An engraving on the floor in the back kitchen of Château La Gatte, just across from the wine cellar, hints at the property’s long history. It says: “1646: Pierre Gubon” and is marked with a dog’s paw print, a symbol of “good luck” for a new house. However, for more than 300 years of the Château’s existence, its wines were either sold under another name or as bulk wine to negociants. It wasn’t until husband-and-wife team Hélène Fenouillet and Michael Affatato purchased the Château in 2004 that the wines became available outside of France, except for a lone Swiss client.
Shrouded in history—the Château was originally built for the Marquis de La Tour du Pin’s mistress, but was best known as a Maison de Prostitution until it was shut down by the local police in 1979—the wines of Château La Gatte remain one of Bordeaux’s best kept Right Bank secrets. Located on the 45th Parallel in the village of Saint André de Cubzac, at the far western edge of the Right Bank, La Gatte’s soils are rich in limestone with a high natural pH that make them well-suited to growing low-yielding Merlot vines. The meandering Dordogne river is just 800 yards away, far enough where the soil isn’t marshy or damp, but close enough to benefit from the perpetual breeze off the water, which retards rot and keeps mildew at bay. The vineyard’s terroir contribute to the wine’s minerally, floral bouquet, balanced texture and longer finish by allowing the grapes to mature slowly and evenly.
Hélène and Michael, with the help of enologist Marc Soumet (Léoville-Las Cases, Haut-Brion and Cantenac Brown) and assistant Pascal Pauvif, have really pushed the quality of the wines since they bought the property, and increased exposure exponentially. Hélène has also built a lovely B&B at the Château. Though Michael is a native New Yorker, the intention has always been to allow La Gatte’s special terroir to shine through, rather than mimicking California fruit-forwardness, while embracing an earlier-drinking style that make them such a value, particularly in a vintage like 2005. This is by far one of our favorite wineries for value-priced wine.
La Gatte makes two red wines, the “Tradition”* (2005 $12.99) and the Cuvée La Butte* (2005 $14.99). The former blends approximately 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and is classic claret for a remarkable price, thanks to a 1935 dispute that left La Gatte without an appellation designation. It’s got spice and grip, well-integrated tannin and lovely fruit that make it approachable now and a worthy drinker for the next decade or longer. The La Butte is the seductress of the two (the former being more like the girl next door), coming from a 104-hectare vineyard planted in 1958. Aged in French oak for 12-16 months, the sultry fruit, spice and voluptuous texture belie its modest price, reminding drinkers of a much more expensive Pomerol or St-Emilion.
They also make a saignée-style Rosé* (2008 $9.99) by bleeding off free run Merlot juice from the La Butte. The wine is fermented dry and is redolent of fresh-picked summer strawberries and herbs. It’s a perfect wine for the dog days of summer, but also as a refreshing complement to a savory winter meal that calls for something lighter in style. Try it with chicken or pizza or on with some prosciutto and melon when you watch the Perseid meteor shower on August 12.