The Right Bank icons of Bordeaux are situated on two very distinct terroir regions, the limestone plateau of Saint Emilion and the dark clay, rich in iron soils of Pomerol. Whilst Saint Emilion is one of the most historic winemaking sites in the world; neighbouring Pomerol’s rise to prominence has been a much more recent phenomena. Pomerol only really became recognised as a fine wine region, at least outside of France, in the last 50 years. This is largely due to the work of Jean-Pierre Moueix (the owner of the Petrus estate from 1945 onwards). Moueix, who later went on to purchase Chateau Trotanoy and Chateau La Fleur-Petrus was the first to start seriously exporting the wine outside of France and before long, the wines began to gain international recognition. Today, the wines of Pomerol have overtaken the historic sites of Saint Emilion with regards to market value. While this is partially down to the scarcity of these smaller properties, the global demand of the top Pomerol estates has never been higher.
“The undisputed king of Pomerol and probably the most famous red wine in the world” – Robert Parker.
Ask any wine-lover to name the world’s greatest fine wines, and the answer will invariably include Petrus. Incredibly famous and expensive, this illustrious producer is regarded by many to represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved with the Merlot varietal or with any varietal for that matter! Fine wine critic Neal Martin described Petrus as “the vinous holy grail”.
Given its prestige and quality, it might come as a surprise to many that Petrus was largely unheard of outside of France just 30 years ago. Its rise to fame is largely attributed to a change of management in 1962, leading to an explosion in quality and success.
Pétrus is Latin for Peter, who guards the entrance to heaven, which seems strangely fitting for such a wine that is often cited as being otherworldly. Its history can be dated back to the 1750s, making it probably one of Pomerol’s earliest vineyards. Originally thought to have been part of Château Gazin, its worldwide fame didn’t explode until it came under the ownership of Jean-Pierre Moueix. He was a négociant who managed and distributed wines from a series of famous properties, including Trotanoy. He started doing the same for Pétrus and eventually ended up taking control during the mid-1960s.
Jean-Pierre Moueix shrewdly brought in Jean-Claude Berrouet, although a relative, unknown entity in the winemaking world at the time, his first vintage in 1964 has been described as “immortal” by Neal Martin and “spectacular” by Robert Parker. When Jean-Claude Berrouet retired he passed the mantle to his son Olivier Berrouet, formerly of Cheval Blanc. Jean-Pierre Moueix similarly passed the running of Pétrus to his sons Jean-François (who, in one of Pomerol’s greatest investments, bought 5 exceptional hectares from Gazin) and Christian (Decanter’s Man of the Year 2008 and owner of Dominus). Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix now owns La Fleur Pétrus, Hosanna, Trotanoy, Lagrange, La Grave, Magdelaine and Bélair-Monange to name just a few.
Château Pétrus, of course, deserves its fame. But few would argue against the instrumental influence of one couple and one man in pushing it alongside and then past the First Growths. Jackie and John F Kennedy – a style icon and a president – announced that that they were partial to Pétrus, which piqued a global interest in the brand. Momentum was continued in the 1980s by the frequent acclaim and high scores of a rising star critic in one Robert Parker. Petrus’ celebrity helped to drive up the quality of Pomerol as an appellation, and arguably Bordeaux as a whole.
Averys were the original UK importers of the wine and recently, the now agents Corney and Barrow retold the anecdote that the established UK merchants at the time used to joke about Avery’s commitment to Pomerol and to Petrus in particular as if they were buying wines on the wrong side of the river! The now managing Director of Corneys, Adam Brett-Smith, praised Averys and the Belgium negociants – J P Moueix for their foresight into seeing the early potential of the region and investing in it at a time when everyone else’s focus was in the Medoc. Adam went on to stun the audience with the confession that it took them five years to sell through their allocation of 1982 Petrus. It just shows that the meteoric rise in popularity and the prices that followed over the last half-century has taken the wine from cult status to the world’s most prized collectable.
