One to watch
- Monday 1 July 2002
Poor man's Pomerol or the canny buyer's secret? James Lawther MW assesses the character of Lalande-de-Pomerol, Pomerol's cheaper neighbour .
Lalande-de-Pomerol has long traded on its celebrated handle without forcibly setting the wine world alight. The idea of inexpensive Pomerol imitations has suited both the négociant and the consumer, without the need for further investigation of the land and its true potential. However, the last three or four years have seen a steady shake-up in the appellation, with the arrival of new investment, a younger generation at the helm and the ripple effect of the viticultural revolution on the Right Bank. The 1,100ha (hectares) of Lalande-de-Pomerol are located directly north of Pomerol, across the tiny Barbanne stream. To the east are the vineyards of Montagne Saint-Emilion and north and west generic Bordeaux. There are two communal poles to the appellation: Lalande-de-Pomerol and Néac, situated on opposite sides of the busy N89. Disappear either side of this trunk road and there is a definite sense of being off the beaten track. The properties are small – an average 5ha – and, apart from the more aristocratic Château Siaurac, they are modest in allure. Having said that, though, this has been viticultural land since the Middle Ages. It was a result of the early influence of the monastic orders and knights of Malta who offered food and shelter to pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, and Lalande-de-Pomerol's 12th-century church bears witness. As with Pomerol, the history and reputation of the region is relatively youthful and shows how political machination often lends a hand in the creation of an appellation. The commune of Lalande-de-Pomerol has always claimed its right to individual status and this was confirmed by decree in 1935. Néac, on the other hand, used to sell its wines as Néac-Pomerol, but was legally stripped of the 'Pomerol' moniker in the 1920s. A portion of the commune could then have joined the Pomerol appellation, but producers in this zone remained loyal to Néac and a separate appellation was declared. In 1954 Néac was absorbed into the Lalande-de-Pomerol appellation, the Néac AC falling into disuse but never officially annulled. Which brings us to the terroir. As in Pomerol there are clearly zones within Lalande-de-Pomerol that offer greater promise to the wine grower. The Chevrol plateau in Néac is one example. An extension of the Pomerol plateau at the same altitude (35–40m), it has soils that are a mix of clay and fine gravel. In the same vicinity, on the edge of the Barbanne, a small coteau has gravel and deeper clay while a band of land on either side of the N89 offers an interesting mix of stony gravel and clay with traces of iron oxide or crasse de fer. Conversely, the further west one goes the sandier the soils become. Overall, Lalande-de-Pomerol has more gravel, but Néac a greater percentage of clay.
The grape varieties are similar to Pomerol, with a heavy Merlot influence, and there is the potential to produce wines of a similar grain, if not the weight, substance and agreeability, to a Pétrus or Trotanoy. Yields need to be reduced further, although overall they are much the same as in Pomerol, and hand- rather than machine-harvesting would be preferable. What has been lacking in the past is investment, expertise and viticultural endeavour, but this, too, is changing, allowing Lalande's rustic edge to be smoothed away. It's worth mentioning at this point that up to 40% of the producers also own land in neighbouring appellations, giving them a dispensation to vinify and bottle outside Lalande's bounds. In the past this has meant a fragmented structure, but that is beginning to change as new investors settle and the stalwarts continue to consolidate their domaines. Over at Château Garraud, the Nony family has placed this estate in the forefront of the appellation and has since added Château l'Ancien to the list of best domaines. André Chatonnet has been steadily restructuring Château Haut-Chaigneau since 1967 and has now been joined by his son Pascal, a consultant oenologist and specialist in barrel ageing. 'Since 1994 we've been in a position to select and vinify by parcel and have started to see the benefits of all the previous years' work,' says Pascal Chatonnet.
In 1996 the Chatonnets released the first vintage of Château La Sergue from selected parcels of old vines near Haut-Chaigneau to the east and on the Chabrol plateau. Hand-harvested and aged in new oak, La Sergue definitely moved up a gear with sharper focus and more intensity compared with the softer Haut-Chaigneau. A new plot of 7ha of old vines at La Pignière, near the N89, has also been acquired and will initially be used in Haut-Chaigneau. Until recently, Jean-Claude Beton of Château Grand Ormeau was the most important new arrival in the appellation. This has changed with the purchase of properties by Hubert de Boüard and Denis Durantou of, respectively, Angélus and l'Eglise-Clinet fame. Hubert de Boüard and his wife Corinne bought the 17ha Château La Fleur-St-Georges in 1998 and made an instant impact with their first vintage of La Fleur de Boüard. 'I was looking for an early ripening site but bought the property purely because of the terroir,' says de Boüard. Half the vineyard is located on gravel and clay soils just to the west of the N89 and the rest on the plateau behind Néac, where the wine is vinified. The vineyard has been restructured with a change of pruning technique, new plantings, grass cover for certain parcels and lower yields. The 2000 vintage will see the release of the expensive limited edition, Le Plus de la Fleur de Boüard.
Denis Durantou has also been improving the vineyard of Château Les Cruzelles, investing FF2 million in drainage. 'I used to buy grapes from here for my La Chenade brand and knew that it could be even better with improved management and lower yields,' he says. The 2000 is the first vintage and has a ripeness and balance assisted by 40% Cabernet Franc in the blend. There are presently 6ha under production, with a further 4ha to be replanted. Château Tournefeuille overlooks the Barbanne and Pomerol on the opposite bank. In 1998, the estate was purchased by the Petit family, farmers from northern France, and is now managed by Emeric Petit, one of a growing number of younger producers in the region. Investment has been on a more measured but discerning scale. Barrels have been renewed, temperature control installed and there has been plenty of work in the vineyards. With a greater purity of fruit, improvements can be seen from 1999 onwards and look as though they will continue as individual parcels become more selectively cultivated. Elsewhere the younger generation is present at Château Perron, where Bertrand Massonie has taken over the reins. Advances here can be measured by the success of the cuvée La Fleur, first released in 1997. This is a 100% Merlot from 5ha of selected parcels, which spends a year in barrel without racking. Laurent Rousseau uses the same technique at Château La Borderie Mondésir and is making eye-catching wines from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grown on gravelly soils to the west. Despite the natural quality of the 1998 vintage, the advances in the appellation are, to my mind, more evident from 1999 onwards. A difficult year, the work in the vineyards had to be redoubled and this can be seen in the quality of fruit at many estates. 2000 and 2001 are better still. Lalande-de-Pomerol is becoming interesting and, yes, there's now a lot that's better value than much ordinary, over-priced Pomerol.
James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.