Pauillac Wine Region Guide

Savor the Legendary: A Symphony of Elegance and Power

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Last updated: January 30, 2024

Introduction

There would be no argument if we had to single out one Bordeaux region to head the list. Pauillac needs little introduction; every wine lover worldwide knows and adores it. It claims three legendary wine estates: Chateau Latour, Lafite, and Mouton Rothschild. All of which are delightfully different in style. Their only commonality is the reception on the world stage – collectors will pay lavish sums for mature vintages of Lafite and its neighbors. These are investment-grade wines that are traded as much as they are enjoyed.

Yet there is another side to Pauillac: red wines that offer superlative quality and, whisper it, relative value. Indeed, several 5th Growth estates, attractively priced, are worth far more than their classification; Pauillac is more diverse than people realize, covering everything from hum-drum to iconic and collectible. The appellation’s star grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, essential in providing those quintessential Pauillac characteristics of freshness, soft fruit, oak, and subtlety combined with substance. Cigar-box and tobacco–tasting notes from many properties across different vintages all suggest something very refined yet powerful. Smelling the richness and feeling the force of Cabernet Sauvignon in these wines, we understand why some enthusiasts never buy anything else.

Winemaking and regional classifications

La Tours vineyards, Pauillac
La Tours vineyards, Pauillac

The Medoc region is firmly committed to the art of blending different grape varieties, producing something far greater than the sum of its parts. Pauillac is no exception: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc form the holy trinity of Medoc reds, occasionally topped up with a little Petit Verdot to add spice and vigor. Winemakers will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon brings power and structure to the blend, softened by Merlot’s supple tannins and opulence. Meanwhile, Cabernet Franc adds freshness and perfume to the finest Pauillac wines, although not every estate is convinced of its merits; Charles Chevalier, former director at Château Lafite, believed that Cabernet Franc was “either fabulous or worthless” depending on the vagaries of the growing season.

The Flexibility of Pauillac Winemakers

In addition, blends will be adapted to each vintage and the objectives of the winemaker; Cabernet Sauvignon struggled to ripen in the rain-soaked 2013 vintage, so Merlot played a more decisive role at many estates. Yet, in good years, it is rare for any Grand Vin to contain less than 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. A recent succession of warm years has produced some magnificent examples of this grape – almost New World in their voluptuous textures and glossy tannins.

Chateau Latour’s Winemaking and Maturation Process

Chateau Latour is a benchmark First Growth: we can learn much from their approaches to winemaking and maturation. Normally, a team of over 200 pickers harvests the grapes in the autumn and transports them in cagettes to the winery, where they discard imperfect berries.  They then destem the bunches and ferment them in conical stainless steel tanks, vinifying each block separately to maximize the winemaker’s options during the assemblage (blending). The vinification takes approximately four weeks: a slow and leisurely approach ensures an even and balanced extraction, aided by automated pump-overs. After undergoing malolactic fermentation in tanks, they transfer the wine to new French barriques and age it for approximately 18 months. The assemblage will then occur, with the finest wines reserved for the Grand Vin.

The Value of Second and Third Wines from Pauillac Estates

However, many estates in Pauillac, including Latour, also market a ‘second’ and even a ‘third’ wine. These can represent exceptional value for money: all the pedigree of a classified growth minus the price tag. They are usually composed of wines from younger vineyards; the blend often includes a higher percentage of Merlot to make the wine more approachable in youth. Les Forts de Latour remains one of the most loved, closely followed by Carruades de Lafite.

Geography and terroir

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Château Pichon Baron

Pauillac is in the middle of the Medoc Peninsula, located northwest of Bordeaux. To the south are the vineyards of St-Julien, while St-Estephe’s heavier clay soils are due north. The appellation consists of about 1,230 vineyards cultivated on exceptional terroir. Indeed, much literature exists regarding Pauillac’s well-drained gravel soils – these stone fragments play a vital role in assisting Cabernet Sauvignon in achieving phenolic ripeness in cooler vintages. This is simply because gravel reflects heat into the vine canopy, aiding in the development of sugars and tannins during veraison. It is arguably the single most important factor in the local quality equation, responsible for helping Pauillac’s signature grape to balanced maturity.

The Varied Soils of Pauillac

Yet Pauillac’s soil is not homogenous. In addition to the famous gravel, the zone contains a higher clay content compared to Margaux; the subsoil can vary but often consists of alios, a hard sandstone rich in iron. This may explain Pauillac’s classic strength and virility. Moreover, the vineyards of the region’s glorious châteaux are less subdivided than most of Medoc. To offer a point of comparison, Margaux’s châteaux congregate around the village, and their vines spread out in all directions in the surrounding countryside.

Iconic First Growths

Meanwhile, in Pauillac, whole vineyard tranches belong to a single owner. That makes it easier to pinpoint variations in style according to terroir. This is typified by the significant differences between the famous three 1st Growths. Lafite is the appellation’s poster child for finesse. At the same time, Latour offers unprecedented power and structure – Mouton Rothschild is a third kind of Pauillac: strong, dark, full of the flavor of ripe blackcurrants, and at its best, wonderfully exotic.

