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10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About... Ausone

Château Ausone produces its top-ranked wines from vineyards planted on steep terraces
© AFP/Hart David Hart/Wikimedia/Cyril5555 | Château Ausone produces its top-ranked wines from vineyards planted on steep terraces
Take in the view at this A-league St.-Émilion estate.

No. 1. Family battles:

Château Ausone has had just three owners over five centuries, but there has been plenty of drama, including a recent family feud.

Today, Alain Vauthier and his daughter Pauline are in charge of the estate after years of squabbling between Vauthier and his great-aunt, Héylette Dubois-Challon. The dispute came to a head in April 1997, when Francois Pinault of Château Latour offered the elderly woman 60 million francs (around $10 million) for her half of the premier grand cru classé A property. The offer was equivalent to 17 million francs ($2.83m) per hectare. In response to Pinault's preemptive strike, Vauthier eventually managed to raise 60 million francs to buy out his great-aunt himself.

No. 2. The end of the Rolland era:

Contrary to widespread belief, there is no outside consultant at Ausone. "Michel Rolland is not a consultant here," Pauline verifies. "He is a very good friend of my father’s and has helped over the years, but is not involved anymore." The blending is done by Alain, Pauline, and cellar master Philippe Baillarguet, who has worked at the estate since 1996. If they do need an extra set of taste buds, Jean Philippe Faure at Laboratory Rolland will be called on for an outside view.

No. 3. High-density plantings:

The Vauthiers manage 80 hectares of vines across St.-Émilion. In addition to Ausone, they own Fonbel, Haut Simard, Simard and Moulin Saint-Georges. More than 10 percent of their total plantings have an incredible density of 12,000 vines per hectare.

At present, only one of their high-density hectares is at Château Ausone. This is because the vineyard is so small – and the resulting wine so expensive – that only 13 to 20 ares are pulled up every two years. This land is then left fallow for at least four years before replanting. As a result, Pauline Vauthier estimates that it will take perhaps 100 years before all of Ausone is carrying 12,000 vines per hectare.

No. 4. Franc-ly speaking:

Unusually for St.-Émilion, this is an estate where merlot is in the minority. In total, the vineyard is planted to 65 percent cabernet franc, with the oldest vines placed in the ground 106 years ago. They are planted just next to the chapel, where the southeast-facing slope is protected from the coldest winds. As a result, Ausone was one of the few properties to largely escape the 1956 frosts that devastated so many local vineyards.

There are also a couple of rows of cabernet sauvignon vines, planted in 2006, that are used in the blend of the second wine, La Chapelle d’Ausone

Cabernet franc dominates at Ausone, rather than merlot
© AFP | Cabernet franc dominates at Ausone, rather than merlot

No.5. Spreading the love:

The Ausone team do their own massale selection for cabernet franc from the best-quality old vines of the estate, grafting their budwood to rootstock. "We don’t need to do this with merlot," says Pauline, "as we can get good clones from the Ministry of Agriculture." But good cabernet franc clones are harder to find.

Sometimes, the estate donates cuttings to other vineyards that also want to practice massale selection, including Château Corbin and Château Lafleur in Pomerol. 

No. 6. Trademark landmark:

Like many of the big-name Bordeaux estates, Ausone has had its fair share of problems with fakes and attempts to fraudulently profit from its name. But it won a high-profile victory in 2013, in a case against a trademark squatter who had tried to register a Chinese graphic symbol that translates as Ausone (a situation made even more complicated by the fact that Ausone can be written in seven or eight different ways in Chinese characters).

This was an important test case, as the château had not registered the trademark and so did not hold prior legal rights to it. The Chinese Trademark Office will often side with the first person to register a name, but this time it agreed that the Chinese applicant – who had previously registered other château names – had acted in bad faith. According to Alain Vauthier, the issue is not limited to China; he is fighting approximately 15 similar cases in other markets around the world.

No. 7. Home improvements:

Visitors in recent years will have seen cranes standing over Ausone, and may have been greeted with the smell of fresh paint at the front door. The most recent renovations have involved internal improvements to the château itself.

At the winery, the last major works were carried out in 2010, when the Vauthiers overhauled the cellar, with a switch to working entirely by gravity. They have moved to small stainless steel tanks of 20 hectoliters to move the fruit and juice around the winery. The wooden fermentation vats were also replaced, although the 45-hectoliter size and triconic shape remained the same.

Other recent changes including reducing the proportion of new oak since the 2011 vintage from 100 to 80 percent. 

Named after the Roman poet Ausonius, Château Ausone is located near to the village of St.-Émilion
© AFP | Named after the Roman poet Ausonius, Château Ausone is located near to the village of St.-Émilion

No. 8. That famous terroir:

Alain Vauthier is routinely asked why the wine from Château Ausone tastes so different. His answer – and that of his daughter  – is always: "It’s the terroir." The soil is a blend of clay and limestone on slopes that lie at a gradient of 15 to 20 percent, making it tough to mechanize any aspect of the viticulture (apart from tiny Caterpillar tractors, everything is done by hand). A bedrock of limestone lies not far below the surface, and up on the plateau the soil is almost pure limestone.

Other factors include grass grown between the rows, foliage trained to a height of 1.5 meters, and the use of organic products for items such as sulfur and copper. But before you rush to recreate all this, Pauline adds: "We use exactly the [same] approach at all of our estates, and only Ausone tastes like Ausone."

No. 9. Limited production:

With such a small volume on offer and a stellar reputation, Ausone isn't cheap. The 2010 vintage, which received a Robert Parker score of 98+, is listed on Wine-Searcher at an average price of $1,948 ex-tax per bottle*, making it the most expensive of all St-Émilion's A league. By comparison, the 2010 Cheval Blanc currently sits at $1,455 per bottle, against newly promoted 2010 Château Pavie at $410 and Angélus at $394.

"The price is beyond most consumers," said one merchant in Hong Kong, who didn’t wish to be named. "[Ausone] is, however, very highly regarded by a small minority who have the ability to purchase it." Marc Smoler of Hart Davis Hart in Chicago reports there was active interest in the 2012 campaign for Ausone, but overall the price pattern of the wine has followed that of all the major châteaux in recent years: up with the bubble and down when it bursts.

"The brand has a core following among serious Bordeaux collectors, but doesn’t have mass appeal based on its limited production and high price," says Smoler.

Certainly, several collectors have admitted that of all the top-flight Right Bank wines, Ausone is the toughest to get hold of. The 2013 vintage will be even more of a challenge. After a difficult growing season, just three of the estate's usual seven vats contain any wine, and only a tiny amount of Château Ausone is going to be produced. 

No. 10. What to drink now:

Clare Tooley of Direct Wines sums up what many people love about Ausone: "It somehow combines the astonishing feat of tasting silky smooth and full of plush finessed fruits right from the off, and yet still manages to age and improve for decades."

According to Estelle Fuselier of Altaya Wines in Hong Kong: "Anything from 2000 on is still young." She adds: "Although 2003 might not be quite ready, it is considered one of the wines of the vintage." The team at Altaya also recommend the 1982, 1983, 1989, 1995, 1996 and 1998 to drink now.

Ask Pauline Vauthier, and she'll point you in the direction of the 2000 vintage or something older – "although the 2002 and 2007 are good if you carafe them. I had a 2007 last week in China which was delicious, but in most vintages you need to wait at least 20 years for it to be fully ready."

* Prices correct at time of going to press.

Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):

Related story: 

Ashley Hepworth & 2003 Ausone 

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