This guide has already taken us on a journey through the greatest vineyards of the Médoc, from the gentle gravel rises of Château Margaux and Château Palmer in the south, to the profound gravelly scarp and plateau on which sit Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose in the north. The distance from Margaux up to St Estèphe is only about 30 kilometres, between 30 and 40 minutes by car (provided you do not stop to take in any of the sights) and yet this short drive will take you through both St Julien and Pauillac, passing the majority of the region’s most famous names on the way. You will spot first growths such as Château Latour, Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Mouton-Rothschild, as well as ‘super seconds’ including Château Léoville-Las-Cases and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, and other châteaux that out-perform their rank in the 1855 classification, such as Château Lynch-Bages and Château Pontet-Canet.
It is not surprising that these appellations, based upon prestigious gravel terroirs and as a consequence dotted with noble châteaux, should take most of the Bordeaux left-bank limelight. Even so, it is important to recognise that these communes are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to the vineyards and wines of the Médoc peninsula. St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien are all relatively small appellations, tightly drawn, in each case the boundary matching (more-or-less) the boundary of the associated commune. When these three appellations were legally defined on November 14th, 1936 it was naturally recognised that everything outside these boundaries also needed a new status. These vineyards became eligible for the new Haut-Médoc appellation, defined in law the same day. As an aside Moulis, Margaux and then Listrac all came later, in 1938, 1954 and 1957 respectively; thus, up until these respective dates, these wines were all made according to the Haut-Médoc appellation regulations. Curious as it may be looking back from the 21st century, when it seems as though these appellations have been in existence since the beginning of time, wines from Château Margaux (or indeed from any other château in the Margaux appellation) made between 1936 and 1957 declared themselves as Appellation Haut-Médoc Contrôlée on the label.
Château Margaux, Château Chasse-Spleen and Château Fourcas-Hosten all no longer have any association with the Haut-Médoc appellation, but that does not mean the Haut-Médoc is devoid of châteaux or wines of interest. Indeed, I would contend that a number of the châteaux which are today included within the Haut-Médoc boundaries have been illogically excluded from more superior appellations, and I would also argue that some of these châteaux, to be frank, make wines of greater interest than some in Moulis and Listrac or Margaux. In a perfect world it would not be the case, nevertheless it seems to be so, not simply because of underperforming châteaux in grander appellations but because the borders of these grander appellations tend to follow communal boundaries and not changes in terroir. As a consequence the Haut-Médoc appellation has, in places, gravel soils to match any found in St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien. A prime example has to be the gravel west of St Julien, in St-Laurent-Médoc where, among others, Château la Tour Carnet (pictured above) can be found. In other parts, it has to be said, it is an appellation of sand and silt, but that should not distract us from the soils, wines and châteaux of interest. As a consequence this appellation, sprawling and irregular, one that essentially ‘colours in’ between more famous appellations, is not one to be ignored. In this instalment of my guide to all things Bordeaux, I break down this appellation into manageable chunks, in order to explore its complex terroir and understand the great variations in style and quality of its wines.