On Tour - Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux - Nov 2016


 Glorious monoculture..

Pessac-Léognan is probably my favourite of Bordeaux's 57 appellations (AOCs). A stunning spattering of lightly undulating vineyards lying just to the South-West of the city. The AOC is one of the region's youngest,  having only been created in 1987 - a reason for its far too under-the-radar status and often excellent value. This is despite hosting numerous world class producers; including the two I had the pleasure of visiting: Château Smith-Haut-Laffite and Château Pape Clément.

 Château Smith-Haut-Laffite..

Pessac-Léognan sits within Graves AOC on Bordeaux's so called Left Bank (to the West of the Garonne river and Gironde estuary). Graves is aptly named for its deep Gunzian gravel soils, deposited ~700,000 years ago by the river system during the Guzian period of the Pleistocene (Ice Age). Pessac's vineyards cover ~1,600 hectares, 1.4% of Bordeaux's area under vine, and are a similar size to their more famous cousin, Margaux AOC.

 One of the best..

Unusually for the Bordeaux region, the land is as equally famed for its whites (20% of producution) as its reds. Indeed, Pessac's whites are arguably the world's finest expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Wines are typically a blend of 70% or more Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon and often a dash of Sauvignon Gris or Muscadelle. The white grapes are planted in the coolest microclimates of the appellation on predominantly clay/limestone soils, rather than on AOC's warmer famous gravels. The best wines have a charming creamy sweet spiced intensity, combined with lively citrus, stone and tropical fruit - developing lemon curd aromas with time.

 Petites Cabernet Sauvignon vines..

As for other Left Bank appellations, the reds are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. However, Pessac's have a greater portion of softening Merlot than other Left Bank wines and so tend to mature faster and be more approachable in youth. The typical blend is 40-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20-40% Merlot and 10-20% Cabernet Franc, and may also include a splash of Petit Verdot, Malbec or Carménère. The reds are renowned for their perfume and elegance, with silky tannins and a distinct mineral edge - often expressed as graphite or pencil lead in tasting notes.

SHL's very gothic cellar...

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte is an absolutely stunning Château which has benefited hugely from the care and attention of the wildly passionate Cathiard family, who acquired the property in 1990. From their 78 hectares under vine, SHL produces ~160,000 bottles a year (75% red, 25% white) of their top "Grand Vin" wine. The place is immaculately maintained, with spotless cellars, elegant sculpture gracing the grounds and perfect lines of vines marching into the distance. On an especially sunny day, the vistas are nothing short of breathtaking. I had the pleasure of tasting their white and red Grand Vins, and as always, they were very fine expressions of this special terroir.

 Some priceless large formats...

2013 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Pessac-Léognan - Mineral lemon with hints of peach and pineapple, then creamy vanilla and a hint of lemon curd on the palate. Long, finessed and will only get better with time! 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Sémillon and 5% Sauvigon Gris. 8.25/10

2012 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Rouge, Pessac-Léognan - Elegant. Sweet blackcurrant and blackberry with Pessac pencil lead, herbal blackcurrant leaf and smoke. Tannins are textured but ripe. This is young but still very pleasurable. 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. 7.75/10

The last leaves at Pape Clément...

Château Pape Clément is one of Bordeaux's best and oldest Châteauxhaving earned its name in 1305 when its propriator Bertrand de Goth succeeded Bertrand XI as pope. The current propriator, Bernard Magrez, has been managing the Château since 1985, and it remains the crown jewel in his portfolio of 40+ properties stretching from Uruguay to Japan. The property counts First Growth Haut-Brion as its closest neighbour, and its 32 hectares of vines feel surprisingly urban, sitting within Bordeaux's sprawling South-West surburbs.

  Pristine vats @ Pape Clément...

The estate strikes one as a very Bordeaux establishment; from the 1,500 year old olive trees imported from Spain in the garden, to the cellar complete with choral music and consecrated chapel, this really is a no-expense-spared joint. Pape Clément produces ~90,000 bottles of their Grand Vins (95% red, 5% white), under the direction of legendary consultant oenologist Michel Rolland. Modern in style, the wines are rich and textured, with intensely concentrated ripe fruit and a significant dollop of new oak.

2004 Château Pape Clément, Pessac-Léognan - Wet leaves, prune, leather and tobacco. Intense savoury smokey meatiness framed by black olive. Lovely texture. 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Merlot. 7.5/10

 Magnums of the mighty 1990..

2007 Château Les Grands Chênes, Cru Bourgeois - Merlot powered blend from a very hot year. Cassis, coffee, cocoa. Nice maturity giving leather and forest floor but slightly short with dry tannins. 6.5/10

2014 Château Perenne Blanc, Blaye - Herbaceous, floral, ripe grapefruit but feels a bit thin and short on the finish. 5/10

2013 Château Fombrauge, Saint-Emilion - From a difficult vintage, green with unripe tannins but some elegance with violet, plum, graphite and sweet vanilla. 5/10

Jonny Orton