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Bordeaux’s First Among Equals: Paulliac’s Perfect Soil for Cabernet Sauvignon Delivers Power and Elegance in First Growth and Second Growth Châteaux’ 2nd & 3rd Wines (6-Bottle Pack $439)


Pauillac: Cabernet Sauvignon’s Holy Land


Bordeaux looms at the periphery of every red wine experience; like Michelangelo hovering above an art class or Shakespeare over English Literature, the twin banks of the River Gironde form a greater tributary from which our sense of wine appreciation flows.

Whereas the Right Bank of the Gironde is known for clay-rich soils that produce smooth, softly-fruited wines with balancing tannins, the Left Bank—where vines tend to struggle through limestone and gravel—is known for tannic wines that become exponentially more complex with age. The Left Bank encompasses the Médoc region, whose face, quite arguably, is Pauillac. Pauillac represents three of the five First Growths named in the 1855 Classification, with another fifteen classified wines adding trophies to the wall, including two heralded Second Growths. The wines of Pauillac contain a characteristic finesse, elegance, and intensity essentially unmatched by any growing region elsewhere in the world.

The special offer includes two bottles Pichon ‘Réserve’, two bottles Pichon ‘Les Griffon’ and one bottle each of Latour’s ‘Pauillac’ and Lafite’s ‘Légende’. Six bottles pack for $439.


A Tale of Two Second Growths Told in their Second Wines


The tradition of ‘second’ Bordeaux wines predates Classified Growths by at least a century, and the innovation is credited to Château Margaux, who first released a wine labeled ‘2eme vin’ in the seventeenth century to indicate that the wine, while produced on the estate, came from vines considered unsuited for inclusion in the Grand Vin. In Pauillac, the first estate to make use of a second wine was Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, who debuted La Réserve de la Comtesse in 1874.

A second wine may be a marketing tool to get famous château names in front of consumers at a more affordable price, and as an outlet to bottle wines from grapes from younger vines and declassified lots—a system that undoubtedly serve to improve the quality of the Grand Vin. Third wines, a growing tradition among top estates where the selection process is most rigorous, likewise serve to improve the quality of the second wines. It must be emphasized that the primary difference between these strata of releases is the quality of the grapes used, and that the same winemaking team that creates the first label is also responsible for the others, so that the resemblance to the Grand Vin is often striking.


‘Wine is a Civilization’

Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande:


With a focus on ‘impeccable land stewardship’, Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande’s 1982 vintage garnered a perfect 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker. That is one of the reasons the estate is often referred to as a ‘Super Second’, meaning that it consistently produces wine to rival the First Growths classified in 1855 despite its official status as a Deuxième Cru, or Second Growth. In 2006, the majority interest in Château Pichon-Longueville was sold to the Rouzaud family, which also owns the Champagne house Louis Roederer.

All five Bordeaux grapes are grown on the estate’s two hundred acres, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Wines from Comtesse de Lalande are considered among the most voluptuous wines in the Médoc due to the high proportion of Merlot used in the final blend; the increasing proportion of Cabernet used in modern cuvées to add structure does not diminish the amount of Merlot used; it means less of the other varieties. The current cépage reflects the vineyard plantings, roughly 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. The heart of these plantings is a 150-acre parcel of vines situated southwest of Pichon Baron, close to the manor. The best parcels overlook the river and are filled with vines with an average age of 40 years, although the oldest vines are nearly 90, having been planted in the 1930s.

Winemaking techniques reflect both tradition and innovation. A new triple-tiered cellar moves everything by gravity and double-skinned vats allow Pichon Lalande to vinify on a parcel-by-parcel basis, helping with softer, more gentle extractions and helping the wines legendary sensuousness, replete concentrated layers of ripe berries and perfumed with fresh violet blossoms, tobacco leaves, earth and truffles.

