Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical Tasting of Château Grand Puy Lacoste

June 2006

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, celebrated Pauillac estate, was classed as a Fifth Growth in 1855 but few today would contest that it deserves promotion to Third Growth at least. Records of the estate can be traced back to the 15th century, according to David Peppercorn, at which time it belonged to a Monsieur Guiraud. One of his daughters married Monsieur de Jehan, whose granddaughter married into the Saint-Guirons family. A daughter of that line received a portion of the Grand Puy estate on marrying e Monsieur Lacoste, and the husband’s name was tacked on to that of the Château. The “Puy” part means ridge or mound.

That Grand Puy Lacoste is a household name in wine circles is in no small part due to the tireless efforts of a former proprietor, M. Dupin, who owned and ran the estate between 1932 and 1978. A rich bachelor and noted bon vivant, he was by all accounts a perfect host, supplying copious dinners and uncorking venerable bottles of his wine for a never-ending stream of visitors. For this reason, scarcely any wine writer of note in that epoch failed to write with affection and appreciation of Grand Puy Lacoste.

M. Dupin did not live at the Château (the structure and interior of which, apparently, he took little trouble over), preferring the comfort of his home in Bordeaux. But he did spend a lot of time at the estate and vas closely involved in its management. Thoughts of mortality caught up with him as he grew older and, with no issue himself, he began to think increasingly of GPL’s future after his death. He wanted a worthy successor.

He enlisted the help of his friend Jacques Vialard, notary in Pauillac, listing to him the attributes that were necessary. Such a person must already own a wine estate in the region, he specified, and must have progeny to ensure the succession. He must also be somebody that M. Dupin liked personally. In due course M. Vialard put forward the name of Jean-Eugène Borie, highly sympathetic owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. M. Dupin thought him an ideal choice and the deal was done.

M. Borie’s son, François Xavier Borie, was put in charge at the outset, and he has run the estate ever since, the 1978 being his first ever vintage there. By common consent, the wine has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Writing in the early 1980s, Peppercorn puts GPL in the same category as Château Batailley, it being “full-bodied and typically Pauillac.” This was faint praise, as Batailley in those days was hardly on top form. As François Xavier’s efforts began to show results, however, he later likened GPL to Château Lynch Bages, which by then vas performing brilliantly, with wines of Second Growth quality.

Grand Puy Lacoste today is typically Pauillac in its vigour, vinosity, firmness of body, and ample Cabernet-Sauvignon fruit.

There are flashes of voluptuousness that make one think of Lynch Bages, even Mouton; as well as a dynamism allied to cedary spice that recalls Latour. Personally I often detect some of the subtlety and stylishness of neighbouring Saint Julien.

The estate covers 98 hectares of which only 58 are under vine. The grape mix is 70% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet-Franc. There is no Petit-Verdot at present. The vineyards occupy Pauillac’s highest point, lying quite close to Lynch-Bages, and the soil is the classic mix of gravel, clay, and limestone. The gravel is exceptionally deep, François Xavier says, and this allows the roots of the vines to penetrate deep into the subsoil. François Xavier is a sunny-natured man with a flashing smile and an amenable manner. Aged 52 he is big and lively, looking and acting like a man in his forties. He is so unassuming that it would be easy to miss his sharp intelligence and his profound commitment to his wine. Few if any Pauillac proprietors are closer to their wines than he. This can be deduced from the unerring aptness with which he chooses the order of the eight vintages he presents to me for tasting.

Rather than opting for the conventional chronological approach – starting with the youngest and proceeding to the oldest — he presented each year in accordance with its innate style and degree of maturity and completeness. With the sole exception of the 2004, whose sheer youthfulness decrees that it must come first, we begin with the lightest wine, without regard to its age, with each succeeding vintage exhibiting an ever growing degree of power and depth. This ensured that no wine is overshadowed by that which precedes it; rather each one prepares the ground for the next.

2004 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ****

The colour, as with all the best ‘04s, is opaque yet lustrous, the nose intense, vital, and very precise, with great “cut” and dynamism. A gorgeous aroma that conjures up black fruits, dates, raspberries, and liquorice.

The flavour is intense, glossy, and seductively fruity, with firm structure in evidence on the long, very fresh aftertaste. The quality of the tannins is exemplary, with all the firmness and tautness one could wish for without a scrap of abrasiveness. Truffle, liquorice, and assorted black fruits show on the sustained finish. There’s good minerality too. The wine’s so harmonious it will surely be delicious when young; but real maturity won’t arrive in less than a dozen years, with a quarter-century of further improvement to follow.

