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Insight: Pauillac’s pulling power

Though soils and microclimates play a vital role in Pauillac, Ian D'Agata finds it is the human touch that provides the key to this region's sheer magnetism and longevity...

Pauillac at a glance:

Surface area: 22,74 km2
Location: Aquitaine
Region: Gironde
Department: Lesparre-Médoc district
Population: 5,265;
Population density: 231.5 inhabitants per km2 (2007)
Average altitude: 15 metres(m) above sea level (highest point in Pauillac: 29m!)
Area under vine: 1,119 hectares
Number of classified growths: 18; Pauillac has the lowest number of crus bourgeois of any Bordeaux appellation
Number of châteaux: 115, but not all produce their own wines, preferring to sell grapes to cooperatives
Number of bottles produced: 8 million per year

After 25 years spent visiting Bordeaux’s vineyards up to five times a year, I know which wines suit my palate best. Last year, I wrote in these pages that my favourite Bordeaux wines are St-Julien’s – but, if my heart says St-Julien, my head says Pauillac.

Why? The answer is simple enough – while Pauillac may not offer the remarkable overall quality level of St-Julien (quality levels drop precipitously between Pauillac’s greatest wines and its less successful ones), it is undoubtedly where the highest quality peaks in Bordeaux are found. Three of the five first growths named in the famous 1855 classification are in Pauillac (north to south, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, and Latour), as well as a long list of ‘super-seconds’ (Pontet- Canet (pictured below, right), Pichon-Longueville Baron, Pichon- Longueveille-Lalande and Lynch-Bages spring immediately to mind). In fact, from medieval times to the present day, Pauillac’s wines have always ranked among the Médoc’s elite; and not only domaine wines, but also those from the area’s two main parishes, St-Martin de Pauillac and St Lambert de Rignac.

This enviable reputation is well deserved – at their best, the wines of Pauillac offer a balance of power and grace that is not found in Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends made anywhere else. And though ‘graceful Pauillac’ may seem an oxymoron, Pauillac’s greatness lies in powerful wines that are rarely overripe brutes or needlessly extracted, tannic behemoths. Perhaps more than any other AC, it is Pauillac that says ‘Bordeaux’ to the world.

Rocky stories

In fact, generalisations about Pauillac’s wines are difficult, because its soils and microclimates are extremely varied. Roughly 90 minutes’ drive north of Bordeaux, in between St-Estèphe and St-Julien, Pauillac’s soils and topography share features of each, but with their own twists.

The appellation is characterised by four main soil types that originated millions of years ago during the different glaciations that formed the earth’s crust. All these soil types are characterised by a strong gravel component, one of the main reasons Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in Pauillac.

These four soils are found throughout Pauillac, though each soil type dominates in specific areas. In the southern reaches of the appellation, the soil is rich in gravel deposited by the Gironde river during two Mindel glaciation periods (most books and articles usually mention Günzian gravels, but relative to Pauillac, this is incorrect); these are called Mindel gravel soils type I and II. The former are a brownish hue in colour, and are characterised by sandy-clay subsoils rich in iron oxide; the latter are also gravelly and brownish-looking, but have clay-gravel subsoil. In the northern part of the appellation, it is almost all Mindel I gravel.

Interspersed among these two are the other two main soil types, the somewhat confusingly named Mindel gravel I type 2 (large diameter gravels) and the Savoisian marl (calcareous soils with a heavy clay subsoil). The Mindel soils are the oldest (and therefore the first to be formed geologically). Consequently, they are also the ones found at the highest altitudes. This may seem a trivial point (given that in Bordeaux, vineyards are less than 50m above sea level), but even a few metres makes a huge difference in Bordeaux’s continental climate.

Mindel II soil more commonly lines the lowerlying banks of the Gironde river. During the later Würm glaciation, the river eroded the banks and sculpted reliefs and troughs that characterise much of Bordeaux’s topography. Farther inland, Pauillac was less affected by the hollowing-out process and remained a plateau with a higher sand content. As Pauillac’s estates are located in different areas of the appellation and their vineyards sit on mixes of these different soil types, you’d expect the wines to differ from each other; and you’d be correct, up to a point. For example, the nature of the geological terroir of two of the most famous first growths in Pauillac, Latour and Lafite- Rothschild, is very different, with Mindel II gravel dominating the soils of Latour and Mindel I gravel those of Lafite-Rothschild. And to an extent, differences between these two world-famous wines reflect these geological differences.

The personal touch

Inland, properties such as Château Batailley (on the high plateau at the back of Pauillac), or Lynch- Moussas (the most westerly of Pauillac’s great crus) or Grand-Puy-Lacoste (pictured below, left), owned and run by Xavier Borie and his charming family, rest on less gravelly soils, and make wines that are naturally lighter and charming, though all are extremely long-lived.

However, it’s not so simple: the human element always plays a very large role. For example, once owner Philippe Casteja took over the reins of sister properties Batailley and Lynch-Moussas, new cellar innovations and the ongoing technical help of consultant winemaker and university professor Denis Dubordieu have had a recognisably positive effect on the wines. Clearly, soil is only part of the story. Generally speaking, the higher clay content of Pauillac’s northernmost soils (similarly to those of St-Estèphe) should make for bigger, tougher wines, yet Lafite-Rothschild, the last northermost bastion of Pauillac, is the most graceful of all the first growths. And while a soil’s capacity for ion exchange may be reflected in the minerality of its wines, many other factors (total acidity, pH, residual sugar, the soil’s bacterial diversity) influence the overall texture and aroma/flavour profile of wines.

