En Primeur 2022: An Interview with Frédéric Faye, Winemaker at Château Figeac

Robert Mathias

24 May 2023

As part of En Primeur 2022, we’ve interviewed leaders in the industry in Bordeaux to find out everything there is to know about the Bordeaux 2022 vintage.

Robert Mathias, our Senior Fine Wine Buyer, sat down with Frédéric Faye, Winemaker at Château Figeac, to hear his take on the 2022 vintage and to find out what we can expect from Figeac’s 2022 release.

Thank you, Frédéric, for joining us. It would be great if you could first introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about Château Figeac.

Thank you for the introduction. I’m Frédéric Faye and I’m the Winemaker and General Manager of the Château. I’ve been working at Figeac for 20 years, after I started as a trainee. I then became Vineyard Manager, then Technical Director before the family invited me to become General Manager in 2013. Following this history, I know quite a lot about this lovely place and the beautiful terroir we have on the estate. The family is hugely involved in the estate, and I think Figeac’s uniqueness comes not only from the history, which starts in the 2nd century, but also from the land, the soil and the subsoil. We have three hills of gravel and the subsoil is blue clay.

In 1947 when Mr Manoncourt arrived at Figeac, they really felt the potential for Cabernet here. It’s also why we have a unique proportion of grape varieties here. We have 1/3 of Merlot in the vineyard, 1/3 of Cabernet Franc and 1/3 of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s part of the uniqueness of the estate, it’s also a very large vineyard with 41 hectares of vines in one block made up of different plots. The family live on the estate as well, so they are very involved in the processes that go on here.

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Great, thanks for that introduction, Frédéric. Looking at 2022, by all accounts so far, the vintage for both Left Bank and Right Bank is lauded as one of the greats. For the growing season, it seems to be one of the driest in recent years, but not without drama. Perhaps you could start by giving us a recap of the conditions, and outline what key features you thought were most formative of the vintage?

Well, we had unusual weather conditions. The droughts and the heat started very early towards the end of May, beginning of June. It’s really a part of the success because I believe the vines adapted very well to these new weather conditions. We also had very hot days, but we also had cool nights. It’s important to remember that the vine is still working during the night and transforming the components during the day. During the day, the leaves act something like a solar panel, I would say. So cooler nights were hugely helpful in this vintage.

The vintage was also early, the Manoncourt Family decided to start the harvest on the 1st September, and this I believe allowed for great quality, particularly with the Merlot. On the same grape we had very ripe and less ripe berries, and I think this is what kept the freshness in the Merlot. It was difficult to monitor this year, but I think this is what has made this vintage a truly great one.

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On the 27th September we finished with the Cabernet Sauvignon, and by this point again we knew it was going to be a fantastic vintage. However, after fermentation, this is when I said wow, it’s going to be an outstanding vintage.

This year the yields were lower, there were some losses due to the heat, but regarding the balance of the wine it’s really not representative of the weather conditions. It actually gives you the identity of the place and the terroir. For example, the Merlot, roundness and richness but acidity and balanced with fresh flavours. Cabernet Franc: cherry notes, white flowers, lots of elegance and finesse. I’m very happy with the Cabernet Franc this year. Then Cabernet Sauvignon: fine tannins, a lot of minerality on the soil of Figeac with a lot of graphite, bright acidity, blackcurrant and spiced pepper notes. Wow!

We’ve had to adapt our viticultural methods in the vineyard. We need to constantly be learning and adapting. We’ve planted grass and cover crops in the middle of the rows to reduce transpiration. We are careful with green harvesting, only to move late bunches, keeping more grapes to avoid over-concentration in the grapes left on the vine. We are taking more care around the date of the harvest and we’re carefully managing all aspects of vinification.

This is also the second vintage in our new cellar which has resulted in much more precision. We are able to vinify intra-plot selection and give each tank its own vinification programme. This is a truly bespoke way of working. We used a lower fermentation temperature on average this year to limit the extraction, to avoid creating a very large, austere Figeac.

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Have you now finalised the blend for your 2022 wines? What’s your impression of the wines at this early stage?

To blend at Figeac, it’s like being a painter. The more colour you have, the more choice and freedom you have. The more precise you can be with the flavours, the textures. It’s all in the detail and bringing those details together. You will of course have had the final wine during En Primeur! A blend of 35% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Franc, and 31% Cabernet Sauvignon.

It sounds like it’s a continuous process of improvement and attention to detail. Have you found any merit in looking to the New World, areas like Napa Valley, to see how they handle the warmer climates and drought conditions?

We do talk a lot with the New World wineries, but we also talk with Spanish wineries as well. We welcome different views and ideas and it’s hugely important to be open minded. We are lucky at Figeac. We don’t use water in the vineyard, and our vine roots are very deep. The blue clay also allows us to have humidity in the soil. We use rootstocks even for the new plantation which is very important, not 100% vitis riparia rootstocks for instance, riparia could be very dangerous right now for the plantation. I have to say that we work with our own clones at Figeac, we have a massive selection. It’s one plot to maintain the identity. Then we work with universities. We’ve started thinking about Figeac over the next 30 years. We have forecasts here in the Gascon Gulf and especially for Figeac regarding the weather conditions, increasing temperatures, and for potential drought conditions in the coming years; we work with universities for that. We learnt in 2018, 2019 and 2020 that need for evolution – climate is changing - and we adapted. This was in regard to the ploughing, the de-leafing, regarding the green harvest, planting between rows, and of course the date of harvest. But first of all we start in the vineyard: it’s the plant, then the soil and the subsoil with good rootstocks. We adapt for every vintage.

