On the Trail

At Pichon-Baron & Latour

David Driscoll

We awoke early for the first of many appointments on our first full day of en primeur tasting: an eight AM palate-waker with Pichon Baron. The schedule to follow was like something out of Bordeaux fan’s wildest dream come true: a private tasting just down the street at Château Latour, followed by Mouton-Rothschild, then Pichon-Lalande, Pontet-Canet, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Lafite, Calon Segur, and finally Leoville-Las-Case. If there’s any better master’s class in top-flight Bordeaux producers, I can’t think of one. As we drove through St. Julian on the way to Pauillac we passed the titans of terroir: Gruaud-Larose, Ducru-Beaucaillou, and the string of Leovilles. Just past Leoville-Las-Cases is the border between the two communes, where Latour’s vineyards begin and the hills roll all the way down to the Gironde river estuary. It’s at that point you can spot the towers of Château Pichon-Baron up the road on the left. The morning sun was just coming up over the horizon, illuminating the face of the historic estate with a glorious golden hue. We had arrived in Pauillac.

I made the others stop the car before we hit the parking lot so I could get out and snap a few photos in advance of our tasting. The air was crisp and there were a few early morning walkers enjoying the pathway between the rows of perfectly-manicured trees. Pichon-Baron belongs to an elite group of châteaux known as the “super seconds”: a category of second-growth estates that consistently overachieve and are often compared against the five first-growth properties in their quality. I did my best to soak up the atmosphere before rushing back to the main office for our appointment. These are hallowed grounds for Bordeaux fans. Pichon-Baron is one of the great Mèdoc producers—period.

I found my five colleagues circled around Jean Rene Matignon—the winemaker at Pichon-Baron since 1985—and Christian Seely who is the director of Axa Millesime, which controls the property as well as other prestigious wine estates around the world. They were in the midst of tasting a number of different 2015 expressions, including the Pichon-Baron, the Les Tourelles de Longueville (PB’s second wine), and the Les Griffons: a newer cabernet-based second wine to complement the merlot-based Les Tourelles. The wines were spectacular and I found myself gravitating to the Les Griffons immediately (as I tend to have a soft spot for second wines). The wine was both fresher and leaner than the other two, and seemed much more approachable in its youth. I’ll be very interested to see where they release this cuvée price-wise. The standard Pichon-Baron was outstanding, but it’s built for the long haul and I found it difficult to permeate the youthful vigor early on.

In order to get into the insanely-popular Château Latour you have to first have an appointment. Secondly, you have to pass a security check before you’re allowed to proceed down the long driveway leading to the main buildings. I decided again to hop out and take the path on foot, snapping photos along the way and taking in the scenery as slowly as I could. There’s something magical about visiting a first-growth estate and I didn’t want to simply rush through my initial experience. Whether that extra bit of excitement is simply a product of Latour’s incredible branded reputation (and it’s four-figure price tags) is up for debate, but I was pumped nonetheless.

Newcomers to Bordeaux are often taken aback by the miniature vines they see scattering the countryside as far as the eye can see. Unlike Napa or other familiar wine-producing regions where the vines often grow tall above the waistline, Bordeaux has a traditionally cooler growing climate and the grapes rely partially on reflected heat from the stone-laden soils to help them full ripen; therefore, they're trellised low to the ground. Latour’s vines are some of the oldest in the Mèdoc and have some of the stoniest soils, giving its wines a unique character that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. When it comes to ranking the best wines in the world of any style and from any region, Latour’s name is often mentioned at the top of that list. This very special terroir is one of the main reasons why and 2015 is the first vintage that the historic producer has farmed organically—an extra step towards preserving that precious soil.

As if tasting through Latour’s 2015 vintage wines wasn’t enough of a honor, the château gives its visitors an extra bonus by placing them along side older vintages as a comparison. We were treated to the 2010 Pauillac, the 2009 Les Forts de Latour, and the 2000 Latour respectively and were able to contrast them against the recent releases. I have to add that it’s not like Latour pulled out the 2002 or the 2007 versions of these wines like they could have. They pulled out library wines from three of the best vintages of the past fifteen years. The 2000 Latour sells for $1000 a bottle itself, so you can do the math here. I about died after tasting the 2009 Les Forts. Not only was it the best wine of the tasting, it was one of the best young wines I’ve ever tasted; a perfect and seamless core of elegant red fruit with lush tannins and vibrant acidity. Both Clyde and I were quite moved by the experience. We were joined by Frédéric Engerer, the director of Latour who is 100% class all the way, just like the estate itself. We’ll be meeting up with him for dinner this Wednesday so we'll talk more about him later on. 

As for the 2015s, they're every bit as good as Latour fans hope they'll be (if they're ever planning on drinking them). The 15 Les Forts was deeply-concentrated with dark red fruits and a tightly-wound core of firm tannins and acidity that should slowly unwind over the next few decades. The 15 Latour was so layered and so complex we had trouble even taking notes. There is nothing obvious about it; each sip seems to lead in a completely new direction, toward notes of strawberry and cigar box on one sip, but then toward tobacco leaf and earth on the next. On the way out our old pal Ralph Sands took a few minutes to admire the vineyards and the view out towards Leoville Las Cases. “Latour has the most deeply-rooted, powerful, old vine flavor that you can only get from eighty-plus year old vines,” he said to me as we stood there taking it in. “There are thousands of years of gravel deposits along the river. The vineyards have fabulous drainage and the water protects your from frost when it’s cold and heat when it’s hot. For example, Palmer, Pichon-Lalande, and Latour were able to make a good wine in 1991 when other producers were not due to frost. This is one of the premier sites in all of Bordeaux.”

-David Driscoll