Our corespondent in Bordeaux, Ronald Rens recounts the tale of how Château Angélus gained the highest classification in Saint-Émilion to join the top league
The words, “not possible” do not exist at Angélus. Its
name, reputation, château, winemaking, everything underwent changes in the quest for the highest spot in the Saint-Émilion pecking order – Premier Grand Cru Classé “A”. Nestled on the Right Bank of the Garonne, the medieval village of Saint-Émilion lies about 45 minutes from the city of Bordeaux.
Many Saint-Émilion properties are on average about only five hectares and remain family-owned to this day. Saint-Émilion is nicknamed the land of the 1000 crus as there are about a thousand active wine producers here. In contrast, properties in the Médoc are much larger where the average size of a property is about 40 hectares.
The wrong side of the river
Seen from Bordeaux city, Saint-Émilion is on the wrong side of the Garonne looking away from the sea towards Paris. As a result the wines from Saint-Émilion were almost automatically overlooked when the wines from the Left Bank were rated in the famous Classification of 1855. Saint-Émilion had to wait another century to put Grand Cru Classé on a label.
When they finally came up with a classification for the Right Bank wines, they classified the terroir, ie, the vineyards unlike the Left Bank where it is the label that is classified. Furthermore in contrast to the Médoc, Saint-Émilion opted for a dynamic system with promotions and demotions possible and the classification to be revised every 10 years.
At the lowest level is the simple appellation, Saint-Émilion. Just a little bit higher is Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, for wines that observe certain yield restrictions and contain a bit more alcohol.
The next quality Saint-Émilion Grand Crus are allowed to call themselves Grand Cru Classé. The last and highest category is subdivided into Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” and Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”. The “A” classification is considered at the same level as a First Growth of the Left Bank (like Châteaux Lafite Rothschild and Margaux, for example). In the original Saint-Émilion classification there were only two châteaux that had the privilege to call themselves “A” – Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc, but things were about to change.
Ringing those bells
Château Angélus is just a little outside of Saint-Émilion. It is said that in the old days here you could hear the church bells of no less than three churches sounding the Angélus; hence the château’s name. (The Angelus is a prayer that recalls Christ’s Incarnation and was traditionally recited three times a day at 6 am, noon and 6 pm, accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell).
Not many Bordeaux châteaux have remained family-owned over the years but Angélus is owned by one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine families. The family de Boüard de Laforest bought its first vineyard in 1782, just after the Rothschilds acquired Lafite. The eighth generation has just started working at Angélus, but it was the seventh generation in the person of Hubert de Boüard de Laforest who would make the bells of Angélus ring like never before.
The young Hubert was under a lot of pressure to work in the family business. But the talented Hubert wanted to get a University degree first, which in his father’s eyes was all nonsense and a waste of time as his son already had a job at the family-owned château. However, Hubert insisted and went to study viticulture at the Bordeaux Wine University under the famous professor, Émile Peynaud. The ambitious and brilliant Hubert returned to his ancestral château with profound knowledge and many new ideas.
The reputation of Angélus in the 1970s wasn’t one of great quality. The wine was rather bland and sometimes even a bit boring. As a result Angélus was considered just a Grand Cru Classé in the Saint-Émilion classification. In 1982, Hubert invited his tutor for a visit to Angélus. During the tasting at the château the polite Peynaud faced a challenge. He didn’t know how to react and mumbled something like, “rather pleasant” and even the lethal, “interesting.”
Hubert quickly ran to his father’s cellar and presented some older wines. The 1955 and 1953 came up for tasting and Peynaud’s attitude changed completely. “Young man, you have a lot of work to do at this property,” he said.
This was the decisive moment in Hubert’s career. These wines had class and were deep and complex, and there was indeed great potential in the terroir. He saw where he wanted to go and didn’t rest till he got there. He would make wines in the style of his grandfather and his great grandfather, but with the knowledge and techniques of today.
The battle for quality
At the start of his career in the 1980s Hubert met with considerable resistance from his father and uncle when he wanted to reduce the size of the crop in order to improve quality.
In 1985 the bomb burst. De Boüard senior accused his son, in front of the entire staff, of reducing the crop too much. Hubert answered, again in the presence of the staff, “OK, this isn’t working. There are two possibilities; either I am leaving, or we are going to do things my way.”
He got what he wanted. The vintage of 1985 was the first vintage where Hubert could apply his new techniques. He continued strict vendanges vertes and introduced selection tables in the winery for the harvested grapes. Hubert went even further than his teachers ever dared to go. He insisted that the second, malolactic fermentation be provoked in individual barrels and not in big vats, continuing to tweak the process of winemaking even further. His famous neighbours smiled condescendingly at the ambitious young winemaker with his funny new techniques. With a smile Hubert likes to point out that all those neighbours nowadays have adopted his techniques as well!
In the Saint-Emilion classification of 1955, Angélus wasn’t even classified as a Premier cru . Hubert couldn’t care less; he had his own ambitions. He knew his terroir had great potential because Peynaud had confirmed it. He felt he had the knowledge and techniques to make a great wine. But another important factor was reputation. And here the young strategist came into play with two masterstrokes.
In French the prefix, “Le” or La” determines the alphabetical order in a list. By simply eliminating L’ before its name, Angélus parachuted to the top of every alphabetical list of Saint-Émilion producers! His second brilliant move was getting James Bond to drink Angélus wine in the movie, Casino Royale, which made the name Angélus known worldwide.
Ten years after having produced his first wine, the eager Hubert achieved the noble title of Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”. The royal predicate, “A” seemed unachievable for mere mortals, for the time being…
A brand new castle
During the En Primeur tastings when Bordeaux presents the new vintage to the international press and trade, “ordinary” châteaux present their wines in group tastings. The “elite” receive the tasters at their own property. These group tastings had been off limits for a while for Angélus. But the Angélus’ château – not much more than a farm building – didn’t really radiate an aura of success. So a new château was needed. However, without permission of the French Historic Buildings Architects you can’t even change a light bulb in the UNESCO heritage site of Saint-Émilion, let alone build a new château.
But again the energetic Hubert was not to be stopped. He appointed Jean-Pierre Errath, former head of the French Historic Buildings Architects as his architect so that the new château complied with all necessary requirements. In the end, even those who resist change in Saint-Émilion had to admit that Angélus acquired a beautiful building.
Angélus stayed Premier Grand Cru Classé “B” in the Classification of 2006. After much turmoil another version of the classification was created in 2012 and this time Angélus (together with Pavie) was admitted to the highest category, as one of the four châteaux rated Premier Grand Cru Classé “A”.
When considering an upgrade, the wine itself is only one of the many factors taken into account such as reputation, price, the château’s buildings and even the number of parking spaces! All said and done, Hubert de Boüard certainly worked hard to earn the top ranking. The new château radiates prestige and the wines of Angélus are, without a doubt, outstanding.
Château Angélus nowadays welcomes guests from all over the world with their national anthem chiming from the carillon.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the December 2015-January 2016 edition of Sommelier India wine magazine.
Recently when Rajiv Kehr, SI contributor and president of the International Wine & Food Society (Delhi Chapter) visited Château Angelus, he was thrilled to hear the Angelus bells chime to the tune of the Indian national anthem! – Editor