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Vintage Matters…and So Does Ownership
By Michael Apstein
Mar 26, 2013
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Bruno Eynard, the man in charge at Château Lagrange, the St. Julien estate in Bordeaux classified as a 3rd growth in the Médoc Classification of 1855, was in New York recently to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Suntory’s ownership. To demonstrate the dramatic turnaround at the estate since Suntory, the Japanese drinks company, acquired it, Eynard led a tasting of 19 vintages of Château Lagrange extending from 1959 to 2010 (plus 5 vintages of Les Fiefs de Lagrange, their second wine, dating from 1990 to 2009). The results were impressive, and strikingly so.

Modest and down-to-earth, Eynard was nervous since this was his first New York tasting without his predecessor, Marcel Ducasse, with whom he had worked since 1990 and whom he described as his “spiritual father.” Ducasse had been in charge since Suntory purchased the estate and was responsible for its renaissance. Judging from this tasting, the quality trajectory since Eynard took the reins starting with the 2007 vintage would make NASA jealous.

True to his character, Eynard was devoid of hype. He let the wines speak for themselves. And they spoke volumes. But first, a little background about what’s been going on at Château Lagrange over the last 30 years.

Before and After: The Vineyards

The transformation in both the vineyards and cellars since Suntory purchased the property and invested millions of dollars is startling. I am no businessman, so I can’t assess the financial wisdom--although I suspect it has turned out just fine--but the renovations here could serve as a blueprint for upgrading any wine estate.

The new team, led by Ducasse, quickly planted 150 additional acres between 1985-1988, making Château Lagrange the largest Grand Cru in the Médoc and the largest property in St. Julien. Though those vines are now on average 27 years old, Eynard notes that they are still, “not old enough to make great wine.” Currently, about one-third of the vines on the property are over 40 years of age. Eynard says it will take another generation to have, as the French call it, “a balanced Camembert,” with one-third of the vines over 50 years of age, one-third between 30 and 50 years and one-third less than 30 years of age or what he calls, “young” (which, in California, would probably qualify as “old”).

As these plantings were completed, the proportions of the grape varieties changed. Merlot initially comprised more than half of the total, but was reduced in proportion to one third today, a more appropriate share. Currently, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for just under two-thirds, with Petit Verdot filling in the rest. The blend varies from year to year depending on how each of the varieties performs in a given growing season. Eynard notes that at Lagrange they have been using less Petit Verdot over the years: “You need it in difficult years, but not in ripe ones. It’s like an insurance policy.” No Petit Verdot was included in the blend of the superb 2000 or 2010, both of which were among the stars of the tasting.

Harvesting is done by hand, and the grapes are now transported to the winery in small boxes instead of large containers, which means they arrive in far better condition because there’s less damage to the clusters on the bottom of the bins from the sheer weight of those above. The decision of when to harvest is always a major one, and Eynard likes to wait to harvest until the seeds are fully ripe, to avoid the harsh tannins imparted by under-ripe seeds. He says, with a wry smile, that it’s necessary “to take a risk to make great wine and let seeds get ripe.” This always results in a close call, as he admits, because waiting too long can lead to overripe grapes, which produce stylistic results in the wine that he abhors.

He laments that there’s always pressure to harvest too early: “Sometimes it’s the threat of rain. Sometimes it’s your neighbors who have already finished and you know they’re wondering, ‘what are you waiting for?’” He adds that the harvesters are anxious to move on. In 2008, Eynard opted to use a company that supplies temporary workers to harvest. This permits him to fine-tune the number he needs on any given day, rather than hiring 100 to 150 pickers who, naturally, wish to harvest an estate continually so that they can remain active and move quickly to their next job. This flexibility allows him to interrupt the harvest at multiple points while he waits for the seeds in the different grape varieties to ripen sequentially.

