To drink or not to drink? Clive Coates MW runs through the vintages back to 1989 and gives his verdict on the red wines of Pessac-Léognan

With the two exceptions of Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, the red wines of the Graves are unfashionable. Just look at any merchant’s list: plenty of Médocs, big and small; a number of St-Emilions and Pomerols; a scattering of other minor wines. But Graves? Only a few, if any.

As far as the lesser red wines of the Graves du Sud go, this neglect is largely justified. But there are plenty of good wines in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. This northern part of Graves runs south from the city of Bordeaux until it stops just north of the delightful château of La Brède. Most of those vineyards close to the city of Bordeaux disappeared in the expansion of the city, and the creation of its aéroport at Mérignac. Yet the region forms the oldest part of the quality Bordeaux area.

Up until the first decades of the 17th century, the flat lands of Médoc and Graves were largely marsh – wet during the neap tides in the spring and the autumn, and with farms which were polycultural. The best wines in this period were produced from more alluvial soils close to the river. The land was drained, exposing gravel mounds which soon proved to be ideal for the vine, though not much use for anything else.

Encouraged by the promotional activities of successive Pontacs (the owners at the time) at Château Haut-Brion, estates in Pessac and Talence became the heart of vinous Bordeaux. The current crus classés of Médoc did not emerge until the 1730s. The Léognan, Martillac and Cadujac domaines were not created until the 1830s.

The appellation of Graves, red and white, was created in 1936. In the 1980s, the growers in the northern part of Graves, on the lines of Haut-Médoc, lobbied to divide the Graves in two. Thus the appellation of Pessac-Léognan, occupying the 10 northern communes, was born. The soil structure of the Pessac-Léognan is similar to that of Médoc. As the name Graves suggests, it is largely gravel, mixed with and based on sand or sandstone interspersed with clay. The wines, though, have the structure more of Margaux than of Pauillac: medium rather than very full bodied. There is, however, less of the fragrant, intense, fruity perfume you find in the best wines of the southern Médoc. What you have, in fact, is an earthiness, a dryness which is not astringent; a flavour which others have called warm brick.

The red Graves were classified in the 1950s. A reclassification is therefore monstrously overdue. But no one thought to build this into the rules, unlike with the contemporaneous equivalent in St-Emilion. There is only one category, which makes it even more of a nonsense. Wines range from Haut-Brion, which sells for first-growth prices, to Château Bouscaut and others, which can only command the equivalent of a lowly Médoc fifth growth (a fraction of the price of Haut-Brion).

The classed growths are detailed in the table above. A few properties produce wine every bit as good as the least of the above. These include La Louvière and Larrivet-Haut-Brion in Léognan, Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac, Haut-Gardère in Léognan and Domaine de la Solitude in Martillac.

So when should you drink your Pessac-Léognans? In general they evolve a little sooner than their Médoc equivalents (though Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are exceptions). This means in a good vintage you should keep classed growths for seven to eight years after the harvest. Lesser years will evolve sooner, as will lesser wines.

As elsewhere, quality is rising. The owners understand that no one owes them a living and, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon – on which red Graves is based – there is increasingly fierce competition from outside. In the last decade, especially since 1998, standards of winemaking and élevage (ageing) have improved. Buyers should look again at the reds of Pessac-Léognan. There are some pleasant surprises.

VINTAGE GUIDE

2003 | KEEP ****

Unprecedentedly hot, unprecedentedly dry; and an unprecedentedly early harvest. A difficult vintage, therefore, and great wines usually come from easy vintages. And yet first reports are enthusiastic. The harvest is small.

2002 | KEEP ***

A vintage rescued at the last minute by a fine September and easy October. Rather good in the Graves in general, though overshadowed by the wines of St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe. Haut-Brion is very fine; La Mission Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier and Haut-Bailly are lovely. Bouscaut, Malartic-Lagravière, La Tour Haut-Brion, Latour Martillac and Pique-Caillou are the pick of the rest. A small crop. Prices were reasonable.

2001 | READY SOON ***

2001 had a difficult act to follow after the excellent 2000, but should not be ignored. The Graves were picked in the best of the weather in the two weeks from 28 September. Haut-Brion, as usual, is the best wine, followed, also as usual, by La Mission Haut-Brion, Chevalier and Haut-Bailly. Others that I rate very good or better include, in alphabetical order: Bouscaut, Carbonnieux, De Cruzeau, Latour-Martillac, La Louvière, De Rochemorin, Smith Haut-Lafitte and La Tour Haut-Brion. A large crop. Prices fell from the very high levels of 2000.

