Long and Winding Road: Ausone 1912–1999
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 6, 2018
"One hopes shortly to find Ausone again at the top." Edmund Penning-Rowsell, The Wines of Bordeaux, 1969
Name a Bordeaux château as enchanting as Ausone. It’s eye-candy perched on the fringe of Saint-Émilion, a picture postcard lookout post guarding a medieval village. The daring vertiginous slither of tarmac that sharply twists round into the gravel courtyard shaded by chestnut trees, the bewitching vista towards the Dordogne and beyond, the pulchritude of the ornate 19th century château buildings, the fairytale entrance into the barrel cellar with time-gnarled vines looming over your head, the historic legacy of the name and the reverence conferred upon its present owners, the Vauthiers. They all combine to ensure Ausone is upheld as one of the most eminent and in some ways, enigmatic Right Bank estates. Of course, there are also the dogs, Cork and Gucci. Can’t forget them. They bound over from the offices in a flash of diaphanous grey towards my car as soon as they smell Englishman for lunch, a friendly slobbering lick to check if I need seasoning and then there is the occasional illicit poop in the flowerbeds. They are part of Ausone as much as Pauline and Alain Vauthier themselves (without the slobbering licks.)
Present proprietor Alain Vauthier. Photo courtesy of Johan Berglund.
I wish to emphasise that this is a historical examination of Ausone. It focuses upon what has been instead of what is or will be. Considering the time frame of the vintages in question, it concerns more the Dubois-Challon family than the Vauthiers. I did consider augmenting recent vintages that I hope to taste later this year however, upon perusing my notes, I found a pertinent message by stopping the clock at 1999, the most recent vintage in an extraordinary vertical tasting that I participated in earlier this year. The tasting was organized (yet again) by Jordi Oriols-Gil, who meticulously sourced the bottles over many months to ensure that they showed as well as possible. Old bottles of Ausone are rare birds. The château bins run dry as recently as the early 2000s. As an aside, I am reliably informed that the cache of old Ausone wines back to the 19th century reside at its “estranged sibling” Château Belair, now owned by the Moueix family. Let’s hope Edouard Moueix or his father, Christian, can resist temptation.
First, we must refresh our minds with history, because it is germane to the wines under discussion. As has been written countless times, the name Ausone originates from the Roman poet Ausonius, who was born in Bordeaux in 310AD. Though, records indicate that he tended vines in the area of Saint-Émilion, then known as Lucaniacus, there is no evidence that they were located precisely where Ausone lies today. Archaeological remains of a Gallo-Roman villa were uncovered in 1843 on the lower reaches of their vineyard, and later two mosaic floors near that stream close to La Gaffelière just below Ausone. We can speculate to whom they belonged. Was it just propinquity between the present location of Ausone and the Roman villa or the exact site? My own gut feeling is that there were two villas, but the facts are probably lost under the sands, or literally, clay soils, of time.
Fast-forward a few centuries. The estate was acquired by the Cantenat family in 1718. Bernard Ginestet explained how the site was known as “La Madeleine” and that it was the only Saint-Émilion “Château” that predates the Second Empire insofar that it referred to the dwelling, built by cooper and winemaker Jean Cantenet in 1781 before passing into the hands of the Lafargue family. The wine itself was labelled “Cantenat à La Madeleine”. Cocks & Feret rated Ausone highly in their guides; its reputation enhanced by surviving relatively unscathed after oïdium, phylloxera and mildew, the triple whammy that poleaxed many Saint-Émilion estates during the latter half of the 19th century. In the first edition of 1850, Ausone is ranked 11th, then 4th in the 1868 edition behind Canon, Belair and Troplong Mondot, and finally from the turn of the century, numero uno. Although I have not tasted any myself, the wines from this period are lionized by the likes of David Peppercorn.