Before and After: The Cellar

Eynard showed photos of the cellar from pre-Suntory days, which depicted concrete fermenting tanks of uniform size, plus two large old wooden vats. Currently, the cellar holds gleaming stainless steel vats of various sizes. These tanks are more sanitary as vinification vessels, and they also provide the possibility of individualizing the fermentation of different lots of grapes drawn from different vineyard parcels. The resulting lots of wine are notably different in character and quality, making it possible to assemble the final blend with much more precision than would be possible if the individual lots had already been intermingled. Eynard admits he will need another decade to understand the particularities of all of the parcels of the estate, but without small fermenting vats it would be impossible for him even to progress toward that goal.

Eynard is very much a traditionalist, having spent his professional life in Bordeaux. (Before moving to Lagrange to work with Ducasse, he was cellar master at Château Brane Cantenac in Margaux.) At Lagrange, fermentation and aging remain traditional, with about 60 percent of the Grand Vin aging in new French oak barrels. However, he has embraced technology in the form of an optical sorting machine that identifies and removes less-than-perfect grapes before they go into a fermentation vat. He’s been so pleased with the results since they started using it in 2009 that he’s already purchased a second one.

Eynard insists on tasting with a team when determining the final blend. With typical humility--and realism--he notes with smile, “If you have a fight with your wife, your tasting is off.” That’s why it’s important to have a team.

Of all the changes that helped elevate the quality of the Grand Vin at Château Lagrange, the one that may have had the greatest impact was Ducasse’s decision to produce a second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange. The selection process that drops any less-than-optimal material is quite severe, and indeed Enyard has increased its severity and intricacy by introducing a third wine, Les Cynges de St. Julien, to maintain the quality of Les Fiefs.

The Future

In the future, look for another red from Lagrange, Haut-Médoc de Lagrange. Since it is impossible to expand the estate within St. Julien, they have purchased just over 20 acres of vineyards in Cussac, as well as 40 acres in St. Laurent, both in the Haut-Médoc appellation.

Eynard has planted 15 of their newly acquired acres in Cussac with Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Semillon in Cussac for “Les Arums de Lagrange,” Lagrange’s white wine, which Ducasse introduced with the 1997 vintage. In 1985, Ducasse replaced Merlot with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle in a parcel at Lagrange where Merlot didn’t ripen well. In recent years, as the vines have taken on age, Les Arums has become quite stylish. Indeed, the 2006 served at lunch was superb in terms both of richness and energy. But now, with global warming looming large as a climatic factor in Bordeaux, Merlot ripens just fine in that parcel, so Enyard has brought things to full circle by replanting Merlot. With the 2014 vintage, all of the grapes for Les Arums will come from the vineyards in Cussac, in a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris (40% each) along with Semillon. Eynard believes the two varieties of Sauvignon will add complexity, and that Les Arums will be even better after the site shift because the weather in Cussac is cooler.

The Wines

Eynard served the wines in four flights. He characterized the first flight, which included the 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages, as “not outstanding.” The 2008 was the latest harvest on record at Lagrange. Despite plenty of plumy ripe fruit, suave tannins, and bright acidity, the 2008 will always be overshadowed by the 2009 and 2010. With an average price of about $58 compared to $71 and $78 for the 2009 and 2010, respectively, it’s a bargain. 2004, which was Lagrange’s largest harvest ever and resulted in a large volume of Les Cygnes de St. Julien, was fragrant but still had a youthful awkwardness. The 2007 was angular at this stage, while the 2002 delivered an attractive, structured oomph. Eynard was particularly pleased with it, but with a Gallic shrug, couldn’t explain why it turned out so successfully.

