Pomerol: Ground Zero
Pomerol is a very tiny area located next to Saint-Émilion. It is actually two miles wide by three miles long and encompasses a few hamlets. Until 1936, wines produced in Pomerol were not on anyone’s radar. White wines were first produced there for Dutch trade, then later on, when reds were first planted, their quality was mediocre. In 1936, the French government gave Pomerol the title of AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) and Pomerol wines started to be more known.
Two elements helped Pomerol reach its current level. First, in 1945, Jean Pierre Moueix acquired the rights to sell Château Pétrus then in 1953 he purchased Château La Fleur-Pétrus and Château Trotanoy. Secondly, with the advent of the 1982 vintage, Robert Parker heaped enormous praise on the region and today the better Pomerols are thought of as highly as the top vintages from Saint-Émilion and Médoc wines.
Two major styles of wine are prevalent in Pomerol. There is the rich, extracted style of Michel Rolland, characterized by longer fruit hangtime, labeled physiological ripeness, which often produces wines high in alcohol. Michel Rolland was born in Pomerol and, with his wife Dany, owns Château Le Bon Pasteur. Rolland has been extremely influential in this part of the world, where he has consulted on many, many properties. The second most influential style is that of the Moueix family (owners of Pétrus, et al), who focus on freshness and vibrancy. At harvest time, is is easy to notice the Moueix family wineries as they are always the ones to pick first!
Crossing over the highway from Saint-Émilion to Pomerol gives me a feeling of excitement. Sure, there is Pétrus, but there is so much more. After a half mile drive, there is an intersection in the road that I have labeled “Ground Zero” or the heart of Pomerol, which includes two of the appellation’s greatest wineries: Vieux Château Certan and Château Le Pin.
Vieux Château Certan
I have favored these iconic wines for many years. The Thienpont family provided me with my first affection towards Merlot-based wines. A comparison tasting at the winery proved to me that I could not tell the difference between the two vintages we sampled (2001 and 2004) from Vieux Château Certan and Pétrus! Certainly no poor reflection towards Pétrus, just the knowledge that VCC (as it is affectionately called ) is in the very same quality level as the very best. When buying Bordeaux Châteaux wines en primeurs, you can bet this is the first wine that sells out. (For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Château Le Pin
Across from VCC, hidden among other small houses is Château Le Pin, a tiny 5-acre estate, also owned by the Thienponts. Only Merlot is produced on the property and the wines fetch over $1,000 in most good vintages. 600-700 cases are produced for the entire world so if you own a couple of bottles, you are one of the very lucky few.
Quick anecdote: I looked for Le Pin for many days, circling around Catusseau (the hamlet where the winery is located). I finally spotted what seemed to be a 2,500 square foot house…but it took me another drive-by to figure out the path to go to it! I will keep it all a secret to leave the property in peace. (No visits.)
Château La Conseillante
Down the street from Le Pin, and closer to the Saint-Émilion appellation is the wonderful La Conseillante (See my interview with winemaker Marielle Cazaux). The bottle’s purple capsule was chosen to remind us of the color of the wine and of its violet aromas. The winery is one of the oldest in Pomerol, prized for its balanced and harmonious style.
Owned by the Lafite Rothschild group, L’Évangile’s neighbors are Pétrus and Cheval Blanc. They all share the gravelly soil that makes the properties on the southeastern side of the plateau so very special. Since and including 2005, L’Évangile has experienced a string of high quality vintages, highlighted by the 100-pt vintage of 2009.
Owned by the Moueix family, of Pétrus fame, Trotanoy is said to be produced in the same style as Pétrus. Its previous name, “Trop Ennuie” denoted that it was very difficult to cultivate the land on that spot!
Château Latour à Pomerol
Another of the original Pomerols of early fame. The winery used to belong to the same owner as Pétrus and is now owned by a charitable organization and run by the Moueix of Pétrus. The vineyards are located throughout the appellation but some of their best are postioned next to the church. Interestingly, Latour à Pomerol made some of the most beautiful wines of the past century (1947, 1959 and the prized 1961 vintage, often thought of as one of the top-ten best wines ever made) but quality seemed to be lacking in recent years until a comeback with the 2009 vintage (90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc).
Châteaux Le Gay & La Violette
The Péré-Vergé Family purchased Le Gay along with the incredibly tiny Château la Violette (4 acres located in Catusseau, and whose management has been assisted by Michel Rolland.) The aim at both properties is to produce a slow, soft extraction to bring out all the quality elements of the wine. La Violette was purchased in 2006 and its ratings are now through the roof.
Across the street from Le Gay is one of the most stellar properties in all of Bordeaux, Château Lafleur. Once part of the same estate as Le Gay, it is now completely in the hands of the Guinaudeau Family who work their jewel in the ways a Burgundy producer is thought of doing. There is very little wine made there (It is said that only 8 barrels were produced in 1991!) and out of that, there is a second wine made (Les Pensées de Lafleur) and even bulk wine is sold off as the owners only want top quality. Quality is there, the wine often costs more than $1,000 per bottle. But all the critics, Parker included, think of it as one of the world’s finest.
