The quality of Pessac-Léognan's white wines shines through. STEPHEN BROOK looks at why they have improved so dramatically and selects the most dazzling

The quality of Pessac-Léognan’s white wines shines through. STEPHEN BROOK looks at why they have improved so dramatically and selects the most dazzling

André Lurton sits in the dining room at Château La Louvière, forking roast chicken on to his plate and twirling a glass of yellow-gold 1995 Château Couhins-Lurton. I don’t know whether he ever really relaxes, but this seems to be as close as it gets. He certainly has grounds for satisfaction, though. Lurton bought the château in 1965 but it remained a shell until quite recently. He describes himself as a viticulteur and the money he has made over the years has been poured into his various properties, especially their vineyards. Now approaching his mid-seventies, he seems to have decided it is time to take some pleasure from his success and La Louvière has been sumptuously restored.That success is founded upon the creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation, which he masterminded. It was a long battle to separate the northern Graves, home to such celebrated estates as Haut-Brion and Domaine de Chevalier, from its more rustic neighbours in the southern Graves. For Lurton, the northern Graves is Bordeaux’ historic heartland, carpeted with vines during the centuries when the Médoc was still a swamp. In its 19th-century heyday, there were 5,000 hectares (ha) of vines in what is now Pessac-Léognan; by 1975 this had dwindled to 500ha. Some vineyards were abandoned after phylloxera or because they were (and still are) prone to frost, but most succumbed to urbanisation. Today, places such as Haut-Brion and Pape-Clément are entirely surrounded by housing estates.

In 1987 André Lurton and his allies finally succeeded and the new appellation came into being. The name seems hard to pronounce – ‘No more so than Pouilly Fuissé,’ retorts Lurton – but in many respects his ambition has been vindicated. The area under vine has grown to 1,150ha of red and 250ha of white, and may expand further. The only cause for concern is that, for the first time, the area dedicated to white grapes has diminished, though only by 4ha. After 1987 the wines improved greatly, but they have not been easy to sell. The best are produced from low yielding vineyards, often harvested by selective pickings, and are expensive to make. Lees-stirring and ageing in a fairly high proportion of new oak are costly processes, too. Some 10 or 12 years ago the whites sold for a higher price than the reds, although this also reflected the scarcity of the best wines. Today the prices have dropped slightly. To some extent, the noble whites of Pessac-Léognan have been muddled in the consumer’s mind with the high-volume, easy-drinking (and sometimes weedy) whites from Entre-Deux-Mers. There the emphasis is on primary fruit and wines for drinking young, but the approach in Pessac-Léognan is quite different. Even wines made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc, such as Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Couhins-Lurton, taste as if they have a fair amount of Sémillon in the blend. The producers don’t want to make aromatic, instant access whites – they are after a more robust, long-lived style – but that does mean that in their youth the wines can seem gawky and inexpressive, with a strong citric character. They are not crowd-pleasers and that, too, may explain the sluggish sales.Olivier Bernard of the outstanding Domaine de Chevalier worries that the wines are beginning to taste the same. ‘We have the same oenologists, the same grape varieties, the same techniques, such as batonnage [lees-stirring], and use the same kind of oak,’ he says. However, there is no real shortage of variety and there are even a few wines made with hardly a trace of barrique-ageing. Francis Boutemy of Château Haut-Lagrange and Clos Marsalette blends a quarter of the crop, aged in new oak, with the remainder aged in tanks. ‘The fashionable new-oaked wines won’t age well. I am quite sure about this, as I used to make that style of wine. What I want is finesse, which is what the Graves is all about,’ he explains.

Certainly Boutemy’s own wines are elegant and well balanced, though to my taste they lack some flair and complexity, but over lunch at Château Olivier, Jean-Jacques de Bethmann served whites from 1978 and 1993, neither of which was tiring. Since these wines were made with little or no new oak, their honeyed, nutty longevity would seem to support Boutemy, as well as confirming André Lurton’s certainty that Pessac-Léognan is a great terroir. On the other hand there are many impressive wines that are extremely oaky. At Pape-Clément, which only started releasing a white wine in 1994, almost all the barrels are new, and it shows. The fruit is rich and concentrated, so after a couple of years in bottle the wines come into better balance. Château Bouscaut uses rather less (40–60%) new oak, but perhaps because the fruit quality is less concentrated, the impression of oakiness is stronger. Nor is the Larrivet-Haut-Brion white, which is aged entirely in new oak, particularly stylish or vigorous. Fieuzal gets it about right, despite a good deal of new wood, but this estate has been making extremely powerful whites for almost 20 years. Smith-Haut-Lafitte, aged in 50% new oak, is toasty but has ultra-ripe fruit to back it up, and Latour-Martillac is in a similar, if less flamboyant, style.

