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Seeing White at Château Lagrange
By Michael Apstein
Dec 15, 2015
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Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does. At least that’s the case for Château Lagrange, the Cru Classé property in St. Julien, which is making yet another name for itself with--of all things--a dry white wine, Les Arums de Lagrange.

Though white wine is no surprise in Bordeaux (think Graves and Pessac-Léognan or even Entre-Deux-Mers) it is a real rarity in the Médoc in general and in St. Julien, in particular. Indeed, the regulations for those Left Bank appellations don’t even recognize white wines, so Les Arums de Lagrange is labeled only as Bordeaux, not St. Julien.

A little bit of history puts the significance of Lagrange’s white wine into focus. Château Lagrange, the largest of all the so-called classified growths (those châteaux classified in the famous Médoc Classification of 1855) was in the dumps prior to 1983, when Suntory, the Japanese drinks company, purchased the estate for a reported $6.4 million, a piddling sum by today’s standards. The previous owners had neglected the property for years, which left its vineyards and winery in very poor condition. Suntory, in what turned out to be a brilliant move, hired Marcel Ducasse as general manager. A superb winemaker and talented manager, he restored the property, both figuratively and literally, to its rightful status.

Ducasse created a second label, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, almost immediately, in 1983, which allowed him to exclude the less-than-excellent wine from the final blend. He also upgraded the vineyards and modernized the winery. Over the next decades, the wine gained finesse and depth and is now among the top-tiered wines of St. Julien. Happily the price has not reflected that--yet--so it remains one of the bargains of Bordeaux. The 2005 Château Lagrange, an outstanding (96-point) wine from an outstanding vintage is still widely available at the retail level for an average of $93. The 2010 Les Fiefs de Lagrange ($38), a 91-point wine, provides great pleasure now.

In 1996, Ducasse, unhappy with where he had planted a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon a decade earlier, grafted Sauvignon Blanc onto the Cabernet rootstock and started producing a white wine, which he named Les Arums de Lagrange. Early vintages were a bit clunky, but at least were an improvement over the wine made from habitually under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon that had been in the parcel.

Ducasse retired in 2007, but not before making what is turning out to be another visionary decision. He hired Matthieu Bordes, who was trained not only as a winemaker, but also as an agricultural engineer and plant physiologist. When Bruno Eynard replaced Ducasse, Bordes remained as his assistant and then in 2013, replaced him as winemaker and general manger. Energetic, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, he seems to be as talented and engaging as Ducasse himself.

Bordes says he’s “fine-tuning” the red wine, but aims for a major overhaul of the white.

Though Bordes has changed the blend of the white and reduced the amount of oak aging, to my mind, his critical decision was making a second wine, Les Fleurs du Lac, analogous to Lagrange’s red, Les Fiefs de Lagrange. Producing a second wine is the single fastest way to raise the quality of the “first” wine or grand vin. With a second wine, Bordes can siphon off any of the various barrels that are not quite up to snuff, thus maintaining the quality of Les Arums de Lagrange. Replanting a vineyard to get it right takes at least a decade. But making a second wine increases the quality of the first wine overnight. It also demonstrates that Lagrange takes its white wine seriously--as seriously as the red--and aims to make it as distinctive as possible.

Currently Lagrange produces about 20,000 bottles (about 1,500 cases) of white wine annually, but aims to increase the output by 50 to 75 percent because the demand for it, especially in Japan, is robust. Even if Bordes achieves what he thinks is its maximum output, Lagrange’s white will still represent less than 5 percent of the estate’s total production. (For comparison’s sake, Lagrange produces about 400,000 bottles of Les Fiefs and 300,000 bottles of the red grand vin, annually.) Lagrange purchased land in Cussac and in St. Laurent, both in the Médoc appellation, but outside of St. Julien, which has soil that is suitable for Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon, the grapes that currently comprise the white blend. In addition to being a better site for white varieties, another benefit of the new plantings, according to Bordes, is that he can use what he believes are superior clones of Sauvignon Blanc. Bordes also likes that these vines were planted fresh and not grafted onto pre-existing rootstock, a practice that he maintains never produces the same quality of grapes.

The blend for Les Arums previously contained some Muscadelle, but after experimenting with varying amounts of it for six years, Bordes eliminated it entirely for the 2014 vintage (the 2013 still has 1-2%) because, according to him, “Muscadelle dilutes the wine and has the potential to be too alcoholic.” He continues, “it’s odd, the berries taste good, but after fermentation the wine is never right.”

Though Bordes likes Sauvignon Gris, explaining that its tropical nature places it halfway between Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon on the flavor spectrum, he has reduced the proportion of it in the blend. He compares its use to the use of Petit Verdot use in the red blends: “A little is good, but too much overpowers the final wine.”

While the blend is never fixed because it depends on how each variety ripens each year, Bordes’s current concept is that Sauvignon Blanc should comprise about 60 percent of the blend with the remaining portion split equally between Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon.

Bordes also feels that reducing the amount of new oak increases the vivacity of Les Arums de Lagrange. Previously, it had been vinified and aged entirely in new oak barrels. With the 2013 and 2014 vintages, those over which Bordes had total control, he opted to put half the wine into new oak with the remaining going into one-year old barrels and then blending the two batches. Whether this will remain the “formula” is unclear and, sensing Bordes’ open mindedness and willingness to experiment, will depend on the nature of each vintage.

The Wines:

Château Lagrange, Les Arums de Lagrange, 2005:
A rich wine, no doubt a result of the vintage and the inclusion of Muscadelle and a healthy amount of Sémillon in the blend. Creamy and glossy, it has developed nicely after a decade, retaining a surprising vigor. 91

Château Lagrange, Les Arums de Lagrange, 2010: A lovely firm stony quality offsets the toasty richness. At this stage, the elements are not full integrated and it lacks the elegance of the 2005. 88

Château Lagrange, Les Arums de Lagrange, 2012:
Although this is comprised of a blend similar to that of the 2005 Les Arums, the richness in the 2012 comes across as heavy. While it may be going through an awkward stage now, I doubt it will ever deliver the pleasure the 2005 provides. 86

Château Lagrange, Les Arums de Lagrange, 2013 (about $26): There’s magic in this wine. Fresh and precise, it conveys citrus notes and engaging bit of spice. It maintains plenty of richness, which is buttressed by freshness and vivacity. The pungency of Sauvignon Blanc is more apparent here since the proportion of that variety has been increased at the expense of Sémillon. Since only 240 bottles came to the US market, it will be hard to find, but worth the effort. 92

Château Lagrange, Les Arums de Lagrange, 2014 (about $27): The 2014 vintage was the first that came entirely from Lagrange’s new plantings. Compared to the 2013, the 2014 is slightly more intense without losing any elegance or precision. It conveys a marvelous combination of floral notes, grapefruit rind-like punch and even a hint of white pepper. There’s less varietal Sauvignon Blanc character and more minerality speaking. It dances on the palate, combing richness and freshness. It sings! 94

Judging from this tasting, Bordes is doing for Lagrange’s Les Arums de Lagrange, what Ducasse did for the Château’s red.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Château Lagrange or Bordeaux white wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

December 16, 2015