White Smoke Over the Vatican, A White Flag in Bordeaux
Depending on your taste, some dispiriting news out of Bordeaux: Château Figeac has hired Michel Rolland as a consultant. Figeac is one of Bordeaux’s most venerable estates, and also produces one of its more distinctive wines: Although Figeac is located in St. Émilion, the wine includes an unusually hefty share of cabernet sauvignon—around 35 percent—to go along with the merlot and cabernet franc. Figeac has also stood out in recent years by being one of the few wineries to resist the Parkerization/Rollandification (it has been a pincer move) of St. Émilion, Starting in the 1990s, there was a dramatic stylistic shift in St. Émilion, and brooding, lush, very oaky wines became the appellation’s signature. Rolland was a consultant to a number of St. Émilion estates and prescribed the practices (longer hang times, extended macerations, micro-oxygenation) that yielded these hedonistic fruit bombs, to use the vernacular. It was a change that thrilled Parker, who was effusive in his praise for the New Wave St. Émilions.
But Figeac’s late owner, Thierry Manoncourt, a revered figure in Bordeaux, abhorred these inky, jammy wines. Under his watch, Figeac continued to turn out elegant, classically proportioned (read: modest alcohol) St. Émilions that, thanks to the large percentage of cabernet sauvignon in the blend, were utterly sui generis among Right Bank wines. Although Parker was fairly bullish about some recent vintages of Figeac—he gave 90 points to the 2005 and 93 to the 2000 (though he later downgraded the latter)—he complained that the château was inconsistent and wasn’t realizing the full potential of its terroir. It appears he stopped reviewing Figeac after the 2008 vintage, which he slammed, giving the wine just 81 points; he definitely became more biting in his criticism of it. Perhaps there was a “frank exchange of views” and Parker either decided to shun Figeac or found he was no longer welcome there.
Manoncourt passed away in 2010 at the age of 92, and last year, Figeac was passed over for promotion to Grand Cru Classé A, the highest classification in St Emilion’s hierarchy of estates. However, two Rolland clients and Parker favorites, Pavie and Angélus, were elevated to the top rung, joining Cheval Blanc and Ausone. The Manoncourt family evidently decided that resistance had become futile and called in Rolland. Yet, the timing of this move strikes me as a little odd. It would have made much more sense 10 or 15 years ago, when Parker was at the apex of his power and all the buzz was about the revolutionary happenings in St. Émilion, But Parker is now 65, his influence is waning, Rolland appears to have lost some clout, too, and the radical changes in St. Émilion are yesterday’s news. While I don’t know that old-school clarets à la Figeac are poised for a comeback, it would seem that the cost of holding out against the modernist trend is not as high now as it was a decade ago.
Figeac fans are in various stages of grief over the news of Rolland’s hiring. The outpouring of dismay and concern elicited a typically blustery response from Parker. Writing on eBob, he said that he had recently spoken with Manoncourt’s widow, who told him that she had hired Rolland because she “wanted to return Figeac to a position of greatness.” He enumerated some of the ways in which Figeac had allegedly fallen short (underripe fruit, excessive yields), predicted that its performance would improve dramatically under Rolland, and suggested that the ignorant masochists lamenting the changes at Figeac look instead to the Loire Valley for “diluted and vegetal” wines. Ever the sweet voice of reason….
I don’t doubt that Figeac generally tastes “diluted and vegetal” to Parker and to people whose preferences align with his. The debate over the changes at Figeac is illustrative of something that too often gets overlooked or forgotten in these debates: no two palates are the same. Thank you for stating the obvious, Mr. Steinberger! I am stating the obvious, but it is a point that has a way of getting lost in all the sturm und drang. I attended a Figeac vertical in Paris in 2007 at which they poured the greatest hits from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, along with more recent vintages. The greatest hits were indeed great, but wines like the 2005, the 2000, and the 1986 all struck me as worthy successors to gems like the 64 and the 59. The 98 Figeac is a terrific wine, too. I adore Figeac for its restrained opulence (an excellent and very apt phrase that Neal Martin invoked at the Paris tasting) and its freshness—the ripe but not overripe fruit, the brisk acidity. I also like the green note that the two cabernets impart to the wine. But to Parker, that green note is a flaw, not a virtue, and what I perceive as fresh and elegant strikes his palate as thin and insipid. It’s a Mars. vs. Venus thing, you could say. To this point, Figeac has catered to ignorant masochists like me; the decision to hire Rolland suggests it will henceforth cater to Parker. As I said, it’s a move that would have made perfect sense a decade ago; it will be interesting to see if it pays off now.