Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates II – The Médoc

October 2014We’re up early the next morning to cover the not inconsiderable distance from Pomerol, land of the Merlot and Cabernet-Franc, to Pauillac, in the Médoc, principal home of the Cabernet-Sauvignon.

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In between: the vast spread of Bordeaux – the most beautiful city of France, according to Stendhal – that needed to be circumnavigated. Though this was a bit of a chore, the crossing of the soaring Pont d’Aquitaine always gives rise to certain exhilaration. I never tire, either, of reading the names of the various wine communes as one progresses northwards though the Médoc: Macau, Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, Saint Julien, Pauillac.

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The Médoc is the source of what to many are the classic, definitive versions of Cabernet-dominated claret. And Pauillac is widely seen as the most prestigious of its various wine communes, boasting fully three of the five First Growths, two Second Growths, and as many as 12 Fifth Growths, some of which many judges (me included) consider to be of at least Second Growth quality.

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The chai and cellars at Château Batailley, one of that dozen, are as big and gloomy as a 19th-century railway station. And nearly as busy at harvest time. Luckily, it’s NOT harvest time so we have the place more or less to ourselves. But we do have company: Arnaud Durand, the maître de chai, who’s been in charge here for 11 years. Denis Dubourdieu, one of the most respected of Bordeaux (not to say global) oenologists, is consultant here. This is reflected in the performance of Batailley in recent years, which has shown vast improvement since Philippe Castéja took over the running of this large enterprise, which incorporates several important Châteaux, on both left and right banks, as well as a large negociant business, Borie-Manoux.

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Empty oak barrels in the chai at Château Batailley.

Empty oak barrels in the chai at Château Batailley.

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M. Durand is a serious, dedicated man who – like most maîtres de chai – inevitably spends much time alone, supervising the various properties, monitoring developments, observing nature’s fits and starts, and doing a lot of thinking. The grape-mix here, he tells me, is 75% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet-Franc, 20% Merlot, 3% Cabernet-Franc, and 2% Petit-Verdot. I ask him for his thoughts on the latter, knowing that nobody is better qualified than a maître de chai to comment on the quirks and mysteries of that fascinating variety – a grape which often leaves an unmistakeable imprint on wines, even when present in microscopic proportions.

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He doesn’t have to stop to reflect. “In the absence of the Petit-Verdot, various aromas simply don’t develop. It gives extra complexity to the wine. It intensifies aromas, and brings extra acidity.”

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Passing through the new cuverie, we’re shown its shining stainless vats, each one dimensioned to the exact size of one of the many vineyard plots. 60% of the oak barrels are new, and the wine usually doses 12.8 to 13.2o alcohol. (a lot less than many high-alcohol wines on the right bank, where 14o, even 15o is not unusual these days).

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On the 2013 vintage: “Spring was horrible. The flowering was difficult – lots of rain. The Merlot didn’t ripen.”

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An extremely small tasting awaits us.

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2013 BATAILLEY ** (94% CS, 4% M, 2% PV)

Reasonably dark, this emits an elegant if relatively simple aroma of cherry and plum, with a fugitive hint of raspberry. The flavour, not extremely concentrated, is clean- cut but lacks depth and persistence. I’m quite sure the wine is having an off-day and would show far better on another occasion; but one can only report on how it behaves at the crucial moment that one tastes it. Needs several years to knit together and will certainly improve for at least a decade or two thereafter.

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Batailley has been superbly managed for a number of years now, and (after having seen much more positive reviews of its 2013 elsewhere) I’ve absolutely no doubt that the sample we saw was out of sorts. A second tasting on another day would doubtless have given far better results.

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2007 CHÂTEAU BATAILLEY (73% CS, 23% M, 3% CF, 1% PV)

The colour has the clarity and relative paleness of a light vintage, while the medium-full aroma emits scents of red rose, carnation, and plum. The flavour is on the light side, promising agreeable if unmemorable drinking in the short term. It’s a bit crunchy on the faintly stalky finish. Needs 2-3 years in bottle, to round out, and should improve – though not dramatically – for another few years. What we English call a “lunch wine”.