Pétrus’ 11.5 hectares of old vines, averaging around 40 years of age but some significantly older, are now entirely made up of Merlot. As there is no second wine at Pétrus, where the declassified juice ends up is one of the wine world’s great mysteries.
But what makes it so special? One major factor is its unique terroir; it sits on a small ‘button’ of blueish clay in the Pomerol plateau. The rare smectite clay subsoil is 40 million years old, while the more gravelly soils that surround it are only around 1 million years old. Combined with low yields (Pétrus have been crop thinning since 1973) and perfectionist picking/sorting (grapes are harvested in one afternoon to avoid dew diluting the juice and berries are reputedly picked one at a time), the old vines on this terroir produce a richness that most Merlots cannot touch.
Top vintages the wine doesn’t really kick into its top gear until around 30 to 40 years of age. The pristine condition, the freshness, the energy and plush textural richness of wines in their 30th, 40th, 50th years is truly mind-blowing. The 1971, the 1961 and the 1959 are truly exceptional. The volume and depth on the mid-palate of these wines are phenomenal with the combination of exotic aged fragrances and spice that remain beautifully preserved while at the same time exuding an impossible freshness is difficult to fathom. The architecture of the wines are built in a millefeuille-like structure that both teems with power and yet retains a paradoxical finesse. These are Chateau Petrus in full regalia, spreading their wings and strutting their stuff.
Chateau Cheval Blanc
Château Cheval Blanc is widely considered to have created some of the greatest Bordeaux wines ever made. One of four Saint Emilion wineries to enjoy the status of Premier Grand Cru Classé (A), alongside Angelus, Ausone and Pavie; Cheval Blanc produces the world’s greatest Cabernet Franc-based wine and is a reference point for the best that can be achieved with the grape.
Cheval Blanc’s Grand Vin has received a number of all-important 100 and 99 point scores from Parker, with the 2010, 2005 and 1947 being among the most sought-after vintages. One of Cheval Blanc’s most admired qualities is its longevity, with some of the best examples capable of ageing for fifty years or more.
Cheval Blanc’s history can be traced back to the 1830s when the Ducasse family purchased a patch of land and vines from Château Figeac. This land, combined with a number of parcels bought from other wineries, eventually became the Cheval Blanc estate that we know today.
The historic château was built in the late 1800s and is now recognised as one of the most beautiful and classic examples of Bordeaux wine architecture. In 2011 famous architect Christian de Portzamparc led the renovation of the estate’s facilities, including a state-of-the-art winery, barrel cellars, vinification room and tasting area, making Cheval Blanc the envy of all other Bordeaux estates
Located to the North West of the St. Emilion appellation on the border with Pomerol, Cheval Blanc neighbours a number of high profile estates, including Château Figeac to the South and Château Pétrus and Vieux Château Certan across the border in Pomerol.
A third of Cheval Blanc’s Grand Vin is located on the boundary with Pomerol, one third has the same gravelly soil as Graves and the remaining third is a classic St Emilion limestone. The resulting combination of gravel, clay, limestone and sand helps shape and define Cheval Blanc’s unique taste. The vineyards are planted with some Merlot and a tiny proportion of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, but the main event is Cabernet Franc. This, in Parker’s words, leads to “a distinctive lighter, more delicate style” and “aromatic, long-lived wines that represent the quintessential, complex style of Bordeaux”.
In the small commune of Pomerol, Château Lafleur stands out for the extraordinary quality of the wine it produces. A wine that invokes emotion, Lafleur has been endlessly praised by critics and wine lovers all over the world, with Robert Parker calling it one of his “all-time favorite Bordeaux wines.” What makes it so unique compared with its neighbouring icons, is the high proportion of the Bouschet varietal in its wines, a varietal which is best understood as being the original pre-clonal Cabernet Franc varietal grown in Bordeaux prior to the great frost of 1956.
