A Pauillac Classic - Nearly 40 Years of Pichon-Lalande

Modern Bordeaux seems to be defined by generational shifts that have altered the historic landscape and attempt to upend the classification system.  Pontet-Canet is an obvious example – they were in the background for years, quietly making modest wines under a Fifth Growth label.  Now they boldly challenge their neighbors at Mouton qualitatively from vintage to vintage.  Figeac is another example – they’re in the middle of an incredible half-decade run that has reinvented a once-esoteric wine into a cult collectible of the highest regard.  There are endless stories like this, where some of the most influential and significant wines from the past few vintages are widely celebrated despite the fact that they hardly resemble their predecessors. 

But then there’s Pichon-Lalande – they are on a remarkable run for the past half-decade that’s the equal of these paradigm-shifting properties, crafting one of the top wines in nearly every vintage.  The difference here, which seems to qualify them to another class altogether, is that they’ve never really lost their touch over all these years and have retained a truly singular character all the while.  It is simply stunning to see a property that’s so highly regarded and firmly established to somehow find new heights to aspire to.  But somehow, they keep getting better.

We put this to the test the other evening with a vertical that covered nearly 40 years, starting with a barrel sample of one of the wines of the 2018 vintage, and finishing with the over-achieving 1981.  Hosted by Technical Director Nicolas Glumineau, he helped us along the journey that included over eleven vintages of the Grand Vin (and one hugely promising ’18 Comtesse).  He has been at the helm since 2012 when he moved over from a little property up north by the name of Chateau Montrose.  One of the best parts of this experience was seeing how he was able to shape the identity of the estate into his most recent expressions, never losing the character of a wine that folks around the world cherish for its terroir and transparency.

Pichon-Lalande is a long-time champion of Pauillac.  Their chateau overlooks Latour, and while some of their vineyards have the First Growth as a neighbor, it is only a part.  In fact, they share borders with not only Pichon-Baron, but they also abut Leoville-Las Cases in St. Julien, with a few hectares spilling over into the neighboring district.  While it is par for the course to try to define a property by its proximity to famed vineyards, Pichon-Lalande might be the standard of comparison for many other aspiring Chateaux.  There is no doubting the vines are deeply rooted in some of the world’s most cherished soils.  The property is now owned by Roederer, who has overseen two major renovations in the past decade under their stewardship.  Suffice to say, they have all the tools to craft the finest wines, and it seems they’re making good on that promise.

Ten Vintages of Pichon-Lalande from 2010 to 1981

Ten Vintages of Pichon-Lalande from 2010 to 1981

The reason I bring all this up, especially when the tasting was more historic in nature than a tour of the new generation, is that I find it fascinating that the sense of place and the character of Pichon-Lalande comes through in the 2018 just as much as it does in wines that were produced 30 years prior.  And those wines were remarkable.  2010 was the youngest wine we tried, showing a class and caliber that makes me think it still will take another 10 to 15 years to round into form before it enters a 20-year drinking window.  The 2005 is elegant where the 2010 is a powerhouse.  The ’05 has always been a perplexing wine, and if it were from any other vintage, it would be much more celebrated.  But only time will tell if it ever lives up to the fame of the vintage itself.

The 1990s started with a under-the-radar ’99, which is drinking perfectly at the moment and has a truly classic claret profile.  1996 followed, and it was generous while still being immensely structured.  It reminded me of where I would want the 2010 to be, given time, a great compliment for a wine that’s gained many admirers over the year.  Clyde wouldn’t let us get away without tasting the 1991, a vintage that he adores for those who got it right.  It should go strong for the next five years and was a wonderfully mature wine that is, at the same time, not past its peak by any means.

But, as Clyde said, there is probably no property that mastered the 1980s like Pichon-Lalande, and enjoying these wines in such a progression, all in one evening, will be one of the great wine tasting experience I expect to have for a long time to come.  What was fascinating is that the room was split strongly in its opinions – my neighbors strongly preferred the structured ’89 and the beautiful ’83.  I was more into the rich ’86, and the mindboggling ’82.  To tell the truth, part of me didn’t want to like the ’82 this much, considering all the hype and the prices it has fetched of late, but it was irresistible and the clear wine of the tasting.  Lastly, and just to show how much Pichon-Lalande figured out the decade, we ended with a delicious ’81.

This was an indelible night from a property that is adding a new fascinating chapter to its illustrious history seemingly every vintage.  It also makes me glad that Pichon-Lalande is at the top of its game these days.  If any of the past few vintages hit these kind of marks in 10 or 20 years, we’re all in for another treat.  This is classic Bordeaux at its best.

Ryan Moses