The Fontbonau Estate is located in the Southern Rhone Valley, a few kilometers from the Enclave des Papes just south of the Drome Provencale.
The history of the estate is storied: archaeological excavations at the site have revealed traces of occupation as early as the Middle Neolithic period (3000 BC). The property is home to a former Benedictine priory that dates back to the twelfth century, as well as a farm that has been certified as an inhabited place in the fifteenth century and was, quite possibly, an extension of the monastery. Further attesting to its historical significance, Fontbonau is named on the map of Cassini, a famed French map drawn in the 18th century on the orders of Louis XV.
In April of 2008, childhood best friends Frederic Engerer and Jerome Malet took ownership of this 42 hectare property with the hope of reviving the estate and celebrating its storied past. It would be their second project together. Malet was born and raised in the winemaking business, having seen his grandfather and later his parents continue the family tradition as winemakers. When he was just 30 years, after several years spent traveling France and exploring wineries and winemaking technique, he took over the family Domaine. Engerer’s story also began in his youth when, at just six years old, his grandfather Pons, who worked as a merchant in Norbonne, introduced him to wine and winemaking. His formal career in wine began at age 26, when he opened a wine bar in Paris. Today Engerer serves as President of Chateau Latour in Pauillac, where he has been for the past 15 years, as well as General Manager for the remainder of Francois Pinault’s wine properties, including Chateau Grillet, Domaine d’Eugenie, and their most recent acquisition, Araujo, in California.
Together Malet and Engerer are committed to the implementation of organic viticulture, varietal expression, and crafting new cuvees from year to year that reflect the vintage’s unique personalities.
The Estate spans 42 hectares and is comprised of 14 hectares of vineyards accompanied by a hilly and wild environment of truffle oak trees, safre rocks, olive trees, and lavender fields. The plantings consist of vines of 70-year-old Grenache and a smaller percentage of thirty-year-old Syrah. The Grenache vines are trained according to the Gobelet method, which gives them a greater resistance to wind as well as providing for proper aeration of the vine. The vines are rooted in poor soils comprised of sand, silt, and fine clays, with the lower level consisting of what the French call “mollasse”: a soft, crumbly sandstone that is composed of sand and sediment left from the inland seas in the secondary and tertiary geological periods.
Upon their initial acquisition of the property, Engerer and Malet, along with winemaker Sophie Mage, were immediately tasked with improving the quality of the site’s drainage, as well as studying the soil composition and replanting 2.5 acres with Cabernet Sauvignon, Roussane, and Viognier. The site now allows for rapid drainage during rainy weather, with the soil structure providing useful reserves of water during summer droughts. The property is located 350 meters above sea level, and the altitude protects the vines from excess heat. Each parcel varies greatly in altitude, aspect, and soil structure, so much so that they are harvested and fermented separately in order to best express their individual terroir. The legendary “Mistral”, the Rhone Valley’s north-south blowing wind, plays an important part in maintaining the ideal growing conditions, sweeping the vines, drying the soil after the rains, and providing a cool breeze in an otherwise hot climate. The vines are plowed mechanically in order to achieve ideal oxidization of the soil, and organic pest and disease controlled is practiced in the vineyards. There is an additional focus on leaf position, thinning and trimming in order to aide the maturation of healthy grapes to produce the best possible fruit in the vineyard.
The winery at Fontbonau is decidedly modern, in stark contrast with the traditional style of minimal intervention that is pursued during the vinification process. The facility is solar powered, and the electricity used throughout the winemaking process is entirely self generated. Vats are sized according to the size of the individual parcels, allowing for each to be vinified separately and subsequently drained into separate barrels. This allows for a heightened level of discern during the blending process, with some barrels intentionally omitted if they do not meet the standards of the winemaker. All of the grapes are hand harvested by parcel with well trained harvesters and carriers, and a secondary sorting takes place at the end of each row for additional care and scrutiny.
Interference and movement during the winemaking process is minimized through the use of movable equipment for both destemming and pressing. An initial cold soak maceration often occurs in order to extract additional color and flavor. During fermentation and maceration the cap is kept in contact through a combination of gentle pump over and soft manual punching down. The wines are drained into their barrels using the gravity method, and remain in barrel (10% new oak) for 12 months prior to their bottling, which occurs without fining or filtration. In certain vintages a percentage of the wine (between 10 and 30%) is aged in stainless steel in order to retain both freshness and fruit in the final blend.