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We now make a short expedition to a sister Château, also in Pauillac, Château Lynch Moussas. This is a vast estate, incorporating fully 200 hectares of forest, a grandiose park, and a huge Château with innumerable outbuildings. Largely empty at this stage, it resembles a luxury hotel just before it’s been fully fitted out. There are 60 hectares of vines and the terroir is mostly gravel with a little clay. The vines are aged 35-45 years and are made up of 70% Cabernet-Sauvignon, and 30% Merlot. Owner Philippe Castéja drops in to say hello.

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On the day, both of this property’s samples show much better than those of Batailley.

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2013 CHÂTEAU LYNCH MOUSSAS **(*) (96% CS, 4% M)

Darker, more lustrous, than Batailley, this emits an intensely fruity scent of raspberry, blackcurrant, and cherry, with a hint of red rose. There’s a feeling of fleshiness, of a must-like thickness of texture. In the mouth, the fruit turns more damsony but there’s a hint of chocolate too, and a reprise of raspberry. The tannins leave a grainy imprint, and I register that typical stoniness of Pauillac terroir. More solid than Batailley (today anyway) with the vineyard’s clayey plots endowing the wine with extra body. Should be left for a good 8 years and will improve for a further decade at least.

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2005 CHÂTEAU LYNCH MOUSSAS *** (71% CS, 29% M)

The colour of ripe blackberries, the ’05 (a great vintage) has a fine, round, spicy/balsamic aroma of blackberry, sweet prune, and cigarbox, with a touch of truffle. The flavour is round and fleshy but a slight bitterness on the finish reflects the wine’s relative backwardness. For those who appreciate true maturity, it needs at least 8 years’ cellarage followed by a decade or more of steady improvement.

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Both Batailley and Lynch Moussas are owned by the firm of Borie-Manoux, now run, of course, by Philippe Castéja. Its two properties in Saint Emilion and Pomerol, Trottevieille and Château du Domaine de l’Eglise respectively, have likewise surged ahead. Another sign that the firm is expanding at a tremendous rate is their recent purchase of the negociant firm of Mahler-Besse, one of the two majority shareholders in the great Château Palmer, which (though only classed as a Third Growth) often rivals First Growth Château Margaux itself.

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On to Lafite, the great Pauillac First Growth situated on the very fringe of neighbouring Saint Estèphe. Noted for its great finesse, Lafite is said to have more in common with the softer wines of Saint-Julien than those of Saint Estèphe. But it is, in fact, a wine of extraordinary power as well as great subtlety, with a structure so firm and balanced that it can live 80 years or more in top vintages. In addition to Lafite itself, the estate also makes a second wine, Les Carruaudes de Lafite; Château Duhart-Milon, an excellent Fourth Growth; and – over in Pomerol – Château l’Evangile, which can vie, in quality, with such distinguished neighbours as Petrus, Trotanoy, and Lafleur. In Sauternes they run the First Growth Château Rieussec.

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Charles Chevallier, Director of the Baron de Rothschild estate, welcomes Frank Ward at Château Lafite.

Charles Chevallier, Director of the Baron de Rothschild estate, welcomes Frank Ward at Château Lafite.

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We were received by the genial Charles Chevalier, who’s been in overall charge of the entire estate since 1994. He’s of average build, with tousled, greying hair, dark-rimmed spectacles, and thick black eyebrows which he waggles expressively. During his watch he’s vinified a whole series of splendid wines, all of them among the very best of their categories. He made no bones about 2013 being “the most difficult vintage of my time.” The 2013 Lafite, he says, “is not a big wine. It doesn’t have spectacular body as in ’03 or ’10, but it will be easier to drink in youth and can certainly be kept for 15 years, perhaps longer. It’s very expressive, classic.”

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Unconventionally, he serves the most sensuous of the 2013 reds first:

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2013 CHÂTEAU L’EVANGILE, Pomerol ****

A shiny blue-purple, this has a surprisingly concentrated aroma, suave and very round, of blackcurrant, violet, and bilberry. The flavour, quite full and all of a piece, has lots of stuffing, with a repeat of the bilberry and the addition of the denser taste of damson. The rolling aftertaste goes on for quite some time. A lovely wine that will certainly improve for 8-10 years and has the structure to continue evolving for a further 15 or more. An impressive start to the tasting.

