Always thought of as Pomerol’s poor cousin, Lalande-de-Pomerol region is now attracting several acquisitive producers, who are making great value wines, says ROGER VOSS
For such a small stream, the Barbanne has exerted enormous influence. This little river has traditionally divided the haves and the have-nots of the Right Bank of Bordeaux. It has divided Pomerol from its own two satellites, Néac and Lalande-de-Pomerol region, just as it has divided St-Emilion from its satellite villages (Montagne, Lussac, Puisseguin).
On the one side were the wealthy producers of Pomerol and St-Emilion, basking in the glory and the prices of famous names. On the other bank, life has been tougher in the rustic hinterland.
Much of this story exists in the past tense. Times have been changing, and continue to change rapidly. Néac and Lalande-de-Pomerol provide vivid examples of this. Grouped together under the one appellation of Lalande-de-Pomerol, the wine from these two villages is being transformed, as outsiders, new investors and new generations come in and take over the vineyards. Recent vintages, notably 2001, 2003 and 2004, demonstrate the improvements in quality.
Stylistically, where once most of the wines were poor country cousins of Pomerol, with the same high percentage of Merlot in the vineyard, many of today’s Lalandes are of an equal quality to a middle-ranking Pomerol. They have the same opulent richness, perhaps without the depth or complexity, and with an ability in the better vintages to age over five years and up to 10.
Even if less cheap than even five years ago, they command a lower price than Pomerol. It makes good Lalande-de-Pomerol a Bordeaux bargain.
The two main villages of the Lalande-de-Pomerol Region – Néac and Lalande-de-Pomerol itself – provide an interesting contrast. Lalande has the history – on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella with a 12th-century church and hospital created by the knights of St John to help weary pilgrims on their way. The church is still there, a squat stone building right in the centre of the village.
Néac, though, has the better wines. In fact, if the vignerons of Néac had been prescient enough in the 1930s, they could have chosen to join with Pomerol – and where would they be now? But they didn’t, throwing in their lot with Lalande, and probably cursing their decision ever since.
There was a good reason behind the idea of joining with Pomerol. As so often, it lay in the soil. The plateau of Néac is essentially a continuation of that of Pomerol itself, and the majority of the best crus of Lalande are found in this corner of the appellation.
Lalande village and its vineyards lie further west, across the N89 road, where the soil is sandier, producing lighter wines, which age more quickly than those of Néac. The website of Lalande-de-Pomerol’s syndicat gives the precise co-ordinates of the various châteaux’s vineyards (www.lalande-pomerol.com).
The story of the revival of the Lalande-de-Pomerol Regionreally begins in 1988, when Jean-Claude Beton, the millionaire creator of Orangina, bought Château Grand Ormeau. The techniques are familiar, but no less effective: low yields, a selection table, malolactic fermentation in cask.
It was 10 years later that Hubert de Boüard, co-owner of Château l’Angélus in St-Emilion purchased a vineyard in the Lalande, and renamed it after his family – La Fleur de Boüard. Price was one very good reason for the purchase, he says, ‘I wanted to buy something that was less expensive than St-Emilion, but which had very similar quality of soil.’
The vineyard, in Néac, with its mix of gravel and clay soils could easily be in Pomerol. With the first vintage (the 1999) of the wine under the new ownership, this property went straight to the top of the heap in Lalande-de-Pomerol.
These two examples have been emulated by others. Some have come from outside Bordeaux – such as the Petit and Cambier families at Château Tournefeuille. Others, like Hubert de Boüard, have crossed the Barbanne to take advantage of lower price tags for vineyard land, and the fine potential.
Prominent among these is André Chatonnet, who created Château Haut Chaigneau in 1967. Joined by his oenologist son, Pascal, he has worked this vineyard at Néac, creating an estate which is known as much for value as reliable quality. In 1996, Pascal created his own property from vineyards in Néac. Called Château la Sergue, this 4.5ha (hectare) estate has created a storm, with regular comparisons between this wine and even top Pomerol.
Pascal Chatonnet works with Michel Rolland, and consults for top estates around the world, including Vega Sicilia in Spain and Alto in South Africa. But he differs from Rolland in his more restrained use of extraction and oak. There is nothing unusual about his techniques, except perhaps (for old-school Bordeaux) the cold maceration before fermentation. Otherwise the wine finishes fermentation in barrel, and then ages for up to 18 months in new wood. But because of the low yields and the old vines, La Sergue never seems to be dominated by wood, rather opened out and given an extra dimension. This is certainly one of the top buys in Lalande.
And there are others. This is what is exciting about the Lalande-de-Pomerol Region. Denis Durantou of Pomerol’s L’Eglise Clinet is another fine winemaker crossing the Barbanne – his 10ha Lalande estate, Château Les Cruzelles, is producing wine made with the same attention to detail as at L’Eglise Clinet.
Durantou believes the terroir here has the same potential as in Pomerol, and so adopts the same tough criteria, with stunning results, both in Château les Cruzelles, and the younger vine cuvée, Château la Chenade.
These dynamic vignerons are responsible for showing just how good wines from the Lalande-de-Pomerol region can be. The wines may never enjoy the elevated status as the very best of Pomerol, but they are certainly in the position to give the second rank of Pomerol a good run for their money. Bridging the Barbanne is one way of putting it, but the new wave in Lalande is showing that this little stream is less of a quality boundary than it once was.
Roger Voss is the author of Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide: Wines of the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône; and other French regional wines, £8.99.