Wine Growths Often Outlive Their Reputations

Times Wine Writer

Funny how a reputation can be acquired with scant justification for it.

It happens in Hollywood and it happens in the world of wine. When a wine is called a Second Growth, ranking it immediately below the top five wines in Bordeaux, it is revered and elevated to a platform. And looking up at it we are supposed to simply gurgle at the sound of its name.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville, called the Baron by its faithful, is just such a name. When the authorities established the famed Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and determined in their wisdom that Pichon-Longueville should be just below the top, it may have been making a statement about the quality of the wine as it then was viewed. Or it may have been making a statement about the wealth and position of its owner more than about the quality of the wine.

Living on Reputation

But wines change and the Classification of 1855 almost never does. Throughout the years, Pichon-Longueville has not been as impressive as other Second-Growth wines, though it is still ranked its lofty status.

This came to mind last week after I attended a tasting of 41 vintages of Pichon-Longueville dating back to 1870. The event, hosted and arranged by Riverside wine lover Bipin Desai and staged at Citrus restaurant, gave me some insights into this property. I also conjured up a host of minor-league generic messages from the event.

Two thoughts: For much of its history, Pichon-Longueville wasn’t worth being rated a Second-Growth wine. But under its new ownership, I feel strongly that Pichon-Longueville will justify its rank.

Rich History

Chateau Pichon-Longueville got its name from its founder, Jacques Pichon Baron de Longueville, a president of the parliament of Bordeaux in the 17th Century. Acquiring such a title required payment of a great sum of money.

Then, before the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, the Baron died and the property was divided among various members of the Pichon family, 40% of it remaining on the Baron’s side. The other 60%, including a chateau sitting across the road at the southern end of Pauillac, went to another branch of the family. It carried the unwieldy title Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a name it retains to this day.

Wine lovers know well that the two separate Second-Growth estates with the names that start with Pichon-Longueville are unique. The one they call Pichon-Lalande, for short, has been more successful. A lesser light is the one they call simply the Baron or Pichon-Baron.

(Actually the formal title of the latter property is Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon Longueville. This unwieldy name has led to the shortened Baron as the common reference.)

The Baron property was acquired in 1935 by Jean Bouteiller, reportedly one of the greatest wine makers ever to make wine in Bordeaux. Bouteiller’s wines were better than many of those that preceded him and followed his death in the early 1960s. By 1963, the wines turned lackluster again and through 1985, Pichon-Longueville-Baron was a property wine lovers paid lip-service to, but knew that only in the acclaimed vintages did the wines show greatness.

On June 15, 1987, the Baron’s fortunes changed. The Bouteiller family sold the estate to AXA Insurance, a huge multifaceted French company. And AXA contacted Jean-Michel Cazes, the 54-year-old dynamo behind the elevated fortunes of nearby Chateau Lynch-Bages, and asked him to run Pichon-Longueville (the name Cazes prefers). In exchange, Cazes received a small ownership position in the property.

Cazes, the son of the longtime mayor of Pauillac, Andre Cazes, attended the Desai tasting of Pichon-Longueville wines and spoke of what the winery looked like when he took over.

“We got a property that was OK, but one that was far from being state of the art,” he said, politely. “The problem with Pichon-Longueville (in recent years) was that the wine maker changed every other year, so there was not much consistency. Some of the vintages are showing very well, and others not so well.”

Taster’s Score Card

On my score card, at least half the wines were less than enjoyable. The term I used most was “pip"--my shorthand for “past its prime.” And only a small number of the wines (1928, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 among them) were superb. Even wines from 1970 and 1975, great vintages, were blah for the Baron. And the 1985 Pichon-Longueville, from a heralded vintage, was disappointing, with a dry, hard edge. It might develop in the bottle, but it’s not a very generous wine.

This is a poor performance, far less impressive than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. At a similar tasting of multiple vintages of Lafite staged recently by Michigan wine collector Andrew Lawlor in San Francisco, nearly two-thirds of the wines showed greatness; only a tiny handful were unworthy.

Considering that Lafite and the Baron are only one rank apart, First Growth to Second Growth, the Lafite seemed leagues better and far more consistent.

The Pichon-Longueville wine that impressed me the most, however, was the youngest we tasted, the 1986. This was the first wine Cazes had anything to do with, and even though the grapes were already harvested and the wine fermented by the time he took over in mid-1987, Cazes salvaged it.

Caught Over a Barrel

“We changed the way the wines were racked (transferred from one barrel to another),” he said. “The method used until then gave the wine too much oxidation, so wines from some previous years were a little dried out.”

Cazes also discarded some of the older barrels and brought in new French oak casks, and that freshness of oak toastiness is evident in the 1986, which has dense cassis-y fruit to match it.