Château La Fleur-Pétrus
In the same neighborhood as Lafleur and Pétrus stands Château La Fleur-Pétrus, one of the properties purchased by Moueix in 1953, to which some of the Le Gay plots were added and which was all replanted after the 1956 frost. La Fleur-Pétrus soil is of gravel over clay, producing wines of legendary finesse. The 2009 La Fleur-Pétrus is considered “a tour de force” – truly an amazing Pomerol.
Château Croix de Gay
Owned by the family of Dr. Alain Raynaud, the famous oenologist and consultant to many producers both in Bordeaux and in the USA, including Colgin Cellars. Dr. Raynaud also owns a Château in Saint-Émilion, Château du Parc, where he produces a riper, more tannic style of wine that will remind you of a great US Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend.
Around the corner from La Croix de Gay are some of my personal favorite producers, including Château L’Eglise-Clinet, a concentrated, rich, opulent wine made by superstar Denis Durantou. What makes the difference at L’Eglise Clinet is that the vines are the oldest in Pomerol, some up to 75 years old. The vineyard also abuts the old cemetary and many say that it is another source of quality….
Château Clos L’Eglise
Across the narrow lane, still near the cemetery, is Clos L’Eglise, another Garcin-Lévêque holding. Perfectly nestled between L’Eglise-Clinet and Clinet, the property is consulted by Dr. Alain Raynaud, and the vineyards lay in a southwestern position related to the winery. The soil is clay, gravel with lots of iron (a trademark of Pomerol plateau wineries) and the wine made there is full-bodied and best enjoyed after a good dozen years. (Read more about Château Clos L’Eglise and the other Garcin-Lévêque estates in this issue.)
Made famous by owner Ronan Laborde for its James Bond pictures hanging on the winery walls! But it is known for much more than that. Clinet’s owners, starting with Jean-Michel Arcaute, started practices of green harvest and leaf thinning. Ronan’s vineyards include more Cabernet Sauvignon than is common in Pomerol and he opted against using 100% new oak in the aging cellar, preferring 60 to 70%. With some of the very best terroir in Pomerol (some of the plots are on top of the plateau near the church), Clinet’s wines have improved to rival the very best. Ronan, a brilliant businessman, also started a modern winery less than a mile from Clinet where his team vinifies Ronan by Clinet, inexpensive white (Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) and red wines (100 % Merlot sourced from Castillon and other right bank locations). Those wines, though not so complex, are very fresh and pleasant and retail for an amazing $13!
I’ve saved the best for last, and of course that is Château Pétrus. The name comes from its owner during Roman times and is a derivative of Peter. Wines of Pétrus did not have a great reputation until the mid-1800’s when they became known as the third best wine in Pomerol after VCC and Trotanoy. After phylloxera, Pétrus was replanted in Merlot and its new owner in 1929, Mrs Loubat joined forces with Jean-Pierre Moueix to make Pétrus the best wine in the region. They agreed that Pétrus should “never be priced below Cheval Blanc” – considered the best Right Bank wine at the time. Sons Jean-François and Christian Moueix are the current owners. (Christian also owns the winery Dominus in California.)
There is no doubt that Robert Parker helped Pétrus and other Pomerol producers after the 1982 vintage, when he put it on the map of the wines to drink and to cellar. It is not only expensive, but difficult to purchase Château Pétrus, as it is not sold to negociants as are most wines but instead sold through the Moueix distribution system (imported by Pasternak in the USA) and therefore extremely allocated. As a cult wine, it is often purchased by brokers, traders and investors whose plans are often to resell the wine when its value climbs. A bottle of Pétrus usually wholesales for a minimum of $1,200 (in tough vintages ) while it sells for over $3,000 (still at wholesale prices) in great vintages.
What makes Pétrus special is that it sits on a hillside on the very top of the Pomerol plateau and its soil is quite unique. It lays on a double layer of clay, the bottom one called blue clay because of its dark blue color. That blue clay is able to retain moisture because of its molecular composition and consequently is able to feed the vines during the stressful summer heat. Only VCC ‘s soil next door features some of that same blue clay. Pétrus wines can be the best because in great vintages they offer more complexity of texture, more luscious aromas and incredible depth. I compare drinking Pétrus to listening to a philosopher: “Wow, I never thought about all this before, how interesting and mind opening!”
In all, Pomerol is special because everything seems to be about wine. There are 150 or so Châteaux all within a few square miles. And I always feel when I travel there that I am coming to pay tribute to something dear to me – wine!
Michel Thibault comes from a family of hoteliers in the French Alps. He has worked in Los Angeles at Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck, and La Bella Fontana, inside the beautiful Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Eventually, Thibault moved to New Orleans and worked at famed Louisiana eateries Lafitte’s Landing and Commander’s Palace. Johnny Earles, of Criolla’s restaurant brought Michel to Grayton Beach, where he later joined Chan Cox at Wine World.
Recently, Michel launched a new web site that offers an extensive wine list and a blog, with tasting notes, about his travels through wine regions across Europe. Follow him at Michel Thibault Wine.