1997 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE **(*)

The weakish colour makes the wine look older than its years, but the soft, Merlot-dominated nose has real charm (precisely because the wine is so forward). There’s more than a hint of Pauillac power behind the Merlot spice and roundness, with aromatic hints of cigar-box, plum jam with Stones, truffle, and chocolate.

On the palate, the Merlot presence is confirmed by such tastes as dried fig, prune, and chocolate, with toasted oak imparting a touch of cinnamon. The aftertaste is spicy, grainy, and ever so slightly stalky – clearly not all the fruit was perfectly ripe. An attractive if slightly flawed wine to enjoy with gently spicy dishes (a pinch of allspice in the sauce would encourage liason) over the rest of the decade.

1999 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ***

The colour is of medium intensity, while the balsamic nose is again very Merlot: dried fig, blackberry jam, prune, orange peel. The flavour is elegant and balanced, if light, with an enticing Merlot spiciness. The aftertaste is just a bit hollow but attractively fruity, with a grainy, slightly stony finish. A luncheon wine to enjoy around 2010-20 (and before too).

2001 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ***(*)

The colour, if not very dark, has a youthful intensity, while the excellent, cedary nose is full of fine, glossy, specifically GPL fruit of a more overtly Cabernet style: black fruits, liquorice, black berry jam, cigarbox. The Merlot imparts spice but remains in a subsidiary role. It’s a nose that promises Pauillac body and power.

The Cabernet is well to the fore on the palate, too, giving sinew, energy, and Pauillac structure. Plum, blackberry, and cloves can be picked out. The finish is long, complex, and very firm, with an almost Graves-like earthiness on the finish. Superb! Needs a decade to open up and should continue to improve for a further 15-20 years.

1998 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ****

There are hundreds of shades of purple of purple but this particular one has a distinctly Pauillac nuance – the colour of a perfectly ripe black cherry. The magnificent aroma, too, is uniquely Pauillac, with its plethora of ripe black fruits, its weight, profundity, harmony. The excellent flavour, of optimum concentration, has quintessential Pauillac style, with black fruits intermingling with truffle, prune, and molasses (that’s the Merlot, at maximum ripeness). The aftertaste is long, rich, nobly earthy, and vital – you almost feel it could emit sparks! An exceptional ‘98 which needs eight years to get into its stride, with at least 15 years’ more of further improvement.

1995 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ****(*)

The splendid colour, almost opaque but glowing, promises great things, as does the full, weighty, brooding nose of black fruits, cigarbox, chocolate, and truffle. The flavour is rich and vigorous, with ripe-grape sweetness, and there’s a truffly element on the well-fleshed but sinewy aftertaste. A great GPL that will show considerable attributes in about 8-10 years’ time, developing ever-increasing complexity over the 15-20 that follow.

1996 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE *****

This is as black as the ‘95 but (intriguingly) faintly browner.The explosive aroma is of heart-stopping intensity and completeness. Dense, weighty, crammed with fruit, it projects an extraordinary power and individuality. Component scents include plum jam, truffle, tobacco, cigarbox, dried fig. Together they produce a celestial perfume of almost Mouton-like sweep and authority.

The flavour is no letdown. Full, explosively rich, it delivers an avalanche of superripe fruit – plum jam, blackberry, prune, clove, and cocoa. The brooding aftertaste has limitless reserves of Pauillac energy, the finish is masterful. A great GPL that will be a powerhouse of profound Pauillac fruit for at least three decades.

2000 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE *****

The splendid colour shows no ageing (it could almost be a ‘05!), while the vast, masterful aroma emits gusts of luxurious spiciness and truffly warmth. Plum jam (most GPL vintages make me think of this), clove, truffle, and molasses can be picked out on this full, rich, intensely characterful Pauillac nose.

The noble flavour fills the mouth with ripe Cabernet fruit, which has a jamlike richness without any loss of freshness. There’s a delectable ripe-grape sweetness on the palate, as well as a refined earthiness, and the long finish is nuanced and full of sweet damson and plum jam intensity. A rich, complex wine, as complete as the ’96, which won’t really peak before 2020 and will then develop magnificently for a further quarter-century at least.

© Frank Ward 2006

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