The rarity of this wine is clear, with only 1,000 cases produced from 4.5 hectares of vines every year, and tiny En Primeur allocations selling out extremely quickly. Pétrus and Le Pin get more press, but Lafleur sits quietly in the background as one of the world’s most cerebral wines.
Château Lafleur has been owned by a single family since 1872, when the great-great-grandfather of the current proprietor bought the estate, and the husband and wife team of Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau are now aided by their son Baptiste, showing how this estate has been and continues to be, very much a family affair.
There is one overriding factor that really makes Lafleur different and distinct from many of its neighbours. It comes down to the unique varietal Chateau Lafleur has spent a huge amount of time bringing back from the brink of extinction. The varietal is Bouchet and it is perhaps best understood as being the original pre-clonal Cabernet Franc varietal grown in Bordeaux prior to the great frost of 1956. This original clone of Cabernet Franc is quite different from the current genetic clones of Cabernet Franc that are currently being planted in Bordeaux. For a start, Bouchet is much more drought resistant which means it has performed much more evenly in the recent droughts in Pomerol over the last 5 years. Secondly, the taste and the colour he believes are completely distinct. He describes the original as somewhere in the middle between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It has the tannic structure of Cabernet Sauvignon but the tannins are less blunt and more refined. It is also much better at keeping the freshness than Merlot and it doesn’t have any of the green pepper herbaceous notes of the commercial clones of Cabernet Franc.
Located opposite Château Pétrus, it is important to note that the geographical proximity of these two estates in no way leads to similar final products. Whereas the vineyards at Pétrus are planted with 95% Merlot, the proportion of Merlot at Lafleur is 50% with the other 50% being dedicated to Bouschet, the highest proportions of pre-clonal Cabernet Franc planted in any estate in Pomerol. The significant role that this grape variety plays in the final blend brings aromatic intensity and depth and helps to place Lafleur firmly apart from the other wines in the region, and even in the whole of Bordeaux. Parker writes that “Lafleur is a tiny treasure of a vineyard that…year in year out is right at the same level as Pétrus, in some years even eclipsing Pétrus.”
The amount of work that goes into each bottle of Lafleur is painstaking, with plots individually harvested by hand based on ripeness, and selection taking place even amongst bunches. The vines produce painfully low-yields, favouring depth of flavour and intensity over the quantity of grapes harvested, making it clear that the team at Château Lafleur stay very faithful to their motto: “Quality over Quantity.”
The wines of this estate are deep and perfumed, with layers of earth and floral notes, and complexity arises from the mixed terroirs the vines are planted on. Parker writes that “the wines are noteworthy because of the extraordinary density of fragrance and flavour” and that they are “one of the most distinctive, most exotic, and greatest wines – not only in Pomerol, but in the world.” They are long-lived, and can often be enjoyed for several decades, often not opening up to show their true potential for several years after release.
Chateau Le Pin
Château Le Pin is without a doubt one of the most famous names in wine. A vinous icon and one of the three great names of Pomerol alongside Château Petrus and Château Lafleur. Today it is one of the rarest, most expensive and finest red wines of Bordeaux – if not the world.
Le Pin produces just 600 to 700 cases each year, a truly minuscule number that is dwarfed in comparison to the Right-Bank “first growths”. To put this tiny amount into perspective even the relatively rare neighbouring Petrus makes around 4000 cases a year.
Chateau Le Pin is certainly the youngest of all the icons from the Right Bank and is a wine that became almost an overnight success thanks to the critical acclaim it received from the 1982 vintage (only the properties 4th vintage). Combine this with the tiny production levels and the wines collectability and market price rose to stratospheric levels.
It will surprise many to learn that the exclusive Le Pin hails from humble beginnings. The land was owned by the Loubie family for over five decades from the 1920s, during which time its wine was sold as generic Pomerol. The vineyard was then bought in 1979 by Jacques Thienpont, a Belgian whose family have worked in wine since the 1840s, his cousin is the current owner of Vieux Chateau Certan. Thienpont named his new acquisition Le Pin, after a single pine tree that shaded the property and gradually expanded the vineyard to 2.7 hectares by purchasing slivers of land from adjacent producers.
