In Bordeaux, a Château has the right to sell all of its production under the name of its domain, yet they rarely do. Based on vine age vs. current yield, producers occasionally replant vineyard plots and it generally takes a few years before the fruit reaches the level of quality required to justify either the Château’s name or the price it seeks for top releases. Parcels that are nearly—but not quite—ready to rock are generally downgraded to a second wine which, the consumer has every right to expect, are nearly—but not quite—at a quality level of the first.
This week’s featured offering represents one such second wine, ‘Chapelle d’Ausone’ from Saint-Émilion’s legendary Château Ausone. These wines, although ready to drink, are re-releases, meaning that they come directly from the estate itself, so the provenance is guaranteed. They are individually packaged in the original wooden box, stamped with name and vintage, ideal as a gift idea.
The town of Saint-Émilion lies just north of the Dordogne river in the final stages of its journey from the hills of the Massif Central to the Gironde estuary. It is a land from the pages of a storybook, renowned as much for its architecture and scenery as for its wine.
Unlike the wines of the Médoc, which focus heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Saint-Émilion is predominantly made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is a matter of terroir; the clay and chalk rich soils around Saint-Émilion are generally cooler than those on the Médoc peninsula, and are less capable of reliably ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot makes up around two thirds of vines planted around Saint-Émilion, and continues to increase in popularity because of the softer, more approachable wine styles it produces. Both Cheval Blanc and Ausone may be seen as exceptions, since they are built predominantly around Cabernet Franc.
‘Find a niche and fill it’ is one of the oldest, most revered bits of advice offered to entrepreneurs, but at Château Ausone, the mission statement is closer to ‘Find a niche and hide inside it.’
And that is because, despite being one of the only four Premier Grand Cru Classé A wines in Saint-Émilion (Ausone, Angélus, Cheval Blanc and Pavie), Château Ausone retains a relatively low profile, due in no small measure to its size. Encompassing a mere 17 acres in a region where 70% of the estates are larger than 50 acres, the output of Ausone is similarly restrained; even in spectacular vintages, fewer than 2,000 cases are produced. Château Haut-Brion, in contrast, releases ten times as many.
But that wine! Ask almost any French vigneron to name the best terroir in Bordeaux and the majority will say, without missing a beat, that it belongs to Château Ausone. Grown on Asteria limestone along terraces splashed in sunlight, protected from wind by geography and then nurtured in the cellar by Alain Vauthier (whose family has been making wine at Ausone since 1690), the typical profile of an Ausone Grand Vin is reticent and reserved in its youth, with a persistent elegance supplemented (especially in recent vintages) by a polished texture and aromatic complexity. With maturation, these elements combine to make Château Ausone a sublime secret.
Alain Vauthier is proud to be beholden to his land. He is pragmatic about the challenges that will keep it producing at the top of its game: “To improve wine quality, we change details according to the vintage, but the terroir remains the same. The climate may change—but very slowly—and Ausone will remain Ausone in style. I don’t see how the hand of humans can do much to alter terroir. Terroir is the conjunction of wind currents, sunshine and stability of soils linked to hydrology. I don’t see how we could change it.”
To delve further beneath the surface of Vauthier’s remarks, The Ausone estate is anchored to the side of the hill in a place called Roc Blancan; literally the ‘white rock.’ Besides providing the vines with an ideal foundation, Ausone limestone, has been worked by masons for seven hundred years. As a memento to their labors, there are Gallo-Roman galleries under the château and a maze of tunnels that double as wine cellars. Over the years, local families have taken up residence inside the abandoned local quarries and many are buried there: The thick limestone bank that lies above the property contains a small Romanesque chapel which stands, surrounded by vines, in one of Ausone’s parcels. Beneath it sits another treasure of Christian art—an underground rotunda with a fresco of the Last Judgement.
The alignment of conditions at Ausone may sometimes seem like alchemy; surrounded by stone, the terraced vine parcels are in a natural amphitheater, sheltered from the wind while enjoying a perfect east south-east exposure. Sunshine is generous and working in concert with the Dordogne and Isle rivers that meet nearby, creates an ideal microclimate for winemaking. Some of the vines grow on a plateau of asteriated limestone, where their roots are anchored in crevices. On the hill, the vines delve deeply into earth supplemented with a layer of clay that provides welcome moisture when drought conditions prevail. Both growth environments are equally hospitable. Nowhere has this truth been more obvious (and more welcome) than during the horrendous frosts of 1892 and 1956. As a result, the estate boasts Cabernet Franc vines that are more than 100 years old, the oldest planted in 1906.
And at Château Ausone, Cabernet Franc is the name of the game: The vineyard is planted to 55% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot with the scant 5% Cabernet Sauvignon used primarily for Chapelle d’Ausone, the estate’s second label.
Pauline Vauthier, Alain’s eldest daughter, is the eleventh wine growing generation at Ausone. Having started during 2005 vintage, she arrived well-prepared, having entered agricultural school at 15 and earning a degree in viticulture and enology, then working in South Africa at the Morgenster estate. “But I’ve always wanted to work at Ausone,” she admits, and today oversees all technical aspects at the famed château as well as at the family’s other properties in Moulin St-Georges, Château Fonbel and Château Simard.
She shares her father’s sensibilities, driving the estate towards organic viticultural practices in what she calls ‘educated agriculture: “Beyond the vines themselves, the wider ecosystem is also taken into account. Hedges, fruit trees and aromatic plants are grown as companions for the vines, stimulating a fertile exchange between species, backed up with natural applications of nettle, willow and valerian. A variety of wildlife is also preserved, including insects, birds and even bats, which all contribute in their own way to releasing the vital energy in the soil.”