The second flight, which Eynard described, with characteristic understatement, as “better,” included a straight flush of vintages, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010. The 2000, still youthful but developing beautifully, had an extra dimension that made it outstanding. The superb, but much more youthful 2005, rivaled it for balance and harmony at this stage. The stunning 2010 showed Eynard’s talents for combining power and grace. Eynard, of course, credited what he called, “better weather” because of the pattern of rain in 2010, which prevented the vines from shutting down as they did in 2009, for the wine’s stature. The riper 2009 reflected the opulence of the vintage, but also Eynard’s ability to capture ripe flavors without going overboard. The 2003, also reflective of the growing season, was very ripe, almost pruney, but with exceptional acidity for the vintage. Eynard noted they used more Petit Verdot than usual in the 2003, not for the typical motive of enhancing concentration, but rather to boost the final blend’s acidity. The 2003 is a good choice for current consumption.

In the next group, mostly wines from the 1990s, Eynard included the 1998, which was a great vintage on the Right Bank, to remind people that the Left Bank made some nice wines that year as well. Throughout that decade, the usual blend was equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (45%), with Petit Verdot filling in the rest. For him, 1996 marked the onset of a riper style of Bordeaux in general.

Exuding notes of tobacco and cedar, the 1989 was exciting--mature, without a hint of fatigue; in short, a delightful and classic claret. The 1990, plumy and riper, seemed more than just a year younger. A superb wine, it retained great freshness and verve. The 1995 exhibited slightly less elegant tannins--perhaps due to an earlier harvest--than its younger siblings. Nevertheless, its power offset the tannins and imparted balance, and I suspect it will acquire more elegance with additional aging. Elegance was not lacking in the 1996, a fully mature wine with great complexity and vivacity. The 1998, good for the vintage in the Médoc, was outclassed by the other wines in this incredibly high-class flight.

The final flight, the 1985, 1982, 1970 and 1959, included three wines made by the old regime. Two of these, the 1982 and 1959, both from legendary years, were, in a word, great. The 1982 was still fresh and expressive, with hints of black olives and suave tannins. It showed phenomenal complexity. The 1959, served from magnum, and weighing in at a meager 11.1% alcohol, still showed good power and concentration combined with extraordinary length. The tannins were a bit coarser, reflecting, along with the alcohol level, a less ripe year (or an earlier harvest). The 1970, also from an acclaimed vintage, did not show well, although a few weeks later, I had a marvelous bottle from my cellar. The 1985, plump and juicy, showed slightly green tannins, which Eynard attributes to picking too early. Observing the transition wrought by climate change in the short span since 1985, Enyard noted that, “Today it’s impossible to have a green vintage.”

Les Fiefs de Lagrange

The biggest surprise in tasting the lineup of Les Fiefs de Lagrange was how beautifully the wines developed with bottle age. After all, one of the chief advantages of a second wine is that it ready to drink sooner than the Grand Vin. And true to form, the 2009 Les Fiefs, plush and ripe, was charming already. The 2005, still unevolved, was balanced and harmonious. At 12 years of age, the 2000 still showed youthful notes, but the complexity in its nose was startling. Balanced and developing nicely, it had lovely concentration. The 1996 showed maturity, yet retained vigor. And the 1990 was just a touch diluted in the context of the vintage, but helps explain why the 1990 Grand Vin was so gorgeous. The major difference between a second wine and its bigger brother, coarser tannins, remained evident even among the older wines. Still, if you didn’t have the opportunity to taste the Grand Vin alongside, you’d have been hard pressed to notice.

The “Upshot”

Vintage matters. The 1982 and 1959 showed that even with--by current standards--rudimentary facilities and little or no selection, great vintages will still produce great wines.

Ownership matters too. Château Lagrange has had an unrelenting consistency since Suntory purchased it. The wines have gotten better and better as the full impact of the renovations has taken hold and the newly planted vines age.

Les Fiefs de Lagrange is one of the great bargains in Bordeaux--the 2009 costs about $35--because Ducasse’s, and now Eynard’s, severe selection means that some very high quality grapes wind up in it.

Château Lagrange remains undervalued because its reputation has not kept pace with its quality. Surely, this can’t--and won’t--last much longer, so keep that in mind when considering purchases from your wine budget.

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Email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein