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Change at Lagrange: Global Warming and Robert Parker
By Michael Apstein
Mar 13, 2007
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What do Robert Parker and global warming have in common?  They are the two major forces in Bordeaux over the last two decades, according to Marcel Ducasse, who has a unique perspective on the changes in Bordeaux during that time.  Ducasse will be retiring next month after 23 years as the managing director of the now resurrected cru classé property, Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien.  Ducasse, unusually frank and forthright with his opinions--especially for someone in the Bordeaux wine trade--has no reason to hold back now since he plans 'to go fishing' after he leaves Lagrange, not remain in the wine business as a consultant either in Bordeaux or elsewhere. 

Robert Parker's Influence

Ducasse believes that Parker has had even a larger impact on Bordeaux than global warming.  "Parker was unknown in Bordeaux in 1984 and now everyone is influenced by his taste," says Ducasse.  Although he believes Parker has a greater affect on winemaking on the Right Bank as opposed to the Left Bank, his influence is felt everywhere.  Parker affects not only the winemaker, but also prices and the producers' behavior, according to Ducasse.  The château owners wait to decide about prices of the new vintage until Parker's reviews of it come out at the end of April.  But overall, Ducasse feels that Parker has done Bordeaux an enormous service by raising its visibility in the US and worldwide.

Global Warming

Ducasse believes it is "obvious" that global warming has hit Bordeaux.  And if it continues, all vintages will be like 2003.  He looks back over the last 20 years and sees that the average alcohol in red Bordeaux has gone from 12 to over 13 percent as a result of a warmer climate and a change in the public's taste.  He says it is impossible now to produce a wine with 12% alcohol because consumers are accustomed to wines with more than 13% alcohol.

He points out that in the past it was "a miracle" when Cabernet Sauvignon reached ripeness to give a potential alcohol of 12%.  Now, every year the Cabernet Sauvignon comes in with potential alcohol of 13%.  The change has been a result of drier, sunnier, and warmer summers.  Ducasse notes, "Since 1995, there has been a run of good years, they've all been good or excellent.  None have produced light or thin wines.  Compare that to the 1960s or 1970s when you would see two or three good years per decade.  The young generation of Bordeaux winemakers and proprietors don't know bad years."  Certainly over the same time period, there have been huge advances in winemaking and viticulture, but the warmer, drier climate has been the primary reason for better wines in Ducasse's opinion.

He believes that a poor vintage will be rare in the future--and certainly will never compare with 1963, 1968, or 1977--because of better technology and warmer climate.  Also, the media's attention on the details of the industry has forced people to focus on quality. 

Riper Tannins Mean Earlier Drinking Wines

Riper, more supple tannins go along with higher sugar levels--riper grapes--and higher alcohol wines.  Bruno Eynard, who has worked with Ducasse since 1990 and will be replacing him in April, says that the measured tannins in wines today are higher than they were 20 years ago, but they are sweeter and riper.  Modern viticultural practices, especially better aeration of the grapes while on the vines, keep them clean and free from rot so they can stay on the vines longer, allowing the tannins to mature and become supple.  As a result, the wines are more accessible when they are younger, helping to explain the popularity of drinking red Bordeaux much earlier than in the past, which is the case in Bordeaux, wider France, and much of the rest of the world. 

The Rebirth of Château Lagrange

It is impossible to ignore the enormous change at Château Lagrange under Ducasse's leadership.  Classified as a 3rd growth in Médoc Classification of 1855, it is the largest classified property in the Médoc.  With vineyards adjacent to Gruaud Larose in the center of St. Julien, it is positioned to make great wine.  Despite many marvelous bottles of the 1970 Château Lagrange I've consumed, most of the wines prior to 1983, when Ducasse took over, were mediocre at best.  But, since then and especially since 1989, the wines have been first-rate and consistently underpriced, although that is changing slowly as the reputation of the wines catch up to their quality.

