On the Trail

A Brief History of Chateau Lanessan

David Driscoll
The estate as shown in Cocks & Feret - The Wines of Bordeaux 15th Edition

The estate as shown in Cocks & Feret - The Wines of Bordeaux 15th Edition

There are many useful facts available to the Bordeaux enthusiast, armed with the grandest of all Bordeaux tomes – Cocks & Feret's legendary Bordeaux and its WinesIn the case of Chateau Lanessan, we learn that its a 240 hectare estate of Garonne gravel with plantings of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. The visiting hours are displayed, along with the telephone contact numbers and address for the chateau. The profile for Lanessan in David Peppercorn's book, Bordeauxis a bit less data-oriented and offers some subjectivity,

This must surely be one of the best growths in the Médoc not to be classified in 1855. And the strange thing is that its excellence is no recent feature. Nineteenth-century editions of Cocks & Feret sing its praises and speak of its wines as above their class, and the old vintages of Lanessan that I have drunk have all been superb.

Chateau Lanessan is located just outside the commune of St. Julien, nearby the property of famed second-growth Gruaud Larose. Their wine is old-school in style, delicious, and harbors a reputation for being very long-lived. Peppercorn wrote back in the late 1980's:

Some of the old vintages of Lanessan are remarkable. This is a wine...of strong individuality, having a very marked bouquet, great fruit and richness in some years, a tendency to firmness at first, with rich finesse and breed. When these are allied to considerable consistency, it is easy to see that Lanessan deserves its reputation in Bordeaux and ought, indeed, to be even better known.

That's high praise coming from one of the world's Masters of Wine who specializes in Bordeaux. We're in complete agreement here at K&L, which is why we've just purchased a huge shipment of Lanessan back vintages, all at fantastic price points for you Bordeaux enthusiasts.  However, some of you might be wondering: if the wines of Lanessan are so good, then why are they so inexpensive? Why is K&L able to secure back vintages with ease? Why isn't Robert Parker rating them with any regularity? Why aren't they selling out in seconds?  These are all good questions. The short answer is: there's a lot of Bordeaux wine out there. Not every one of them can demand the world's attention. We prefer it that way, actually, because it allows us to use our expertise to find great deals for our customers. Nevertheless, a bit of history helps to explain how a storied producer in the region has continued to go unnoticed amidst the continuing hype surrounding Bordeaux.

The documented history of Lanessan dates back to 1310 when records show that Dame Paironne la Montagne, the widow of Henry de Lanessan, sold the estate to Sieur de Blaignan. In 1793 it was purchased by Jean Delbos, a Bordeaux négociant, and it has remained in the family ever since. In 1855, Louis Delbos, who was the manager at the time, refused to submit samples for consideration in what is now the most famous classification in wine history – the decree from Emperor Napoleon himself that ranked the great wines of Bordeaux's Médoc into the five-tier growth system we still recognize today. While Delbos then regarded the procedure as "bureaucratic nonsense," Peppercorn calls his disinterest "a piece of high-handedness that has cost Lanessan dearly." The 1855 Classification remains in place today. It has never been updated, despite a failed attempt to do so in 1960. Personal rankings from established Bordeaux critics are published from time to time, but they don't carry the weight of the original. Therefore, whenever enthusiasts peruse the one official ranking of top Bordeaux estates, Lanessan's name is nowhere to be found.

In 1907, one of the Delbos daughters married Etienne Bouteiller, the grandfather of today's owners Hubert and Bertrand Bouteiller. The names of both families still adorn each label on all but the most recent labels. Bertrand (who was busy running Chateau Palmer) had turned over responsibility to Hubert in 1972. Hubert retired in 2009 and handed the reigns to newcomer Paz Espejo who now makes the wine. While Espejo's winemaking techniques have moved Lanessan's flavor profile a bit closer to the new world, the wines have always carried a reputation for rusticity – a trait celebrated by old-school Bordeaux fans, but one not destined for big scores or inclusivity. With rusticity, however, comes durability. As Peppercorn stated before, the older vintages of Lanessan continue to hold up beautifully and all of us at K&L can attest to that. The powerful tannic structure and earthy flavors that dominate the wines in their youth begin to give way over time, integrating slowly and softening the palate much like the flavors of a stew simmering for hours on end.

Our Bordeaux buyer and one of our owners, Clyde Beffa, has had a soft spot for the Lanessan wines over the last fifteen years.  Since 1996, he's forged a relationship with the underrated chateau and that friendship has blossomed over time.  Because of his support and enthusiasm for the wine, Lanessan has agreed to sell us back vintages directly, without distribution fees driving up the price.  When we can buy wines directly from the chateau, not only can we keep the cost down, but we can also guarantee that they've been cellared in optimal conditions. Seeing that we just got another shipment of the 1999 vintage into stock (one of the most successful wines in the history of the company), it seemed like a good time to revisit the history and make sure our customers were aware of the property (watch for a smattering of the 2007 vintage soon as well).

All in all, Lanessan is an old world Bordeaux producer that, due to a "high-handed" career decision, was kept out of the most important wine classification in history.  A chateau that has always held true to its terroir-driven roots and made wine the old-fashioned way, regardless of who was handing out big points and fancy awards. K&L owner Clyde told me recently:

Just think how much the owner’s refusal to submit samples in 1855 has cost the property over 150 plus years.  It would have been rated at least a fourth growth - so many St Julien wines are rated 2nd growths. You figure the price would be double at least what it has been over the years.

Instead of fourth-growth status, however, Lanessan continues to fly under-the-radar, alluding the attention of most Bordeaux aficionados. While it's fun to go trophy-hunting among the top-rated, classified growths, we love telling our customers what we're excited about drinking after work.  I've given it to a number of high profile clients over the years who have gone mad for the 1999 vintage in particular, from rockers The Dandy Warhols in Portland, to Dr. Bill Lumsden—the master distiller for Ardbeg in Scotland. They all ask me the same thing: how can you get something this good and this old for this price? The answer lies in the above history lesson.

-David Driscoll