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Château de Pressac

Château de Pressac

33330 Saint-Emilion
Gironde Aquitania (ZIP Code 33330)
0033 05/

If the chateaux gods descended and offered me my own property, this would definitely be on my top five short-list. The location is pretty much perfect; to the east of Saint Emilion, at the highest point of the village of St Etienne de Lisse, on a limestone plateau 80 metres above sea level and surrounded by steep terraced hillsides. The views are stunning in every direction, and it is not surprising to learn that it is a spot with great historical significance. On second thoughts, perhaps as an English woman I should not be so enamoured with the view, as this is the place that, on July 20, 1453, the English surrendered after the Battle of Castillon, thereby ending 300 years of easy, tax-free access to Bordeaux wines.

Today the chateau is owned by Jean-Francois Quenin, who in 2008 succeeded Hubert de Bouard as president of the Conseils des Vins de Saint Emilion, at what can only be described as a turbulent time in Saint Emilion's history. The problems stem from the furore over the classification, which has been cancelled and reinstated and then cancelled again with head-spinning regularity over the past two years (read about it here). But he may just be the best man for the job, not least because he doesn't come from the region and so can be believed when he says the words, ‘The fact that Saint Emilion is a small village and full of family-run properties is a great strength. But it also means things get very personal and it is easy to lose your objectivity. My job as president is to keep emotions out of the whole thing.'

Before Quenin bought Pressac in 1997, he was owned Darty, a large French electronics company a bit like Comet in England (who in fact he eventually sold the company to, as part of the KESA Group). His wife Dominique was a lawyer, and originally from the Libourne area, so when they thought about investing in wine, it could only have been on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. They looked at first in Lalande de Pomerol, and bought Chateau Pavillon Bel Air in 1994, before buying Pressac three years later. The entire place was run-down, but the potential huge. Quenin describes the moment as, ‘the tender specifications read: a house with three bedrooms, and we found ourselves with Sleeping Beauty's Castle!'

Quenin is a naturally charming host, with the gift of making you feel like nothing pleases him more than to be sitting chatting with you. But I'm not sure that he gets much time to sit around - he is currently president of the Union of Saint Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac, Vice President of the Cercle de Rive Droite, and now President of Saint Emilion Wine Council. Finding the time to work on his own property might be a bit difficult with all that, but he seems - perhaps sensibly - to regard his wider political role as being a necessary step to get the chateau better known.

He certainly has high plans for the estate's future, and says, ‘Classification is an excellent tool for promotion and competition among producers, and I believe we have good enough terroir here to one day be part of the ranking.' He did submit a dossier for the ill-fated 2006 Saint Emilion ranking, but was told it was too soon (and accepted it uncomplainingly. ‘I will try again in 2016.'). Having made such a leap from his previous career, he was never going to be an absentee landlord - he took an oenology qualification once he bought Pavillon Bel Air. The terroir around Pressac is limestone, clay and chalk, and the south-facing slopes so step that they were traditionally worked by oxen (even horses couldn't get up and down the gradient). Since Quenin's purchase of the 42-hectare property (36 hectares planted to vines), he has cut new terraces into the hillside, uprooted and replanted many of the vines and introduced new grape varieties with malbec and carmanere. The vineyard is today split into 72% merlot, 14% cabernet franc, 12% cabernet sauvignon and 2% split between carmanere and malbec (the former name for this grape being ‘pressac'. This is a variety that Quenin hopes to increase to around one hectare, planted at 8,000-9,000 vines per hectare).

According to Quenin, the carmanere can taste a little green for the first few years, which in my opinion makes it a dangerous choice for a wine that is intended to be tasted during the en primeurs, but settles down to give a lovely spicy edge. Overall the vineyard is planted to between 5,500 and 6,000 vines per hectare, with a large proportion of young wines due to the intensive replaning programme. ‘I still have six hectares to replant, but then everything will be done.'

Gilles Pauquet, one of the consultants at Cheval Blanc, is a consultant at Pressac for vinification, while Claude Bourguignon, a terroir specialist, has been consulting in the vineyard. The annual production is 100-150,000 bottles of red, that sells for between 15 and 25 euros. The first wine Chateau de Pressac forms 56% of production, while the second wine, at 30%, is La Tour de Pressac. The rest of the production goes to an own-brand wine for a leading French supermarket. The chateau also produces around 20,000 bottles of rose per year, with Quenin keen to point out the benefits of this, ‘It's intolerable that a bad bottle should bear the name of Saint Emilion. In certain cases producing a little rose would be better... Each winemaker must understand that he is responsible for the product he puts on the market and we musrt all have an eye on the wines that carry the name St Emilion.'

Vinification is truly plot by plot - one vat for each parcel of vines. A low temperature pre-fermentation maceration extracts colour and fruit aromas, and the maceration lasts between three to four weeks depending on vintage. Cubical cement vats are equipped with a system of compressed air jacks which means the punching down prodcedure is carried out by this, rather than by hand, but over the entire surface of the cap, in theory making the extraction gentle. For the first few years, Quenin was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic with the oak (borne out by my own tastings), but the percentage has now been scaled back (between 60-80%, and much more reactive to the needs of the individual vintage), and you can really see in the last few years a more measured, balanced approach.

This is a chateau to watch, one of the true rising stars of Saint Emilion, from an owner who understands the realities of today's market.

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Robert Parker