2000 | KEEP ****

A great vintage harvested in perfect conditions and consistently good all the way from premier cru to bourgeois standard. Haut-Brion is brilliant; then (no surprises here) La Mission Haut-Brion, Chevalier and Haut-Bailly. The best of the rest include: Bouscaut, Carbonnieux, De Fieuzal, La Louvière, Larrivet Haut-Brion, Malartic-Lagravière, Olivier, Pape Clément and La Tour Haut-Brion. A large crop. Prices were high.

1999 | READY *

Not the greatest of vintages following rain in September, but August had been fine, so not a complete washout. Moreover, and surprisingly, it was consistent both geographically and hierarchically except for part of St-Emilion, where there was an early September hailstorm. Haut-Brion, in this context, is stunning. La Mission Haut-Brion, Chevalier, La Tour Haut-Brion are fine. Haut-Bailly is very good plus. The best of the rest include: De Fieuzal, La Louvière, Malartic-Lagravière and Pape Clément. A large crop. Prices should have been lower.

1998 | KEEP ***

The vintage is at its best in St-Emilion and Pomerol, but is encouragingly good in the Graves. One could see at the outset the start of a movement upwards among the lesser classed growths and the rest. Haut-Brion, invevitably, is the best wine. La

Mission Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly and Chevalier are fine or better. La Tour Haut-Brion, De Fieuzal, Haut-Bergey, Latour-Martillac, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape Clément, Pique-Caillou and Smith-Haut-Lafitte can also be commended. A large crop. Expensive wines.

1997 | READY

In 1997 it was a matter of very uneven weather conditions rather than rain at harvest time which adversely affected quality. This is a small vintage of, at best, honest wines: the wines are ready now and not for long keeping. The usual top four – Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Chevalier and Haut-Bailly – are really the only wines which enthuse me. A large vintage. As elsewhere in Bordeaux, high prices at the outset. But only fools paid.

1996 | READY SOON ***

We are beginning to get into territory where the best properties are really proportionately very much better than those down the hierarchy. Elsewhere

in Bordeaux this is the best vintage (apart from 1998 in St-Emilion/ Pomerol) between 1990 and 2000. But only the top Graves deserve attention. Haut-Brion is fine but not great; so are La Mission-Haut-Brion and Chevalier; Haut-Bailly and Pape Clément are very good indeed. Olivier is a success. La Louvière and Smith-Haut-Lafitte are also commendable. A large harvest. High prices.

1995 | READY SOON **(*)

Less exciting than 1996 (due to more rain in September), and, in the Graves, boring wines overall except for the select few. Even Chevalier in this vintage is really no more than ‘good’. The other four top wines – Haut-Brion, La Mission, Pape Clément and Haut-Bailly – can safely be recommended, however. A large harvest. High prices.

1994 | DRINK SOON H

Yet more September rain than 1995. Even the usual suspects such as Haut-Bailly, Chevalier and Pape Clément produced undistinguished wine. Apart from Haut-Brion and La Mission, Carbonnieux, La Garde and Smith-Haut-Lafitte stand out. A large harvest. Moderate prices.

1993

1992

1991 | All Past their best

Don’t bother.

1990 | READY ****

Excellent weather and a very successful vintage. But it is a measure of the progress made since 1998 at the medium and lower levels that, overall, the vintage only earns four stars. The top wines, though, are very lovely: Haut-Brion (though 1989 is better still), La Mission Haut-Brion (ditto), Chevalier, Haut-Bailly and Pape Clément are all very classy. De Fieuzal and Latour-Martillac are the best of the rest. A large harvest. Prices were low at the time but are high now.

1989 | READY

A great vintage for the top Graves properties. Chateau Haut-Brion is quite simply great, and La Mission Haut-Brion isn’t far short. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely, as are Haut-Bailly and La Tour Haut-Brion. Sadly most of the rest were underperforming at the time, and so proportionately very much less interesting.

Clive Coates is author and publisher of fine wine monthly magazine THE VINE.

Written by Clive Coates