Jane Anson interviews Château Lafleur owner Baptiste Guinaudeau, and looks at how Pomerol has managed to side-step the furore over Bordeaux pricing in recent years.
The secret of Château Lafleur, Baptiste Guinaudeau tells me, comes down to essentially two things.
‘First a suspicion of change, and second a lack of money.’
He adds, ‘My father’s cousins were in charge of the estate from 1947 until he began renting it in 1985.
‘They were extremely conservative and even in the 1970s when the general trend in Pomerol was to plant modern Merlot clones and to apply chemical weedkillers, they did nothing at all to their vines. We owe them a huge favour for their Calvinist approach.’
‘The margin for progression in great wines is in the nuance’
‘And when my parents took over after Thérèse Robin died in 1985, they had very little money. The lack of funds stopped them from making too many mistakes. It’s an experience that we continue to draw on today even though we have been sole owners since 2002.
We are suspicious of doing anything too quickly, because the margin for progression in great wines is in the nuance. It’s tempting to think you need to be black and white in decision making, but the truth is usually somewhere in between.’
The Pomerol Exception
There is less cynicism attached to Pomerol than other Bordeaux appellations
All of this explains why Lafleur perfectly encapsulates The Pomerol Exception. It’s surely the one Bordeaux appellation that has been granted a get out of jail free card.
It somehow doesn’t matter how expensive the wines get, there is still less cynicism attached to Pomerol than the other star appellations on the Left and Right Banks, more belief in the authenticity of the producers.
This is a wine that you’ll be lucky to find below £500 per bottle no matter what the year. Hedonism Wines currently has it at £600 for the 2012 vintage. And that is near on impossible to find in retail because Baptiste and his father Jacques don’t use négociants or courtiers to sell through the Place de Bordeaux.
And yet if you want the antidote to Big Business Bordeaux (itself a myth really, but a stubborn one), this is the place to go.
It’s impossible to say that the Bordelais don’t understand terroir when you’ve spent a morning walking through the vineyard here. The vines themselves form an almost perfect square – a handkerchief really, at just 4.58 hectares, less than half the size of the neighbour Petrus (and I mean neighbour – to get to Lafleur you just head to Petrus and turn left).
The two vineyards back on to each other, and form the yin-yang of Pomerol mythology. The intensely powerful, exotic generosity of Petrus merlot is in Lafleur replaced by an austere minerality, a quickening of the senses from its cabernet franc-dominated wines that mean you could almost believe, at least for the first ten years of its life, that you are tasting the restrained elegance of the Médoc. The generosity – and, yes, the florality – of Lafleur creeps up on you slowly but surely, the dense perfume curling out of the glass one step at a time. Once it takes hold, it’s unforgettable.
The reason for the difference, it becomes immediately clear when your boots are on the ground, is in the soils. Or more precisely, the respect accorded to them.
The Lafleur vineyard
These 4.58 hectares are measured not by rows but individual plants, with the yields assessed not by hectolitres per hectare, as you will hear all over Bordeaux but by the number of glasses and bottles that the fruit of each of the 21,000 vines will give.
The vineyard is split between three clear soil types:
- A particularly gravelly sector underpinned by sticky clay to the northwest. Rest assured they have counted; there are 7,500 vines in this part;
- A sandy gravel section in the middle of the vineyard (5,250 vines);
- A clay-gravel sector to the south and east in a plot called Levant (8,250 vines).
This last sector is the heart of Lafleur where you find their oldest Cabernet Franc vines and their most diverse genetic material from massal selection based on 19th century plants.
A thin strip of just 0.69 hectares that passes diagaonally east to west through the entire vineyard is composed of more typical Pomerol rich and deep clays, and almost invariably gives the vines that form second wine Les Pensées de Lafleur.
‘We are all in it together’
It was a gloriously cold, crispy morning when I was told all this by Baptiste, who now lives on the property full-time with his wife and fellow winemaker Julie. Baptiste might not have the iconic moustache of his father but is just as distinctive, not least because of his height and his deep baritone voice that even at 35 years old sounds like vintage James Earl Jones.
As we head out to the different plots, he talks about both his land and that of the surrounding estates in Pomerol and over to Cheval Blanc and Figeac (both fellow Cabernet Franc fans) with a fluidity that most of us reserve for exchanging gossip with our oldest friends.
‘I was lucky enough to begin working with my father at 21, so I’ve done 15 harvests here already. And Julie has been with me pretty much since the beginning.
‘We do everything ourselves, with exactly the same team in both the vineyard and cellar. The pruners are the same people who tie up the vines with us for trellising, or thin the leaves when necessary, or bring the grapes in at harvest, or bottle the finished wine. There is never the idea of handing one stage over to the next person – we are all in it together’.