Cazes intends to turn the Baron into a showpiece. He has staged an architecture competition and the winner’s design will lead to construction of a chateau to replace the withered original within the next four years. The $7 million project will be done slowly so as not to disturb the wine-making procedure.

The project will permit visitors to tour the facility without getting in the way of the wine making. Previously, visitors were not welcome because there was no one to host them.

“The place had been boarded up for decades,” said Cazes. “It was probably a century since anyone lived there.”

Methods Changed

Also, all methods of wine production have changed. Cazes said machine harvesting of grapes, which was adopted in 1983, was abandoned in 1987. Hand harvesting allows for more selectivity and gentler care.

Moreover, bottling of the wines was performed on a portable bottling line, which would not fit inside the building, so bottling had to be done outside. Such imprecision can lead to erratic bottles. Cazes changed that; in the new facility one of his first improvements will be a sterile, state-of-the-art bottling line.

Also, AXA has acquired more than 60 acres of land that will be planted to vines. So the property that once had just 75 acres of vineyard land and produced about 12,000 cases of wine now aims to be nearly 140 acres and will produce 20,000 cases of wine under its primary label, plus a small amount under a new second label.

Cazes also has changed the name and quality of the property’s second label. It had been called Baronette and was rarely seen in this country. It now will be called Les Tourelles de Longueville, a reference to the towers on the chateau. He said the 1987 Les Tourelles recently won a tasting of second-label wines in Europe.

AXA also has placed control of some other Bordeaux properties in the hands of Cazes, notably small properties Pibran, Franc-Mayne and Cantenac-Brown. The latter was acquired when AXA bought another insurance firm, Companie de Midi. Cazes was notified he would run Cantenac-Brown on March 28.

It’s pointless to list how each of the 41 Pichon-Longueville wines tasted, but a number of issues were raised that are more pertinent:

-- Extreme caution should be used when buying any older vintages. Just because a wine is 30 years old is no guarantee it’s worth a lot of money, or even that it’s drinkable. A bottle of the 1956 Pichon-Longueville might have a price tag of $200 on it, but most tasters last week felt the wine was long past drinkability, thin and lacking any fruit. It had mere curiosity value.

-- Even when an older bottle is found to be good, another bottle of the same wine may be bad. Reasons for this are poor cellaring conditions, a bad cork, or the mere fact that it wasn’t bottled at the chateau. (In the 1950s and before, a good deal of wine was shipped to England in cask and bottled there. Though a lot of this wine was handled well, some obviously was not, leading to erratic bottles.)

-- Some properties, no matter how exalted the image, simply go through periods of stagnation where the wines aren’t as good as they should be. (Chateau Haut-Brion hit a rough spot in the road before making a spectacular comeback a decade ago.) With Pichon-Longueville, Cazes said, the wines were not particularly exciting from 1963 to 1977.

-- When a great red Bordeaux wine is aged long enough in the bottle, it can be perfectly good and virtually indistinguishable from a Burgundy of comparable age. This phenomenon is curious, but proven by the taste of a few of the wines at the Pichon-Longueville tasting, notably the exceptional 1926, which was lighter in color and still luscious in taste. But it was hard to tell it was Bordeaux. “Sure, it could be Burgundy,” said my seatmate when the suggestion was made.

-- Most of the older wines simply do not improve by extended decanting, most tasters agreed. It was a good idea to decant them off the sediment, but then Desai suggested that some of the wines be served immediately. The remaining fruit was often so fragile that any aeration at all could deal it a swift death knell. In some cases, the wines tasted fine for the first few seconds we had them, and within a minute had begun to lose flavor and bouquet.

-- The biggest disappointment of the tasting was the 1874, made from a vintage considered excellent. Alas, the bottle we had smelled more like Pinaud hair tonic and butter rum candies and tasted like petroleum and rancid honey. (Someone questioned if grapes had been used.) This wine would have benefited from decanting without use of a decanter. Such a wine was worth many hundreds of dollars as a collector’s item--as long as the cork remained in the bottle.

The wine that made the biggest hit of the evening was the 1928 Pichon-Longueville, a wine of dark red color, immense breadth and depth of aroma, and deep, unctuous fruit. This wine was so exceptional that when Cazes was asked to contribute a wine to the luncheon in July at La Pyramid du Louvre in Paris for the leaders of the developed nations, he gave two of the last four bottles of the ’28 in the chateau’s cellar. Chef for that luncheon is the famed Andre Daguin.

Wines of the Week: 1987 Chateau De Baun Romance and 1987 Chateau De Baun Rhapsody (both $12). These sparkling wines made from the Muscat-based Symphony grape are only faintly like Muscat in aroma, but so fresh and delightful they would be a perfect match for brunch. Both have about the same amount of residual sugar (1.5%), but the Rhapsody, which is faintly pink from the addition of a tiny bit of Pinot Noir, is more like traditional Champagnes and appears to be a touch drier. Lovely wines for wedding receptions too.