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2013 LES CARRUAUDES DE LAFITE ***

A dark, dense colour and a refined, harmonious aroma like freshly made black cherry jam, with additional hints of sweet ripe damson and blackberry. The flavour, if lighter than presaged by colour and nose, is balanced and precise. Elderberry notes augment the other flavours, introducing a gently savage aspect. The finish is of medium length. Not as complete as the Evangile but very harmonious. Eminently drinkable fairly early on it will, nonetheless, improve for 15 or more years.

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2013 CHÂTEAU DUHART MILON ***(*)

A darker colour with a refined, quite complex scent of black cherry with stone, with great suavity and poise. Not of maximum concentration, but all its components are in balance. Medium-bodied, it is very harmonious and shows an almost Lafite-like elegance and refinement. The tannins give a slightly rasping finish but without ascerbity. Many bottles of this will no doubt be emptied early on; but those who put some aside for 8-12 years will have reason to congratulate themselves.

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2013 CHÂTEAU LAFITE **** (98% CS, 2% M)

A deep but lustrous black-purple (crème de cassis), this has a noble, gently voluptuous aroma of black cherry with stone, sweetly ripe damson, and smoke. There’s a promise of real substance and velvety texture. These impressions are confirmed on the palate – sweet black fruits and berries – which is sleek but not lightweight. There’s real Lafite elegance, indeed finesse, on the long, beautifully balanced aftertaste, which exhibits all of the classic Lafite traits – except that of maximum concentration. But that would be impossible in a year like 2013. But make no mistake: this is a wonderful wine, of real harmony and no shortage of depth, that will deliver true delight in 8-10 years and will generously reward the patient 10 years later. A triumph of perfectionist winemaking.

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2013 CHÂTEAU RIEUSSEC *****

The Lafite team have worked wonders at this leading Sauternes property, which used to err on the side of ponderousness. A luminous green-gold, it glows as if infused with radium. The nose takes your breath away, exhaling exquisite scents reminiscent of pineapple, mirabelle, and acacia honey. The flavour, too, is stunning, and of exceptional intensity and purity. Despite its extreme youth, you’re seriously tempted to drink this nectar down. But there are more reds to taste at other properties…

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Philippe Dhalluin, the man in charge of the Baron Rothschild estate, receives us at Château Mouton Rothschild. It’s hard to convey in mere words the very positive impression he makes, both as a professional and as a human being. Totally approachable, modest and welcoming, he takes us on an easy-paced tour of the whole winery, which like all other top estates, is state-of-the art.

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Everything is impeccably clean, wholly rational, and as carefully thought- through down to the most minute detail – as with a space rocket, where one tiny slip could spell disaster. But the human element is never left out: though Mouton and its sibling wines could not be better-vinified, their excellence is also due to a very human, deeply creative input. Dhalluin’s personal commitment, and intuitive grasp (and enjoyment) of this property’s thrilling individuality – ensures that the wines retain those blood-and-guts elements that mark them out stylistically – Mouton especially – as unique and inimitable as Beethoven’s music or Rembrandt’s paintings.

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The genial Philippe Dhalluin, in charge at Château Mouton Rothschild, about to pour a great vintage of that renowned First Growth.

The genial Philippe Dhalluin, in charge at Château Mouton Rothschild, about to pour a great vintage of that renowned First Growth.

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“Everything’s done by gravity,” M. Dhalluin explains with a sunny smile as we make our way through the complex. “No pumping.” One of many innovations I register are the transparent glass panels with which each vat is fitted. This allows their contents to be monitored visually.

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Before we know it we’re in a tasting room, where an array of samples await us. Everything that M. Dhalluin says is of rivetting importance so I’m faced with a dilemma: should I note down our conversation, his words of wisdom and precious insights, straight from the horse’s mouth; or should I concentrate instead on those precious samples, writing tasting notes so detailed (colour, aroma, mid-palate, aftertaste, finish) that I’d be able to relive the tasting again, in retrospect, conjuring up afresh all of the wine’s key traits, and thus be able to write an accurate portrait of the infant wines?

