On Wednesday I met with Gildas d’Ollone, General Director of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Before I dig into what was an unforgettable and very productive visit, lemme loosen up the semantics a bit. If anyone is unfamiliar with this estate and is thinking, “sweet Jesus that is the longest château name I’ve ever seen”… one, it probably is… two, there’s a lot of beautiful history behind the name… and three, there’s an acceptable abbreviation, which is “Pichon-Lalande”.
Surrounded by the world-class estates Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Poyferré, and Pichon-Longueville, Pichon-Lalande is a Second Growth 1855 Classification, located predominantly in Pauillac. Technically 11 of the 87 hectares of vines stretch into Saint-Julien, however, this is only a geographic reference. Out of the 11 hectares located in Saint-Julien, only one hectare is classified as a Saint-Julien AOC, and the remainder is classified as Pauillac. If I’ve totally lost you, no problem, just think of Pichon-Lalande as a Pauillac producer.
The current composition of vines includes 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Petit Verdot. The average age of the vines is 35 to 40 years and yields are around 45 hectoliters per hectare. Once in the winery the majority of the vinification takes place in stainless steel vats; however, a small portion of concrete vats are also used. Fermentation and maceration last for 18 to 25 days and during this period three extraction techniques are put to use. Pumping over is most common, followed by periodic déléstage (rack and return) and a new technique known as turbo pigeage. Turbo pigeage is a controlled punching down method, which utilizes a stainless steel pump device that is immersed directly into the cap at which point the wine is pumped up from just below the cap and then pumped over the cap in such a way that does not incorporate any oxygen (let me pause as I take a deep breath). Following the maceration the malolactic fermentation is carried out almost completely in the stainless steel or concrete vats; however, roughly 15% of the malolactic fermentation is completed in oak barrels. From this point the aging proceeds in 50% new oak barrels for 16 to 18 months. Overall, 200,000-240,000 bottles of the first label are produced, followed by 150,000-200,000 bottles of the second label, Réserve de la Comtesse.
The history of Pichon-Lalande begins with the Pichon-Longueville half of the estate’s name. Referenced by Louis XIV back in the 18th century, this estate originally belonged to the Pierre Mazure de Rauzan viticulture empire. In 1700 Mr. Rauzan’s daughter, Thérèse, inherited the estate as a dowry when she married Jacques de Pichon-Longueville, the first President of the Parliament of Bordeaux. The estate remained in the family until 1850 when Baron Joseph de Pichon split the estate equally among his five children—two sons and three daughters. However, in the end only two of the children ended up inheriting the estate. Raoul received the two-fifths destined for the Baron’s sons and Virginie received the three-fifths destined for the daughters. Virginie later married Count Henri de Lalande, receiving the title of Comtesse de Lalande. The Comtesse successfully managed the estate, still bearing her name today. She gained much notoriety throughout the Medoc during this period, ultimately leading to the Second Growth Classification under Napoleon III. In 1925 the estate switched hands to Edouard and Louis Miaihle. Mr. d’Ollone, the current General Director, recounted how the winery ultimately ended up with May Eliane de Lencquesaing, Edouard’s daughter and owner of Pichon-Lalande until 2007. The story goes that after Edouard, who owned many different properties and businesses, passed away, his children decided to distribute their father’s holdings equally and randomly amongst each other. May drew Pichon-Lalande from the hat and frankly was very unpleased and quite worried, as she had no interest in running the family’s wine estate. This occurred in 1978 and despite her initial disappointment, May aggressively took on her new responsibility, soon becoming one of the more respected and ambitious estate proprietors in the Medoc. She became known by her peers as “La Générale”. During her nearly 30-year reign she invested heavily in improvements to the estate, constructing a brand new winery and producing some of the best wines in all of the Medoc. In fact, Robert Parker rated her 1982 vintage 100 points.
