Wearing New Balance trainers, khaki shorts and a plain polo shirt, Pauline Vauthier is trailed by two bounding Weimaraners called Cork and Gucci. It’s 11am, but she has already been up for seven hours, out in the vineyards since 4am. It doesn’t take long to understand why, because the heat has climbed up close to 40C (104F) by the time we are walking the rows, exploring the celebrated soils of Château Ausone, and enjoying the view they afford over the Unesco World Heritage village of St-Emilion. It’s clearly too hot for vineyard workers to be outside, and yet there is work to be done, so setting the alarm clock early is the best they can do.
We are at one of the highest points of the village here, close to 80m above sea level on the edge of a limestone plateau above the Dordogne Valley, 50km east of Bordeaux city. This plateau is the source of the honeyed stone that marks so much of St-Emilion’s economic, religious and cultural history. The medieval village is set on a hill, with cobbled streets that are honeycombed by a series of quarries that saw the first extraction of limestone during the Middle Ages. The stone was used to support a religious community that built Europe’s largest monolithic church into the hill and, later, to build many of the houses and public buildings not only in St-Emilion but in Libourne, Bordeaux and beyond. Vauthier’s father Alain and his friends spent their childhood riding their bikes under the streets, passing from one château to another through a ribbon of tunnels, although most are closed off today.
The quarries beneath Ausone stretch for 8,000 sq m (86,000 sq ft) and head down to a depth of 25m. Today, only the highest level is accessible, used to store oak barrels filled with the most recent vintages of the wine. ‘The magic of Ausone begins and ends with our terroir,’ Vauthier says, referring to soils that are 10% on the plateau and 90% on steep southeast-facing slopes that offer excellent sun-ripening opportunities for the grapes. ‘Limestone is perfect for allowing the right amount of water to get to the vines. It has a porous quality that draws moisture away when too much rain falls and passes it back to the roots when conditions get too dry.’
Today, the pilgrims that once walked these streets have been replaced by tourists and wine lovers, drawn by the history, the views and one of the most revered gourmet names in France. That is because this same limestone – shot through with fossilised oysters and seashells left behind by waters that covered this spot 30 million years ago – is also remarkably well suited for growing vines that turn out richly complex, well-balanced and liltingly fresh wines that go the distance, growing in interest for decades after bottling. Just over 200 people live permanently within the city walls of St-Emilion, but there are three Michelin-starred restaurants and 700 wineries, with the most hallowed 82 names rewarded in a quality ranking that dates back to the 1950s and includes Ausone’s neighbours such as châteaux Pavie, Angélus, La Gaffelière, Quintus, Figeac, Canon, Belair-Monange and Cheval Blanc.
These are among the most sought-after names in wine, with UK prices reaching into the hundreds of pounds for a single bottle and their vineyards exchanging hands for millions of euros per hectare. Ausone sets the standard: six bottles of the 2015 vintage will cost you around £5,000 ($6,600). A single bottle of the 2005 will set you back just under £2,000 ($2,650) if you shop around carefully. It stands out in other ways, too. Across St-Emilion, the majority of estates are planted largely to the luscious, red-fruited Merlot grape, but here at Ausone that grape is matched in more than half the vineyard by Cabernet Franc, which gives elegance, lift and violet-tinged aromatics that elevate the expression of the entire wine.
Ausone is one of only four first growths – or premier grand cru classé A, as they are known locally – within the classification. It is the smallest of them, at 7ha, and also the one with the oldest history. The name, which first appears in local archives in 1529, refers back to the Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius, and remains of a Roman villa have been found at the feet of Ausone’s slopes. It’s a reminder of the 2,000 continual years of Bordeaux winemaking, since the Romans first cultivated vines. It’s not exactly a straight line linking one to the other. We know Ausonius was awarded a consulate, the highest Roman honour, in Bordeaux in 379 and is best known for his poetry and writings about the region, in which he describes the ‘vine-clad hills’, and we know his parents-in-law came from St-Emilion. But we don’t know for certain that he owned the Roman villa whose remains lie at the base of these slopes. Just two years ago, remains of Roman walls and other artefacts were discovered when a plot was pulled up for replanting. A team of archaeologists is currently analysing the find, deciding if it will be worth further disturbing land valued at more than €8 million ($9.2m) per hectare.