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Sadly, I’m not clever enough to do both simultaneously so the wines – access to which is fleeting – win.

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(Even so, I can’t help registering a number of the highly informative remarks made by our host, words that, ideally, ought to be chiselled in stone.)

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2013 CHÂTEAU D’ARMAILHAC *** (59% CS

Fine deep colour and a lovely, round, very vital nose that jumps out of the glass. Glossy and harmonious, it suggests raspberry and purple cherry rather than the customary black fruits that one associates with top vintages. Good concentration on the palate, which is smooth and intensely fruity, the tannins being of the finest kind. An elegant wine that will give much pleasure over the coming 12-18 years.

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2013 CHÂTEAU CLERC MILON ***

Slightly darker and denser on the nose, this has (for a ’13) a richly fruity, expressive aroma of plum and damson and is surprisingly dense on the palate. The flavour, too, has good concentration, with true Pauillac distinction and vinosity. The acidity is of the best kind: it will give added support to the fruit and, like the tannins, will gradually soften as the wine matures and the fruit burgeons. The aftertaste is sinewy and protracted. Should improve for at least 20 years.

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I’m fascinated to learn that this wine actually contains a tiny amount of Carmenère – an ancient variety that was once omnipresent in the Médoc. “We have just one-third of a hectare. That’s 10% of all Carmenere in Bordeaux! And it represents 1% of Clerc Milon!”. When I express appreciation of the wine’s concentration, M. Dhalluin adds “We ourselves were surprised at the ripeness of the grapes”.

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2013 PETIT MOUTON ***

A deep blue-purple, this has a broad, very Mouton-like aroma that’s spicy and almost sumptuous (a word I didn’t expect to apply to a 2013!) with a promise of ample volume. I also find myself writing “very ripe”. The vinous flavour has lots of vitality, with suggestions of black cherry, plum, and blackberry at its sweetest. The medium-toast oak confers a touch of cinnamon. There’s plenty of energy, and the aftertaste unfolds a real centre of sweetly ripe fruit, braced by fine tannins and crisp fruity acidity. An excellent wine for the medium term.

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2013 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ****

The opaque black-purple “robe” would impress even in a top year, while the nose really is sumptuous, exhaling sweet ripe plum, black cherry with stone, peony and red rose, and some altogether darker, denser elements. The flavour is quite rich, about 80% concentrated, and – because of its superb balance – utterly satisfying. There’s a lip-smacking juiciness on the palate and the aftertaste is very sustained, with a hint of raspberry on the finish. Though in a lighter mode than usual, it’s a very harmonious Mouton that won’t be at full stretch in less than 12 years and will continue to improve for a decade or more thereafter, growing more voluminous as it ages.

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“We didn’t want to over-extract in 2013,”said M. Dhalluin. By this he clearly meant that, with the fruit available, they could easily have fashioned a denser wine, but such a wine would have been less harmonious than the one now before us: the more you concentrate the good elements in a wine, the more you concentrate the less good.

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Production per hectare was, in fact, only 30 hectolitres per hectare – “the smallest harvest at Mouton since 1969.”

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2005 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

The colour shows little evolution while the nose exhales rich and concentrated scents suggesting black fruits, sweet prune, incense, chocolate, truffle, and cigar box. Then a sudden surge of red rose. The masterful flavour fills the mouth exhilaratingly with all of these elements and more, revealing a structure that is at once velvety yet muscular and sinewy, supplemented by tobacco leaf and balsam. This truly great Mouton – surely one of the greatest ever – needs 15-20 years to attain full maturity and will then continue to evolve for decades.

