Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical Tasting of Château Lagrange

June 2005

CHATEAU LAGRANGE, 3RD GROWTH OF ST. JULIEN

 

 

A quarter-century ago nobody talked much about Château Lagrange, the Classed Growth of Saint-Julien in the Médoc. And for a very good reason: the whole property was in the doldrums and the quality of the wines, despite their great potential, was abysmal.

 

The winery was a shambles and the vineyard was in a parlous state too. Of a total of 157 hectares (Lagrange is one of the region’s biggest estates), only 56 were under vine and the grape mix was inappropriate, with an inordinately high 50% Merlot and a sparse 50% Cabernet-Sauvignon. In the Médoc, the dense and tannic Cabernet-Sauvignon is the key to quality, imparting backbone, depth and distinction. The Merlot, while an essential component, is best kept in the background.

 

In the past many below-par Médoc estates relied heavily on the Merlot, because it ripens early, gives more juice and alcohol than the Cabernet-Sauvignon, and makes it possible to produce and easy-to-drink wine even in less successful vintages. Lagrange was one of the estates that followed this path.

 

To cut a long story short, Lagrange was bought by the Japanese Suntory group in 1983 and they immediately set about restoring the estate, lock, stock and (not least) barrel. Vast sums of money were invested. The old winery was gutted, rebuilt, and expanded, and state of the art equipment installed. The Château itself was meticulously restored and – far more important – the vineyard was extensively replanted. The opportunity was seized to transform the grape mix, upping the proportion of Cabernet-Sauvignon to 67% while reducing the Merlot to a more suitable 26% share. As a vinous bolster to both varieties, a 7% share of Petit-Verdot was planted. This richly-tannic variety (it gives even darker, denser wines than the Cabernet-Sauvignon) imparts a core of rich vinosity to Médoc wines.

 

One inescapable effect of the replanting was that the average age of the vines dropped considerably. Now young vines give lots of juice which can be exceedingly fruity; what they do not always give is pronounced varietal character, great concentration, and extreme depth of flavour. To compensate for this, it was decided to create a second wine, “Les Fiefs de Lagrange”, into which the less successful (though always sound) vats could be relegated. Extremely well vinified from the very outset, “Les Fiefs” has steadily evolved into one of the best second wines in the whole Médoc. Its existence means that all the very best casks can be set aside for the grand vin, Château Lagrange itself. As a result, the average age of the vines used to make this benchmark wine is now a very respectable 35-36 years.

 

The transformation could not have taken place without human input at the very highest level. Emile Peynaud, the greatest oenologist of all time, was put in overall control of the project and given carte blanche. Marcel Ducasse, one of his most brilliant students, was appointed manager of the estate. Not content with this, Suntory hired Michel Delon, the near-legendary owner of Château Léoville Las Cases, as consultant. Within only a few years this remarkable trio had made Lagrange once again worthy of its Third Growth status.

(It is worth recalling at this juncture that Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, had recognized Lagrange’s huge potential as long ago as 1785, when he declared it worthy of Third Growth status; this was 70 years before the Château was so rated in the 1855 classification).

 

I was a frequent visitor to Lagrange through the 1980’s – often in the company of Michel Delon – and could not fail to register the vast scale of the refurbishment. One constantly had to step over hoses and cables, skirt huge piles of building materials, and give a wide berth to thundering compressors. I was also able to register the annual improvement in the wines. With due allowance to the vagaries of nature, each vintage was better than the one before, and the ever-growing expertise of vineyard and winery teams was helped along by the steadily increasing age of the vines. Some vintages have been inherentently greater than 2004 (excellent though that wine is); but 2004 is probably the best-vinified Lagrange of all time.

 

Until recently I hadn’t been back to Lagrange for quite some years. But after having sampled, blind, a delectable bottle of 1995 Lagrange served up by a friend, I quickly decided that a fresh visit was long overdue. When I phoned the highly sympathetic Marcel Ducasse to say that I would shortly be in the vicinity, he promptly invited me along for a tasting and lunch.

 

Only two vintages of “Les Fiefs” were shown. This was because, Marcel said, it is not intended for long keeping (I none the less suspect it can improve for quite some years). The average age of the vines used in this second wine is now as high as 20 years. Vats made from the oldest of them could, of course, easily be used to swell the volumes of Château Lagrange itself, but they continue to relegate at least half of total production to “Les Fiefs”. 

 

 

2004 LES FIEFS DE LAGRANGE *

The colour is on the weak side but the very primeur aroma is full of fresh fruit: cherry, autumn berries, carnation. The flavour is medium-full, balanced, and with the kind of ripe tannins which, in tandem with the fruit, will ensure 3-4 years’ improvement. Drink 2008-12.

 

 

2004 CHATEAU LAGRANGE **(*) 54% C-S, 36% M, 10% P-V

That all the best vats were reserved for this bottling explains why the colour is so much darker and denser – nearly opaque in fact. The elegant, velvety aroma has pronounced Saint-Julien character, conjuring up black cherry, morel mushroom, smoke, and liquorice. The quality of the tannins is superb. Though not as complex or refined as Las-Cases (the commune’s greatest wine) you can feel a distant kinship. There’s good viscosity and plenty of fruit on the palate. The aftertaste is beautifully poised. A stylish wine to enjoy 2013-30.  

