintages in magnum. The high turnout reflects the considerable respect and love he’s gained over time. Is that Jacques Thienpont from Le Pin sniffing the 1975 over there? Indeed it is! However, it’s worth mentioning that 1991, a catastrophic frosty year, was absent. Otto wasn’t satisfied with the magnums he’s kept, so he didn’t present them, and 50 became 49. Yet, it was a motivational tasting. When I ask Pierre for his thoughts, he summarizes: the 1970s were years of crisis and recovery, the 1980s of rejuvenation, the 1990s of reshaping and exceptional vintages, the 2000s devoted to organic principles, and fine-tuning since then. His favorite vintage? The ’88 impresses him, a vintage filled with the scent of truffles.

Asking Otto to compare the current estate with its past, he responded that it’s not possible to really draw a comparison. “It was a different world,” he points out, “everywhere was different, less precise, with less technological aid and fewer ideas on how to capture an organic spirit.” Indeed, adopting technology while staying intimately connected to the soil is a guiding aim for today’s La Tour Figeac.

Oh, and adding more Cabernet Franc. “We wish to increase it from 37 percent to 59 percent by 2030,” says Otto; quite a precise ambition. And his favorite vintage(s)? He opts for 1998 and 2012, underrated both and, he maintains, worthy of a little more attention. Of the famous years, he especially likes 2000.

My overall impression is that the wines at La Tour Figeac demonstrate significant potential for longevity and that the classic blend (60–70 percent Merlot and 30–40 percent Cabernet Franc) has been highly successful over the longer term, with the resourceful Cabernet Franc harnessing aromatic potential and power at the back of the palate, and the Merlot providing texture and base-line fruit.

My list of favorite wines is long. Standouts include the 1982, still bright and full of energy; the ‘88, subtle but persuasive; the (to my mind) underappreciated 2001; then, with no lack of choice in the last two decades, the 2009 and 2016 primes inter pares. The impressive showing for both the 2022 and the cask sample of 2023 is exceptionally promising. The dial is pointing in the right direction. Proof, should proof be needed, that La Tour Figeac is a very significant player on St-Emilion’s crowded stage. Just look out for the tall turreted water tower with the elegant chartreuse in front; significant landmarks both.

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