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Château de Fonbel 2000

Château de Fonbel 2000

The location of the vines of Château de Fonbel seems to be shrouded in mystery. In the process of describing this estate and its wines, “close to Château Ausone” is the best many wine-minded writers and merchants have come up with. If this were true it would suggest to me that the vines sit in some long-lost parcel high up on the limestone plateau, a sliver of land perhaps squeezed between the vineyards of Château Ausone, Château Canon and Château Beauséjour. Given that such a sliver seems rather elusive, if not invisible, any tale of its discovery would be on a par with The Land that Time Forgot, but with less of the dinosaurs and spear-men that Edgar Rice Burroughs described, and perhaps more of a focus on pre-phylloxera vineyards filled with long-lost grape varieties.

Sadly, it seems unlikely that this fantasy will come true, which is a great pity because the discovery of a vineyard over-run by prehistoric lizards and Neanderthal hunters would certainly spice up the average week of primeur visits. In truth the vines are located down on the plain, very close to the D670 which runs between Libourne and Castillon-la-Bataille. If you know the area well, their exact location is in the angle between the two roads running south and southeast away from the roundabout below Château Canon-la-Gaffelière. The town of St Emilion and of course Château Ausone are visible, up on the plateau, although to say they are “close” is pushing it a bit in my opinion.

Château de Fonbel 2000

Any suggestion that Château de Fonbel lies close to Château Ausone, as well-intentioned as it may be, is not really helpful to those who wish to understand its wine. If terroir matters (and I would argue determinedly that it does) it is important to recognise that we are well off the fabled limestone plateau of St Emilion here, and are down on the alluvial plain that reflects the presence of the Dordogne river. The soils underfoot are very sandy, the limestone bedrock buried deep beneath, far beyond the reach of the Vitis vinifera roots. This is typical of this corner of the St Emilion appellation, and very different to the limestone and clay terroir we can find at Château Ausone, Château Moulin St Georges or the latest addition to the Vauthier family portfolio, Château La Clotte.

Do fans of Bordeaux, or indeed fans of good wine, come to Château de Fonbel purely for the way it expresses its terroir though? I would suggest not. The appeal of Château de Fonbel is at the other end of the winemaking story, as it is all about the people who till the soils, tend the vines and oversee the making of the wine. In this perhaps Château de Fonbel can be considered to be close to Château Ausone, the vines receiving the same attention (although rumours that the soils are worked by tyrannosaur-pulled plough have proven untrue), the vinifications subject to the same scrutiny as those at Château Ausone, and yet the wine is priced such that even cash-strapped drinkers can grab a glimpse of the Vauthier style.

The 2000 Château de Fonbel, which has been resting in my cellar for longer than I care to remember (having lost track of it I thought at one point I must have drunk it, before rediscovering it during the course of a cellar sort-out earlier this year), shows that good winemaking can be as valuable as terroir, if not more. It has a dark core in the glass, still with plenty of fresh pigment, with a bright rim, despite its eighteen years. The nose, however, feels very evolved now, releasing a little flourish of oyster shells at first, followed by the scents of green peppercorn, black tea leaves, tobacco and macerated fruits, an evolution that is heading very much towards a degraded, sous bois style. There follows an elegant gently textured palate, with a restrained substance, backed up by a lightly sinewy texture, with a dry tannic backbone and fresh acidity. This is long, savoury and attractive, but it is the intriguing aromatics that provides the real interest here. It may yet evolve further, although as time goes by it will show a more degraded character. It is in a good place right now. With that in mind I suggest drinking it now, or soon, to see it at its best. 92/100 (12/11/18)

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