One of the other highlights of my week in Bordeaux and Paris with Bipin this past December was a glorious celebration of Chateau Figeac’s Thierry Manoncourt’s 90th birthday. Thierry is one of the most inspirational people that I have ever met in this crazy world of wine, still quick as a whip and very much in charge over at Chateau Figeac. He exudes grace, class and charm and is one of the people that has made Bordeaux great. It is outrageous to me that Figeac has never achieved ‘official’ Premier Grand Cru Classe status in St. Emilion, and while I will not get into the particulars of those politics, I will say that there is no doubt that Chateau Figeac is not only one of Bordeaux’s elite wines, but also the world’s, and this tasting surely proved that fact.
The lunch was held in Paris at Taillevent, and every wine was served out of magnums that came directly from Figeac’s personal cellars, except the final flight of younger wines was served out of bottles, which still came from Thierry’s sizeable stash, of course. None of the magnums had been reconditioned at any point in time, always music to my ears.
The guest list was a who’s who of wine critics, including (in alphabetical order) Michel Bettane, Michael Broadbent, Clive Coates, Neal Martin, David Peppercorn, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier, James Suckling and Serena Sutcliffe, amongst others.
We started with a flight of four, beginning with the 1983 Figeac. Green olives jumped out of the glass immediately in a waify yet aromatic style. There were lots of wintergreen aromas along with meaty, olivy fruit. A touch of vegetable bouillon added complexity to its creamy, forward nose, which also had this ‘wet street’ element to it. The palate had red fruit, citrus and additional olive flavors, possessing nice grit on its round, earthy finish. That wet street I was picking up on in the nose others felt might have been a touch of mustiness, or cork. Wolfgang was not a big fan of the 1983. Soft, tender and pretty, I was happy to drink it (91M). The 1982 was a bit controversial, and ultimately decided to be an affected bottle. It had a much nuttier, beefier style, with more whiffs of caramel and pine to go with its dark core of sweet, black fruits. It had a rich, heady style, black in its personality. James Suckling observed, ‘decadent sous bois and mushroom.’ The palate was rich and beefy with great balance and an excellent minerality. Its acidity lingered, but it became a bit pruny in time, a touch stewed. It was quite interesting to me that a bottle that had perfect provenance, never leaving the cellars until now, could have a stewed impression, which means that heat or poor storage isn’t always the source of that deficiency (94M-A).
The 1975 was ‘very balsamic, almost Nebbiolo-like,’ per James. I must say it was a pleasure to sit next to James and hear firsthand many of his astute comments. Most importantly, we were having fun and really enjoying the event. I like my wines dry, but not those I have to taste with! The 1975 had purple fruits and seemed open for a 1975 by its usual standards. It had this sweet perfume about it, a confectioner’s edge, and kisses of signature olive. It was sexy sweet in the nose. I was also impressed by its sweetness in the mouth and its mélange of red, purple and black fruit flavors. Tender and balanced, there was also a foresty complexity here. This was very pure, getting more complex in the nose, and I admired its roundness both in the nose and in the mouth. Soft yet rusty, it had less tannins than I expected but still nice vim (92M). The 1971 stole the show in this flight, which was nice to see since that is my year! There were fabulous aromatics of olive, dust, chocolate, minerals and red and purple mature fruits. The nose was like a majestic, dancing Cobra, ever changing and never static. The palate was round, lush and tender, possessing dusty and citrusy flavors on its finish. Sweet strawberry flavors dominated along with Spanish green olives from the best possible vineyard, olives soaked in olive oil (95M).
Neal Martin, of eRobertparker fame, was asked to speak about this first flight and shared the following comments. ‘Figeac was the first chateau I ever wrote about. The ’83 was pleasant but did not have the depth of others. (Usually), the 1982 is one of the greatest ‘82s in Bordeaux and better than Cheval this past October (when he had both head-to-head). The ’75 had a conservative nose yet a traditional palate (and notes of) wild mint and fennel. The ’71, I loved it, its controlled opulence, mushrooms, cooked meats”¦fleshy, absolutely fantastic.’
The next flight began with the 1970, which James found both ‘Burgundy and Rhonish,’ and it was totally a blend of the two! It was very aromatic with lots of sweet cherry, that signature olive, a touch of candle wax, a splash of cassis, a drop of rainwater and a kiss of mahogany. Age 38 years, shake, stir and serve lol. The ’70 was softer on the palate than I had hoped, showing more citrus and cedar personalities. There was still nice grit here and a touch of tobacco. James found it ‘a touch volatile’ (92M).