  

2003 LES FIEFS DE LAGRANGE **

Altogether darker than the ’04 Les Fiefs, this has a really excellent, complex nose of black cherry, truffle, blackberry jam, and chocolate. Flowery notes – carnation, peony – derive from the Merlot. There’s lots stuffing on the palate and the tannins are of the refined kind. Dominant flavours include blackberry, prune, dark chocolate, and smoke. The firmly structured aftertaste is slightly scorched and very closed. A powerful Fiefs to drink around 2010-16.

 

 

2003 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (57% C-S, 33% M, 10% P-V)

Still deeper than the ’04, with a blackish tinge, this has a full, noble, harmonious aroma of black cherry, violet, and cigarbox ; a velvety meld of Saint-Julien scents with real power but with classic restraint.

 

The flavour is strikingly fresh (a quality many ‘03s lack because this oven-hot vintage produced heavy wines unless appropriate measures were taken) and there is a great deal of rich fruit. The excellent finish has sweep and vitality and is very well balanced. A superb wine to drink 2013-30.

 

 

2002 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (54% C-S, 33% M, 13% P-V)

A dark but transparent black-purple, the ’02 has a refined, flowery scent of black cherry, blackcurrant, and raspberry. It shows suavity and elegance in a quintessentially Saint-Julien way. The oak is so beautifully integrated as to be hardly noticeable; there is a subtle hint of truffle.

 

The flavour is highly elegant, with liquorice and elderberry joining the other elements. Very pure, with excellent structure, this stylish, smoky wine is very long on the palate. Drink 2010-22.

 

 

2001 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (62% C-S, 27% M, 11% P-V)

The first to show even the faintest browning, this dark wine has an excellent aroma of black cherry, smoke, chocolate, and cigarbox. You can smell the ripe sweetness of wholly mature grapes.

 

Firm ripe tannins give cut and thrust to the delicious cherry-and-chocolate flavour, which is faintly meaty, with a suggestion of morel. The long clovey aftertaste is very harmonious. Drink around 2012-24.

 

 

2000 CHATEAU LAGRANGE **** (76 C-S, 24 M)

The splendidly deep, vivid colour is blue-purple to the very rim, and the aroma, both broad and fine-grained, shows a restrained opulence. It fills the nostrils with black cherry, violet, raspberry, and truffle. It has archetypical Saint-Julien poise and refinement.

 

To describe the superb flavour as medium-bodied is true but somehow misleading, as it has all the volume and density it needs. Blackberry, bilberry, and coffee intermingle on the long, rich, fresh finish. This is a great Lagrange, the best of the whole series. It should be left untouched for at least eight years and relished around 2020-30.

 

 

1999 CHATEAU LAGRANGE ** (58% C-S, 25% M, 17% P-V)

The colour is the lightest – and ruddiest – so far : a sign of a faster evolution than the norm. The close-meshed aroma of damson, prune, and blackberry jam is well on the way to full maturity too. It’s a velvety smell with no lack of volume or roundness. Cigarbox spice quickly supplements the other scents.

 

The elegant flavour of autumn berries may be less dense the five previous wines but is very well balanced. A useful wine from a light but attractive vintage to enjoy around 2008-14.

 

 

1998 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (65% C-S, 28% M, 7% P-V)

Inevitably, the colour is darker and more intense than the preceding (’98 was an altogether better year) and this superiority shows, too, in the lovely velvety nose of black cherry, plums, and raspberry. There’s a hint of truffle too: a succulent aroma.

 

The seductively smooth, fresh flavour measures up to this, with liquorice discernable on a long aftertaste that is also marked by ripe, harmonious tannins. Still relatively closed, it ought to peak around 2010-20.

 

 

1977 CHATEAU LAGRANGE ** (50% C-S, 33% M, 17% P-V)

The clear purplish « robe » has a faint brown tinge and the soft, spicy nose shows some maturity as well: cocoa, damson, blackberry. The fine, medium-bodied flavour is just about ready, though a slight scratchiness of texture suggests that another year might make it more approachable still. Drink now and 4 years on.

 

 

1996 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (57% C-S, 36% M, 7% P-V)

The colour is deep and only slightly evolved. The refined, soaring aroma carries a promise of silky texture. Black cherry is the main scent, but truffle, chocolate, roast chestnut show too. This is a warm, balsamic smell.

 

On the lightish side, but very intense, it tastes of black cherry, damson, and chocolate, with cloves on the long, complex aftertaste. Once again, the tannins are very ripe. Drink 2010-20.

 

 

1995 CHATEAU LAGRANGE *** (44% C-S, 43% M, 13% P-V)

As dark as the ’96, this has a noble, refined aroma of black cherry, plum, and truffle, with a hint of violet. There’s also a mossy element too. The flavour is smooth and nuanced, with a luscious quality to the fruit. The long sweet aftertaste makes me think of ripe blackberry. There’s a slight lingering dryness on the finish. Drink around 2013-28.

 

 

1994 CHATEAU LAGRANGE **

The colour is surprisingly deep for this minor year, and the aroma of blackberry, damson, tea, and carnation is mature. The flavour is lightish and on the short side and there is a slight bitterness on the aftertaste. A decent effort in a difficult year. Drink up over the next 2-3 years.

 

We tasted three vintages with lunch: 1989, 1985, and 1986. The last of these was the best. A real curiosity with the cheese: a jam made from Petit-Verdot grapes – delicious!

 

 

© Frank Ward 2005

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