Many estates that routinely aged their whites in new oak in the 1980s have cut back, notably Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion (La Mission Haut-Brion’s white), which now use 40–50% oak. André Lurton has also reduced quantities and Domaine de Chevalier whites, which were mightily oaky in the 1980s, are now far more restrained. Most estates in Pessac-Léognan have at least 50% Sémillon, though most add a good dose of Sauvignon to give the wine aromatic lift and citric zest. One would have expected Sauvignon to have contributed higher acidity than Sémillon, but Eric Larramona of Pape-Clément says that in practice there is little difference between the two varieties’ acidity. Nonetheless, Sauvignon is prized for freshness and vigour, Sémillon for honeyed fruit and a capacity to evolve over a long period in bottle. The vines of Laville Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion itself are within the same enclave at Pessac, but the former has about 50% Sauvignon, while Laville is almost entirely Sémillon. Both are made in a highly concentrated, powerful style that assaults the palate without ever seeming too brash. Wonderful, but very expensive.

André Lurton is the high priest of Sauvignon in Pessac-Léognan, although only Couhins-Lurton is solely made from the variety. His other wines – Coucheroy, Cruzeau, Rochemorin and La Louvière – contain 10–20% Sémillon. Yet after about five years, even Couhins develops rich honeyed tones that resemble Sémillon more than Sauvignon. Perhaps the essential elegance of Pessac-Léognan whites, whatever their varietal mix, derives mostly from the drained gravel slopes on which the grapes are grown. Smith-Haut-Lafitte is another wine that it would be hard to identify blind as pure Sauvignon, perhaps because it is cossetted in a good deal of toasty oak. It seems ironic that at a time when the wines have never been better, the quantities being produced are declining. By the late 1990s the faults of the 1970s and 1980s had, almost without exception, been corrected. The gravest 1970s winemaking fault was excessive sulphur dioxide. Laville Haut-Brion, it was often said, needed 10 years to emerge from its shell, as though this were a merit. The plain truth is that it took 10 years for the wine to shake off the high sulphur levels and become drinkable. At Malartic-Lagravière, an all-Sauvignon estate until afew years ago, the grapes were usually picked at 11° of po ntial alcohol in or der to preserve acidity. As a consequence, the must was routinely chaptalised, which did the balance no good at all. Today almost every producer is picking at higher ripeness levels. Skin contact, almost ubiquitous in the late 1980s to enhance aroma, is now rare, even though it was pioneered by the region’s leading white wine consultant, Professor Denis Dubourdieu. ‘It works well with simple aromatic whites in Entre-Deux-Mers,’ says André Lurton, ‘but not with Pessac-Léognan.’ Many winemakers complain that it contributes an unwanted exotic fruit character and that it reduces acidity, which is usually undesirable. Gérard Gribelin of Fieuzal experimented with skin contact in the 1980s but says, ‘I found the results awful. It made the wine smell of leeks!’

So, the quality of Pessac-Léognan whites is indisputably high and the wines greatly admired, but they remain hard to sell and, according to Francis Boutemy, the négociants are reducing orders by about five percent each year. Haut-Bergey and Fieuzal are cutting back on white vines and, says Gérard Gribelin: ‘People who want white wines still seem to want Chardonnay, which we can’t give them.’ André Lurton recalls that after the 1991 frost, prices rose dramatically without an increase in quality, so the market sagged and has yet to recover. The very top properties don’t need to worry too much, since production is so limited, ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 bottles. In that top league I would place Haut-Brion, Laville Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Fieuzal, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Pape-Clément, La Louvière and Couhins-Lurton. In the second division, I would put Carbonnieux, Malartic-Lagravière and Latour Martillac. Reliable performers include Haut-Lagrange, Cruzeau, Rochemorin, Château de France and the once lacklustre Olivier. Properties to watch include Brown and Cantelys (leased by the Cathiards of Smith-Haut-Lafitte).

The wines certainly benefit from five years in bottle. 1995 and 1996 are rich, powerful vintages and 1999 has a fruitiness and vigour, though for my taste the more robust and structured 1998s, although still fairly closed, will prove the greater vintage. The 2000s are ripe and promising, if too leesy to be properly judged at present.

Written by STEPHEN BROOK