Bordeaux: Pauillac's fifth growths
- Tuesday 16 June 2009
Last November, well-heeled diners at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Dubai enjoyed four vintages of Mouton-Rothschild with winemaking director Philippe Dhalluin, who explained the latest developments at the renowned Pauillac first growth. After dinner – sipping cognac at the hotel bar – he exuded just as much enthusiasm about his work to improve Châteaux d’Armailhac and Clerc-Milon, two fifth growths from the same stable.
Pauillac’s 1,215ha (hectares) of vineyard include a whopping 12 fifth growths: almost one-fifth of the Médoc’s total classified wines. Each one seems to be scrambling to match the fame of Château Lynch-Bages, long considered the leader in the category, dubbed ‘the poor pan’s Mouton’ for its rich and powerful style, and rated much more highly than its official fifth growth status among most critics. Its reputation for quality has been reinforced by painstaking and dedicated marketing: ‘Lynch-Bages has been outperforming the category since 1982,’ says Laurent Ehrmann of négociant Barrière Frères. ‘They have been travelling the world to do real, intensive qualitative tastings, which is the reason why it is the only true international brand [among the Pauillac fifths] – with international recognition far beyond the category.’
There are signs, though, that the others are rapidly catching up. Grand-Puy-Lacoste now also shares a reputation for outgunning its classification level. For Belgian wine writer Hugo van Landeghem, president of the Flemische Wine Guild, Grand-Puy-Lacoste is ‘a grand classic, with freshness and fine length’. Across the Atlantic, GPL is ‘just as good as Lynch-Bages’ for Chris Adams of Sherry-Lehmann, a top New York-based importer. Others will be keen to grab the pair’s coat tails, with the likes of d’Armailhac, Batailley, Clerc-Milon and Haut-Batailley always respected, if not counted among the top echelon.
It wasn’t always thus. Critics from Robert Parker to Michael Broadbent agree that most other fifth growths have often not even measured up to their 1855 rating. Leafing through Broadbent’s tome Vintage Wine, with notes only up to the 2000 vintage for Bordeaux, one rarely comes across estates such as Croizet Bages, Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Haut-Bages-Libéral, Lynch-Moussas or even Pontet-Canet. The latter has recently enjoyed much acclaim (it leads Decanter’s list of ‘The 10 Most Improved Bordeaux Châteaux’, see p8) and today sells at prices comparable to Lynch-Bages. Yet as recently as the fine 1990 vintage, Broadbent wrote: ‘I dislike this wine intensely’. On no fewer than six occasions his notes hardly flattered: ‘unknit nose, horrible tarry taste, a terrible iron finish’. As for others, Bordeaux négociant Ehrmann recalls his first Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in 1989 thus: ‘For certain wines [in the Pauillac fifth growth category] generally in the lower rankings, you stuck your nose in the glass and realised that this was not good, very clearly vegetal. You had to be a vegetarian to like the stuff.
How times have changed. Back in Dubai, Dhalluin detailed the construction of a new vat room for Clerc-Milon in 2007, operating via gravity to avoid aggressive pumping over of harvested grapes, his use of 40 vats for each of the 40ha of vines – to match the sélection parcellaire in the vineyard – and a brand new barrel cellar expected to be operational for the 2009 vintage. He was keen to herald Clerc-Milon’s higher plateau between the Gironde River and the vines of both Mouton and Lafite. At some 17m, it sits on one of the highest slopes in the Médoc: ‘That’s where the best grapes are found,’ he said, ‘a rare vineyard, with two premier cru neighbours.’ At d’Armailhac, similar changes are under way.
Recent developments at Grand-Puy-Lacoste include smaller grape containers to avoid crushing at harvest, more careful parcel selection – often based on vine age – and the addition of temperature control. ‘There has certainly been increased competition lately,’ said owner François-Xavier Borie during the 2008 en primeur week in April. ‘Everyone wants to improve.’
The gravel and clay soils at all 12 properties mean they share certain similarities with starrier, neighbouring properties, but some are closer to the river than others, have more gravel than clay, older vines, or are in need of planting more suitable varietals in corresponding soils. Take Haut-Bages-Libéral, located in the northern Pauillac near Château Latour. As Stephen Brook notes in The Complete Bordeaux, the stony gravel soil there contains more clay subsoil with less efficient drainage compared to its illustrious first-growth neighbour, but the location offers excellent protection against frost. Owner Claire Villars completely renovated the cellars and vat room in 2001–02 and now carries out more careful selections in the vineyard. She has also introduced methods such as leaf clearing and green harvests when necessary to achieve a more consistent performance. The result is a fine wine that is not particularly expensive – especially welcome in more difficult economic times.