In 1891 the château passed to Edouard Dubois, the husband of Mme. Lafargue’s niece, former manager of the vineyard for a number of years. Together they purchased Belair in 1916 and the two estates were consanguineous throughout much of the century. Alas, Edouard died in 1921, whereupon his widow and his two children, Jean and Cécile continued to run Ausone. During the 1920s Ausone became one of the few Saint-Émilion wines to gain traction in the all-important British market, then dominated by the Left Bank châteaux. In his “Book of French Wines”, P. Morten Shand described Ausone as “...among the very longest to be grown wholly from old ungrafted French vines”. Given that Shand penned his book in 1928, I wonder when exactly the entire vineyard was actually re-grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock?
In the 1950s, Ausone was classified as a Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” alongside Cheval Blanc, although the château itself was enduring a difficult period. In 1958 Jean had married Héylette, a much younger woman and by all accounts prone to the grandiloquence of Mme. Loubat at Pétrus. Alas, her husband began to suffer long periods of illness. The régisseur, Mon. Chaudet, was in his eighties and fact is you need a lot of energy and chutzpah to run a winery. No vines were replanted in the vineyard between 1950 and 1976. The wines purportedly underwent a short 10- to 15-day cuvaison, sometimes spending excessively long periods in oak in a rather unclean cellar. Jean passed away in 1974 without any children. Therefore, ownership passed to his widow Héylette and Cécile’s family. Cécile had married into the Vauthiers and together had a son, Marcel who himself had four children, including Alain Vauthier, born in 1950. In the 1970s, the indefatigable Héylette took the reins and in 1975 hired 20-year old Pascal Delbeck, a distant relative who had just completed his viticultural studies. The old oenologues soon retired and a new maître-de-chai, Mon. Lanau was appointed in 1978. A year later they replaced four of the wooden vats and began the slow process of modernizing the out-dated chai.
From 1974 to 1995 there festered an internecine argument about who should run Ausone. Héylette, together with her right-hand man Pascal Delbeck, took it as their right and the Vauthiers felt it was theirs. It was a long-term tug-of-war. By all accounts, Alain Vauthier was making the crucial decisions from 1976 onwards and, though his and Pascal’s relationship began amicably, their views began to bifurcate over time, their friendship soured and legal disputes ensued. The courts often found in favour of Vauthier despite protests from Delbeck. In 1995, Héylette intimated that she wanted to sell the estate to none other than François Pinault, who had bought Château Latour two years earlier. Alain, together with his sister, argued that they should have first refusal, took the matter to court and won the case. Ausone now belonged to the Vauthier family, though Mme Dubois-Challon was allowed to reside in the château and remained there until she passed away in 2003. I remember on one of my early visits, gazing up at the window and wondering if she was looking out.
There followed the ascendency of Ausone during of a much-welcome period of stability that continues to this day. However, I am going to end this part of the story here because I prefer to bind the chapter entitled “Alain and Pauline Vauthier” with more recent tasting notes that I intend to publish later this year.
Nobody looking upon the 7.16-hectare vineyard of Ausone can deny it possesses exceptional terroir, arguably the finest in Saint-Émilion. It just seems obvious. On one side the vines sweep down the escarpment from the château on the Côtes-Saint-Émilion, the soil a mixture of limestone and calcareous clay, becoming sandier towards the lower reaches. The southeasterly orientation protects the vines from northerly winds and located on a steep incline means it avoids the worst of the frost, notably in 1956 when the late spring frost decimated much of the surrounding vineyards. The one disadvantage is constant soil erosion that is exacerbated during rainy seasons. On the other side to the north of the château, the vines stretch literally above your head upon the limestone plateau, so you have these two very different terroirs that combine together to create a wine that is more than a sum of its parts. It is something rare in Saint-Émilion where vines tend to be located on either the côte of the plateau (although Pavie is a good example that bears similarities.) The vineyard cépagement comprises 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Franc, although older vintages, pertinent to this article, would have contained a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, writing in his “Bordeaux” book of 1969, noted that in fact the Cabernet Sauvignon had been increased so that combined with Cabernet Franc they constituted 60% of vineyard plantings.
