Château Balestard La Tonnelle
Vierge Marie, gente déesse,
Garde-moi place en paradis
Oncque n’aurai joie ni liesse
Ici-bas, puisqu’il n’est permis
De boire ce divin nectar,
Qui porte nom de Balestard,
Qu’à gens fortunés en ce monde.
Or, suis miséreux et pauvret,
Si donc au Ciel ce vin abonde,
Viens, doulce Mort, point ne m’effraye,
Porte-moi parmi les élus
Qui, là-haut, savourent ce cru.
(c. 1431 – c. 1463)
The name of Château Balestard La Tonnelle, a union of Balestard (who was a canon at the local Collegiate Church) and Tonnelle (reflecting the presence of an attractive if rather bijou tower on the estate) is hardly one that readily trips off the tongue when listing the crus of St Emilion. Nevertheless, the estate is worth knowing about; an ancient domaine, in the hands of an equally long-lived viticultural dynasty, and a stout member of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, it makes wines that are, if nothing else, distinctive. They are certainly popular in some quarters, their rich fruit and high levels of extraction clearly making an impact on some palates. Before I make clear my own feelings about the domaine and its wines, first a little history on the estate.
In contrast to the estates of the more famous left bank communes, when it comes to St Emilion many of the châteaux we know so well today in fact have very ancient origins. There was viticulture here as far back as Roman times, or at least the presence of Château Ausone – named for the Roman poet Ausonius – would suggest so. By coincidence, ancient poetry also gives us a clue as to the age of the vineyard at Château Balestard La Tonnelle. The wine of an estate named Balestard – surely the forerunner of today’s Balestard La Tonnelle – was cited by the noted poet François Villon, and this poem (reproduced above, right) now takes pride of place on the modern-day label. This would seem to date the Balestard estate to at least the 15th century.
Another feature which helps to date Château Balestard La Tonnelle is a small but ancient tower (pictured above), which stands overlooking the vines. While it might not quite have the visual impact of the dovecot at Latour, it is just as appealing, especially when viewed in its landscape of vineyards and pale, tree-lined avenues. Like the works of Villon, this tower also dates from the 15th century. And so the origins of Château Balestard La Tonnelle are indeed very ancient; viticulture has been ongoing here for 500 years, and perhaps much longer than that.