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White Smoke Over the Vatican, A White Flag in Bordeaux

2013 April 1
by Mike

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.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. James Waite permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I am a fan of Figeac and believe they are still some of the best wines money can buy, especially for some of the older and prized vintages, such as the 1982.

  2. April 10, 2013

    Yes! Finally someone writes about diarist.

  3. Frank permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Thank you, Robert Parker. For once we are in agreement. My modest cellar contains much more Loire wine than Bordeaux. I have joined the elect.

    But I would go out of my way (and budget) for Figeac, in any shape, size or year. At least until a couple of years from now…

  4. April 5, 2013

    Good to see you again, Christina, and thanks. I will try to post with greater frequency–promise!

  5. Christina permalink
    April 4, 2013

    I’ve missed you Mike – keep writing!!

  6. April 2, 2013

    Hi Panos, thanks for stopping by, and I enjoyed your article, as well. Ordinarily, I would be inclined to reserve judgment, and I suppose Rolland might surprise us. But based on what we’ve seen of his work–and we’ve seen a lot of it–I don’t hold out much hope. For my taste, Pavie, Angelus, and Pape Clement, just to cite three Rolland projects, are now completely unappealing wines. I hate to sound like a tweedy aristocrat, but these are really now vulgar wines. I realize some people love them, just as they love wines like Sine Qua Non (and if you like SQN, chances are you love New Wave St Emilion and vice-versa). But I don’t think they represent progress for Bordeaux, and given Rolland’s extensive track record, I think we know that Figeac is headed in the same direction.

  7. April 2, 2013

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I am a fan of Figeac and agree that wines made under the direction of Eric d’Aramon are excellent and that Parker’s derision comes across as quite peevish. But I would not put the cart before the horse. Let’s see what happens before making predictions.

  8. April 1, 2013

    Hi Bill, good to see you again, and thanks for stopping by. He should know better, but he can’t help himself. I sometimes wonder if he is just screwing with us–tossing out the most incendiary, absurd comments just to get a rise out of everyone. Sadly, though, it appears that he really does think this way. And your last line is a gem, and is so true: he deserves a lot of credit for the quality revolution we’ve seen throughout the wine world. But perspective is something that he conspicuously lacks; indeed, he seems to get more belligerent with each passing year. A strange phenomenon.

  9. April 1, 2013

    You have a point, Dan. For those who now treat Parker as a contrarian indicator, his jab at the Loire was a very strong buy recommendation! As for that paywall–yeah, not the greatest timing, and based on the Berserkers thread, not the most enthusiastic reception. It’s a real conundrum: people should be paid for the work they do, but you can’t make the market pay for something it is disinclined to pay for.

    Jack, thanks for the kind words. I saw Panos’s piece, and it was nicely done. But expect the unexpected? I wish, but I think that what most of us expect is exactly what is going to happen. Rolland has been hired to pimp the wine, and that’s exactly what he is going to do. You mention Angelus and Pavie; just look at what Rolland’s influence has wrought at Pape Clement, another once-great wine. I think we know what is in store for Figeac, and it is very unfortunate for those of us who like our wines thin and weedy.

  10. Bill Moore permalink
    April 1, 2013

    The jab at Loire wines from Parker is such a jarringly off-base and dated misconception from someone who should know better. “Diluted and vegetal” are also about the last descriptors anyone would associate with a Baudry Croix Boissee, Joguet Clos du Chene Vert, or any of the other interesting and rapidly improving wines from the region. Unless he’s just intentionally trying to goose his click count with provocative hogwash, then it’s clear the man needs to put down the CdP and have a look good around at the wine world he helped shape.

  11. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 1, 2013

    Thanks for the fine article Mike. As the lone voice of dissent on Parker’s private wine board EBOB ( I had a few compatriots regarding Figeac… Panos Kakaviatos who wrote another fine piece on this sad tale of greatness lost I am saddened to see Figeac join Angelus and Pavie as former great terroir that will likely now produce 10w/30 versions of their glorious past.
    To me, it is more a statement of sadness at the loss of one remaining wine that was made in a style that is no longer accepted as successful, except by those who have been around long enough to know that it was. Too much recent inconsistency, failure in great years like 89 and 2000 and the new level of higher pricing were the undoing.

  12. Dan McCallum permalink
    April 1, 2013

    d’ accord Mike, it is as you say.
    But there is a cheery side; good news for Joguet, etc. And Mr Kissick had perfect timing in putting up his paywall.

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