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Château Cassagne Haut-Canon Canon-Fronsac La Truffière 2008

Château Cassagne Haut-Canon La Truffière 2008

It feels like a long time since I last went off the beaten track in Bordeaux; it was in fact back in March that I last did so, with the 2010 Les Trois Petiotes, from the Côtes du Bourg. In the meantime, I have cast the spotlight on the 2005 La Petite Église and the 2013 Les Champs Libres, from two of the biggest names in the Pomerol appellation, but that could hardly be thought of as breaking new ground. Canon-Fronsac, however, is certainly a region less frequently visited.

First planted by the Romans at the same time as St Emilion, by the 18th century the region of Fronsac and its enclave Canon-Fronsac were regions of great repute. Indeed, at this time their wines were some of the most celebrated in all Bordeaux, and they were greatly favoured by the French monarchy. In 1783, for example, 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 had only recently been 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. This naturally means there are rich pickings here for bargain hunters.

Château Cassagne Haut-Canon Canon-Fronsac La Truffière 2008

Château Cassagne Haut-Canon was once a hunting lodge, originally built by the Duc de Richelieu. Languishing in a near-forgotten state during the post-phylloxera era, with just 4 hectares of vineyards, it was rescued by the Dubois family. When he took control the current incumbent Jean-Jacques Dubois, the third generation of the family to take the reins and an oenologist, extended the vineyard to 13 hectares. These vines are planted on the Tertre du Fronsac, the superficial soils being clay, the deeper bedrock Calcaire à Astéries over Molasses de Fronsadais, the latter of course typifying the region. The former Astéries limestone, however, is the same rock rich in fossilised starfish which can be found on the St Emilion plateau and which is associated with many of the region’s greatest wines. The vines are 60% Merlot, with 20% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and although it is unusual to find such a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon here the complexity of the terroir makes it rich in beneficial micro-climates and Jean-Jacques Dubois is content with how it ripens.

This week’s wine, the 2008 Canon-Fronsac La Truffière from Château Cassagne Haut-Canon, is named for the truffles that grow on the roots of the oak trees that surround the vineyard. It is a selection of the best plots made by Jean-Jacques in the cellar, the assemblage mirroring the vineyard, with élevage in 40% new oak. In the glass it has a dusty, dark cherry hue. It takes quite some time to open up, between three and four hours in the decanter, but once it gets going it shows some really interesting complexity, with nuances of toasted nut, dark chocolate and – although I confess it might be auto-suggestion – a touch of black truffle too. With more time these nuances disappear behind all the primary fruits which come to the fore, notes of wild plum, wild damson and dried blackcurrant skins. It has a rather cool palate at first, quite tense, showing a good limestone grip, with tension. It has little in the way of tannin although it still feels very structured, with its savoury, spicy-peppery and restrained fruit character resting on a firm acid backbone. It is quite long, dry, taut and clearly framed by its acidity. With more time it does shows a little more succulence, but it still has that wonderful acid freshness. This has good potential for further development in the cellar yet I think, based on that acid frame, but with three or more hours in the decanter this makes for good drinking now. 16.5/20 (15/6/15)

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