Fronsac & Canon-Fronsac
First planted by the Romans at the same time as St Emilion, the region of Fronsac has had plenty of time to establish a reputation for its wines, and indeed by the 18th century that seems to have been achieved. At this time its wines were some of the most celebrated in all Bordeaux, and they were greatly favoured by the French monarchy. In 1783 the entire harvest of Château Canon in St-Michel de Fronsac was reserved for consumption at the court of Le Dauphin (the heir to the French throne) who resided at Versailles.
Of course, this was a time when many of the limestone slopes of the right bank were highly desirable, while the gravels of the left bank were only recently drained and planted. A vigneron fortunate enough to be in possession of one of these prized limestone slopes on the banks of the Dordogne and the Gironde might look across the waters to see his peers (provided he had the eyes of a hawk, or at least a telescope) planting vines on the mosquito-infested marshes of the Médoc with a sense of amusement, and perhaps even pity. Meanwhile, the vignerons of Fronsac sold their wines at high prices, and became prosperous as a result. Today the region is dotted with numerous grand châteaux that date to this era.
Fronsac’s fall from grace only came after phylloxera, which laid waste to its vineyards. Across France once-great wine regions contracted and in some cases disappeared, never to be planted again. Vines on the sandy palus, where the soils are inhospitable to the louse, survived while those on the desirable limestone slopes died off. Vignerons continued on with their sandy vineyards, the quality fell off, and Fronsac lost its reputation. There has been recovery since, but it has been slow and hard-won. The region has never really reclaimed the glory that it knew during the 18th century.
Perhaps with a nod to past success there was a time, only a decade or so, when Fronsac and its partner Canon-Fronsac were regularly touted (in the UK, at least) as the next great thing in Bordeaux wine. Some claimed these were now up-and-coming regions, set to reclaim their Bordeaux crowns, and knock cheeky usurpers such as Pomerol and Pauillac off their thrones. The presence of one of the region’s great names, Michel Rolland, at Château Fontenil, only served to heighten the anticipation of this seemingly inevitable Fronsac renaissance. The predicted ascendency never materialised though, and both Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac remain under-appreciated and relatively under the radar. Those looking for the next big thing in Bordeaux turned their attention to Castillon instead. Drinkers may well have done the same, although with ever rising prices I am sure many simply decided to explore other regions offering better value for money.
This is of course a great shame for the vignerons of this region, some of whom have fine terroirs and make appealing wines. They struggle to sell their wines, their revenue is restricted, investment is curtailed, and the strident success required to lift the region as a whole into the collective consciousness of Bordeaux drinkers never came. For the consumer, however, it means that we have here another hunting ground for good value in Bordeaux. There are gems waiting to be discovered here, not just cheerful drinking wines but also more serious bottles that do well in the cellar for at least a decade.