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2000 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

This time the colour shows an evolution consistent with its age. The nose is highly aromatic, noble, and complex, conjuring up chocolate, roast chestnut, black cherry, humus, plum jam, and clove. If that sounds like a lot of possibly disparate elements, they nonetheless fuse perfectly to produce a forceful, complex aroma heralding a truly great wine. There’s a reprise of all those elements on the palate, with the addition of cherry compote, plum and damson, and a certain earthiness. Unmistakeably great; but a slight oxidation on the finish of this individual, somewhat flawed sample is clearly due to the sort of aberration that can occur even at the best of estates.

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Ces choses arrivent.

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At the First Growth Château Margaux, we were received by Philippe Berrier, maître de chai. He shows the same kind of passionate commitment, and closeness to his subject, as a groom to a pedigree racehorse. On 2013, he declares that it was “an early harvest, with the onset of rot. We had to eliminate any inferior fruit with extreme rigour. Output was 22 hectolitres per hectare, the lowest ever. There was a lot of millerandage and coulure on the Merlot.”

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2013 PAVILLON ROUGE DE CHÂTEAU MARGAUX *** (84% CS, 10% M, 4% PV, 2% CF)

The colour, while intense, is light enough to be transparent. The nose, too, is on the light side, and strikingly pure, with all sorts of hovering scents (raspberry, peony, blackcurrant). It reminds me of a Volnay from Burgundy. Will round out and gain in volume as it matures. Drinkable soon but the more exigent will wait several years before enjoying it between around 2017-2025.

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2013 CHÂTEAU MARGAUX **** (94% CS, 5% CF, 1% PV) First time no Merlot included.

Darker colour, deeper, rounder aroma, of red rose and peony, cinnamon (light toast oak), wild strawberry, with a subtle touch of violet. A smell that’s enticingly round, glossy, and vinous. But we’re talking about a First Growth and, sure enough, further nuances soon arrive: cherry compote, blackberry, and spices. Altogether, much more matière than the previous samples. These elements reappear on the palate, which exhibits notes of coffee, with espresso-like tannins. Few bottles will survive infancy; but the patient will be rewarded, with yearly increments of complexity up to 2030 and beyond.

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2009 CHÂTEAU MARGAUX ***** (87% CS, 2% CF, 2% PV, 9% M)

Solid blackberry black-purple with a big, weighty nose of blackberry, morel mushroom, truffle, roast chestnut, fig (ripe Merlot), and cocoa. The superb flavour is smooth, effortlessly concentrated, and wonderfully balanced. Blackberry and morel give a repeat performance on the palate, with a hint of truffle and sweet prune, and all coalesce to produce a rolling, masterful aftertaste that gives tantalising hints of multiple complex sub-flavours that will manifest themselves in sequence as this great wine moves majestically through time towards a full maturity that won’t arrive in less than 30-40 years. It’s so full of content that I have to sniff it again and again: among fresh nuances now detectable are camphor and dried orange peel. But these are merely scribbled notes prior to the wine’s definitive version decades from now. A truly great Margaux.

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A few thoughts on Château Margaux as a property.

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For many decades this fabled estate – and indeed a host of other Margaux Crus Classés – produced mediocre wines. Indeed, the whole commune was almost notorious in that respect, not least the potentially outstanding Rauzan Ségla (back on top form for quite a few years now) and Brane Cantenac – both Second Growths – and quite a few others. In those dark days, Château Palmer was almost alone in the commune in producing first-class wines in most vintages. Change came in 1978, when the great Peynaud took over the vinification at Château Margaux. In that very first year he achieved the impossible, coming up with what may well be the best Médoc of the vintage. And this at an estate that had been seriously run down for decades.

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Today, happily for all claret lovers, there’s scarcely a Margaux Cru Classé that is not extremely well run, producing wines that show most, or even all, of their true potential.

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And now, back to Pauillac, to Château Pontet Canet, a Fifth Growth that today produces wines that rival those of the First Growths…

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NEXT TIME AROUND:

CHÂTEAUX PONTET CANET & PICHON BARON

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© Frank Ward 2014

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<< Back to : A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates Part I – Pomerol

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>> Continued :Bordeaux Part III – Pontet Canet & Pichon Baron

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One Response to “A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates II – The Médoc”

  1. […] A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates II – The Médoc […]

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