Late in 1983, the Japanese drinks company, Suntory, purchased Lagrange for about $10 million from a Spanish family who, as Ducasse puts it, "were always arguing with one another."  The property had deteriorated severely because for years no one was in charge or cared about the wines.  Suntory, with advice from Michel Delon, the proprietor of Château Léoville Las Cases, immediately hired Ducasse.  It turned out to be a brilliant move.

When Ducasse arrived, everything--the Château, the vineyards, and the winery--was in virtual ruins.  Over the next five years Suntory invested another $38 million to renovate and upgrade the property.  In 1984 there were 14 employees working 140 acres of vines, making one wine with no guiding winemaking philosophy.  Currently, Lagrange has 290 acres under vine and 57 employees.  Ducasse quickly introduced his philosophy that has become his mantra: make balanced wines.  If the wines are not balanced at the onset, they will never age and develop properly, according to Ducasse.

Selection, Selection, Selection

Ducasse improved the wine almost immediately by making a rigorous selection of grapes and/or finished wine for the estate's top bottling and creating a "second" label, Les Fiefs de Lagrange as a destination for less-than-optimal fruit.  He says, "Selection is the key for making good wine".  Currently, less than half of the production of the property is bottled as Château Lagrange.  The remainder is either bottled as Les Fiefs de Lagrange or is sold in bulk. 

Additional improvements came more slowly as Ducasse replanted the vineyards.  When he arrived at Lagrange the vineyards were split evenly between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Ducasse increased the amount of Cabernet, reduced the amount of Merlot and made the unconventional--but savvy--decision to plant 20 acres) about 7% of the total vineyard area) of Petit Verdot in 1984 and 1985.

Petit Verdot is the Secret

Lagrange has the highest percentage of Petit Verdot in Bordeaux.  Traditionally it is thought of as a late ripening grape, but Ducasse notes that when it is planted in the right place and the yields are kept low, as at Lagrange, it ripens before Cabernet Sauvignon.  Ducasse describes Petit Verdot as a 'booster' or a "super Cabernet" because is adds color, dense fruit flavors, power and tannins.  Eynard says, "If Cabernet is the king, then Petit Verdot is clearly the joker."  The problem is that it either makes great wine or awful wine and "you need to be careful not to add too much or the final wine becomes coarse."  At Lagrange, Petit Verdot never comprises more than 15% of the blend.   Ducasse says that many properties, including Lagrange, can make wonderful wine with just Cabernet and Merlot, but sometimes something extra is needed.  He doesn't include Petit Verdot in the blend each year, opting not to use any in 2000 because it would have unbalanced the wine making it, "'a drag queen' with too much make-up, too much hair, too much of everything."

With typical modesty, Ducasse replied that it was just "logical" for him to plant Petit Verdot.  He matter-of-factly recited his options: Malbec, when grown in Bordeaux as opposed to Argentina, is "cabbage," making a vegetal wine because it doesn't ripen adequately.  Carménère is rarely grown in Bordeaux.  Cabernet Franc, which flourishes on the Right Bank, makes good wine in the Médoc only when the vines are old.  Hence, by elimination, Petit Verdot is the only one with the potential to increase the quality of the blend.  Although Ducasse tries to make it seem "obvious" to have planted Petit Verdot, I'm not so sure, since nobody else has embraced that variety.  After tasting his wines over the years, I suspect his thoughtful approach and philosophy about producing balanced wines led him to that decision.

Two Decades of Château Lagrange

I only write about vertical tastings of older wines if I think readers can learn something specific from the tasting in general since the wines, with few exceptions, are no longer commercially available.  So what are the take-home messages from tasting 13 vintages of Château Lagrange spanning two decades?

--The family resemblance shines through in all of these wines regardless of the blend--there's anywhere from zero to 15% Petit Verdot in this series of wines--reinforcing the French mantra of terroir. 

--From 2000 the wines took another step up from the plateau that Ducasse had achieved by 1988, perhaps because of global warming or simply because the vines Ducasse planted are a decade older.