2018 Pichon Comtesse ‘Réserve’ ($68): A textbook Pauillac second wine that outstrips many of Pauillac’s first wines. An early-drinking incarnation of Pichon Comtesse’s Grand Vin, the blend is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 42% Merlot with the balance Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The name changed with the 2017 vintage, becoming the-wine-formerly-known-as-‘Réserve de la Comtesse’; the new name is cleaner and the label somewhat sleeker. The wine remains, as always, plush and round, with silken black fruit on the fore-palate and vibrant with ripe raspberries and baked plums above licorice, cedar, ground cloves and woodsmoke


‘Pure and Direct Character’

Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron-de-Pichon:


The two Deuxièmes Cru ‘Pichons’ make life a bit confusing, especially since they were once part of the same vineyard. In 1850, at the age of 90, Baron Joseph de Pichon Longueville divided his property between his children, and although one of the sons managed both estates for a few years, they ultimately split apart permanently, and stylistically, the two wines remain quite different. The voluptuous Comtesse contrasts Pichon-Longueville’s angular intensity; it is tannic and powerful, with the potential to improve for decades.

The vineyards of the two estates reflect roughly the same varietal breakdown; the hundred acres of Longueville is divided into four main blocks subdivided into 70 parcels scattered across deep gravel and sandy slopes on the plateau of Pauillac, which touches the vineyard of Château Pichon Lalande and overlooks the vineyard of Château Latour close to the St. Julien border. The most highly prized terroir, however, is a fifty-acre parcel located directly in front of the château, where the Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in 1943.

2018 Les Griffons de Pichon Baron ($64): The ‘Les Griffons’ label first appeared in 2012, intended to be the estate’s higher-end second wine. The original, Baronet de Pichon, first appeared in 1983, and was renamed ‘Les Tourelles de Longueville’ three years later. Les Griffons is distinct in that it is made from the same old vines used in the Grand Vin, with a higher proportion of Merlot to make it accessible earlier. The 2018 blend contains 52% Cabernet Sauvignon and 48% Merlot, and the average annual production (close to 3000 cases) sees 60% new oak for eighteen months before release. It is quite able to age, but delightful now, with a strong floral character lending aromatics to the juicy, supple and upfront fruit.


The Quintessential Pauillac in Two First Growths’ Third Wines


No terroir in the world has been so analyzed over so long a period of time as those of ‘les rois des châteaux’, Pauillac’s Premiers Crus, especially the original two. Every grain of sand, each handful of gravel and ounce of clay in the vineyards of Château Latour and Château Lafite Rothschild has been examined and evaluated, and global warming may even have improved these storied parcels, as Cabernet Sauvignon—the alpha and omega for both estates—ripens better and more reliably as hang-times increases. As a result, the percentage of Merlot in these wines is generally under 10%.

Owners have come and gone, but the earth beneath Latour and Lafite remains sacrosanct.

Such a legacy is not priceless, of course, and the demand for these crus classés gems is tracked with the same interest as the terroir. The wines of Latour and Lafite almost always sell above market price and current vintage futures, purchased long before the wine is even bottled, won’t ship for years.

Second wines from these châteaux are increasingly sought after, and Carruades de Lafite, with 20,000 cases produced, sells for hundreds of dollars rather than thousands, with the larger percentage of Merlot softening the approach. Likewise, Latour’s ‘Les Forts de Latour’, typically 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, has an average annual production of 11,000 cases and comes from the edges of the famous ‘Enclos’ vineyard used in the Grand Vin. In both cases, the second wines from these top châteaux uses a smaller proportion of new barrels (50 to 60%) in the maturing stage.

As the selection process for first and second wines has grown more rigorous, Latour and Lafite have opted to add yet another annual sorting to the schedule and bottle a third cuvée rather than selling off all the remaining fruit to négociants for branded wines. In general, third wines are the inevitable result of a quest for higher quality standards in second wines and may originate in additional plots purchased by Latour and Lafite over the years or from younger vines not yet capable of producing superior, world class wine. These wines, nonetheless, represent phenomenal values, and are touched by the hands of the same masters who create the Grand Vins.


‘A Time for Sharing’

Château Latour:


Latour’s Grand Vin label is synonymous with its prime terroir, ‘L’Enclos’—a hundred sixteen walled acres studded with old vines, a mere thousand feet from the Gironde. The estuary mellows weather extremes while the soil is key to the wine’s legendary complexity; clay gravel in the heart with sandy gravel at the periphery. These deposits, millions of years old, encourage the vines to develop root systems up to ten feet deep, while the rich subsoils that retain rainwater and see the vines through droughts. The opposite problem is solved mechanically, primarily by a drainage system installed in the 19th century. The combination of location and technical know-how permits Latour to turn out exceptional wines even in vintages that are deemed to have been off years.

