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April 04, 2022 5 min read

‘Each vintage is a child to me’

François Despagne (right) is the seventh generation to head the famous Grand Corbin Despagne estate in Saint-Émilion, but with Château Ampélia, in nearby Castillon, he is creating something all his own.

Are you happy with the most recent harvest at Château Ampélia?

Yes, it is always a pleasure to harvest the fruit of a year of work. 2021 was a challenging year with risks related to climatic conditions such as frost, hot and cold weather during the flowering period and then a wet period conducive to the development of disease risks…[But] the wine produced has a lot of charm and balance and freshness.

Would you consider it as good as the 2020 and the 2019 which Decanter rated at a very impressive 92 and 91 points respectively?

Each vintage is different because the conditions of the year are variable, linked to our oceanic climate. This is what makes the charm of each vintage and therefore the charm of Bordeaux. 2021 is more an oceanic vintage as are a lot of Bordeaux vintages. 2020, 2019 and 2018 are more Mediterranean and sunny vintages.

What makes Château Ampélia such a special vineyard?

Château Ampélia is a personal adventure. Indeed, after my studies in molecular biology and oenology, my family entrusted me with Château Grand Corbin Despagne - Grand Cru Classé de Saint-Émilion which has been in my family for 210 years and of which I represent the 7th generation. Château Ampélia is another challenge on a fantastic appellation that borders Saint-Émilion, Castillon, with magnificent terroirs of clay-limestone soils on limestone rock. I really wanted to make a great wine on this terroir. I believe in the future with this type of terroir.

Is there something very personal about your work at Château Ampélia?

Whereas in Grand-Corbin Despagne you are overseeing a 200-year plus vineyard of renown, in Ampélia you are creating something all your own. Does this create a special pressure? Yes it does. Château Ampélia is about creating a new wine with enthusiasm without any pressure, except to blossom on another terroir. You know, I also have a wine in Pomerol, Château Le Chemin. And there too it is another terroir - gravel-siliceous - that I am delighted to approach. I am at the service of the expression of a terroir with my sensitivity.

You are not alone among Saint-Émilion winemakers in seeking to create new opportunities in Castillon, what are the attractions of Castillon compared to Saint-Émilion?

The geology of Castillon is the same on the eastern part of Saint-Émilion. The attraction of Castillon is to be able to bring an expertise that we do on our Grand Cru Classés. For me it is a rather different terroir from my Grand Corbin-Despagne which is in the north-western part of Saint-Émilion bordering Pomerol with blue clays.

As a right bank winemaker, you work mainly with Merlot (plus a little Cab Franc). What are its strengths compared to Cabernet Sauvignon?

Yes, Merlot remains the king of our right bank. However, the share of Cabernet Franc is steadily increasing to what existed in our region before the 1956 frost, which destroyed many vines, and where this variety was much more present. The replanting after 1956 was done with Merlot, which is easier to grow. For my part, I replant proportionally with cabernets coming from the selection of old vines that I still have and also with new clones of very good quality. Cabernet brings strength and freshness. Our region has clay which is very favourable to Merlot and Cabernet Franc because this clay acts like a sponge with the spring rains. By capillary action, the roots of the Merlot will draw the necessary water during strong hydric stress. As for the Cabernet Sauvignon, it is interesting on certain parts.

All your vineyards are now organic. Why was it important to make this change?

I have been growing organically since 2004, 18 vintages. After several years of study, all my vineyards are organic in 2008 with a request for conversion in 2010 and certification in 2013.  I am trained as a biologist and I want a balance and respect for my soils, my team of workers, my customers and also my family because I live in the middle of the vineyard. Moreover my family has never used chemical weed killers in the vineyard. To be in organic culture is not to be in fashion but in a deep movement of respect for nature.

You have been running some small trials of biodynamic methods since 2018. Do you plan to move to full biodynamic production of all your vineyards?

As with organic farming, I start by studying and then expand this work if the results seem satisfactory. So since 2019 everything on Grand Corbin-Despagne is biodynamic and I have applied for certification from 2021. The balance of my wines is reinforced. It is difficult to explain, especially when you are a scientist like me. But I like the result. The wines are dynamic.

Unlike many owners in Bordeaux, you are a hands-on winemaker. What prompted you to immerse yourself in wine education, making and ownership?

My family has been in Saint-Émilion forever, winemakers for centuries and vineyard owners for 210 years. Living in the middle of my vineyard where my family has been present for over 200 years, the passion to cultivate the land, to ripen grapes and to make wine, to transmit this passion to the general public. I want to pass on to my children a land and a vineyard that is as clean as possible. Like in rugby, I have the ball and I must pass it on to the next generation in the best condition.

Do you ever regret being born into a wine family in which your destiny was mapped out?

You know, until I was 16-18 years old, I didn’t appreciate wine, either Sauternes or old wines. At 18 I didn’t want to do like my parents, so I went to university to study science. It is only at 22-23 years old that I started to be interested in yeasts and then wine yeasts and oenology.... My family never pushed me. It was not until I was 25 that my family asked me to choose between a university career in research or returning to a family estate to take over Grand Corbin-Despagne after my uncle’s illness. In retrospect, it’s an opportunity to live with a passion. My son just told me a few weeks ago that he wanted to represent the 8th generation at Grand Corbin-Despagne and Ampélia. He is studying to be an agricultural engineer.

What vintage of Château Ampélia do you consider your best?

Each vintage is a child to me and each has its own personality. I have a lot of affection for the 2001, my true first vintage at Ampélia. I also like the 2019 because it is a wine of balance and elegance. This is what I wish for in the evolution of Ampélia.

 

   

 

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