The barrel cellar at Ausone. I am certain that when I first visited the cellar in the late 1990s, vines’ roots could be seen straggling from the ceiling. However, this was not to be seen on my last visit – just a few electrical cables for the lighting!
The winemaking that pertains to the vintages in question here, many before the winery was modernised, would be very different to the meticulous care taken nowadays. I have already outlined the approach within the history. Fermentation back in those days would take place in wooden vats and included between 10% and 40% of the stems depending upon the growing season. Whereas now Ausone is matured in new oak, this obviously was not the case up until the 1990s, nor was there any de-selection into the deuxième vin, Chapelle d’Ausone that debuted in the same decade. That said, I have read that in the old days that any barrels that did not make the grade were sold off.
Readers should note that the wines were approached in flights in reverse chronological order, however I will narrate them from oldest to youngest in order to tell the story.
This is a rare bottle of Ausone from 1912, not a renowned vintage but it was born in a halcyon era for the estate, four years before the Dubois family bought Belair.
So, we whizz back in time to the 1912 Ausone, to date the oldest that I have tasted, when Edouard Dubois was at the helm. This was not a particularly great growing season but similar to a 1912 Lafite-Rothschild tasted in recent weeks, it was certainly not a write-off after more than a century even if it represents an anathema to those that seek turbo-charged fruit in their Bordeaux. The 1937 Ausone comes from a more reputed vintage, quite medicinal on the nose with a Left Bank inspired palate, doubtless influenced by the small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in those days. It is not the best Right Bank that I have tasted from the vintage, but it was acceptable. The 1943 Ausone was sadly past its best and I have fonder memories of the 1942 (though David Peppercorn cites the 1943 as being the best wartime vintage so perhaps we were just unlucky.) The 1947 Ausone was a strange one. The bottle we tasted at the vertical came from Whitwhams, a defunct UK merchant with dubious reputation and this bottle did not feel “true”. Another bottle had been opened previously. This was more representative, conveying the warmth and richness of that summer though frankly a long way behind Cheval Blanc and several others that I have tasted. The 1949 Ausone eclipsed the 1947. It was in a different league. I have been lucky enough to taste this 1949 from magnum before and this bottle replicated that performance: precise and detailed on the nose, still full of vim and vigour, then a beautifully framed palate with filigree tannin and a mineral-driven finish. Simply stupendous.
We moved into the 1950s. The 1950 Ausone, hailing from a renowned season for the Right Banks as well as Alain Vauthier’s birth-year, put in a very creditable performance with a Burgundy-inspired bouquet and an attractive, marine-influenced palate that was nowhere near as complex as the 1949, yet still vivacious and displaying that Cabernet Sauvignon tincture on the finish. The 1953 was a disappointment however. This should be a great wine, but this is one where I believe the cuvaison was too brief and the length in barrel too long. Result? A rather wishy-washy ’53 that was embarrassed by the brilliant 1955 Ausone, a vintage singled out by Robert Parker himself as one of the best in that era. Having regaled this vintage countless times, perhaps, I should not have been surprised that this was one of the highlights. It epitomised the growing season, not powerful or with enormous depth, yet very focused and poised, almost symmetrical and perfectly proportioned. Like 1955 Canon, Figeac and Cheval Blanc, these are wines that continue to startle after many decades. The 1956 Ausone represented only the second wine that I have tasted from this infamous vintage, one almost obliterated by the late spring frost. As I mentioned in my introduction, the steep slope and orientation afforded Ausone more protection than other estates, although the bottom line is the 1956 stands as a curiosity instead of a wine where you would ask for a second glass of. The 1959 Ausone was my third encounter, but I have never met one that matched my stellar first bottle. It had a somewhat deep and broody nose, atypical for this vintage, the palate foursquare and conservative, missing the flamboyance and fleshiness you often find with the 1959s. Here it was clearly outflanked by the 1955.
To date this is the only Right Bank 1956 that I have tasted, the wines extremely rare as most vines were killed by severe late spring frosts.