Le Pin today produces just 600 or so cases per year from a tiny 2.7 hectare plot. If there is one thing that stands out in people’s minds when discussing Le Pin, it is the price tag. The value of this wine has skyrocketed over the years, causing it to vie with Pétrus for the position of most expensive wine. However, it isn’t only the wine that has changed price; while Thienpont initially bought the land for a reputed million francs (around €153000), it is now estimated to be worth in the region of one to two million euros per hectare. Similarly, a case of the vanguard 1982 vintage will now set you back more than £50,000, whereas on release it would have been just a couple of hundred.
Wine experts consider Le Pin’s key advantage to be its unique terroir and soil composition. Consisting of a sandy gravel topsoil on a bedrock of limestone, it is notably different from surrounding vineyards and widely agreed to add to Le Pin’s style.
The vineyard contains a high proportion of iron oxide “crasse de fer” in the soil which Jacques Thienpont attributes to the soils fantastic drainage and means Le Pin often performs well in wetter vintages. Neil Martin describes Le Pin’s terroir as “almost the inverse of Petrus’ buttonhold of clay.” There are a few odd Cabernet Franc vines in the vineyard at Le Pin but the wine is 100% Merlot
40% of the vineyards was replanted in the late 1970s, so in fine wine terms the average age of the vineyards are relatively low. For many critics the fact that Le Pin can produce such incredible wines with a young vineyard, the future bodes well for the property.
Anyone fortunate enough to have visited Chateau Ausone and met Alain Vauthier will know that this small winery perched atop a hill overlooking the historic town of Saint-Emilion is truly one of the most magical wine meccas in the world. It is impossible not to be transfixed by the quality of the wines produced here; the beguiling emotional imprint they leave on your memory is as close as one might get to an epiphany in wine.
Chateau Ausone has, without question, been producing some of the finest wines in the world for many decades, but a change of style since 2012 has taken the winery to new heights.
Chateau Ausone is named after the Roman poet Ausonius who lived in Saint Emilion from 311-394 AD. The poet was responsible for bringing people to the Saint Emilion commune after extolling the virtues of its calm climate and identifying it as the perfect place for a peaceful, good life. Although the Chateau itself was built in 1897, the Ausone vineyards have existed since at least 300AD The barrel cave was built in the 15th century and the oldest bottle still in the cellar today is from the 1849 vintage.
Alain Vauthier and his daughter Pauline, who run the property now, are the descendants of the family who owned the estate back in the seventeenth century. The family also own Moulin St Georges, de Fonbel, Simard, Haut-Simard and La Clotte.
Château Ausone is one of only four wines ranked Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) in Saint-Emilion. Its importance can be explained in two words and a single name: size, terroir and Alain Vauthier.
Chateau Ausone vineyards span just seven hectares which means that the wines produced here are limited to around 2,000 cases per year, meaning that supply never meets the insatiable demand.
According to Jeff Leve: “When you ask almost any Bordeaux winemaker or Bordeaux Château owner to name the best terroir in Bordeaux, the overwhelming majority say it belongs to Château Ausone.” Robert Parker calls it “hallowed terroir”, the steep vineyard contains densely packed old vines (averaging 50-years-old, but some are centenarian) on limestone and clay soils. The majority of the vines are on an east-southeast-facing, terraced slope called the grande côte, which is atypical and excellent for ripening.
Since taking full control of the estate in 1995, Alain Vaulthier has revolutionised the estate, tightening selection, increasing the planting density and introducing a second wine – Chapelle d’Ausone. Robert Parker said: “Kudos to Alain Vauthier for pushing the envelope as far as anyone in Bordeaux is doing today.” Under his watchful eye Château Ausone has become one of Bordeaux’s, if not the world’s, finest wines.