Château Ausone rarely sticks to a singular regimen. Methods inspired by both organic and biodynamic procedures are implemented based on weather conditions, which the family agrees is the gentlest ways to craft wines. Says Alain, “The best tactic that man can adopt is discretion. From the vineyard through to the cellars, all the deliberate, measured practices employed pursue a single ambition, that of enabling the terroir to express itself as genuinely as possible.”
Second wines are rarely an afterthought; in fact, they are better regarded as an overture—a wine that is often produced from younger vines or declassified lots, perhaps a slightly different cépage, but generally crafted by the same vigneron, using the same equipment and expertise, as the Grand Vin.
In short, a second label may be seen as an introductory course to the winemaker’s vision and can generally be identified by the absence of the word ‘Château’ on the label.
Chapelle d’Ausone is a prime example of this two-tiered, dual-philosophy excellence: Crafted under the same conditions as its elder sibling (the Merlot stands out more distinctly in Chapelle and mingles with subtle hints of Cabernet Sauvignon), it is a wine meant to be enjoyed younger than the Grand Vin, which may take fifteen or twenty years to unfurl. Chapelle is a great way to saturate the palate during the wait.
The re-release of several vintages of Chapelle d’Ausone from the estate itself is perhaps the best guarantee of its provenance and showcases the splendor of Ausone at a more rationale price point.
These wines are contained within their original wooden boxes, stamped with the estate’s name and vintage; they are perfect for those eager to get at least one significant other off the Christmas list early.
These wines have been recently re-released by Château Ausone itself, so there is no doubt about the integrity of storage conditions during the intervening years.
After two excellent vintages, 2011 handed Bordeaux a return to reality. A sweltering spring meant quick bud break and flowering, a full two weeks earlier than 2010. From April through June, drought conditions were noted. By July, however, summer nearly disappeared, with low levels of sunshine and cool temperatures followed by a rainy August.
Yet, in general, these conditions had a far more devastating effect on the Left Bank, with Cabernet Sauvignon on gravel soils suffering the worst. Generally speaking, Cabernet Franc did much better, and estates planted to this variety in both Pomerol and Saint Émilion (like Château Ausone) produced nice, early-drinking wines with fresh fruit and some gentle tannins.
2011 Château Ausone ‘Chapelle d’Ausone’ Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($199)
56% Cabernet Franc, 22% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has matured with earthy aromas of leather and forest floor above a core of fruit dominated by ripe cherry. The palate is supple and the tannins nicely integrated, finishing with dried fruit, black pepper and oak-driven butterscotch.
Overall, the 2012 vintage in Bordeaux was a challenge, and almost without exception the best wines came from older vines and long-established vignerons. Château Ausone was among them.
An extraordinarily wet April delayed both budburst and flowering; the latter did not occur until June. However, the flowering itself was beset with issues, from millerandage to mildew. The summer brought better weather, but a hot, dry August led to oppressive heat and drought. These harsh conditions caused some vines to temporarily shut down and the dry spell continued into September. Harvest was late, but those who delayed were rewarded, with Right Bank wines tending to fare better than the Left.
2012 Château Ausone ‘Chapelle d’Ausone’ Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($199)
60% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, broad and expansive, with raspberry jam and smoky licorice above notes of plum, blueberry and black raspberry. Finishes with the powdered-chalk minerality one excepts from an Ausone. 500 cases made.
Like the rest of Bordeaux, Saint-Émilion experienced an unusually warm and wet winter with humid conditions continuing throughout the spring. Sporadic rains fell, serving to bolster water tables in the soil, although the lack of sun during the spring months meant budburst was slow to arrive. Eventually, the clouds cleared, and early June saw bright summer sunshine, which prompted a successful flowering. The early rains proved vital to the drought conditions that developed over a hot, dry summer.
Overall, the 2016 vintage for Saint-Émilion was excellent and a wide range of brilliant wines were made from easy-drinking second wines to sophisticated Grand Vins that will reward long-term cellaring.
2016 Château Ausone ‘Chapelle d’Ausone’ Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($249)
A blend of 56% Cabernet Franc, 22% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon. The high percentage of Cab Franc in this assemblage is the result of replanted plots that are not quite ready for the Grand Vin. The wine is exceptionally floral, with rose-petal and violet aromas floating above fleshed-out raspberry and loganberry notes and plenty of firm tannins and delicious acidity.
In Saint-Émilion, the 2019 vintage was exceptionally good. A benign winter moderated into a balmy spring and benevolent weather reigned supreme until April, which brought a significant cold snap. Like neighboring Pomerol, threats of frost hung in the air, but as it has in the past, Château Ausone weathered the storm without damage. A hot, dry summer emerged with cool nights that preserved essential acidity and aromatics. A hot July saw two significant rainstorms, which helped break up the heat while rehydrating the vines. September then marked the start of a golden autumn, interrupted only towards the end of the month by heavy, but welcome rainstorms. The harvest ran from mid-September to the beginning of October with Merlot first in line to be picked.
2019 Château Ausone ‘Chapelle d’Ausone’ Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($199)
45% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 85% new oak; a blend of wine from young vines with a few barriques of declassified Ausone. Brilliant flashes of juicy blackberry, warm plum compote and redcurrant jelly in the forefront with suggestions of sassafras, cedar chest, menthol and aniseed throughout. Fewer than one thousand cases made.
* The wine was released in April 2022 and will arrive late September 2022.