Moving to the 1960s, which is where, according to Bordeaux mavens, the wheels fell off Ausone. No wine was released in 1963, 1965 or 1968, though given the appalling growing seasons that is no surprise. The 1960 Ausone was rubbish, but it was a rubbish vintage, so let’s swiftly move on. Now, the 1961 Ausone was very impressive. It was a wine rather dismissed by other writers in context of an iconic growing season however, I adored its aromatic complexity, pressed flowers and a touch of aniseed, the palate sturdy and structured, a little Left Bank in style, but fresh and endowed admirable length. The 1964 Ausone was even better. A famed Right Bank vintage, this was the third bottle that I have tasted over the years and it displayed a quintessential ’64 Right Bank nose, sumptuous and generous, whilst the palate was more linear and correct at first but then loosened its tie and gained more sweetness and flesh with time.
The 1966 Ausone is a poor relation to the excellent 1966 Cheval Blanc with excessive VA, but the 1967 Ausone was much better. This was actually quite a decent vintage on the Right Bank, perhaps more so in Pomerol than Saint-Émilion. The 1967 Ausone had a delicate truffle-tinged bouquet, old school and maybe a little rustic on the palate, and yet harmonious and surprisingly virile considering its age. The decade finished with the 1969 Ausone, a troublesome vintage. This example was raw and hollow.
We were afforded a rare unbroken run of vintages from the early 1970s, although that is not necessarily a good thing considering the dismal quality of the growing seasons. The 1970 Ausone was lacklustre, “old bones” as they say, but the 1971 Ausone was far better. It was a superior season on the Right Bank than Left and this Ausone made a mockery of my pillorying: vigorous, quite concentrated, not complex per se, yet clearly a wine that has aged better than most that decade. The 1972, 1973, 1974 were uniformly weak and rather decrepit as expected, and the 1975 Ausone should have been better if you consider the extant excellence of Figeac or Cheval Blanc. This was a turning point for Ausone, as Pascal Delbeck entered stage left and Alain Vauthier, then in his mid-twenties, began making the wines. Perhaps it is thanks to Alain, or both, that the 1979 Ausone was perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire tasting. Like others, I did not really have high expectations of this wine from a mediocre vintage. However, the 1979 had a vivacious, kirsch-scented bouquet with tangible vibrancy on the palate. Clive Coates once suggested this might be as good as Cheval Blanc and I think he is right.
If you ask me, it is not the sixties whereby Ausone’s reputation was tarnished, but the 1980s. Whilst many estates began to modernise and exploit the burgeoning interest in Bordeaux wine, apply tenets of more vineyard management, cleaner wineries and so forth, progress at Ausone was stymied by the deteriorating relationship between Alain Vauthier and Pascal Delbeck. Sure, the 1982 Ausone is a delicious Saint-Émilion but it is not near the top of the pack. It has always seemed very savoury and meaty, almost Rhône-like in style. The 1983 Ausone is barely acceptable and not a patch of Cheval Blanc that year. The real “criminal” is the 1985 Ausone. It is a disaster when you consider how many wonderful wines were festooned over the Right Bank that year. It smelled malodorously under-ripe, like boiled cabbage, and felt cloying and ersatz on the palate. It was as if they knew it was going wrong and tried to remedy it, only making it worse. Bad decisions must have been made somewhere given what a benevolent growing season bestowed that year. The 1986 Ausone was far better, a turn up for the books given the more difficult growing season than 1985, displaying an almost Pauillac-like palate and commendable freshness, as if to show the 1985 how it ought to be done. Both the 1989 and 1990 Ausone were good wines, but certainly not great given the competition, like handing in homework with the minimum possible effort to scrape a pass. I have fonder memories of the 1988 although that was not shown here. Bottles are not going to improve further so you can consume them in the near future.
