The Côtes de Castillon is essentially an eastern extension of the St-Emilion limestone ridge. Like St-Emilion, the soils are variable but the clay-limestone slopes have enormous potential for producing exceptional wines, which can rival wines from its more illustrious neighbour. Côtes de Castillon has sandy, alluvial soils, at one extreme, and very heavy clay, at the other, neither delivering much more than everyday wines. Higher up the slopes, a mix of clay and limestone provide the perfect environment for a St-Emilion-style varietal mix. In fact, until the early 1930s, these wines were coined St-Emilionnais. Merlot is dominant in blends, followed by Cabernet Franc and then Cabernet Sauvignon. The soils, rather cool, require a prolonged growing period. Growers prepared to take that risk, are making very fine wines.
Côtes de Castillon presents growers with a chicken and egg dilemma. It ticks lots of the right boxes; it is a Right BankBordeaux region, specialising in accessible, Merlot-dominated wines and as a region is capable of producing world class wines, yet by no means is it a household name, and the price, of its wines, reflects this. Paradoxically, to attain the true potential of Côtes de Castillon requires investment in cellars, vineyards and man-hours whilst, at the same time, lowering production.
The region is marginally cooler than most of St-Emilion, which, allied to the cool soils and a proportion of acidic limestone, demands time for grapes to become fully ripe. The grapes are not ready to be harvested until a week or more after St-Emilion – often a critical period climatically. Not picking is risky but will make better wines if the weather holds. Picking earlier brings in a healthy, but not quite ripe harvest, which will make rather the weedy, slightly green wines, for which the region is generally known. The added problem for the hapless grower is that, to date, his wines will not achieve anything like the price of even the most ordinary St-Emilion – and it will have cost him so much more than adopting a laissez-faire attitude. There will also be a time lag between any improvements in quality and market recognition.
Times are changing however. Lured by relatively inexpensive land prices, a number of high profile Saint-Emilion producers have set up stall in the Côtes de Castillon, producing wines which are turning heads. The prices which they are achieving reflect the personalities involved, to some extent, and reputations which preceded their forays into Côtes de Castillon.
The highly-reputed winemaker and international consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt is one such, introducing biodynamic disciplines to the mix. Stéphane Derenoncourt raised a few eyebrows in his work with Comte Stéphane von Neipperg at Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte. Neipperg was also one of the first to have a presence in the Côtes de Castillon at Château d’Aiguilhe. So too are the Bécot family of Beauséjour-Bécot, who are producing Joanin-Bécot in the Côtes de Castillon.
These estates all have the resources to maximise quality and to accept reduced yields. By investing in the area, their high profile is creating interest in the Côtes de Castillon more generally, joining the formerly rather solitary flag-bearer Château Pitray.
We are delighted that, after years of looking for a property of his own, consultant Louis Mitjavile has secured Domaine de l’Aurage (formerly Château Cadet) a splendidly sited Côtes de Castillon. This is a wine to watch and we are delighted to have been awarded exclusivity for its distribution. Louis Mitjavile is no stranger to prolonged seasons and cool clay-limestone soils, having worked with his father François Mitjavile in Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc de Cambes. Both of these properties owe much of their finesse to this very soil and climate combination.
Prices will inevitably and deservedly rise but there are still bargains to be had, a well-made Côtes de Castillon outstripping an indifferent St-Emilion Grand Cru every time.