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A tasting of Pauillac wines

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Bordeaux is the most famous wine region in the world. On the western bank of the Gironde estuary (the Médoc), influenced by its position on the Atlantic, the climate is continental. Red wine grapes have been grown for a thousand years. Since the sixteenth century, Bordeaux’s chateaux have been famous: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild and others have thrilled wine lovers, from Kings and Popes to Thomas Jefferson and, today, rich Chinese businessmen.

Bordeaux is divided politically into communes–areas around small towns. Its most famous commune is Pauillac, where winegrowing dates back to the Middle Ages. The great grape of Pauillac, and throughout the Médoc, is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which also is the great red wine grape of California. However, unlike California, in Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon never constitutes 100% of the wine. Instead, it is blended, in various percentages depending on house style and vintage, with other Bordeaux grapes, primarily Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Pauillac wines are considered the epitome of power, finesse and elegance. They age  well. Invariably hard in tannins in their youth, they require time for the tannins to precipitate out as sediment, revealing pure, sweet flavors of currants and cassis, often with an herbal note suggesting tobacco or, in some cases, chocolate. On Thursday of last week, I went to a wine tasting in San Francisco sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the region’s trade organization. At the tasting, I focused on the wines of Pauillac, which also is the home of three of Bordeaux’s five “Premier Cru” (First Growth) wineries: Latour, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild. So famous are these Premier Crus that they do not pour their wines at the Union des Grands Crus trade tastings.  They do not need to market themselves to buyers, the way the other chateaux do, since demand for them is inexhaustible.

All the wines below are from the 2015 vintage, a very fine one in Bordeaux (England’s authoritative Decanter Magazine calls it “unquestionably great.”) I still use the 100-point system in rating wine quality. Were I a beginning wine critic today, I might not employ that controversial system. But old habits die hard.

Chateau Clerc Milon. I found the wine rather hard and rustic, especially compared to its Pauillac brethren. It has a strong, ripe aroma suggesting blackcurrants, toasted oak from barrels, roasted coconut and shaved chocolate. It feels full-bodied and big in the mouth, but a little hot in alcohol. The fruit reprises on the mid-palate into the finish. I would give the wine 5-6 years in the cellar. The winery is part of the Mouton-Rothschild empire. Score: 88 points.

Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. This is a celebrated wine, highly sought by connoisseurs and expensive. The 2015 has been lavishly praised by critics, but I have to admit I found it disappointing. Considerably more forward than its neighbor, Pichon Baron [see below], with generous blackberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, soft and silky, yet very tannic. Perhaps it was the fault of the tannins, but I found the mid-palate and finish a little thin and brittle. Chacun a son goût! Score: 89 points.

Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse. The terroir of this rather underrated chateau is very superior, bordering on Mouton and Lafite. Its wines were at the height of their fame in the mid-nineteenth century; production is among the lowest in the Médoc. I called the 2015 “Californian” in style for its fruity ripeness. Big aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis and cedar, powerful and delicious. I might have mistaken it for a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, except for the vibrant acidity. Score: 92 points.

Chateau d’Armailhac. This winery also is part of the Mouton-Rothschild stable. The wine has less Cabernet Sauvignon, and more Merlot, than the average Pauillac wine, which makes it rounder and more supple than many others. The 2015 is dry and tannic, but very elegant, with ripe blackberry and blackcurrant fruit flavors and a long, spicy finish. I liked it quite a bit for its instant appeal and generosity. It drinks well now and should age for 15-20 years. Score: 92 points.

Chateau Lynch-Moussas. A very small winery, not seen much in the U.S.; the name “Lynch” comes from an Irishman who owned the estate in the 19th century. The 2015 is a pretty wine, polished and supple and drinking well now despite a high level (70%) of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a tannic wine, with good structure and acidity and some real complexity. I liked the way the blackcurrant and berry flavors were interwoven with the oak. Score: 92 points.

Chateau Lynch-Bages. One of the most famous of the Médoc chateaux, Lynch-Bages traditionally contains one of the highest percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine long has been a favorite of the Brits; they called it “Lunch Bags.” The 2015 is very fine, with a gorgeous garnet hue. The aroma is strong, primary and immature: blackberries, cassis, violets and cedar wood. It feels hard and youthful in broad-based but supple tannins. Yet its elegance is apparent. The wine needs lots of time. Score: 93 points.

Chateau Pichon Baron. For me, the star of Pauillac in the 2015 vintage (other than the three Premier Crus, which were not included in the tasting). The first recorded wine off the estate was produced in 1694; the neo-classical chateau dates to 1851. It is right across the street from Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande; the two properties long have been distinguished by Baron’s “masculine” character and Comtesse’s “femininity.” The 2015 Baron has a pure ruby-garnet color. I tasted it immediately after Lynch-Bages, and found it more generous in comparison, with chocolate shavings and freshly crushed summer blackberries. A big, big wine, powerful, complex, yet the definition of elegance. Needs lots of time to come around. Score: 95 points.

  1. Thank you…great post.

  2. Thank you!

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