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That’s fascinating. It’s absolutely necessary to be able to find the best way through and water is such an important resource now that you need to take care in the vineyard, but also in the winery as well.

Yes, and you talk about New World wines like Napa for instance, we have connections with some of the most famous wineries there, and they’re starting to think about dry farming. With watering, the plant becomes dependant, and the roots don’t go that deep. It wouldn’t be possible if even half the vineyards in Bordeaux were watering. And we will continue for the next decade to use our red grape varieties. There are so many other changes to make before that changes. It’s the universities that need to experiment with new things but in my opinion, not yet in the vineyards.

You raise some very interesting points.
How do you think balance manifests in a vintage like 2022 when the pH levels are maybe higher than other vintages?

We thought that the pH should have been higher but we were wrong! It’s actually a classic Figeac pH at 3.6/3.7 because our gravelly ground is not acidic. The ground produced less alcohol compared to clay and limestone. It’s airier like in Pomerol or other neighbours. So, the balance is there and you don’t feel the alcohol. It’s, as I call it, a ‘little 14’, not a very high alcohol level which I think is due to the mix of the bunches. So, you will not feel the heat or drought in our wines and it’s been a great, great, great surprise. Of course, we had to make some very important decisions like the date of picking, managing the vineyard differently, general extraction, longer fermentation. And it’s very true to the Bordeaux style.

It's not a 2003. You won’t feel the sunny effect of that vintage. But it’s very ripe in terms of texture. The tannins are fine, there’s a freshness on the finish and you have this complete Bordeaux and Figeac style in the bottle thanks to these top, top, top grape varieties that we’ve blended together.

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I really can’t wait to taste!
So, how important is the En Primeur release of wines for you and why should we pay attention to the 2022 vintage?

Alors! Thank you for asking this question as it’s important for all consumers, including myself as I’m a wine buyer and consumer too. The Manoncourt family trust in the En Primeur market. We release around 90% of the crop during En Primeur. The bottles are on the market during En Primeur for Figeac so it’s very important to source Figeac at this moment because afterwards we have very low quantities of wine. It’s a good opportunity to source outstanding wines at a good price. We trust in the En Primeur market and the family will ultimately decide but I think we will continue to release a high percentage of the production on the market during En Primeur. We will not keep very big quantities in in our stock.

And then Figeac is the first 2022 vintage with the new classification Premier Grand Cru Classé “A”. We are ambitious but we want everybody to be happy on the market but it’s too early to talk about price at the moment. I think we’ll release around June and let’s see! I would say we have an outstanding vintage. We look at our own markets and we’re very proud because our main market is Europe. Our market is following Figeac every year and they are opening and drinking Figeac. People love it so it means Figeac is a major brand and an outstanding wine too.

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You certainly do. You’re going against the trend almost as a lot of properties seem to be holding back more and more stock and almost playing the market a little. So, I suppose it’s a very classical approach to the system.
Do you have any thoughts or feelings about how La Place de Bordeaux is now introducing more and more wines from outside of Bordeaux?

It proves that La Place de Bordeaux is a very important place for wine trading. They used to work with super premium wines from abroad and they’re starting to work with different ranges of prices with foreign wines. It’s positive to show that Bordeaux is able to be the most important place in the world to trade wines. It’s this old system that is working really well. We do have a big crisis at the moment regarding some wineries in Bordeaux, even Bordeaux Supérieur – it’s a big problem. I don’t what the solution is at the moment but Bordeaux produce excellent wines at very cheap prices (depending on the appellation) but I don’t know the future. But at the moment Bordeaux is trading foreign wines. That’s life!

You mention the future. It seems that Chateau Figeac is riding a wave of success. You’re had your classification as a Premier Grand Cru Classe A, as you said, and you’ve finished a beautiful new winery. What are your ambitions for the next 5, 10, even 20 years?

We have so many things to continue to do with Figeac. In regards to the classification first of all, it’s a step in in Figeac life. We are very proud and very happy. We are becoming ambassadors of St Emilion wines and a little bit of Bordeaux of course. We now have to continue to prove that Figeac is part of the top 10 in Bordeaux. And in terms of what’s coming next, which the Manoncourt family will decide – we won’t do any teasers yet but we have lots of work to do and we continue to work very hard on the identity of Figeac and to prepare for the future.

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Very intriguing. To sum up could you give us three words that embody the vintage?

Identity, in terms of the terroir of course. Outstanding. And surprise.

Three very good words. It certainly sounds like one of the most exciting vintages in quite a long time. It’s come at a great moment in the history of Figeac what with the classification.

I think all of the Bordeaux vintages are really outstanding. We are going to be very happy to show this vintage and as a consumer I would be happy to buy 2022 Bordeaux to put in my cellar.

Thank you, Frédéric, for taking the time to speak with me and for giving us a wonderfully glimpse into what the 22 vintage might hold.