Steven Spurrier was immediately in love with the 1964. Like the 1982, it had a nuttier, beefier style, but also this exotic szechuan peanut sweetness to go with its ocean of sweet, plummy fruit. The palate had a cleaner, fresher and zippier personality than the nose, possessing great citrus, slate, cherry and old book flavors; in fact, I wrote ‘great’ before each of those characteristics in my original notes! There were also nice stem and stalk flavors, and even a kiss of green bean. The acidity was superb, and the wine kept gaining in the glass. Its finish was so clean and fresh, concurred with by James who added ‘so pure’ (96M). The 1961 had an oily, sexy nose, deep purple in its fruit, bordered by black. Nuts and vitamins were dancing all over, and there was also a touch of fig, in the best way (as opposed to a sign of maderization). The ’61 was much more purple in its personality than any other wine so far. The palate had nice cedar and minerality, resulting in a long, stylish, gritty yet elegant wine. It continued to get figgier and plummier in the glass (93M). The 1959 was the last wine in this lumber flight, and Wolfgang observed how it had ‘some of the qualities of 1971.’ Steven found the ’59 to be ‘beautiful wine, almost Burgundian, but doesn’t have the reserve, acidity and tannins of ’64.’ The ’59 was very aromatic, Asian in style with its jasmine qualities, with a pinch of black pepper and almost a kiss of madarin orange, a quality that James found to be ‘sultana raisin.’ The palate was round and long with excellent acidity and a flash of heat. Its flavors were grapier, almost port-like and ‘chewy,’ per James. There was also nice grit to this outstanding 1959 (95M). James spoke about this flight, praising ‘the unique character of Figeac, hand-made like Burgundy, and it is exciting to find wine like that in Bordeaux amidst the big companies and modern winemakers. Comparing the ’64, ’61 and ’59 is like asking if you like blondes, brunettes or redheads. The ’61 is almost a combination of the two with tannins less large.’
It was then shared with us how Thierry has degrees in agriculture and engineering, and back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was little universal knowledge in those regards (ie, a lot of winging it), and that some winemakers didn’t even know the difference between yeast and bacteria!
The third flight on this afternoon was led off by the 1955, which had a nutty, chocolaty nose full of dates, sous bois, earth and tobacco. It gave a meaty, thick impression, as did its palate with more chocolate flavors and lots of minerals to go with its long finish and very vibrant acidity. David Peppercorn called 1955 ‘the forgotten year,’ in general (95M).
The 1953 had more animal and hay in its nose to go with the nutty style that this decade seemed to share for Figeac. There was definite beef to the nose, glazed with some sweet and sweaty marinade. The alcohol and acidity slowly penetrated my nasal cavities, and a hint of olive re-ermerged. The palate was tender yet solid, with purple and black hues and flavors of old book, citrus, animal and a touch of yeast on the finish of this charming Figeac (93M). The 1950, a wine that I have had the pleasure of having out of Thierry’s cellar before, was spectacular again. Its nose had a bit of everything, and its youthful expression impressed James. The nose was deep and nutty, full of campfire aromas along with the most distinctive chocolate-filled-with-a-raspberry-squirt-surprise that I have ever encountered, and James seconded my motion! The nose carried over to the palate with its chocolate-covered raspberry. Its tannins and acidity were mind-boggling. Thick, long and possessing great definition, the 1950 was something extra special, so sweet, so sexy and so gritty, holding so well and providing ample earth and minerals on its endless finish. It was about as close as I have seen Wolfgang and Bipin simultaneously go crazy over a wine, and Wolf called the flight ‘a real stunner’ (97+M). The 1947 had a weird nose at first with a touch of metal that I couldn’t get past, perhaps related to the glass. The palate was excellent, however, possessing cherry dust and citrus flavors. I liked its texture, balance and length, along with its earthy finish and thick tannins. Citrus (very limy), wild herb, old book and wood flavors graced this elegant and lighter-styled Figeac. I must confess that the ’47 gave me a reconditioned impression (94M). The last, old wine for the afternoon was actually Thierry’s first vintage, 1943. This was actually served out of bottle, as no magnums remain at the chateau. The nose was a bit funky, mushroomy and possessing this mothball quality. Behind that, it was bready with a touch of dark chocolate and an earthwormy appeal. The ’43 had nice texture and flavors of old book, citrus, candle wax and crushed ice. It wasn’t the greatest Figeac of the day, but it was still excellent in its unique way (93). Wolfgang joked to Thierry, ‘a flight like this is how you must stay so young.’ When asked to speak, an anonymous Frenchman joked, ‘there are two languages for wine ”“ English if you are very good and French if you are average.’ I also spoke up about the flight, adding that ‘more winemakers in St. Emilion need to go to the school of Manoncourt.’
It was time for the final flight of young bucks, appropriately accompanied by a dish of ‘chevreuil,’ aka reindeer. Being it December, I found it a bit amusing that we would be served reindeer during Christmas season, so I leaned over to James and asked him, ‘did you get Dancer or Vixen?’ I thought I heard him mumble something about a dancer named Vixen, but that might have been me lol.