Latour produces some of the longest-lived wines in the world, requiring a decade or more before they age into their prime and easily capable of outliving the enologists who make them; vintage1865, tasted a century later by estate director Harry Waugh, was found to be in full possession of its original ripe fruit and firm backbone.

2015 Le Pauillac de Château Latour ($125) For lovers of minutia, the 2015 Le Pauillac contains 54.2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41.7% Merlot and 4.1% Petit Verdot. Launched in 1973, Latour’s third wine represents about 7% of the estate’s total production, with origins in less prestigious parcels of land owned by Latour throughout Pauillac, and from the youngest vines whose grapes do not meet the selection criterion for the second wine. Open-knit and luscious, the 2015 shows generous black fruit, rose petals, hints of licorice and tobacco along with a snaking undercurrent of minerality.

 


‘Bordeaux in Our Roots for Generations’

Château Lafite Rothschild:


Baron Éric de Rothschild, who has managed the acclaimed estate since 1973, does not mince words: “Lafite turns bare earth into heaven.” Indeed, the château is named for its terroir; Lafite translates literally (from old Gascon) to ‘hillock’. Of the nearly three hundred acres that make up Lafite, the most highly prized vines are planted on the elevated ground near the château, with additional acres on the Carruades plateau to the west and a few in neighboring Saint Estèphe. All are well-drained and consist of fine deep gravel mixed with aeolian sand with subsoils of tertiary limestone. Vines average around forty years of age, although none younger than ten years old are used for the Grand Vin, and vines older than eighty are generally replaced. That said, the oldest plot, ‘La Gravière’, was planted in 1886.

Clearly, Lafite Rothschild possesses almost mystical cachet; it is among the most collectible wines in the world and is the signet wine in nearly every major cellar. Although Lafite’s second wine is named for its parcels on the Carruades plateau, those vines are almost always end up in the Grand Vin, and even the Saint Estèphe plots are permitted in the blend. In 1995, Domaines Barons de Rothschild released the first ‘Légende’ collection, affordable wines from various Bordeaux appellations. Crafted by Lafite winemaker Diane Flamand, Légende wines have proven reliable bargains even as the price for the prestigious Grand Vin slips further out of reach of most consumers.

2016 Château Lafite Rothschild ‘Légende R’ Pauillac ($50) The cuvée is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, and is vinified in the same cellar as the Grand Vin, using the same circumspection. ‘Légende R’ is matured for 12 months (60% on new oak) before release. It is robust and elegant with a bouquet of tobacco, orange peel, pencil lead and cinnamon followed by the Pauillac signature, blackberry and cranberry tastes, along with notes of tobacco, pencil shavings, orange peel and earth. 5000 cases were produced.

 


Pauillac Vintage Report


Vintage 2018:
Overall, the 2018 vintage for Pauillac was successful; Jean Philippe Delmas, deputy managing director of Château Haut-Brion, referred to the season as ‘bizarre’ with an usually wet spring that had growers scrambling to mitigate threats from rot and disease. But with summer came a long and hot dry spell that dried out the topsoil and ultimately led to an arid middle season which was overcome primarily from the water-logged subsoil. Some of the younger vines suffered dehydration, the well-established vines successfully pulled through and the good weather remained in place over the harvest.
Vintage 2016:
2016 was a remarkable vintage in Pauillac, reminiscent of the legendary 1990 in terms of both quantity and quality. A mild but rainy winter was followed by a cold spring, which only slightly delayed flowering. Spring gave way to a dry and hot summer which continued into a nice Indian summer with sufficient rain to enable the grapes to reach optimal ripeness. The resulting wines are rich, smooth and fruity with unusually ripe tannins and deep colors.
Vintage 2015:
‘Decanter’ editor Steven Spurrier notes that 2015 was ‘a very modern Bordeaux vintage, unlike the Bordeaux of 10 years ago, when tannins could be hard as nails: ‘In 2015, the fruit dominates the tannins and the acidity.’ In short, it was among the most benign vintages that the region has experienced before or since. Heralded by a mild winter, spring was warm and ensured a successful budburst and flowering. The summer months were exceedingly hot and dry, particularly the month of July, but August delivered the needed rain, while cooler nights helped retain both acidity and fresh aromatics in the grapes. Temperate conditions continued through an easy and relaxed harvest.

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Posted on 2021.12.08 in Pauillac, France, Bordeaux, Wine-Aid Packages

 

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