In Bordeaux, proximity to the river is also all-important. Vineyards located at the river’s edge bask in a microclimate 3-4°C higher on average than those inland, a huge difference in an area where cool weather is not uncommon. Winemaking also plays a huge role: for example, cold-stabilised wines have a lower potassium concentration than those that aren’t, and so will taste different, just like wines aged in different kinds of new or used oak.

Pauillac is both the name of the appellation and its main town, known as Pauliacus in ancient Roman times. The town has a pretty river front, not unlike that of a small seaside town. I like sitting at one of the simple cafés to read the paper or gaze across to the island of Partiras while munching on bichettes, the small shrimp typical of the estuary.

There are other smaller quaint villages, such as Artigues, Le Pouyalet, Milon, Mousset and the best known of all, Bages. The latter has been especially developed by the Cazes family, owners of Château Lynch-Bages, who have set up an outstanding hotel and restaurant (Château Cordeillan Bages, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain), a butcher, a pastry shop and a solid café called Lavinal where I like to drop in bright and early for coffee and croissants.

Road trip

A drive through the Pauillac appellation begins with world-famous Château Latour, its most southern property; the vineyards are separated from those of Léoville-Las-Cases in St-Julien by a stream. The wines, powerful yet balanced, are magnificent at all times, but stand out even more in poor years (for example, 1960), and have a hallmark iron nuance discernible in most vintages.

Right next to Latour sits Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande (or Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, for short), beautifully designed by Henri Duphot, the architect who later also designed Latour’s main building. Once a portion of the much larger Pichon estate owned by Pierre de Mazure de Rauzan, it was born in 1850 when the property was divided in two (the other half being Pichon-Longueville Baron).

Pichon-Longueville-Lalande is one of Pauillac’s more feminine wines, no doubt thanks to an unusually high percentage of Merlot used (35% on average, depending on the vintage), but in fact women have also played an important role. One of de Rauzan’s daughters, Virginie, wife of the Count of Lalande, managed the estate splendidly for years; in more recent times, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing was long associated with this property’s fortunes, and a magnificent, world-class art glass collection is housed at the estate, which today belongs to the Rouzaud family of Louis Roederer fame.

Pichon-Longueville Baron sits across the D2 road from Pichon-Longueville-Lalande; in my view, its fairytale turreted castle is the Médoc’s most beautiful. Somewhat brooding when young, the wine opens with age to reveal an opulent, classic Pauillac mouthfeel. Long-time cellarmaster Jean-René Matignon describes it as ‘having an austere breeding and unique class, deriving from the combination of the gravelly brown soils, to which Cabernet Sauvignon is especially adapted, and human work’.

Moving north, just before the town of Pauillac, is Bages, where estates such as Haut-Bages-Libéral, Lynch-Bages and Croizet-Bages are found. Haut- Bages-Libéral makes one of the most underrated wines of all Pauillac, a classic Pauillac eschewing the voluptuously ripe fruit and soft pH values of so many others. Owner Claire Villars-Lurton is a firm believer in the concept of ‘Haut Bages-ness’, a further subdivision of ‘Pauillac-ness’. ‘About half our vineyards sit close to the river’s edge in Haut-Bages,’ she says. ‘The others are found on the other side of the road on the plateau of Bages; but it’s the former that are especially noteworthy, located on the geological formation continuing south into St-Julien; Latour, Léoville-Las-Cases and Ducru- Beaucaillou all have vineyards on it. It is a soil rich not only in gravel but limestone, which allows for wines of greater finesse and breeding.’ Villars- Lurton believes this specific portion of Pauillac makes truly distinctive wines, but adds ‘Most Pauillac properties grow vines on a mosaic of different soils, so differentiating between wines based on a particular sub-zone of Pauillac is not easy’.

Over at nearby Château Lynch-Bages, technical director Nicolas Labenne agrees. ‘Clearly, there are differences in our soils; but there are just too many factors at work for us to be able to say this is a wine from Bages, or this is from Moussas. Perhaps that might be possible in areas where vineyard sizes are very small’. Over at Mouton Rothschild, general director Philippe Dhalluin believes there is a general ‘Pauillac-ness’ to the wines, but any further subdivision is perilous. He rightly points out that many of Mouton’s vineyards are located close to those of Lafite Rothschild and yet the wines couldn’t be more different.

Another example are the wines of Château d’Armailhac, located close to Mouton Rothschild, and under the same ownership. One of my favourite Pauillac wines, it is characterised as much by its soils and winemaking as it is by its unique blend, in which the old Cabernet Franc vines (of a much higher quality than what is usually found on the Left Bank) provide unique floral and noble cocoa aromas and flavours.

Clearly, owning vines that grow on a mosaic of soil types located both closer and farther away to the river’s edge is part of the secret to Pauillac’s success. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is very much a ‘there’, in Pauillac. But in ultimate analysis, while soil plays a role, the magic that is Pauillac results from a mix of place and human skill.

Written by Ian D’Agata

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