As if to put the 1989 and 1990 in their place, I was pleasantly surprised by the 1992 Ausone. This was a late addition to the tasting: attractive tobacco-tinged fruit and commendable density and grip on the palate. Sure, there are shortcomings here but when you consider the growing season, I think Vauthier lifted this wine to the best it could possibly be. The 1996 Ausone, the first complete vintage once Alain had wrested control from the Dubois-Challon family, is a fine Saint-Émilion curtailed by a growing season that favoured the later picked wines of the Left Bank. That said, with a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc, I suspect that Alain would have made a better wine a decade later after he had improved the vineyard and winery.
The most recent vintage was the 1999 Ausone. This is where I wish the first part of the story to end. Why? Well, it was actually one of my favourite wines of the entire tasting. Often it is the rare old vintages that grab the emotions, imprint themselves on our collective memories. However, this 1999 was a treat: pure, svelte and beautifully balanced, a vintage that is discretely providing so much pleasure on the Right Bank, underrated given that it is sandwiched between the lauded 1998 and 2000s. It attested the quality of Ausone when there is a single captain at the helm of the ship, making crucial decisions without background squabbling. Re-tasting the 1999 after all the older vintages, it was like looking down on a long and winding road that ultimately led Ausone back to where it belonged, at the top of the hierarchy where it had stood throughout the 19th century. In a way, it presages the critically acclaimed wines of the next two decades, when Ausone reclaimed its crown misplaced during the 1970s and 1980s.
So, what did I conclude after such a comprehensive vertical tasting? In terms of the style of Ausone, I noticed that many of the venerable vintages displayed quite a Left Bank character, the influence of that small patch of Cabernet Sauvignon making an indelible mark. You know, I quite like it. It doesn’t do Vieux Château Certan much harm! Bernard Ginestet made an interesting and I think quite accurate comparison when he likened Ausone to a “fine Corton with “sunny” flavours.”
If am to being brutally honest, I felt that there was no wine that brought tears of joy. There was no single bottle that gave an epiphany. No wine that bought the house down. As a friend remarked correctly, had we conducted the same tasting with identical vintages of Cheval Blanc, and I can guarantee from personal experience, you can bet your bottom dollar there would be wines flirting with or achieving perfection, wines that we would be talking about months or even years later. That was not the case here. Many wine commentators past and present have dismissed the period of Ausone after the war. “Since the war I have never met an outstanding Ausone...” opined Edmund Penning-Rowsell. I have long taken the view that although there is much truth in the criticism, people have been a bit too harsh. There are truly delightful wines that evinced the class of its terroir during this period, particularly 1949, 1955 and perhaps 1964. At the same time, the vertical did attest Ausone did not perform to its full potential, flickering glimpses of brilliance too often followed by an average wine, one not befitting a Premier Cru Classé “A”. And occasionally there were real disasters such as the 1985, or a run of mediocrity such as the 1982, 1983, 1989 and 1990.
If you want to experience Ausone at full flight then you have two options. Either pray that one day you will find a very old wine from the 19th century or perhaps a gem from the 1920s. Or, stick to the last 15 or 20 years when improvements rendered a more consistent Ausone that reflected its almost unequalled terroir. Perhaps in retrospect it was a pity that it took Alain Vauthier some 20 years to gain control of the château and bring it up to scratch, but you cannot turn back time. In many ways, this vertical was so much more than a story of the wines. For reasons I will not detail here, I do not include the winemaker as part of “terroir.” The wines throughout the decades bore testament to what contemporaneously transpired “behind the scenes”, during periods of upheaval and periods of tranquillity, bursts of brilliance and resigned failure. When I think of those wines from the 1940s up to the 1980s, despite some great wines, like other commentators I can’t help rue what might have been. The estate’s troubles can be traced back to the Second World War. Ausone never quite recovered the stability that is so fundamental to success until the mid-1990s. Later this year on Vinous, I will cover this period in detail with a re-tasting of recent vintages; a tasting that will look forward, not backward.
“One hopes shortly to find Ausone again at the top,” wrote Edmund Penning-Rowsell in 1969. He had to wait longer than expected. But Ausone certainly got there in the end.
(My sincere thank to Jordi Oriols-Gil for organizing this incredible tasting. Photo of Alain Vauthier courtesy of Johan Berglund.)
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