The magic of Ausone begins and ends with our terroir
What is certain is that Ausone stands on a spot that has been highly prized for centuries, ‘and whoever changed the name to Ausone in the 17th century (it stands in the former hamlet of La Madeleine and was known under this name previously) was clearly a history buff and no doubt aware of the link that this place has with antiquity’, is how historian Olivier Lescorce puts it.
Local archives contain a document dating from 1341, written on behalf of King Edward III of England, giving permission for an Elie de Lescours to build a fortified house where Ausone now stands. Other documents attest that the house was destroyed for the security of the town at the start of the Hundred Years’ War because it was located just outside of the walls, so could be used by enemy soldiers to attack the citizens within. The current château dates from the 17th century, and there are remains in the gardens of both a medieval burial ground and parts of a former 13th-century rotunda with a still-vibrant fresco of the Last Judgment.
Château Ausone has had just three families in ownership over five centuries, and Pauline is the 12th generation of Vauthiers and their ancestors. This is a place that gets under your skin, so it’s not surprising that she is involved in every detail – from upkeep of the dry-stone walls at the edge of the vineyard, to working with specialists to protect its historical remains and carrying out essential daily vineyard tasks.
Turning the soil, trimming leaves, tracking berry ripening – these jobs are not done by the owner at most prestigious Bordeaux châteaux, which are increasingly in the hands of company directors with business degrees who focus on the big picture and employ vineyard managers, consultants and staff for the practical work. Pauline Vauthier, in contrast, has been working since the age of 16, first in the dairy industry while doing an agricultural diploma then, from 18, switching to a winemaking degree, working at various estates across St-Emilion before joining the family property in 2005. ‘My favourite thing is to be outside working,’ she says. ‘I’m in the office when I need to be, but I don’t enjoy the tastings and the travel that are essential to running an estate like this. Like my father, I prefer to be discreet.’
When she’s not in the winery, she’s riding horses – training five times a week and taking part in at least three competitions a month between February and September, when the focus at the château is less intense than during harvest and the early stages of making the new vintage. It helps her to stay at one remove from the pressures involved in running a St-Emilion first growth but also reveals her steely nature, as she tells me that when she stops competing, she will stop riding. ‘The pleasure is in the chase,’ she says with less of a smile that I expected.
The Vauthiers are part of the core of long-term families of St-Emilion. Pauline’s sister Anne-Charlotte is also at the estate, having moved back from Paris two years ago, while her other sister Constance is an equine vet. Their brother Edouard is returning to St-Emilion from the Philippines in 2019 to develop wine tourism at the family’s other properties. Families like this are increasingly rare, as banks, insurance companies and overseas investors have all arrived over the past few decades. Land prices have spiralled upwards – the Vauthiers bought neighbouring estate Château La Clotte just a few years ago, in 2014, for example, at €3 million ($3.46m) per hectare, a price that has now risen to a minimum of €5 million. Ten years ago that figure would have been closer to €1 million. It has created an environment that can be riven with rivalry and pressure, particularly as the classification is redone every 10 years, with the possibility of being moved up or down according to quality and market position. Ausone has been a first growth since the initial ranking in the 1950s and is in no danger of losing that status, but it’s clear that Pauline’s inward focus and drive are assets. ‘When you are being judged so visibly – particularly in such a small town, where everyone knows each other – there are always people who are critical or jealous,’ she says. ‘But I really don’t care. I live my life and get on with my work. There is a pressure, of course, but I just do my job.’