The 2005 was a bit of a shock to the system after so many great old wines. It was so sweet, so oily, like a chocolate sundae with the whipped cream, vanilla and caramel to match. There were lots of caramel and vanilla cream flavors to this rich, young, lush and decadent Figeac. One could see the concentration of the 2005 vintage immediately (94). The 2000 had a much different personality, showing much more dill, crÃ¨me fraiche and red pepper, so much so that James and I planned a party around it since it could serve as the crudite. The palate was soft and tender, with lots of cherry and red fruits, green bean and tobacco. Bipin found it ‘ethereal. I have never seen such balance in a vintage’ (92). The 1990 was a bit green in the nose but in that wintergreen and menthol direction, not an underripe one. Sinus-clearing t ‘n a was present, along with touches of nut, gingerbread, and purple leotard. The wine was a clean, green, fighting machine with its great green pepper and mint flavors and nice, lingering acidity. A touch of dill rounded out the party (94). The 1986 had a baked cherry pie of a nose, along with a side of vanilla ice cream. Tasty and round with a hint of lemon sorbet, there were nice minerals in this delicious Figeac that showed a hint of that beefy side as well (93). I think the last flight was a bit anti-climactic and perhaps rated a touch lower than they would have been if served first. There were numerous comments at the end of this glorious afternoon, and I tried to catch as many as I could. Michael Broadbent called Bipin, ‘a man of great imagination and courage’ for hosting such an event, and singled out the ’59 as his personal favorite. He continued that he does ‘tastings of people I admire, and I get a great thrill out of introducing them to the world whether fashionable or not.’ Clive Coates noted how ‘you see the family making the wine and their style. This expression of personality into wine is getting rarer and rarer.’ Steven added, ‘Figeac explains the vintage every year in its Figeac way,’ but it was Thierry with the last word. Visibly moved by this event and all those who came to share it with him, he commented how ‘there is something about those who have the patience to wait and appreciate the wine for what it is supposed to be. Those are the people that love wine with their heart.’
There is no doubt that the wines of Chateau Figeac are built for the long haul, meant to age in the cellar and blossom over time, and that Thierry is a classicist amongst all the wannabe rock stars in St. Emilion today. Perhaps that is why so many do not understand the wine and its greatness as many associate quality with volume nowadays, and those that appreciate, or get to appreciate, very old wines are a small minority of wine drinkers.
As it so happens, earlier in the week in Bordeaux I happened to be at Chateau Figeac itself for dinner. We sampled seven other vintages, the ones that didn’t make the varsity cut, I suppose, but vintages that still were ‘players,’ nonetheless. It was a wonderful evening at this magical property, one of Bordeaux’s oldest.
We started with a nice, easy, round and yeasty 1990 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle (92).
The 2006 Figeac had a pretty nose and soft, red fruits, light green olive, a pinch of mint, nut, candle wax, and some purple fruits emerged as well. In the mouth, the wine was tender, rich, round and balanced with nice flesh and excellent acidity. Long, pretty and stylish, this was not a powerhouse but still had great style and character. This was true Bordeaux; I could see others rating this wine less because it doesn’t have the oak or concentration that many seek. Bipin likened the ’06 Figeac to a caress compared to the punch of the Mouton, one of the standout ‘06s earlier on this trip. ‘Which do you prefer?’ I asked. ‘I much prefer getting caressed than punched,’ Bipin wisely answered with a smile (93). The 2001 was similar yet darker, nuttier and toastier than the ’06. There were more green olive flavors, great flesh and plummy flavors to this charming ’01. Round, soft, and lush, it was another winning Right Bank ’01. Thierry cooed, ‘un vin pour maintenant. J’aime dans le commencement.’ Translation: A wine for now. I love it at thebeginning (of a meal). The only bad thing I could say about this wine is that it was almost too ready, but perhaps this will be a vintage like 1953 that was always and still is ready (93).
The 1998 had a nutty and chocolaty nose, toasty and with a kiss of caramel. The palate was round, smooth and tasty, similar to the 2001 in its tender softness, but possessing more green earth flavors. Dusty, ceramic and olive twists were on its finish. Ninety-three seemed to be the magic number so far on this evening (93). 1995 was Thierry’s 50th anniversary bottling at Figeac, and even though his first vintage was 1943, there were a couple of years not made; hence, 1995 was his 50th. The 1995 was the mildest of the bunch but still had a classy, pretty nose. Round, smooth and soft, there were nice, nutty flavors and black olive ones as well (91).
The 1989 had that same pungent earth, green olive and green pepper that marks the ’89 Cheval as well, but there was great intensity in the mouth, and remarkable acidity and spine with a leathery spank to it. Gritty, wintry and earthy, this could be a sleeper of a Figeac that will blossom even more down the road (93+).
Last and certainly not least was the 1966, whose nose was deep, chocolaty, earthy and soupy with its bouillon-like intensity. Mushroom and forest floor were present, even pheromones in this complex wine. Round, smooth, polished and beautiful, Mrs. Manoncourt observed ‘un peu de fume’ (smokiness), and I a touch of rust (93). We finished with a 1988 Yquem, whose apricots, honey, crÃ¨me brulee, nutty and waxy qualities were all as they should be, as always (96). It was a memorable evening, and the Figeac wines selected were all siblings and similar in style, well chosen by a man who, even at the age of 90, still knows his wines very, very well. Long live Thierry Manoncourt!
In Vino Veritas,