Castillon, a left-field view of the right bank
By Alain Echalier - Photographs: Courtesy of the Estate, posted on 19 December 2022
Castillon is home to over 200 winegrowers who farm an average of 10 hectares each. Evidence of winegrowing here dates back to Gallo-Roman times and yet, awareness of the region both in France and around the world is still very haphazard. We take a stab at righting this wrong.
As a reminder, when Henry Plantagenet became King of England after marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, the entire region of Guyenne fell under English rule. At the time, the area covered a good third of present-day France, and included all of Bordeaux. Castillon, a little market town on the Dordogne, upriver from Libourne and Saint-Emilion, also fell within its boundaries. This in turn opened up the London market to the region’s wines, leading to a boom for the wine industry.
A name steeped in history
But it was only 300 hundred years later that ‘Castillon’ established its reputation. As the English defended their continental territory against the King of France’s troops, their leader, Talbot, lost a decisive battle on 17 July 1453, which proved fatal to him. The battle, which took place near Castillon, put an end to the Hundred Years’ War, and marked the withdrawal of the English from the continent.
The Battle of Castillon
Nowadays, a re-enactment of the battle takes place every summer during a performance for the public. The Saint-Emilion co-operative winery has even marketed a commemorative bottle for the event, under the Castillon appellation of course.
Every year, the re-enactment of the Battle of Castillon takes us back to 1453
The Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux appellation
Bordering Saint-Emilion to the East, it extends over several villages around the town now known as Castillon-la-Bataille. Just like in Saint-Emilion, a plateau formed primarily of clay-limestone drops down towards to the sandy-gravelly valley floor where the Dordogne flows. The inclines can be relatively steep, with drops ranging from 30 to 70 metres. The vineyard sites therefore offer good quality, particularly on the western side at a tangent with Saint-Emilion, where the limestone soils are more common. At the same time, this prestigious but cumbersome neighbour may have taken some of the limelight away from Castillon.
Until the turn of the 20th century, Castillon produced both red and white wine, but whites have now exited the appellation. Six grape varieties can be used – Merlot is the undisputed king of the varietal range, often blended with a little Cabernet Franc or even Cabernet-Sauvignon or Cot (the local name for Malbec). Occasionally, there is even a dash of Petit Verdot or Carmenere, but their share cannot be higher than 15%.
Although Castillon was previously a stand-alone appellation, the wines have now technically been subsumed into the Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, as a complementary designation. In fact, production specifications – maximum yield and minimum level of ripeness for example – are slightly more quality-focused than for plain Côtes de Bordeaux.
The Vineyards at Château Bréhat
Coping with climate change
As in most wine regions around the world, climate disruptions in Castillon have both a short and long-term impact. Over the long term, higher temperatures promote greater ripeness in the grape flesh, with more sugar content and lower acidity. This is particularly tangible with Merlot, due to its thin skin. Consequently, the wines display higher alcohol content and can lose some of their freshness. To cope with these changes, winegrowers have responded in different ways. For some time now, they have been choosing cooler soils for Merlot, and have started increasing the share of other grape varieties in blends. Also, they have been harvesting earlier – in 2022, the harvest kicked off at the start of September. Lastly, total acidity in the wines is corrected, as with most wines from the South, by adding some tartaric acid. The acid occurs naturally in the grapes.
All of this produces concentrated wines displaying a dark ruby hue, with notes of ripe red fruits, prunes, leather and game. However, in anticipation of continued global warming, a more drastic measure has been decided – very little Merlot is now going into the ground.
In the short term, heat waves, rain and sudden hailstorms are having different types of effect. Output is falling, either because the crop is damaged and some of the fruit is discarded during stringent sorting, or because yields are low. This was true of summer 2022, when heat and drought produced smaller berries.
Clément Paradisi, the winemaker at Maison Seignouret
Seignouret frères & Cie: chateaux and/or brands
Our survey begins with a long-standing trading company – François Seignouret founded the firm in 1830. It now distributes 11 million bottles annually around the world, 80% to export markets. Winemaker Clément Paradisi is tasked with sourcing the wines and 95% of them come from Gironde. Although purchases include some Grands Crus, there are also, quite naturally, some Castillon-Côtes de Bordeaux wines.
The company sells wines by Château Lartigue and has worked with the property for some fifteen years, marketing around 50,000 bottles a year. As Paradisi points out, this involves visiting the chateau and tasting the juice and fermenting wines, which are subsequently bought ‘from the tank’. Bottling, however, is conducted at the chateau so that the all-important ‘estate-bottled’ statement can feature on the label – this is still a reassuring cue for consumers. After bottling, the wines are either stored in the temperature-controlled cellars belonging to Maison Seignouret, or shipped straight to export markets, including Laos, Vietnam and the United States. This range of wines, with a retail price tag ranging from 10 to 12 euros, is more suited to quick depletions. They are very fruity, 95% Merlot offerings that do have some ageability – Paradisi recently drunk a 2016 that was still very flavourful.
He agrees that Castillon’s reputation is not as well-established as that of its neighbour Saint-Emilion, but in its defence points to its lovely hillside vineyard sites. He enjoys drinking the wines with fairly hearty dishes, like grilled steak.
Maison Seignouret also produces brands which draw on the negociant’s expertise in sourcing and blending wines that can come from several different producers, and can even change down the years. The different categories require different marketing techniques.
