Château Pape Clément is in a classic style, 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. JAMES LAWTHER MW visits an estate whose wines are better than ever.
CHATEAU Pape Clément is a symbol of Bordeaux past and present. Seven centuries of history separate the ownership of Bertrand de Goth – or, as he became in 1305, Pope Clément V – and today’s Bernard Magrez and, despite the ravages of time, the estate is among the cream of Bordeaux. The French Revolution, diseased vines, a devastating hailstorm and encroaching urbanisation could have put paid to its reputation, but the property survived.
Located on the edge of the city of Bordeaux, Pape Clément is an oasis amid Pessac’s suburban sprawl. This is part of what was once an extensive area of viticultural land, the core of the old Graves vineyards. What remains is now part of the appellation Pessac-Léognan.
Closer to the city centre, Pape Clément’s nearest viticultural neighbour is Château Haut-Brion. Despite the proximity Pape Clément invariably runs a week later in its ripening cycle, thanks to the slightly higher temperatures of Haut-Brion’s ‘inner city’ location and the homogenous nature of its mainly gravel and clay soils. ‘We have a more diversified terroir, with four types of soil,’ explains Eric Larramona, manager of Château Pape Clément since 1999.
In style, Pape Clément is, classically, a 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (although the vineyard is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot). The reds are deeply coloured, rich and full. The structure is powerful, but the texture and tannins less refined than those of Haut-Brion, though this aspect has clearly been worked on in recent years. Pape Clément is at its best at around eight to 20 years – only exceptional vintages are worthy of longer cellar time.
If Château Haut-Brion maintains its stature as the Graves’ premier estate, Pape Clément is a worthy challenger and, in historical terms, is the senior citizen of the two. Known originally as La Mothe (a medieval name like ‘cos’ used to describe a piece of raised land), the tiny estate was a gift to de Goth when he became Archbishop of Bordeaux in 1300. When de Goth became pope and took the name of Clément V, he changed the name of the estate to Pape Clément – it remained in the hands of the church until the French Revolution.
The banker Charles Peixotto was the first lay owner, purchasing the estate in 1791. It changed hands again in 1810 and was resold to négociant Jean-Baptiste Clerc in 1858. Clerc was responsible for rebuilding the vineyard after the onset of oidium and phylloxera and for building the foundations of the existing château. In 1937 a violent hailstorm almost destroyed the vineyard. The property was acquired by a group of developers intent on turning the land into a housing estate. The project failed and the estate was rescued by Paul Montagne, who set about renovating it after the end of the Second World War.
Despite these changes of ownership the wine had a sound reputation during the 19th and early 20th centuries and again in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently most, including the current management, agree that the period between 1976 and 1984 produced a string of poor vintages. Lack of investment and overcropping caused problems, as did mustiness in one of the cellars that permeated the barrels and spoiled the wine.
Pape Clêment’s renaissance began with the 1985 vintage. The building of a modern vinification cellar in 1984 saw the property begin to invest in winemaking. A new manager, Bernard Pujol, was brought in and in 1986 a second wine, Le Clémentin, was introduced. Significantly, it was at this time that Bernard Magrez, son-in-law of Léo Montagne and energetic owner of négociant William Pitters, took a majority shareholding in the property.
The next stage was a steady overhaul of the vineyards. ‘In the lean years of the 1970s and early 1980s the vineyard was not renewed at the required rhythm, so parcels were missing vines and production wasn’t up to scratch,’ says Larramona. The replanting programme started in 1990 and, since then, roughly half of the 32 hectare (ha) vineyard has been replanted. More recently the trellising has been adjusted to improve canopy management, and mineral deficiencies in the soil are now analysed and rectified.
The third stage sees the estate moving up yet another gear, a move that coincides with the greater personal involvement of Magrez who, armed with the advice of consultant oenologists Michel Rolland and Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon and viticulturalist Jean Cordeau, is attempting to push the bounds of perfection further. A more rigorous system of selection has also been imposed: 50-60% of production is destined for the grand vin, 20-30% for the second wine and 20% for a third.
Perhaps the most visible revolution, though, came with the 2001 vintage. Grapes destined for the grand vin were hand picked into plastic cajets and then hand destemmed by a small army of 120 sorters (over 13 days) before being gravity-fed into new 70 hectolitre wooden vats for fermentation. The use of pumps was avoided, pigeage employed and the wine gravity-fed into new oak barrels for the malolactic fermentation and maturation. ‘I’m prepared to go to extremes in order to maximise our terroir,’ states Magrez
Thirty hectares are given over to the production of red wine at Château Pape Clément, but there are also two hectares producing an average 4,000 bottles of white. The wine has evolved since the days it was produced mainly for internal consumption but the search for a definitive style is ongoing. ‘We are looking for complexity, elegance and ageability and want to stay clear of anything overtly marked by Sauvignon Blanc,’ says Larramona. The blend in 2001 was made up of 53% Semillon, 42% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle. The wine is barrel fermented and aged for a year in new oak. There is no malolatic fermentation. Modern Pape Clément must be light years away from the wine produced under the aegis of de Goth. But two things remain constant: the terroir and the patronage of an owner with the means and will to invest. It’s in this way that Bordeaux’s great estates stand the test of time.