With three first growths, Pauillac is the Médoc's classiest commune, but its lesser châteaux are often forgotten. STEPHEN BROOK looks at the best of the rest.
Bordeaux admirers fall into two camps: decadents seduced by the easy Right Bank charms of Merlot, and classicists who identify great Bordeaux with ripe Cabernet Sauvignon from the Médoc. I’m in the latter camp and, at least until recently, was persuaded that the greatest Médoc château was Pauillac. It’s hardly an eccentric view, since the merchants and brokers who drew up the 1855 classification evidently felt the same way, placing more first growths in Pauillac than in any other Médoc château.
Despite basking in glory for more than 150 years, Pauillac doesn’t really have much identity. There must be many Bordeaux enthusiasts who adore their Lafite and Lynch-Bages and Pichon-Lalande but are only dimly, if at all, aware that these fine growths come from Pauillac.
There was a time when the first growths – Latour, Lafite, Mouton – might have been tempted to rest on their laurels. That’s no longer the case. Competition is severe. The first growths are all backed by rich families who can afford the investments that are essential to maintaining and improving quality. Such dedication comes at a price – paid by the consumer. Uncomplainingly, for the most part, since all three first growths, despite occasional stumbling, deliver the goods.
Snapping at the heels of the firsts are a number of other classy growths of impeccable quality. Lynch-Bages and Pichon-Longueville share the same winemaking team, and are dark, rich, boldly flavoured and oaky. Grand-Puy-Lacoste is less well known than Lynch-Bages or Pichon-Longueville but, in a more discreet way, is on the same quality level. So too, for the most part, is Pichon-Longueville’s great rival, the estate owned by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing and usually known as Pichon-Lalande. It has more Merlot than is usual in classed-growth Pauillac, so the style is a touch more gentle, though it also manages to show remarkable elegance and longevity.
Because of the price wars within Bordeaux, all these wines are very expensive, but, it’s worth considering them in less prestigious years such as 1998 or 1999. Quality is still exceptionally high, but the demand for the great years such as 1990 or 2000 means that prices for ‘lesser’ vintages can be surprisingly accessible – relatively speaking.
But Pauillac is not a Médoc château for bargain hunters. There are some cheap wines, but they lack the typicity of fine Pauillac: richness, power, density, length of flavour, and a capacity to develop. Wines such as Châteaux Haut-Linage, Pedesclaux, Colombier Monpelou and Lynch-Moussas are not expensive, but neither are they terribly interesting or concentrated, although Lynch-Moussas can be surprisingly enjoyable. Croizet-Bages shows some signs of improvement, but it usually seems more impressive when tasted en primeur than after it goes into bottle. Clerc-Milon, a Rothschild property from the Mouton stable, used to be a bargain, but the Rothschilds gave up on bargains, and the price has soared.
A rising star is the fifth-growth Château Haut-Bages-Libéral. It has never been that well known, but since 1983 it has been one of a group of Médoc properties run originally by Bernadette Villars, and now by her daughter Claire Villars. Haut-Bages-Libéral’s vineyards lie just north of the Médoc Château Latour. And there is some resemblance to the wines of Latour: they are dark, brooding, and tannic. What they lack, perhaps, is finesse, but the wine, even in 2000, is eminently affordable.
Château Pontet-Canet is less obscure than Haut-Bages-Libéral, and quality has been superb during the 1990s. It’s a large property, with vineyards close to those of Mouton. Alfred Tesseron runs the estate and has been single minded in raising quality. No young vines are used for the grand vin, which is aged in 75% new barriques, and bottled without fining or filtration. In blind tastings I rated the 1998, 1999 and 2000 very highly. It’s not a bargain, but the price is far from outrageous.
Fifth-growth Château Haut-Batailley is from the same stable as Grand-Puy-Lacoste, belonging to the Borie family, who also own Ducru-Beaucaillou in St-Julien. It’s probably closer in style to St-Julien than Pauillac – graceful rather than powerful – and is made in the same meticulous way as Grand-Puy-Lacoste, but with less use of new barriques.
As one would expect, some crus bourgeois offer good value. At Château Pibran, part of the AXA-Millésimes empire, the vines are ideally located, adjoining Mouton, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet. The wine is not especially structured, but is packed with succulent blackberry fruit. In some vintages, such as 2000, it is almost jammy and doesn’t have the finesse of top Pauillac, but it’s usually better value than the ‘second wines’ of the classed growths. In 2001 AXA bought the neighbouring property of La Tour Pibran.
Château Fonbadet is another reliable cru bourgeois. The château itself can be glimpsed in its park in the village of St Lambert, but the 16ha (hectares) of vineyards are dispersed. This is a very traditional estate, run by Pierre Peyronie and his daughter Pascale. Yields are low, at around 40hl per ha. The wine is aged in 25% new oak for 18 months and bottled without filtration. It’s a compact, almost austere, wine and doesn’t show well when young. But in top vintages such as 1982, 1990 and 2000, Fonbadet is an excellent wine with the ability to age for decades.
I have a soft spot for the wines from La Fleur Milon in Pouyalet village, run by the Mirande family. The vines are old and some adjoin Mouton. The winemaking used to be quite old fashioned, but since 1995 the wine is aged in one third new oak. The wines are rich but chunky, without much elegance. But they are authentic Pauillac, even if in an old-fashioned style. I tasted the 1964 in 1997 and it was still going strong, though the 1971 was drying out. They are relatively good value.
In a similar style, but a touch more sophisticated, are the wines from Roland Fonteneau’s Château La Bécasse: worth seeking out in good vintages, and avoiding in poor years.
There’s a tiny cooperative in the centre of town: La Rose Pauillac. The wines are cheap so there is a tendency to overlook them. They tend to be robust and somewhat charmless, and in difficult years the wines can lack ripeness. But from a good vintage they are worth sampling and even buying.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.
Written by STEPHEN BROOK