I spent a solid three hours with Mr. d’Ollone from the time I was picked up at the Gare Pauillac until he dropped me off in downtown Bordeaux, where he resides. Throughout the visit and the 45-minute car ride we had a great opportunity to discuss many issues. Furthermore, I met with Thomas Dô Chi Nam, Technical Director (A.K.A. the head winemaker). Mr. d’Ollone always had a passion for wine; however, his intentions were never to work in the wine industry. At the university Gildas studied business and in tandem his true passion was music. Throughout all his schooling he pursued his musical interests, performing in the school orchestra where he played the flute. After graduating from the university, Mr. d’Ollone worked for Revox for one year. Revox was one of the original companies producing the famous 8 track audio player. At some point Gildas realized that music performance would probably never turn into a profitable career, and so he figured he would take a stab at his other passion… wine. Gildas worked for International Distillers and Vintners (IDV) for ten years during the 80s. In 1991, after much success on the distribution end at IDV, Mr. d’Ollone decided to get more directly involved, accepting a position as commercial manager at Pichon-Lalande. In 2005 he was promoted to General Director, and today he also directs the operations at Château de Pez (Saint-Estèphe), Château Bernadotte (Haut-Médoc), and Château Réaut La Gravière (Côtes de Bordeaux).
One of the first issues that we discussed was the recent purchase of the estate by Louis Roederer Champagne in January 2007. Since the purchase the Rouzaud family of Roederer began investing heavily in the estate’s vineyard management system. A complete technical study of the vineyard was conducted, analyzing all soils and subsoils and identifying the ideal plantings for each parcel. Roederer hired internationally acclaimed viticulture and winemaking consultants Xavier Chone and Olivier Trégoat to manage the vineyard overhaul. As a result a replanting plan was put together that will be carried out over the next few years. Although in the past the estate became well known for incorporating a larger than normal portion of Merlot, the new focus will lead to a higher portion of Cabernet Sauvignon. Additionally, Petit Verdot will continue to be a dominant blending varietal, foreseen to over shadow the Cabernet Franc in upcoming vintages. Furthermore, a program of sustainable viticulture has been implemented, reducing the use of fertilizers to a bare minimum.
Regarding winemaking style, Pichon-Lalande does not foresee many major changes in the future. Mr. d’Ollone considers the estate to be a modern day, forward thinking winery that maintains its traditional beliefs in excellence in winemaking. The estate, unlike many of its competitors, does not believe in using more than 50 to 60% new oak. Furthermore, yields of 45 hectoliters per hectare are considered ideal. Mr. d’Ollone noted that making extraordinary wine at 30 hectoliter yields is easy, however, making extraordinary wine at 45 hectoliter yields is a skill. On the issue of stainless steel versus concrete vats, Mr. d’Ollone foresees a move toward more concrete in the future. He believes that the vinification in concrete is ideal since the temperature fluctuation is much more subtle and slow moving. The objective is to agitate and shock the wine as little as possible, from vine to bottle. When all is said and done, Pichon-Lalande aims to make a wine that will age for long time, but still be approachable within the first few years.
I asked Thomas and Gildas about the 2008 vintage … They find it balanced and elegant, with good fruit, good aging potential, freshness, melted tannins, and good density.
So here’s what Gildas, Thomas and I tasted …
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) A blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. A very fresh, bright and rich nose with aromas of red fruits, spice, cassis, and minerals. This wine is silky in the mouth with a very fresh and vibrant fruitiness. The full-bodied mouth feel and balance between the acidity and sweet tannins is very nice. There are flavors of dark chocolate, black berries, and cedar.
Rating: 16-17/20 (WS 89-92)
1999 Château Bernadotte, Cru Bourgeois
Tasting Notes: A blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Merlot. 13% ABV. An elegant, complex nose with a sweet spiciness, notes of black fruits and a subtle suggestion of forest floor. There is good acidity in the mouth with slightly course and astringent tannins, however, still coming together with a pretty nice balance. Black cherries and oak flavors come out in the palate.
Price: $21 USD @ Snooth.com
2000 Réserve de la Comtesse
Tasting Notes: A blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and <1% Petit Verdot. 13% ABV. A big, complex, antiquish nose with notes of earth, musk, cigar box and a Mediterranean nuance, suggesting tapenade. In the mouth this wine is very smooth and round. There is a great acidity up front that becomes a little sour in the mid palate. There are delicious flavors of red fruits, cassis, cherries, plums, and smoke.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 90)
Price: $32 USD @ Wine Spectator, at auction
Tasting Notes: A blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and <1% Petit Verdot. 13% ABV. A bright nose, recalling Spanish tapas and fresh olive oil, followed by smoke, fresh black and red fruits, and subtle hints of mint and licorice. In the mouth this wine is powerful and juicy with pronounced acidity and light but structured tannins. Mr. d’Ollone’s description of this wine as square in form fits perfectly. There are flavors of black berries, cassis, leather, and mineral, with cedar and cherry lingering on the finish.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 92)
Price: $125 USD @ Wine Spectator, on release