Château Cantemerle is located to the north of the city of Bordeaux, a huge estate blessed with parkland and woodland as well as a very extensive vineyard. A journey north along the D2, past Parempuyre and Ludon-Médoc lands you on its doorstep, or at least at its gateway, without any need for complicated instructions. It is the second of the many classed growth estates that you will pass on this route, the first having been Château La Lagune.
Many of the châteaux in this corner of Bordeaux have an ancient heritage. Unlike many of the grand estates of St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien which were only planted once the Médoc was drained during the 17th century, history here stretches back much further, to the early Middle Ages and sometimes beyond. This is true of Château Cantemerle, which has a fairly well-documented history beginning in the 12th century. The one thing we don’t know about the château is the origin of the name. It seems as though there are many theories, of which the one proposed by Alfred Danflou, writing in Les Grands Crus Bordelais (Librairie Goudin, 1867), is perhaps the best. Danflou suggested that the name comes from “le merle y chante”, or the song of the blackbirds. It strikes a chord with me simply because I can think of numerous other domaines, from Bordeaux to the Coteaux du Layon down to Châteauneuf du Pape, where domaines and even individual cuvées have indeed been named for the chante le merle or, more commonly, simply chantemerle. I confess, however, I am not convinced there is any solid evidence in support of Danflou’s proposal.
Another suggested origin for the name is that it originates from merle, which can be translated as cannon rather than blackbird, and it has also been proposed that merle may well be derived from merlon, meaning battlement. A quick glance at the château today – more of a manor house than a fortress with battlements and cannons – makes neither seem very likely. We should not dispose of such theories too rashly though; the history of Château Cantemerle is complex, and this is not the original château we are looking at. Indeed, those of us who stop at the roadside to admire this estate should be aware that we are not even looking in the right place.