Pauillac Wine Region Summary
Think of a ‘classical’ Bordeaux wine, and think of a Pauillac. On the Left Bank of the Gironde, well connected to nearby ports, this appellation has enjoyed renown as the birthplace of fine wines since the 1700s.
Pauillac itself is crammed with estates of the highest quality and pedigree. Home to First Growths Latour, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild, competition is rife between producers as Super-Seconds Pichon-Baron and Pichon-Lalande jostle for attention, and Flying Fifths such Chateau Pontet-Canet frequently belie their classification.
Mineral deposits of iron and marl are found in localized pockets and the land itself is settled along gentle ridges fed by streams, meaning a great variety of expressions of the same landscape are possible. For the most part, Pauillac producers have in common loose gravelly soil, allowing for grapes with concentrated tannins, which impart longevity to the finished wines here.
The velvety clarets from the region, based heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon, are known for their ability to age for decades, many continuing to reveal nuances a half-century after bottling.
Different Bordeaux regions have enjoyed great vogue and cachet at different times; yet Pauillac is reassuring in its consistently high profile. Centuries ago Europe and America were introduced to Bordeaux wine via Pauillac, as the wine trade grew up in its ports. Today, the region has had a key part developing newer markets with the fever for its production in Asian territories in the last years a case in point.
Highest rated vintages for Pauillac
One of the monumental wines of the last century is the 1982 Pichon Lalande. Since bottling, it has flirted with perfection, and was a sprinter out of the gate, which gave rise to questions about how quickly it would begin its decline. However, at age 27, it retains all its glossy, rich, flamboyant cassis fruit, chocolaty, berry jam-like notes, and plenty of earthy, foresty flavors. This is a full-bodied, extravagantly rich Pichon Lalande seemingly devoid of acidity and tannin, but the wine is incredibly well-balanced and pure. It is an amazing effort! Release price: ($110.00/case)
Always somewhat atypical (which I suspect will be the case with the more modern day 2003), the 1982 Latour has been the most opulent, flamboyant, and precocious of the northern Medocs, especially the St.-Juliens, Pauillacs, and St.-Estephes. It hasn’t changed much over the last 10-15 years, revealing sweet tannins as well as extraordinarily decadent, even extravagant levels of fruit, glycerin, and body. It is an amazing wine, and on several occasions, I have actually picked it as a right bank Pomerol because of the lushness and succulence of the cedary, blackberry, black currant fruit. This vintage has always tasted great, even in its youth, and revealed a precociousness that one does not associate with this Chateau. However, the 1982 is still evolving at a glacial pace. The concentration remains remarkable, and the wine is a full-bodied, exuberant, rich, classic Pauillac in its aromatic and flavor profiles. It’s just juiced up (similar to an athlete on steroids) and is all the better for it. This remarkable effort will last as long as the 1982 Mouton, but it has always been more approachable and decadently fruity. Drink it now, in 20 years, and in 50 years! Don’t miss it if you are a wine lover. Release price: ($350.00/case)
The 1986 possesses outstanding richness, a deep color, medium body, a graceful, harmonious texture, and superb length. The penetrating fragrance of cedar, chestnuts, minerals, and rich fruit is a hallmark of this wine. Powerful, dense, rich, and tannic, as well as medium to full-bodied, with awesome extraction of fruit, this Lafite has immense potential. Patience is required. Anticipated maturity: 2000-2030. Last tasted 11/94
After stumbling over some wines I thought were high class Bordeaux, I nailed this wine in one of the blind tastings for this article. In most tastings where a great Bordeaux is inserted with California Cabernets, the Bordeaux comes across as drier, more austere, and not nearly as rich and concentrated (California wines are inevitably fruitier and more massive). To put it mildly, the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild held its own (and then some), in a flight that included the Caymus Special Selection, Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, Dunn Howell Mountain, and Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard. Clearly the youngest looking, most opaque and concentrated wine of the group, it tastes as if it has not budged in development since I first tasted it out of barrel in March, 1987. An enormously concentrated, massive Mouton-Rothschild, comparable in quality, but not style, to the 1982, 1959, and 1945, this impeccably made wine is still in its infancy. Interestingly, when I was in Bordeaux several years ago, I had this wine served to me blind from a magnum that had been opened and decanted 48 hours previously. Even then, it still tasted like a barrel sample! I suspect the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild requires a minimum of 15-20 more years of cellaring; it has the potential to last for 50-100 years! Given the outrageously high prices being fetched by so many of the great 1982s and 1990s (and lest I forget, the 1995 Bordeaux futures), it appears this wine might still be one of the "relative bargains" in the fine wine marketplace. I wonder how many readers will be in shape to drink it when it does finally reach full maturity? The tasting notes for this section are from two single blind tastings, one conducted in May, 1996, in California, and the other in June, 1996, in Baltimore.
Tasted three times since bottling, the 1996 Lafite-Rothschild is unquestionably this renowned estate's greatest wine. As I indicated last year, only 38% of the crop was deemed grand enough to be put into the final blend, which is atypically high in Cabernet Sauvignon (83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, and 3% Petit Verdot). This massive wine may be the biggest, largest-scaled Lafite I have ever tasted. It will require many years to come around, so I suspect all of us past the age of fifty might want to give serious consideration as to whether we should be laying away multiple cases of this wine. It is also the first Lafite-Rothschild to be put into a new engraved bottle (designed to prevent fraudulent imitations). The wine exhibits a thick-looking, ruby/purple color, and a knock-out nose of lead pencil, minerals, flowers, and black currant scents. Extremely powerful and full-bodied, with remarkable complexity for such a young wine, this huge Lafite is oozing with extract and richness, yet has managed to preserve its quintessentially elegant personality. This wine is even richer than it was prior to bottling. It should unquestionably last for 40-50 years. Anticipated maturity: 2012-2050. The wine of the vintage?
