A taste of different vintage conditions

A tasting at Château L’Évangile, Pomerol
A tasting at Château L’Évangile, Pomerol

There are several different ways for a producer of top-flight wines to show off a range of its vintages. Some opt for the chronological approach – working forwards or backwards in history; others like to pair the vintages with appropriate dishes. Baron Éric de Rothschild of Château Lafite Rothschild, and DBR (Lafite) Group managing director, Christophe Salin, decided to focus on the type of the wines when hosting a recent tasting at Château L’Evangile.

The idea was to give the invited tasters a detailed insight into the relationship between climatic conditions and great, versus problematic, vintages.

Château L’Evangile is one of the biggest estates in Pomerol, at 22 ha and widely regarded as one of the great estates of  the appellation.  It dates back to the 18th century. In 1862, it was bought by Paul Chaperon, whose descendants – the Ducasse family – ran it until 1990. That was the year Simone Ducasse sold a 70% stake to the DBR (Lafite) Group, who launched a restoration and renewal program. They also created a ‘second’ wine, the Blason de L’Évangile. Lafite acquired the property outright in 1999.

Terroir and its expression

The vineyards, technical director Eric Kohler explains, have three different terroirs: blue clay, sand over clay soil, and gravel. Eighty percent of the production is Merlot, with Cabernet Franc (called ‘Bouchet’ locally) making up the rest. This combination of soil and grape variety Kohler continues mean that four factors are needed for a great vintage: early and rapid flowering; some stress at the beginning of fruit set to limit growth; some stress to stop plant growth; and then good weather that’s warm and dry with fresh nights. During 1995, 2002 and 2012 conditions were complicated and either too dry or too wet.

These years were included in the first flight, dubbed ‘Challenging Vintages’.

The 1995, in particular, showed some green notes, while the younger wines illustrated the beneficial effects of greater care in the vineyard and winery.

In contrast, the ‘Outstanding Trilogy’ – the 2005, 2009 and 2010 – “achieved perfectly the key moments of the season,” said Kohler. Outstanding is right, with these wines showing enormous depth and concentration, while being vibrant and fresh.

The critics have long agreed with Kohler’s assessment. In 2015, Jancis Robinson MW said called 2005 the “vintage of the century so far” in Bordeaux, while Robert Parker said, “I have tasted enough wines from 2005, 2009 and 2010 to realize that these may be the three greatest Bordeaux vintages I have tasted in my career”.

“The 2010 could only have come from Pomerol,” said Wine Advocate critic Neal Martin, author of an award-winning book on the appellation, who was present at the tasting. Next came the ‘Great Classics’ of 1985, 2000 and 2001, which are structured, elegant wines complete with never-ending finish.

“These third wines shouldn’t be called the Great Classics, because they’re just the wines we loved,” said Baron Éric. “They weren’t perfect, but they had something in them.”

A formidable presence

The wines kicked off a round of reminiscing, particularly about Simone Ducasse, who ran the estate after the death of her husband, Louis Ducasse. “Madame Ducasse was an absolutely marvelous old lady, who always supplied beautiful food. Her favourite drink was vodka with orange peel, which she drank like water,” said Baron Éric, adding that when they bought their stake in 1990, Salin was “young and handsome” and thought it would be easy to negotiate with her. “But the old lady turned out to be an absolute dictator.” She didn’t find it necessary, for example, to invest in new barrels, so the Lafite team had to roll them into the winery under the cover of night. “We couldn’t get her to replant.”

Michel Rolland, who has consulted to Château back to the Ducasse era, says he argued with Simone Ducasse when he was blending the 1985. “All the time I was fighting a little bit with her.” Today, he says, he agrees with her judgement more than he did at the time. “This 1985 is the classic wine – nothing perfect, but everything is there.”

Baron Éric agreed, saying, “The more I go on, the more I agree with Madame Ducasse.”

Then came ‘Timeless Treasures’ of 1982, 1989 and 1998, which brought up a discussion of 1982, the year that Louis Ducasse died. “That August, he called me and said you have to come and see me,” said Rolland. He went to the hospital room, where Ducasse revealed that he was dying and asked Rolland to do the winemaking. “One week later, he passed away.”

Tragically, the 1982 vintage, said Rolland, was the best vintage he ever saw in his life.

“I find it very moving when you have these vertical tastings,” Baron Éric concluded. “It throws you back in time, but it also shows you what you love about what you’re doing. It’s like you have 12 children in front of you, and they’re all different, but you love them just as much.”
Felicity Carter







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