Unique Terroir and Frost Resistance

As one would expect, this trio occupies the prime spots in terms of terroir; Latour’s proximity to the estuary famously ensures that the estate hardly ever suffers from frost, enabling it to make a great wine in terrible years, such as 1991. First Growths Lafite and Mouton Rothschild are farther from the estuary than Latour but occupy an enviable location on a gravel plateau. Lafite marks the northernmost boundary of Pauillac – St Estephe is but a stone’s throw away. Its vineyards once included a small percentage of white varieties, used to make a blend that was never commercialized. However, Mouton Rothschild produces a small volume of exceptional white wine: Aile d’Argent Blanc. Pauillac is full of surprises.

The lowdown

Three revolutionary changes have taken place in Pauillac over the past 20 years. The first concerns tourism: local chateaux were traditionally very reticent to welcome outsiders, with little infrastructure and facilities available – much less a warm welcome! This is partly due to cultural reasons; however, the nature of Bordeaux’s commercial system, La Place, also played its part in keeping tourists away. The term ‘La Place’ refers to an intimate network of producers, negociants (merchants), and courtiers (brokers), all responsible for exporting Pauillac’s venerable red wines to the world. Negociants have long been responsible for marketing Bordeaux’s Cru Classe labels, so there was little incentive to welcome customers on-site. Yet this no longer washes in an age of digital communications – and an insatiable need for ‘experiences.’ Fortunately, Pauillac’s establishment has been listening. During an interview in 2021, Saskia de Rothschild laid out her plans to transform the region’s hospitality culture. She said: “We have to open our doors, share the stories of our wines, and show a different side to Lafite that is not all about men in suits and white-tablecloth restaurants.” Meanwhile, Pichon Longueville has invested in a very Napa Valley-Esq visitor center, where aficionados can purchase a few bottles of their favorite vintage.

Sustainable Viticulture

Secondly, many properties are abandoning traditional viticultural practices and a paradigm that encourages using large volumes of synthetic inputs, including pesticides and herbicides, to create a monoculture in the vineyard. Instead, Lafite and others are experimenting with organic and biodynamic viticulture and pursuing initiatives that will reduce the environmental impact of wine growing.

The Diminishing Influence of the 1855 Classification

Lastly, the persuasive force of the 1855 classification is becoming less important in a zeitgeist where peer-to-peer recommendations are often more valuable than critical endorsement. Thus, top-rated wines – Lynch-Bages, Pontet-Canet, and Grand-Puy-Lacoste – are sold for prices in excess of certain Margaux Second Growths. Their official ranking is Fifth Growth in the intransigent (save Mouton) Bordeaux hierarchy, yet Millennials don’t appear to be listening. The pleasure principle guides their spending commitments rather than an antiquated system for classifying wines. Balancing tradition and modernity in our fast-paced world is no easy task, but Pauillac appears to be thriving.

Pauillac gastronomy

This is arguably the best destination for a fine meal in the Medoc. In addition to the always superb regional fayre at Cafe Lavinal – part of the Cordeillan Bages hotel – several excellent restaurants are dotted around the quayside; this is one of the nicest parts of the town. The Medocains always prefer to cook with seasonal ingredients – lamb is a major highlight- and eschew molecular gastronomy for direct and punchy flavors.

Guide to Gastronomy of Bordeaux: Read more

History

Pauillac town on the Gironde
Pauillac town on the Gironde

Pauillac is the glamorous celebrity of the Medoc. Some of the world’s finest red wines emerge from here that set the standard for exquisite claret. Yet when the Romans planted vines in the Graves region of Bordeaux in the last century BC, Pauillac was nothing more than marshland used for grazing. Nevertheless, Bordeaux and its immediate environs became a key source of wine in the Western Roman Empire, a formidable political apparatus that started to collapse in the 5th century AD. After that, rival factions sought to claim the spoils of Rome’s disintegration – historians commonly refer to this period as the ‘Dark Ages.’ Chaos and anarchy reigned in southwest France until the Germanic Franks assumed power in Gaul in the aftermath.

The Medieval Foundations of Pauillac’s Winemaking Legacy

In the Middle Ages, winemaking once again assumed a role of great importance in Bordeaux; the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England led to favorable terms for merchants shipping claret to the shores of England. Records at Chateau Lafite suggest a property existed on this site during medieval times, although it is not certain that vines were planted at Lafite then. Vines were probably planted at this seminal First Growth in the 1600s; Dutch engineers, led by Conrad Gaussen, drained the salt marshes of the Medoc in the 17th century at the behest of the French authorities. Thus, a once mosquito-ridden backwater was turned into Bordeaux’s premier terroir – new estates mushroomed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pauillac’s gravel and clay soils were ideal for cultivating red varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Yet it was Malbec that dominated many vineyards in Bordeaux; Lafite had a large percentage of Malbec in the late 1700s.

Pauillac’s Vineyards and the 1855 Classification

However, after phylloxera devastated vineyards in the 19th century, many vineyards replanted and regrafted onto American rootstock. As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon increased dramatically at the expense of Malbec and Carmenere – these varieties are seldom used in Pauillac today. Several decades earlier, two of Bordeaux’s most prestigious names, Lafite and Latour, were appointed to the ranks of Premier Cru Classe during the infamous 1855 classification of Bordeaux’s top wines. But, their omission was a travesty for the owners of (current) First Growth Mouton Rothschild. After many years of relentless proselytizing and campaigning, Jacques Chirac (former minister of agriculture) signed a decree elevating Mouton to the first division. Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s response has entered wine legend: “Premier je suis. Second Je fus. Mouton ne change.” (First I am. Second I was. Mouton doesn’t change). The estate has not looked back since.

Author

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James lawrence

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