The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Pauillac – Ground zero for collectors ~ Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Not just three First Growths:

Lafite. Mouton. Latour. By this measure alone, Pauillac should be considered the most significant appellation in Bordeaux. And rightly so. For claret collectors, there is no other place where there are three—count them, three—châteaux of such grandeur, such luxury, such expense; where compromise is forbidden, where the standard of each wine, each and every vintage, is scrutinized to obsession.

But this column is not about the First Growths. To discuss them here would take up too much space, and other estates would not get their fair shake. No, this article is about Pauillac, that is, the commune, its terroir, and the many other non-First Growths that comprise it.

At its simplest, Pauillac is one of four world-famous appellations on the Left Bank, bordered by St-Julien to the south and St-Estèphe to the north. With around 1,215 hectares (ha) of vineyards, the traditional blend is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, backed up by Merlot and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Exact percentages shall vary from château to château.

At its finest, Pauillac is the most ‘Bordelaise’ of all claret. According to Hugh Johnson, “It is the virile aesthete; a hypnotizing concurrence of force and finesse.” For claret lovers, the wines of Pauillac represent the epitome of all that is illustrious about Bordeaux.

Though neither as flattering nor as powerful as top St-Emilions or Pomerols, a great Pauillac is the most commanding of clarets, particularly in terms of intensity, weight, dimension, flavour, and aging capacity. When young, a typical Pauillac should exhibit forthright, inviting aromas of currants, blackberries, plums, black cherries, toasted oak, moderate mocha, pencil shavings, vanilla, and spice. These are the most common scents I have often had the pleasure of detecting in a young Pauillac. As it matures, the same wine should exhibit more cedary overtones, laced with cigar boxes, tobacco, savoury nuances, and dried fruits. On the palate, generosity of the most important elements is key: body, flavour, finesse, structure, length—all of these should be of the best sort. A Pauillac should never taste green (underripe), coarse, lean, loose, or excessively acidic. Such traits, undesirable in most wines, are inexcusable here.

Granted AOC status in 1936, the boundaries of Pauillac are fairly easy to follow. Bordering the Gironde to the east, Pauillac is separated from St-Estèphe to the north by the Jalle du Breuil—a jalle in the Médoc is a stream. The same partially applies in the south, where the Ruisseau de Juillac divides part of the commune between Pauillac and St-Julien; while the southwest borders of the appellation, along with the entire stretch of its western boundaries, are demarcated by specific vineyards. It should also be noted that there are a few vineyards allowed to be named Pauillac just beyond the official boundaries of the appellation.

Like much of the Left Bank, the soils are based largely on gravel deposits, mixed with aeolian sands and clay (even limestone in the case of Lafite), which rise to form mounds, or croupes, in the landscape. These are among the closest geographical features that resemble hills in the Médoc, and constitute some of the most valued vineyards in Pauillac. Not surprisingly, most of these are owned by the First Growths, though Château Pontet-Canet also possesses vineyards that rise to 100ft (30m)—Argentinean heights by Médoc standards. More than anything, these mounds, along with nearby streams, provide vineyards with invaluable drainage in times of excessive rainfall, such as during the troublesome 2007 vintage.

Just as important is Pauillac’s geographical situation. Located in a maritime climate, temperatures here, like the other major appellations of the Left Bank, are largely moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. This provides for mild winters and warm summers. At the same time, Pauillac is protected by the forests of the Landes du Médoc to the west from strong Atlantic salt winds and excessive precipitation. Finally, its proximity to the Gironde helps stabilize day/night-time temperatures and helps reduce the risk of frost.

But it takes more than great physical terroir to make great wine. What remains is the human element, the devotion of estate owners toward crafting the most outstanding wines possible. This is where Pauillac is particularly special, for few châteaux in Pauillac could ever be accused nowadays of slacking off, at least virtually none included in the 1855 Classification.

When the 1855 Classification was established, eighteen estates in Pauillac were included. These are divided into three First Growths, two Second Growths (Châteaux Pichon-Longueville Baron and Comtesse de Lalande), one Fourth Growth (Duhart-Milon), and twelve Fifth Growths (Châteaux d’Armailhac, Batailley, Clerc Milon, Croizet-Bages, Grand-Puy Ducasse, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Haut-Bages Libéral, Haut-Batailley, Lynch-Bages, Lynch-Moussas, Pedesclaux, and Pontet-Canet).

But after the First Growths, which ones are the best? Which are the estates whose wines most excite us collectors, us keen Bordeaux admirers?

While personal taste does play a role, not to mention status within the 1855 hierarchy, there are arguably four châteaux that stand above the rest. Going by price, the first of these is Château Pichon-Comtesse (84ha). Bordering Château Latour (66ha) and possessing vineyards adjacent to St-Julien, this is generally considered the most ‘feminine’ of Pauillacs, offering more fragrance and finesse than is typical of the appellation. Each year, whenever I have an opportunity of enjoying this wine, it is oftentimes impossible to tear myself away from my glass.

Sometimes, however, its neighbour across the road crafts superior claret. This is Château Pichon-Baron (70ha), one of the most archetypal Pauillacs of them all. With one of the most beautiful châteaux in Bordeaux, Pichon-Baron seems to be getting fuller and sturdier with each passing vintage. And with continuous investment under its present owners, its future is well ensured.

