On Wednesday I visited the Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac on the left bank in the Medoc. The estate is an 1855 classified Fifth Growth and today the majority of the production is Pauillac Grand Cru Classé. I had the opportunity to visit the winery with Charles Thuillier, who helps conduct courses at the Lynch-Bages L’Ecole du Bordeaux Wine School. After the visit and a brief tasting, I was fortunate enough to meet personally with Jean-Michel Cazes, owner from 1973 until 2006. He recently retired, passing control over to his son Jean-Charles. Nonetheless, Jean-Michel still maintains a very active role as President of the Advisory Board.
The estate has been around since the 16th century; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked the true beginning of this property’s rise to international prominence as a world-class Bordeaux wine producer. The Lynch family ran the property during this period, lending the chateau its name, incorporating the family name Lynch and Bages, the name of the small village and plateau where the estate is located. The Château went through a few generations of Lynch including Michel, former mayor of Pauillac, and Jean-Baptiste, former mayor of Bordeaux. Thomas Lynch ended up selling the estate, which passed through a number of owners before ending up in the hands of the Cazes family in 1937, when Jean-Charles Cazes purchased the property. Jean-Charles was already quite busy at the time as the owner and winemaker at Château Ormes de Pez, the famed Cru Bourgeois property in St-Estephe.
In 1966 Jean-Charles passed the ownership over to his son André, who was a prominent politician, serving as mayor of Pauillac for nearly two decades. Finally in 1973 Jean-Michel assumed ownership of both Lynch-Bages and Ormes de Pez. Jean-Michel’s first few years were rough, as the majority of the vintages throughout the 1970s were highly disappointing. However, in 1976 Jean-Michel hired Daniel Llose as Technical Director and Head Winemaker. And in 1980 Jean-Michel, noticing some quality control issues with some of the older wooden vats, installed 25 brand new stainless steel vats. The 70s were behind them and by the beginning of the 80s Lynch-Bages was quickly back on its feet to the delight of wine lovers around the world.
Regarding the vineyard and winemaking, Charles Thuillier provided me with a nice background. The estate manages 100 hectares of vines. The breakdown of red varietals is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. Additionally, the estate produces a limited amount of white wine, consisting of 40% Semillon, 40% Sauvignon, and 20% Muscadelle. The vine density is around 8,000 vines per hectare. Once in the winery, all stems are removed from the must, unlike some vinification processes in Burgundy, for example, that may leave a small amount of stems for the maceration. The typical maceration / fermentation (at a controlled temperature between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius) lasts between 5 to 12 days. “Pumping over” is completed 2 to 5 times a day during this period. In the past the estate implemented a much more labor intensive “délestage” system of rack and return. After the maceration is complete, the wine is racked off into 70% new oak barrels to be aged for 18 to 22 months. The barrels are racked every 4 to 5 months. For the bottling of Echo, the estate’s second label, 100% one-year old barrels are used. The overall production is around 450,000 bottles per year, with the Lynch-Bages Grand Cru label making up nearly 75% of the production.
Here’s a quick summary of my discussion with Jean-Michel…
I read a lot about Jean-Michel prior to my visit and all accounts spoke of a man with class and more than anything a true passion for Bordeaux wine. After spending a little over an hour with Jean-Michel, I wasn’t disappointed. Jean-Michel, a former Director of AXA Millesimes, was very active abroad as co-founder of the Tokaj Rennaissance in Hungary and the internationally famed Disznokö winery in Tokaj. Additionally, he has served for roughly the past 10 years as the President of the Pauillac association of wine producers. For all his efforts, in 2001 President Chirac awarded Jean-Michel with France’s highest honor, knighthood in the Legion of Honor.
I asked Jean-Michel what makes Lynch-Bages unique, as compared to the neighboring Pauillac estates. He’s a true ambassador for the region and admitted that in terms of winemaking, there isn’t much that can really be said to distinguish any top growth from the other. They’ve all been making world-class wine for centuries. However, Jean-Michel considers it significant that Lynch-Bages is one of the only major estates in Pauillac that is still fully family run, on-site, without the influence of any international corporate group. He mentioned that along with Anthony Barton of St-Julien’s Château Léoville Barton they jokingly refer to themselves as the “last of the Mohicans”.