‘There has certainly been increased competition recently. Everyone wants to improve’ François-Xavier Borie, Grand-Puy-Lacoste
Perhaps the most dramatic turnaround is with Pontet-Canet, which observers, including Adams, Ehrmann and van Landeghem, consider among the best of the fifths today, along with Lynch-Bages. When I visited owner Alfred Tesseron, a sure sign of gathering momentum (in a region where the top chateaux have a penchant for aesthetics) were the modern sculptures now outside the estate, located near Mouton in the northern part of Pauillac. After a tour of the vineyard came more measurable evidence, as Tesseron showed me his pump-free vat room and several of the small red 7.5kg harvesting containers pickers use to avoid crushing grapes when delivered above fermentation vats. He showed me the two sorting tables to pick out only the best grapes for his first wine (Pontet-Canet was one of the first estates in the Médoc to introduce the facility, back in 1987) and explained his use of only indigenous yeasts for slow fermentations of three weeks. There has been no green harvesting, de-leafing or pesticide use at Pontet-Canet in the past few years, and minimal soil treatments keep yields naturally low, the use of horses to work the soils being far more gentle.
Neighbour Dhalliun remarked that he is looking at Pontet-Canet’s bio methods ‘with interest’. For Sherry-Lehmann’s Adams, ‘Alfred Tesseron is making one of the most compelling wines in the Médoc; the consumer sees that he/she can buy one of the top-rated wines in these vintages for a fraction of the price of a first growth or even a super second.’ But the rising quality of Pontet-Canet is also reflected in its price: from 1994 to 2007, it has seen the highest average annual increase among all 12 fifth growths, according to our price chart overleaf. The 2008 is even more extreme.
Other fifths have also made headlines recently. For the already legendary 2005 vintage, Decanter’s coveted five-star rating went to no fewer than half of these fifths, including Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet, but also the lesser-known estates Haut-Bages-Liberal, Haut-Batailley, Lynch-Moussas and Pedesclaux – the latter ranked third best overall, leading to headlines on web forums around the world.
This turnaround in quality was also seen at an informal tasting at R, a trendy restaurant in Strasbourg where sommelier-owner Richard Meier, German wine merchant Harry H Hochheimer, French wine consultant Jean Frédéric Eckert of Au Millésime, and local connoisseur and collector Jean Haudy evaluated three vintages from most of the fifths – 2004, 1997 and 1990 – sent directly to Strasbourg from the châteaux. Spanning a 15-year period, and reflecting vintages good and not so good, the general consensus was that in 2004 at least, Batailley equalled and even surpassed Lynch-Bages and Grand-Puy-Lacoste (both very good), and held its ground in 1997 and 1990. Owner Philippe Castéja explained that since 2001, Batailley has profited from the advice of wine consultant Denis Dubourdieu, environmentally friendly vineyard work has reduced soil-damaging chemical treatments, yields are more strictly controlled and a new vat room has been added.
Such investments have contributed to a better expression of the terroir, Castéja said. Backtrack to the 1990 vintage, however, and the Strasbourg tasters favoured – by a wide margin – both Grand-Puy-Lacoste and, particularly, Lynch-Bages. Some of the lower-profile châteaux were painful to taste, including an oxidised, brown-tasting Lynch-Moussas and an alcoholic and disjointed Grand-Puy-Ducasse. By 2004, however, all châteaux showed better. The good news for consumers, according to observers such as Mark Wessels of the Washington DC-based importer MacArthur Liquors, is that the rising quality of many of the fifths can be a bargain. He bought Grand-Puy-Ducasse in 2005. ‘Many clients confuse it with the Grand-Puy-Lacoste [no relation], but the wine is very good and the price very competitive,’ he said.
Increased competition means that the more established do not sit on their laurels. Though blessed with a fine terroir, Lynch-Bages has recently introduced environmentally friendly vineyard work and phased out pesticides, with green harvests and leaf clearings (when necessary) maintaining the wine’s reputation. Of some 550,000 bottles produced, over one-third are for the second wine, the renamed Echos de Lynch-Bages, indicating careful selection for the first wine. At a time whenmany consumers ar seeking out value, the first and second wines of most of the Pauillac fifths are starting to resemble
Panos Kakaviatos is a Brussels-based writer who contributes regularly to decanter.com and Agence France Presse. www.connectionstowine.com