Of equal acclaim is Château Lynch-Bages (100ha). A Second Growth in everything but title, Lynch-Bages is a perennial favourite amongst Pauillac lovers and collectors. For decades, this incredible Fifth Growth has performed brilliantly even in poor years. Like Pichon-Baron, it is quintessential Pauillac, and refuses to rest on its laurels. Indeed, recent vintages seem to have witnessed a tightening-up of its structure and greater attention paid toward exacting greater complexity. The ’09 was the best Lynch-Bages ever.

Not to be outdone, Château Pontet-Canet (79ha) has improved by leaps and bounds over the past dozen years, nowadays matching Lynch-Bages for price, if not in quality. For me, Pontet-Canet has become one of the more magisterial of Pauillacs—seamlessly concentrated, refined, and extremely smooth. Its flavour profile and texture are also unique, but this may have more to do with the location of its vineyards; the estate is located in the northern half of the commune. Along with Château Guiraud in Sauternes, this exceptional Fifth Growth is also the only Classified Growth to be certified biodynamic.

After these four wineries, the style becomes a little less weighty, as does the price. Still, the profile largely remains the same, making for wines of unmistakable prowess, pedigree, and focus. On the top rung is Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (55ha), yet another Fifth Growth placed at least two notches below its class. Owned by the same family as Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in St-Julien, this is a wine worth collecting year after year. Full-bodied, elegant, and ‘Pauillac’ to the core, it is seldom overpriced.

Next comes Château Duhart-Milon (67ha). Owned by the same family as Château Lafite Rothschild (the two châteaux are adjacent), prices for this wine have soared over the past several years. It was acquired by Lafite (100ha) in 1962, and essentially had to be rebuilt from scratch. With no expense spared, the wine now possesses a certain ‘iron grip’ one cannot help but adore. Before the price becomes totally unreasonable, collectors should stock up.

In the same vein, Château Clerc Milon (32ha) has a similar background. The estate was acquired in 1970 by its neighbour Château Mouton Rothschild (82ha), and like Duhart-Milon the vineyard had to be rebuilt from scratch. Once again, no expense was spared, and today the wines are better than ever: harmonious, finely balanced, and taut. Unlike Duhart-Milon, prices have remained steady.

After these three estates, we arrive in my opinion at the next tier of Pauillacs. These are châteaux that, while not on the same substantive level as their more expensive counterparts, are nonetheless fully capable of providing immense pleasure. One of these is Château d’Armailhac (50ha). Purchased in 1933 by its neighbour Mouton Rothschild, at claret tastings it is often shown alongside Clerc Milon. Often the lighter of the two, the wine typically contains a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc. Both the ’05 and ’09 are exquisite.

In contrast to d’Armailhac, Château Haut-Batailley (22ha) is about the most typical of Pauillacs one can find at this still-excellent of level of quality. With familial connections to Ducru-Beaucaillou, one might be surprised to learn that its wines are usually tastefully priced. Indeed, ‘taste’ is the operative word, for few young Pauillacs are as inviting or as gloriously mellow as a tall glass of Haut-Batailley.

Similar in style is its neighbour Château Batailley (55ha). Like Haut-Batailley, though bordering St-Julien, there is nothing ‘St-Julien’ about it. But any general similarities to Haut-Batailley end there, for Batailley is definitely the more tannic and reserved of the two. But the quality is there, and the wine ages extremely well. Sadly, the past decade has witnessed too many occasions where the wine has been overpriced. Before this, the wine was a staple for Pauillac lovers everywhere. A shame this has ended.

Now and then, the same can be said of Château Haut-Bages Libéral (28ha). With vineyards bordering Château Latour, quality has steadily risen over the past dozen years. Classic Pauillac with an extra dimension of fragrance on occasion, Haut-Bages Libéral often does well in blind tastings. However, prices in top vintages can be dissuading.

Rounding out this tier, we turn to Château Grand-Puy Ducasse (40ha). A real beauty in the best years, this estate continues to suffer from an identity crisis. This hasn’t been helped by decades of poor quality, which only began to be remedied in the mid-1990s. Recent vintages, however, have shown what can be accomplished here. When done right, these are excellent mid-weight Pauillacs.

Now for the remaining estates. To be fair, it would be of grievous error to dismiss these châteaux as unworthy of praise simply because they are being mentioned last. Over the past decade, some have worked hard to improve quality. And nowhere has this been more evident than at Château Lynch-Moussas (55ha). Under the same ownership as Batailley, standards have quietly risen apace since the mid-1990s. In the best years, Lynch-Moussas now represents excellent value for money. Its ‘Pauillac’ affiliations are self-evident, this in spite of possessing vineyards east of the commune.

Château Pedesclaux (12ha) has also shown promise. The smallest of the Classified Growths in Pauillac, its principle market has traditionally been Belgium, but has recently begun appearing more regularly elsewhere. The lightest of all Pauillacs, this estate has shown notable improvement since the late-1990s. As prices have remained reasonable, this is a good introductory wine for enthusiasts just beginning to learn about Pauillac.

Last but not least is Château Croizet-Bages (28ha). Neighbouring Lynch-Bages, recent improvements have not gone unnoticed. At best, the wines are appropriately tannic, ‘Pauillac’ in disposition, and age well. If prices were lower, I’d probably seek it out regularly.

Such are the estates that make Pauillac great, the wines that collectors aggressively pursue year after year, along with a handful of non-Classified Growths (ex. Château Pibran). Such wines represent the epitome of excellence in winemaking in this part of Bordeaux. They are the benchmarks by which so many wines from around the world, crafted from the same grapes, are both cultivated and judged. In short, they are the reason why Pauillac, ground zero for collectors, is so exalted and famed.

Click here for a few gems from the Vintages 17 March 2012 Release along with several others