This Bordeaux fifth growth has always inspired a loyal following and quality has steadily improved, leading to the recent release of its inaugural second wine. Panos Kakaviatos reports...
Producer profile: Château Batailley
Just before en primeur week in April 2016, Philippe and Frédéric Castéja, the father-son owners of fifth growth Château Batailley in Pauillac, invited a select group of the wine trade to celebrate the estate’s inaugural second wine, Lions de Batailley.
Michelin three-star chef Michel Guérard, of the celebrated Les Prés d’Eugénie in southwest France, travelled to Bordeaux to prepare a five course dinner, accompanied by 12 vintages of Château Batailley, which included legends such as 1961, 1945 and 1900, reaching as far back as 1881. ‘A once in a lifetime event,’ remarked Belgian sommelier Fabrizio Bucella.
Some noted that the event seemed in contrast with the estate’s long-standing image as a discreet wine. Clive Coates MW once wrote that ‘the atmosphere at Batailley is quietly efficient, rather than showy, and the wine competent rather than compelling’. The estate’s location – not visible from the famous D2 Route des Châteaux and behind the Pichons and Latour at the southern end of the Pauillac commune – still reflects that image.
Ever since Philippe Castéja’s grandfather Marcel Borie and his brother Francis acquired the estate in 1932, Batailley has enjoyed a reputation for being a good value Pauillac – a perception that endures to this day. ‘It has been one of our most popular wines and best-value Bordeaux for more than 30 years,’ says Simon Staples of UK merchant Berry Bros & Rudd.
Michael Grimm of German retailer Bacchus-Vinothek has also been buying Batailley for his customers for several decades. ‘Of all the classified growths, it is one of those “lonely riders” – like the Bartons, for example – that don’t follow an all-around international style, where all you get is sweet cassis and toast,’ he says. ‘The château produces classic Pauillac that respects the vintage, and scores are not the main concern.’
Château Batailley at a glance
Owner/CEO Philippe Castéja
Appellation Pauillac, 5th growth
Vineyard area 60ha
Plantings 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot
Average age of vines 40 years
Planting density about 10,000 vines per hectare
Target yield 45hl/ha
Barrels 55% to 60% new oak, with ageing for 16-18 months
Annual average production 180,000 bottles of first wine; 70,000 bottles of Lions de Batailley; the rest sold in bulk
But over the past 15 years, the wine has gained in both body and structure, thanks to steady improvements in viticulture and in the vat room that ultimately led to the official launch of the new second wine, Lions de Batailley.
‘It was complicated to launch it as we discussed the idea for several years,’ says 35-year-old Frédéric Castéja. Indeed, his father was content to maintain a single wine for the estate. ‘Frédéric wanted the second wine,’ says Philippe, who turned 67 in August 2016, but stresses that he will not be retiring ‘for a few years yet’. He adds: ‘Frédéric is getting more and more involved in managing the estate, both commercially and in viticulture as well, as he is very attached to the terroir.’
Aiming for higher scores proved a factor in the decision: ‘We noted that our grand vin was being scored more highly by critics, and realised that rigorous selection was key to this success. This could be achieved consistently by introducing a second wine,’ Frédéric explains. The estate had released about 30,000 bottles of the second wine unofficially in 2014, he says, but it was a ‘micro- production’ and not the ‘official launch’. Some 70,000 bottles were produced for the 2015 vintage, about one-third of total production – leading to a significant decrease in the amount of first wine produced.
Like the grand vin, Lions de Batailley is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, coming mainly from young vines and from plots deemed unsuitable for the final blend.
Château Batailley – A timeline
Late 18th century Owned by the St-Martin Family
1816 Acquired by Daniel Guestier of Barton & Guestier. He died in 1847 but his children managed it until 1866
1866-1932 Owned by Constant Halphen, a Parisian banker
1932 Purchased by the Borie brothers, Marcel and Francis
1942 Division into two properties. Francis Borie kept the smaller part, which became known as Haut-Batailley. The larger part, owned by Marcel (Philippe Castéja’s grandfather), retained the original name
1961 Following the death of Marcel Borie, the property transferred to his daughter Denise and her husband Emile Castéja, Philippe’s father
2001 Philippe Castéja takes over the property and the family-owned Borie-Manoux négociant house, through which Batailley is sold
2006 Cellar space revamped to allow for parcel-byparcel vinification
2015 Official launch of second wine, Lions de Batailley
Prices have not climbed as quickly as improvements in quality, making Château Batailley even more interesting for Bordeaux buyers who seek both quality and value. For example, release prices across the top 50 châteaux in Bordeaux increased by about 200% from the 2008 vintage to 2009, while the ex-négociant release price of Batailley increased by a more modest 37% in the same period, according to figures from Liv-ex.
Ben Giliberti, former wine columnist at The Washington Post, who now consults for Washington DC-based importer Calvert Woodley, pegs Batailley’s noticeable quality increase to 2009. ‘It was so sudden,’ he explains. ‘The market failed to digest it immediately. The 2009 was available at or near-opening prices for a long time, and we made multiple purchases.’
Like Grimm in Germany, Giliberti places Château Batailley in a ‘select group that, if not an outright steal like it used to be, still offers fair value, rather like Châteaux.
Langoa-Barton and Léoville-Barton, Branaire-Ducru and, in 2015, Rauzan-Ségla’. And sales data prove Giliberti’s point: more recent vintages reveal higher percentage price increases – in 2015 the release price was e32 (compared to e22 for 2010), but this remains competitive.
Decanter detailed the improvements at Batailley back in 2009, in an article reporting on experts tasting all Pauillac fifth growths (except Pontet-Canet) in a comparative blind tasting of three different vintages.
The general consensus was that, in the 2004 vintage at least, Batailley equalled the more famous Lynch-Bages and Grand-Puy- Lacoste. But backtrack to 1990, and the tasters favoured – by a wide margin – both Grand- Puy-Lacoste and in particular Lynch-Bages.
Denis Dubourdieu – Decanter Man of the Year in 2016 – sadly succumbed to cancer just three months after attending the April dinner at Batailley, where he said: ‘This is a great event that celebrates the history of the château, and I am happy to have been a part of the work that led to the second wine.’
Philippe Castéja hired Dubourdieu to replace Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon in 2001 at Batailley, in part because of his specialisation with vineyards as an agronomist.
Dubourdieu introduced environmentally friendly vineyard working methods and reduced soil-damaging chemical treatments. Yields began to be more strictly controlled and a new vat room was added to the winery in 2006. Studies were made to assess how weather conditions affected vines in different parcels, partly to ascertain potential alcohol degrees. The new cellar space doubled the number of vats to 60, which enabled single parcel vinification.
In the past few years, Philippe explains, Dubourdieu guided staff to change pruning techniques in order to improve circulation of the vine sap, which enhanced veraison (the moment when grapes change in colour from green to black; the transition from berry growth to berry ripening). Changes in the vat room include Dubourdieu’s introduction of long and warm post-fermentation macerations – about a month, at 31°C – which, according to Philippe, results in ‘more subtle tannin extraction while lending more body and structure to the wine’.
Following the passing of Dubourdieu, the estate will continue to work with his associates Valérie Lavigne and his former student Axel Marchal. Batailley’s current cellarmaster Arnaud Durand also studied under Dubourdieu.
Given all the efforts in recent years, the improved quality at Batailley has been noticed not only in export markets but in France, too. Vino Strada bar owner and Bordeaux wine buyer Stéphan Maure concludes: ‘The 2010 is certainly a sign of change for this estate, as the wine just seems more vivid in a great vintage, and more so than in previous great vintages including 2005 or 2000.’