Additionally, Jean-Michel highlighted the estate’s strong focus on tourism and education. Lynch-Bages has opened its doors to the public, providing easy access to tours and tastings. More so, as I already mentioned, Lynch-Bages manages one of the more respected wine schools in the area, conducting courses for interested amateur wine lovers. Finally, Jean-Michel’s deep commitment to the local community and particularly the small village of Bages is very apparent. A few years back Lynch-Bages organized a revival of Bages, which had essentially been left in ruins, opening up stores and cafes.
Regarding the 2008 vintage, Jean-Michel mentioned that the weather in the first days of October was so good that it saved the vintage. The season overall, was a near replay of 2007 with challenging weather all throughout, posing a threat of disease during the growing season. Throughout most of September the weather was dreary and winemakers all around were becoming quite worried. However, September came to an end with a burst of sun and warmth and the vintage was able to hold out. The harvest began very late. At Lynch-Bages the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest didn’t begin until October 8. Jean-Michel compared the late harvest conditions to the 1978 vintage; however, the big difference was that 1978 was handicapped by inferior technology as compared to 2008.
When asking Jean-Michel about his favorite vintages, he quickly noted 1982, 1989, 1990, 2000. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for one of these bottles!
Regarding pricing, I had a very candid and interesting discussion with Jean-Michel. He is disappointed with the stratospheric pricing that reached its peak with the 2005 vintage. Jean-Michel does not believe in the price structuring implemented by many of the top growths, whose 2005 prices climbed as high as 500 Euros for one bottle. Jean-Michel does not believe in releasing a vintage at a price similar or higher to that of a past comparable vintage. For example, he compared the 1998 to the 2008, explaining that ultimately the 1998’s current auction price will be analyzed and based on this, a lower price will be set for the 2008 release, leaving room for the wine’s value to grow. Jean-Michel is fully aware that he could release the 2008 above the current going rate of a 1998; however, he places stronger importance on his loyalty to his longtime customers.
The visit to Lynch-Bages was a perfect beginning to The Grand Crew’s six-week tour of Bordeaux. Next on the list is Jean Luc Thunevin of Château de Valandraud, with the visit scheduled for Monday, 20 July.
Below is a quick recap of my tasting with Charles Thuillier…
2008 Château Ormes de Pez, Saint-Estephe
Blend: 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 8% Cabernet France, 2% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: Strong tannins and full-bodied with a good balance of acidity. This wine is fruit forward, very juicy and shows nice earth, sweet spices, and black fruit flavors. Still too young, however, it should age well. 13.1% ABV.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 87-90)
Price: $23 @ WineZap.com
2008 Château Lynch-Bages “Echo”, Pauillac (formerly Haut-Bages Averous)
Blend: 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc
Tasting Notes: This wine is full-bodied with tight tannins and a slightly sour and acidic mid-palate. There are raspberry notes throughout, with a citric finish. 12.9% ABV.
Rating: 14/20 (WS 85-88)
Price: 20€ @ Wine-searcher.com
2008 Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac Grand Cru Classé
Blend: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 7% Cabernet France, 2% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: A soft and silky nose with strong tannins, great texture and a good balance on the palate. There are flavors of earth, leather, and dark fruit. 13.1% ABV.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 89-92)
2006 Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac Grand Cru Classé
Blend: 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet France, 1% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: More elegance than the 2008, opening up quite nicely to sweet red fruits. Well-balanced, full-bodied, slightly sour, and a nice complexity with flavors of leather, vanilla, and crème de cassis.
Rating: 17/20 (WS 92)
Price: $77 @ Wine Spectator
2004 Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac Grand Cru Classé
Blend: 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 5% Cabernet France, 2% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: Gamy and meaty with a soft nose. Less acidic than the 2006, this wine is medium-bodied and fruity.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 89)
Price: $55 @ Wine Spectator
2001 Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac Grand Cru Classé
Blend: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 5% Cabernet France, 2% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: Full-bodied with great complexity and a nice balance of acidity on the palate. This wine is fruity with additional notes of vanilla, earth, and meatiness.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 90)
Price: $49 @ Wine Spectator