The wine inventories at Maison Seignouret
Vignobles Alain Aubert: terroir expertise
Our next respondent is 79 and boasts extensive experience. In his family, wine has been made for a very long time. He personally started age 14 with his grandfather, and now owns several chateaux, including two in the Castillon appellation area.
Château German extends over 35 hectares. The vines were replanted after the harsh winter of 1956, with 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet franc. “The vineyard blocks start just two metres away from the Saint-Emilion appellation area. The boundaries are political, religious even”, says Alain Aubert. “In the West is Catholic country, where place names favour the saints (Saint-Emilion, Lussac-St-Emilion, St-Georges-Saint-Emilion…); and in the East, is Protestant territory. Another differentiating factor is the shape of the dovecots, which are square in the West, and round in the East. It’s little surprise that Castillon was not incorporated into the Saint-Emilion satellite appellations! But in this area, it is difficult to tell the wines apart”.
Château Hyot also covers 35 hectares but is located more towards the bottom of the hills. The soils are more clayey and the share of Merlot drops to 40%. The wines, which are not expensive, are oaked with chips. The results are good, but Aubert points out that they require a fairly technical approach – the wines have to be tasted every three weeks to get the quantities right. Not everyone is equipped for such precision.
Ninety percent of the wines are now sold in export markets. Aubert misses the time when he had 30,000 customers in France, but gradually his network of sales representatives retired. The wines are now shipped to China and the United States, but also Western Africa, where a kind of common market facilitates exports. Admittedly, there is competition from New World wines, but Bordeaux has always enjoyed an incredible reputation and Castillon, like all wines from Gironde, also sports the ‘Grand Vin de Bordeaux’ statement.
Aubert has a fondness for the appellation. The price of land – in the range of 30,000 euros per hectare – is ten times cheaper than in Saint-Emilion, which leaves room for newcomers to join the ranks of producers, and also to help energise the appellation.
Alain Aubert of Château German
Château Bréhat: The good life as organic winegrowers
Béatrice and Jérôme de Monteil are among those newcomers. In 2010, they gave up their careers in Paris to take over the family farm from Jérôme’s brother. That farm is Château Haut Rocher, now their home, where they produce Saint-Emilion. But the chateau also owns 5.5 hectares in the Castillon appellation area, which follow on seamlessly from Saint-Emilion and are marketed under the Château Bréhat name. The vineyards are planted to 70% Merlot, with the balance divided between Cabernet Franc and Cabernet-Sauvignon. Whilst for Saint-Emilion the wines are 100% barrel-fermented in new casks, the ratio is 50% tanks and 50% 1-year-old barrels for Castillon. “From a marketing perspective, it is good to have two different wines”, claims Béatrice, “even if the soils are very similar. There are many more hillsides than sites at the bottom of the slopes”.
Château Bréhat is also part of Château Haut Rocher
At Château Bréhat, the grapes are harvested by machine, except for the old vines which are more sensitive to vibrations and are picked by hand. “The quality of harvesting machines has greatly improved”, stresses Béatrice. Three years ago, the couple also switched to organic winegrowing. “This is true for many Castillon wines”, the couple says. Sure enough, over 25% of properties are farmed organically or biodynamically.
Extensive woodlands also help promote biodiversity and some producers are even asking that in the future, production specifications for the Castillon appellation make organic certification mandatory. That would certainly be a huge feat.
Béatrice and Jérome de Monteil
The Monteil's winery
Union de Producteurs de Saint-Emilion: Some Castillon too!
This large co-operative winery was founded in the 1930s by the former director of Château Figeac. Fast-forward to 2022, and the head of marketing and communications, Anne-Sophie Larvor, introduces us to the winery. The co-operative has 650 hectares under vine and produces primarily wines under the Saint-Emilion appellation and its satellites – no surprises there. But how could you turn away a Saint-Emilion vineyard owner who also has a few neighbouring blocks in Castillon, and not make the wines? Sometimes, only a dirt track separates the two.
The Castillon appellation accounts for nearly 6% of vineyards farmed by UDP but just 1% of the wines, because some of them are marketed directly by the owner. What the winery brings though, is the standards of a modern co-operative with strict production specifications, expertise and sizeable winemaking facilities.
UDP sells its wines direct to consumer from its winery store
Under the Castillon appellation, UDP produces one Château – Rouzerol – and also crafts the ‘Roy Charles’ brand. The brand is a nod to the history of Castillon and is produced in conjunction with the organisation that hosts the battle performance - €1 for every bottle purchased is donated to the association. The wine sells for €7.90 a bottle, compared with around €9 for a Saint-Emilion satellite appellation and between €12 and €14 for a Saint-Emilion.
And yet, as Larvor stresses, in the Middle Ages under English rule, Castillon was much better than known than Saint-Emilion!
Anne-Sophie Larvor, head of marketing for UDP
The cellars at UDP
Castillon all-set to reconquer consumers
Castillon wines are not only very affordable, they also have two distinctive features that make them very focused on the future. Firstly, young winegrowers are providing the catalyst for the switch to organic farming, which is increasingly popular with consumers. Secondly, the style of the wines – which are fruity and enjoyable in their youth – is the perfect fit for current consumer trends. In all likelihood, the region will gradually secure greater awareness over the next few years by using a thoughtful approach to communication, leveraging the performance of the wines. There is little doubt that Castillon will win the battle.
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