DAVID PEPPERCORN MW profiles fifth growth Grand-Puy-Lacoste, a château that is now consisitently out-performing its classification.
Grand-Puy-Lacoste reminds me of a fine picture. One always knew that it was very fine, but now that it has been cleaned and the grime of ages has been removed, one realises that it is not only fine but even great.
This work of restoration has been painstakingly accomplished since 1978 by François-Xavier Borie, firstly under the tutelage of his father Jean-Eugène, and then under his own steam, as both he and Grand-Puy matured together. But to begin at the beginning. This very old property is special in many respects. The estate descended through the female line in unbroken succession from the beginning for the 16th century until it was bought by Raymond Dupin in 1932. The separation from Grand-Puy-Ducasse came as early as 1587, and not as a result of the Revolution, when one-third of the estate was sold. Grand-Puy is the place name, Lacoste and Saint-Guirons are family names of related former proprietors. Unusually, the vineyard itself is in a single block on the plateau of Bages around the château, situated just out of Pauillac to the southwest. The estate covers 90 hectares (ha), of which 52 are now planted. It is one of the few châteaux in the 1855 classification where the vineyard remains unaltered, without addition or subtraction.
The handsome château itself was built in 1850, although it incorporates part of an earlier building dating from 1737. In those days a proper château had to have a slate roof to distinguish it from the tiled roof of a maison bourgeoise, and the slates for Lacoste were specially brought from Touraine by the Lacoste family.The modern reputation of the wines really began under Raymond Dupin. The wines made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s enjoyed a fine reputation for their typical Pauillac robustness combined with attractive fruit. But by the difficult years of the 1970s, Dupin was an old man, and decisions were put off, repairs delayed. As a bachelor in his eighties without direct heirs to whom he felt he could entrust this precious legacy, he approached his friend Jean-Eugène Borie, of Ducru-Beaucaillou. It was indicative of the man that Raymond Dupin wanted to entrust his beloved vineyard to a family with similar values. Jean-Eugène consulted his sons François-Xavier and Bruno and they rapidly came to an agreement.The house itself had not been lived in since 1930. I remember wondering through the upstairs rooms by torch-light one night after dinner. They had a desolate, abandoned look about them, bare except for a few iron bedsteads and some old washstands. Raymond Dupin had only splashed a coat of paint over the dining-room where his famous lunches took place during the vintage and Antoinette presided over her primative kitchen. There were cèpes from the park and she herself was adept at netting small birds, very much a part of any château menu in this epoch. Guests took it in turn to call Antoinette down the passage when the next course was required.
It was a considerable challenge for the recently married Marie-Hélène to convert the house into a home for Xavier and herself. The deal was done in the summer of 1978, and they managed to move in the following year. Their three children were all baptised in the little chapel attached to the château. In 1980 Raymond Dupin died happy in the knowledge that his beloved château was lived in again and in good hands.If some things had been neglected, the vines had not, although only 35ha were planted and hardly any replanting had taken place over the previous decade. But work also needed to be done in the chais. Stainless steel vats were installed in time for the 1981 vintage, and then more far-reaching modernisation took place in 1991 and 1995, to equip the château in the most rational and up to date manner.
The vineyard and surrounding area
In the vineyard the 35ha have gradually been replanted up to 52ha. The average age is an enviable 38 years. In 1982 a second label, Lacoste Borie, was created for the young vines. Today the assemblage for the grand vin consists of about 65–68% of the crop, 25% is second label, the rest is sold off as Pauillac, but without the right to use the château name.
Special mention must be made of the wonderful park behind the château covering 8ha, a rarity indeed in this part of Pauillac, with its huge conifers, oaks, maples, pines, rhododendrons and Virginia tulips, a lake with ducks and swans, it is something marvellous in the middle of the Médoc. The 1999 storm took its toll, but with such an abundance, once the casualities had been removed, then loss was hardly noticeable.
I have followed the progress of Grand-Puy-Lacoste with much interest and increasing pleasure and admiration over the last 20 years. The wines were always tannic and powerful, needing time to mature, but over time they have gradually come to emphasise the fruit more and improve the quality of the tannins and thus the balance without in any way sacrificing the typical Pauillac character of the wines.The first decisive step forward seemed to come with the 1981 vintage, which has more middle richness than most wines from this underrated year and seems to offer an extra dimension. The 1982 shows the advantage of old vines and selecting out the young vines, when compared with other 1982s today, still youthful with richness, power and fruit, just a joy to drink. The 1985 has proved more tannic and slower to mature than many wines from the vintage. 1986 is a classic Pauillac from this year, with dense rich tannins and the fruit, a long distance performer. 1988 started to show its breed and complexity earlier than many 1988s, it has a lovely cedary richness with quality tannins and fruit and excellent balance, 1989 has all the concentration with chunky chewy tannins and depth of fruit one would expect, while with 1990 one is more conscious of tannins because there is less fat.
If the 1980s provided the platform then the take-off came in the 1990s. When tasting the vintages from 1993 to 1996 side by side in the company of Xavier on a recent visit to Bordeaux, I was particularly struck by the consistency of the wines. The two lesser vintages were both stylish and attractive to drink. If all 1993 and 1994 had been like this they would not have been problem vintages and there would be no shortage of good youthful claret to drink today.
To be fair, quite a few 1993s are now drinking well. The Grand-Puy-Lacoste showed attractively evolved fruit on the nose and was delicious to drink while remaining very youthful and fresh. We all thought after the harvest that 1994 had to be a better year than 1993, but most of the wines today seem sullen and dull with blunt tannins. Here, however, the wine is elegantly scented, has good length and fine quality fruit and tannins, and is really stylish, while less evolved than from the 1993, it is perfectly drinkable and enjoyable now. In contrast the two more serious vintages need much more time. The 1995 immediately impresses on the nose with its power and concentration and the fruit is more evolved than in the 1996. But when you taste it, the impression is of a wine still rather closed up with fine quality fruit matching a richer, more tannic structure than the 1996. This is a big, solid wine, which should be left for another couple of years before being assessed again. In contrast, the 1996 is more classic, with real Cabernet length of flavour, great power and richness, shouting Pauillac from the roof-tops. This is a wine still flexing its considerable muscles, take another look in two to three years time.
The 1998 is being bottled as I write. In cask its complex aromatic character, concentration and fat harmonised with rich fruit and ripe tannins. It promised a very considerable success, which put it firmly into the top flight of Pauillacs for the vintage. 1999 will equal or surpass this success with a wine of great power and substance, where complex layers of flavour show the harmony of the rich, concentrated wine. This is a real beauty of great potential which is challenging for the place of the best Pauillac after the Firsts, to show how far Grand-Puy-Lacoste has come. I believe Xavier has finally succeeded in demonstrating that this is one of the great terroirs of Pauillac. In the past, with fairly basic winemaking, it was always a challenge to express the power and vigour of Pauillac without tough and sometimes crude tannins getting in the way. Today, with a greater understanding of judging the ripeness of the tannins in the skins, fruitier wines with much better quality tannins are being made. This makes Grand-Puy-Lacoste one of the up and coming wines of the Médoc and, who knows, one of tomorrows Super-Seconds. So let us enjoy it while we can still afford it, at least at home!