Castillon: cast iron bargains

A brief introduction to the wines of Castillon…

In terms of both reputation and prices Bordeaux stands victorious among the wine regions of France. It is hardly surprising that its neighbours have tried to emulate its success. Although the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Left Bank is largely hemmed in by river and forest, the vineyards of the Merlot-dominated Right Bank have fewer natural barriers. The echo of St Emilion can be heard dozens of miles from the town itself.

The further the vineyards spread inland along the River Dordogne, away from St Emilion, the less the Bordeaux influence is felt. But the quality can still be high. The grape varieties remain broadly the same: mostly Merlot, Cabernet Franc and often some Cabernet Sauvignon. But the terrain becomes wilder, the climate slightly cooler. The country gentleman vibe gives way to a more paysan feel. Accordingly the wines become more rustic, the appellations less familiar – and the value for money far greater.

One good location to look for Bordeaux style but without the price tag is on the easternmost edge of the official Bordeaux appellation. The rolling hills and wooded valleys of Castillon, site of the last battle of the Hundred Years War, is a good hunting ground. The raw materials aren’t hammered out with the same precision as a top St Emilion, but the best still have juicy plum and blackberry fruits and a keen savoury edge. They don’t last as long, but they’re ready to drink sooner. Stick to warmer vintages if you can, such as 2005, 2009 and 2010.

Castillon’s winemaking potential was noted by its wealthy neighbours long ago. Nowadays, some of the best wines are made by estates annexed by the bigger players of St Emilion. Château d’Aiguilhe (owned by Château Canon La Gaffelière), Clos Puy Arnaud (Château Troplong-Mondot), and Domaine de l’Aurage (Château Tertre-Roteboeuf) to name but a few. For those on a budget, check out the wines of the gothic Château de Pitray, whose wines are still available for less than a tenner in the UK.

As you travel further east, out of Bordeaux into the Dordogne region, prices remain low but this style of wine continues. Bergerac is making better and better wine all the time, particularly Château Tour des Gendres. Keep going, and eventually you’ll reach little-known Pécharmant. Château les Farcies du Pech’ is particularly worth tracking down – again, under a tenner, but punches well above its weight.

First published in Living France magazine.