--Château Lagrange, like most of the cru classé, starts to show its complexity at about a decade of age.  To my taste, the 1996 Lagrange is ready to drink, but will improve for years and not go into decline for another decade at least.  Although the 1997 and 1998 Lagrange are both showing maturity at a younger age, I think that is because they are a products of earlier maturing vintages. 

Except for the 1988, 1989 and 1990, these wines were tasted blind in New York in January.  Prices, when listed, are approximate.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 2004 ($30): A fabulous nose, sweet balanced fruit and firm tannins make this an attractive young wine that needs several years to soften and open.  It's an excellent value.  90.

Château Lagrange, St.  Julien (Bordeaux, France) 2003 ($40): Considerable development in the nose was surprising in what turned out to be a relatively young wine.  Beefy, meaty flavors convey power, but it also had elegance, especially in its considerable finish.  I was surprised when it was revealed as the 2003 since it tasted far older.  More powerful than usual for Lagrange, it's still balanced.  The combination of elegance and power makes it a compelling wine, but I wouldn't hold it for many more years.  Enjoy it now.  93.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 2002 ($50): Young, plum-like flavors dominate at this stage.  The tannins are slightly firmer than usual and suggest that this wine will need another five to ten years to come together.  87.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 2001 ($50): Cedar aromas penetrate an otherwise youthful, fruit-laden nose.  On the palate, the fruit flavors also dominate, but are supported and balanced by fine tannins.  This is a classically proportioned wine that highlights the beauty of St. Julien.  91.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($60): One of my favorites at the tasting, the 2000 Lagrange is still young, but holds great promise because of its beautiful balance.  The gorgeous nose accurately predicts that a plethora of tastes will follow.  Ripe plum-like fruit flavors persist into an exceptional finish and are supported by supple, fine tannins.  I'd give this wine another decade to evolve and reach its peak.  94.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1999 ($60): Subtle tobacco notes, which suggest maturity, intermingle with alluring cedar nuances.  The fresh fruit component still dominates the other flavors in this multi-layered wine.  Balanced and polished, it's a great effort for 1999.  I would hold it for a few more years because it has the requisite structure to allow even more development.  90.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1998 ($60): The brick color around the edges and the leathery aromas indicate an unexpected degree of maturity.  The tannins have a firm edge, probably reflecting the character of this vintage in the Médoc, but the dried fruit and cocoa flavors come through.  Drink now and over the next few years.  87.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1997 ($50): Fully mature, this wine, even at only ten years of age, is likely at its peak, so if you have any in your cellar, don't wait to open it.  It's lighter, reflecting the vintage, but still balanced, and elegant.  86.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1996 ($70): A mature nose of leather, tobacco and cedar precedes a mouthing mixture of sweet and dried fruit flavors.  A balsamic hint adds to the marvelous complexity.  The overall balance makes it a joy to drink now, but it will continue to evolve and improve.  93.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1995: Tannins overshadow the drying fruit, making this a very atypical wine from this property.  I have had the 1995 on many other occasions when it has always shown extremely well, so I suspect there was something wrong with this particular bottle.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1990 ($115): Its great complexity and elegance makes the 1990 Lagrange a clear favorite among the excellent trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990.  The wonderful combination of freshness and maturity, not to mention incredible depth of flavor, makes this a stunning wine.  95.

Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1989 ($100): This is a deliciously mature, classically proportioned wine with everything you would want, plenty of ripe fresh fruit mixed with tobacco and cedar.  Powerful and lush to be sure, and the mature elements lend wonderful balance and complexity.  93.
Château Lagrange, St. Julien (Bordeaux, France) 1988: The firmness that marked this wine--and most of the others from this vintage--when it was young has mellowed to reveal an exotic depth of flavor.  Richer and still firmer than the 1989, the tobacco element combined with a lovely earthiness is pronounced and captivating.  Although a delight to drink now, there is no hurry if you have this wine in your cellar.  92.