Hidden depths

Hidden depths People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 September 2003

Hidden depths

It may not be the most scenic part of Bordeaux, but Pomerol is famed for its terroir and style. JAMES LAWTHER MW explains what makes this Right Bank appellation so special.

It has to be said, Pomerol is dull. The land is relatively flat, the architecture nondescript, there's no real village, and to the south and west a railway, several arterial roads and the town of Libourne are all that bite into the vineyard. Yet the dirt in this island appellation of nearly 800ha (hectares) is the next best thing to gold dust and the wines are of a style and rarity that lauds the name of Pomerol around the world.

Once a staging post for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, Pomerol still has a crossroads atmosphere. Tiny, inconspicuous lanes criss-cross the region, and its reputation has been built and consolidated by a steady flow of outsiders from around Europe.

The history

Vines were cultivated here as far back as Roman times but Pomerol's reputation is a 20th-century phenomenon. Until then the region was merely considered an annex of neighbouring St-Emilion. Château Pétrus makes an appearance in 1878, winning a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition, while in the 1920s and 1930s a healthy market for Pomerol was established in northern France and the Benelux countries.

In Britain the wines were hardly seen until the 1960s, British merchants having closer ties with the Médoc. In the US and other countries, the necessary boost was given by Robert Parker in the 1980s. The limited production (around 36,000 hl/year) and size of the domaines (an average 6ha), which has always contained market spread, now has the effect of driving prices higher, demand outstripping supply.

So what's all the fuss about? In two words: terroir and style. At its best, Pomerol is the absolute in wine seduction. Rich and unctuous, it has a suave, velvety texture and complex fruit, truffle and spice bouquet that makes it appealing when relatively young. Yet its firm inner core and freshness can stand the test of time.

Merlot territory

As for terroir, this is an early-ripening zone (one of the earliest in Bordeaux) with an early-ripening grape variety – Merlot. Before the great freeze of 1956, there was a greater percentage of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, even Malbec. But planting since has pushed the Merlot ratio to nearly 80%. This contributes to the style of the wine but also means the pendulum can swing, according to climatic conditions, between favourable and less favoured Merlot years. Recently, 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2001 were superb vintages, whereas 1996 and 2002 were dismal.

With a maximum altitude of 40m and no hills, slope and exposure have little bearing on Pomerol's style. The soils, however, are a different matter. Unlike St-Emilion, there's no limestone in Pomerol but, like the Médoc, gravel, sand and clay. The soil structure is complex but put in its simplest form comprises an ascending order of quality, the high terrace being the oldest, with a greater percentage of gravel and clay for regulating the water supply to the vine.

At the pinnacle of the high terrace, or Pomerol plateau, the heavy blue clay even rises to the surface over 3–4ha, forming what is known as the Pétrus 'buttonhole'. These water-retaining clays help provide the deep colour, power and volume that is typified by Château Pétrus. Fanning out eastwards, the high clay content continues through the vineyards of Vieux Château Certan, L'Evangile and La Conseillante and on into Château Cheval Blanc in St-Emilion.

Elsewhere on the Pomerol plateau, around the church, the soils are mainly sandy-gravel with a high proportion of stones. The wines have a firm tannic structure and benefit from bottle age. Again, L'Evangile and Vieux Château Certan have vineyards in this sector, as does Lafleur, Le Gay and the recently created Hosanna (of négociant Jean-Pierre Moueix) to name but a few. Further west the clay content rises again.

Moving to the lower terraces to the west of the central plateau, the area is still early ripening but the soils sandier, with gravel of a finer texture. The wines can boast an attractive ripeness of fruit amid a certain structure, but have less power, volume and complexity of bouquet than those of the central plateau. Further west and south the soils become sandier still. The water table is higher and there are more regular traces of what is known locally as crasse de fer – a ferruginous sand. The wines are lighter framed and fresh in style.

Man's work

Linked to the notion of terroir is man's intervention. Among others, négociant J-P Moueix and oenologist Jean-Claude Berrouet have set the pattern for classicism and restraint in the appellation via their burgeoning stable of wines (Pétrus, Trotanoy, Hosanna, La Fleur-Pétrus).

Oenologist Michel Rolland is the owner of Château Le Bon Pasteur and consultant to an extensive list of properties. His school of ripeness and extraction perhaps sits more comfortably here than in other parts of Bordeaux. Also, Professor Denis Dubourdieu of the Faculté d'Oenologie in Bordeaux has been extending his activities as a consultant and in Pomerol has added Châteaux Bourneuf-Vayron, Taillefer, Vieux Maillet and Domaine de L'Eglise to his books.

On the central plateau, a number of properties have recently changed hands, resulting in investment and improvements in quality. Château Nénin, for example, was bought by the Delon family of Château Léoville Las Cases in 1997 and has been completely restructured. The expertise gathered in the Médoc is now being applied to good effect here, and is apparent in the development of an attractive second label, Fugue de Nénin.

Clos L'Eglise was bought in the same year by Sylviane Garcin-Cathiard, owner of Château Haut-Bergey in Pessac-Léognan, and has also been turned around.

Across the road is Château Rouget. Acquired in 1992 by Burgundian group Labruyere, the property has been extended to 17ha with the further acquisition of land near Trotanoy and Petit Village. New cellars have been built and the wines have taken on added depth and polish.

Château Le Gay is presently undergoing extensive change under its new owner Catherine Péré-Vergé, as is Château L'Evangile. The Rothschilds of Lafite have been co-owners since 1989 but it is only since they obtained sole ownership 10 years later that full change has been possible. This has included replanting and the present construction of new cellars.

Proving that terroir really is the crucial factor is Château Lafleur. The tiny 4.5ha estate near Pétrus is now fully owned by Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau who have made the wine since 1985. The vineyard is meticulously cultivated but winemaking is as simple and non-interventionist as possible. The wine, an almost equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, is fabulous. Rich, suave and complex, with a certain minerality, it has great finesse.

On the lower terraces, careful vineyard management is also a necessity, and this serves as a good indicator of quality. The wines have less volume and power, but retain the Pomerol charm, and the price can be in a different league. Château Bellegrave, as its name suggests, has gravel soils, 40-year-old vines and the attention of owner Jean-Marie Bouldy. Bouldy also supervises Catherine Péré-Vergé's other property, Château Montviel, located in the same sector. In the far west, Alain Moueix astutely manages Château Mazeyres, and Catherine Moueix, in the far south, runs Château Taillefer.

The tiny quantities produced at most châteaux (there are 126 declared producers), and elevated prices at the top end, mean Pomerol can be a scarce commodity. There can be disappointment at the bottom end, particularly in difficult years. But from conscientious producers, 2000 and 2001 offer two very attractive vintages. 2000 has all the weight and intensity of a very ripe year while 2001, though lighter, has plenty of fruit and charm plus the double advantage of being ready to drink as soon, at a more attractive price.

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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