There are only 10,800 cases (rather than the normal 15,000-20,000) of the 2003 Latour, a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot (13.3% finished alcohol). A prodigious effort, it boasts a saturated purple color as well as a gorgeous perfume of smoke, cedar, creme de cassis, flowers, crushed rocks, and blackberries. Massive and multi-layered, with huge richness and low acidity, it is about as unctuous as a young Latour can be. It could be compared to the 1982, but it may be even more pure, at least at this early stage, than that monumental wine. The level of intensity builds prodigiously in the mouth, and the finish lasts nearly a minute. Disarmingly accessible (although analytically the tannin level is high), I suspect it will ultimately shut down, but it was performing impeccably when I tasted it. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2040+. What can one say about proprietor Francois Pinault and his manager, Frederic Engerer? A strong argument can be made that in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, Latour produced the wine of the vintage, although it has plenty of competition in the Northern Medoc in 2003. Moreover, the bargains are the estate’s least expensive cuvee, Pauillac, followed by Les Forts de Latour, Latour’s second wine which continues to increase in quality.
A modern day version of the 1959 Lafite, the 2003 Lafite Rothschild was bottled in mid-May, 2005 after achieving 12.9% natural alcohol – hardly an astonishing figure given the vintage’s weather conditions. A combination of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot, it represents a ripe version of the essence of Lafite-Rothschild. Dense purple-colored, with classic notes of graphite intertwined with melted licorice, creme de cassis, smoke, and flowers, it reveals extraordinary richness, opulence, power, purity, intensity, and viscosity. Whether this wine will close down or not is questionable as it is somewhat atypical given its sweetness and softness. Analytically, there are extremely high tannins, which I suspect will assert themselves in the future. Production in 2003 was less than half of normal. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2050.
An amazing wine in every sense, this classic, full-bodied Pauillac is the quintessential Pontet Canet from proprietor Alfred Tesseron, who continues to reduce yields and farms his vineyards biodynamically – a rarity in Bordeaux. Black as a moonless night, the 2009 Pontet Canet offers up notes of incense, graphite, smoke, licorice, creme de cassis and blackberries. A wine of irrefutable purity, laser-like precision, colossal weight and richness, and sensational freshness, this is a tour de force in winemaking that is capable of lasting 50 or more years. The tannins are elevated, but they are sweet and beautifully integrated as are the acidity, wood and alcohol (which must be in excess of 14%). This vineyard, which is situated on the high plateau of Pauillac adjacent to Mouton Rothschild, appears to have done everything perfectly in 2009. This cuvee should shut down in the cellar and re-open in a decade or more. Anticipated maturity: 2025-2075.
A blend of 91.3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8.7% Merlot with just under 14% natural alcohol, the 2009 Latour is basically a clone of the super 2003, only more structured and potentially more massive and long lived. An elixir of momentous proportions, it boasts a dense purple color as well as an extraordinarily flamboyant bouquet of black fruits, graphite, crushed rocks, subtle oak and a notion of wet steel. It hits the palate with a thundering concoction of thick, juicy blue and black fruits, lead pencil shavings and a chalky minerality. Full-bodied, but very fresh with a finish that lasts over a minute, this is one of the most remarkable young wines I have ever tasted. Will it last one-hundred years? No doubt about it. Can it be drunk in a decade? For sure.
One of the perfect wines of the vintage, Frederic Engerer challenged me when I tasted the 2010 Latour at the estate, asking, “If you rate the 2009 one hundred, then how can this not be higher?” Well, the scoring system stops at 100, (and has for 34 years,) and will continue for as long as I continue to write about wine. Nevertheless, this blend of 90.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.5% Merlot, and .5% Petit Verdot hit 14.4% natural alcohol and represents a tiny 36% of their entire production. The pH is about 3.6, which is normal compared to the 3.8 pH of the 2009, that wine being slightly lower in alcohol, hence the combination that makes it more flamboyant and accessible. The 2010 is a liquid skyscraper in the mouth, building layers upon layers of extravagant, if not over-the-top richness with its hints of subtle charcoal, truffle, blackberry, cassis, espresso and notes of toast and graphite. Full-bodied, with wonderfully sweet tannin, it is a mind-boggling, prodigious achievement that should hit its prime in about 15 years, and last for 50 to 100. There is no denying the outrage and recriminations over the decision by the Pinault family and their administrator, Frederic Engerer, to pull Latour off the futures market next year. However, you can still buy these 2010s, although the first two wines are not likely to be released until they have more maturity, which makes sense from my perspective. Perhaps Latour may have offended a few loyal customers who were buying wines as futures, but they are trying to curtail all the interim speculation that occurs with great vintages of their wines (although only God knows what a great vintage of future Latour will bring at seven or eight years after the harvest). As a set of wines, the 2010s may be the Pinaults' and Engerer's greatest achievements to date. Of course, I suspect the other first-growth families won't want to hear that, nor will most of the negociants in Bordeaux, but it's just the way things are. Frederic Engerer, by no means the most modest of administrators at the first growths, thinks it would be virtually impossible to produce a wine better than this, and he may well be correct. If they gave out Academy Awards for great performances in wine, the Pinaults and Engerer would certainly fetch a few in 2010. P.S. Just so you don't worry, Engerer offered up the 2009 next to the 2010 to see if I thought it was still a 100-point wine, and yes, ladies and gentlemen, it still is.