There’s more to Right Bank's Pomerol than Pétrus. STEPHEN BROOK looks at how a tiny appellation with mythical soil became the darling of the Right Bank, and asks whether it now needs tighter controls.
A friend of mine once arrived for dinner, murmuring, with a distinct hint in his voice: ‘Pomerol’s a wine I rather like.’ Yes, I wanted to reply, don’t we all? Indeed, Right Bank’s Pomerol is easy to like. For all its elevated reputation, it is usually accessible when young, thanks to the high proportion of Merlot in the blend. Supple and fleshy, it offers immediate pleasure. Next to the rugged and structuredwines from, say, the Médoc, Pomerol flaunts a come-hither sensuality. Unfortunately, Pomerol is relatively rare.
With only 800ha under vine, there isn’t much to go around. The best wines come from the so-called plateau, which rises to a majestic 40m above sea level, and occupies no more than 25% of the appellation. Total production of this top Pomerol is equivalent to the total output of Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild combined. However, this plateau is by no means uniform. Clay, so well suited to Merlot, is widely encountered, but so is stony gravel, as at La Fleur-Pétrus, where the soils are in complete contrast to its clay-rich neighbour Pétrus. Both are part of the portfolio of this year’s Decanter Man of the Year, Christian Moueix (2008).
Why this plateau should produce such magnificent wines is hard to explain – though perhaps it’s due to the magical combination of soil type, drainage, exposure, and grape variety. Drive west a few hundred metres, and the land slopes down towards the railway line that traverses Libourne. Cross it and you are on sandy soil, the source of many good, but few great, wines. The same is true of some of the soils close to St-Emilion, described by some producers as ‘abominable’.
On the other hand, the sectors close to the St-Emilion border near Cheval Blanc produce superb wine. Many growers speak mystically of the presence of crasse de fer (iron-rich bands of sand) in the soil. Although it is widely assumed that this makes a distinctive contribution to Pomerol’s typicity, some growers, such as Denis Durantou of L’Eglise- Clinet, believe its presence is a negative factor, while Kees Van Leeuwen, technical director of Cheval Blanc, on the Pomerol border, claims it makes no difference one way or another. If it does contribute some allusive minerality to Pomerol’s wines, then so do other soil types. For such a small region, Right Bank’s Pomerol comes in a wide range of styles, and factors such as picking dates (very late harvesting has become the fashion at some properties) and the use of oak ageing encourage the diversity. Some wines could easily be mistaken for St-Emilion, while others have a fragrance and elegance not often seen in the wines from that huge neighbouring region.
Not only do styles vary, but so does quality.
There are, without doubt, many mediocre wines from Right Bank’s Pomerol that trade on the region’s reputation. Their survival would surely be in doubt if there were in place the same kind of classification that ranks the growths of the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes and St-Emilion.
Alas Classements have now become playgrounds for lawyers representing competing interests, which has rather taken the shine off the concept. But it’s undeniable that in St-Emilion, for example, its existence has acted as an incentive for estates to try harder. In Right Bank’s Pomerol, there is no reward for trying harder other than recognition, prestige and higher prices – rewards sufficient to spur estates such as Taillefer to improve quality, but insufficient to many others simply resting on their faded laurels. There are wines of disgraceful quality, or lack of it, in Pomerol – thanks both to the absence of any classification and to a lax, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ approach that allows dismal wines to scrape through the label tastings and thus win the right to the Pomerol appellation.
Pomerol is fortunate in its guardian angels, the first being Christian Moueix, continuing the work of his father and grandfather in running some of the greatest properties in the region. The other is Michel Rolland, whose only property here is Bon Pasteur but who consults to many leading estates, such as Le Gay, Rouget, L’Evangile, Clinet and Petit Village. It’s hard to think of two men with such opposed winemaking strategies. At Moueix, the emphasis is on freshness and balance. The Moueix properties are invariably among the first to be picked, leading to accusations that Moueix is simply playing safe, an accusation seen to be nonsensical as soon as one tastes the latest Trotanoy or La Fleur Pétrus vintage.
Nor is Moueix a fan of new oak, and his first priority is to allow the wine and its terroir to sing out. Rolland, as is well known, favours late picking. ‘We don’t like to begin harvesting until a small percentage of the crop has already started to raisin,’ says Christian Dauriac, owner of the tiny garagiste property La Clémence and a devotee of Rolland’s. Rolland also favours techniques such as malolactic fermentation in barrel, and usually opts for a far higher proportion of new oak than Moueix and his celebrated winemaker Jean Claude Berrouet would ever contemplate. In the end, it’s a question of personal preference.
Although it is abundantly clear thatthe greatest wines of Pomerol – Pétrus, Lafleur, L’Evangile, La Conseillante, Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan, L’Eglise- Clinet, and a few others – are grown on the plateau, there is much pleasure to be had from wines produced on the lesser terroir north of Libourne. At properties such as de Sales, Clos René, L’Enclos, Bellegrave, and Mazeyres, the wines don’t have the depth of flavour or finesse of the best Pomerols. But they do have abundant fleshy fruit from the dominant Merlot grape and a surprising capacity to age. Tasted within a few years of the vintage, these wines seem to be giving their all, but in a good vintage they can go the distance.
For all its prestige, Pomerol remains relatively unknown to the general wineloving public, probably because there are few opportunities to taste the wines. If the Médoc or Pessac-Léognan or other districts actively promote their wines to the public, as well as to trade, this is not the case in Pomerol. With a few exceptions, such as Gazin and La Conseillante, the grandees of the plateau rarely deign to show their wines alongside the more rustic efforts from the lesser terroirs. Nor do they need to persuade us that Pétrus or Lafleur are wines of quality. Demand far outstrips supply.
Like the Moueix family, the Janoueix family owns a number of properties here, all of them small, so it too tends to stand aside from communal efforts to promote the wines. Admittedly, the wines of Pomerol don’t stand in much need of promotion: scarcity is an excellent salesman. No more than 750 cases of Le Pin are produced each year, and Lafleur is hardly more abundant, with a maximum 1,000 cases. Only 1,600 cases of L’Eglise-Clinet ever see the light of day, and even less of Le Gay, while the mighty Pétrus rarely exceeds 2,500 cases. Even the larger estates, such as Vieux Château Certan and La Conseillante, produce a maximum of 5,000 cases. Such limited production guarantees cult status. Fortunately, there are plenty of second tier Pomerols that offer pretty good value – wines such as Bourgneuf Vayron, Beauregard, Feytit-Clinet, Clos du Clocher, Petit Village, Vieux Maillet, and Vray Croix de Gay.