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Pauillac

After St Julien comes Pauillac, home to what are surely the most famous châteaux in all Bordeaux. Here we can find three first growths (even if only two date to 1855, the third having been elevated to this position in 1973), no other commune in all Bordeaux can boast that. And not only were Château Latour and Château Lafite-Rothschild ranked at the very top in 1855, the latter was ranked number one of all. It is often forgotten, but the Bordeaux négociants who drew up the rankings for the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855, on the order of Napoleon III, ranked the four first growths in order of merit. And top of their list was Château Lafite-Rothschild.

Château Latour and Château Lafite-Rothschild sit at either end of the commune, geographical as well as qualitative guardians of the Pauillac appellation. Despite their seemingly prominent positions, however, I think it is fair to say that neither has the most imposing château in the commune. Driving north from Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, the road dips as it courses down towards the drainage channel, the Ruisseau de Juillac, and then climbs again on the gravel bed of Pauillac. This dip is the first and perhaps only significant clue that you have crossed from St Julien into Pauillac. The vines immediately on your right as you enter the commune are those of Château Latour, with its famous dovecot (pictured below) making more of a statement than the château, which is elegant but understated, and set well back from the road. Unless you are looking out for it you will probably miss it, and in this case it is the two magnificent châteaux that lie just a couple of hundred metres further on that will make you realise that you have arrived in Pauillac. Here, facing one another from opposite sides of the road, are Château Pichon-Lalande on the right (now obscuring any view of Château Latour you might have had) and Château Pichon-Baron on the left. The latter, in particular, displays the sort of grandeur and scale you might have perhaps expected from a first growth château.

Pauillac

At the far end of the commune lies the other Pauillac guardian, Château Lafite-Rothschild. Again, we have understated elegance, and also a tangible connection with history, as the central clock tower around which the rest of the château seems to have grown dates to the 16th century, positively ancient for the Médoc (remember that viticulture only took off here after the drainage works of the 17th century). But again, like Latour, the château is set some way back from the road, separated from it by gardens, an ornamental lake and it is obscured from view by a row of willow trees that run along the foot of the estate. Until recently there was just one gap in the trees that provided a photographic opportunity for visitors to the region, that was until a storm in July 2013 brought down several of the trees (the aforementioned Château Pichon-Lalande lost part of its roof in the same storm), creating rather more gaps, but with new willow saplings in place I think the château will soon be disappearing from view once again.

Between these two first growths lies one of the most concentrated collections of classed growth châteaux in the entire Médoc, tightly packed into just 1100 hectares of vineyard; there are eighteen châteaux all told, as well as a number of lesser growths - cru artisan and cru bourgeois properties, if I'm still allowed to use that term - which are of interest. The vast majority of these are profiled on this site, and links can be found in the box at the foot of the page. Here I look in more detail at the appellation itself, and I start as I have done with my other communal guides, with a look at the geography, climate and terroir.

Geography, Climate and Terroir

So to the south and north the appellation is defined by the aforementioned drainage channels, the Ruisseau de Juillac to the south and the Jalle de Breuil to the north. Both carry water away from the vineyards, providing essential drainage to the gravel bed into which the vines of Pauillac dig their roots. The two channels eventually empty into the Gironde, to the east. The Ruisseau de Juillac is particularly well maintained, perhaps not surprising as it cuts a path between the vines of Château Latour on one side, and Château Léoville-Las-Cases on the other. Its course is kept in check by cement mouldings, with manicured lawns on either side (pictured below - I just knew I would find a use for this photograph one day), and it is not unknown for people to picnic (with permission from the châteaux in question, of course) on its banks.

Pauillac

You might imagine that the Gironde forms the eastern boundary, but this is not so. Centrally the town of Pauillac, which sits on the water's edge, prevents any vines getting this close. But on even to the north and south of the town the vines stop some way short of the muddy banks of the estuary. This is because as the land slopes down towards the water the gravel disappears, to be replaced by silty alluvial soils covered by marshy grassland. This land is of little agricultural value, and for many years it has been used as grazing pasture, and as a result Pauillac has an established reputation as a source of salt-marsh lamb as well as wine. To the west, the appellation fades away as the gravels give way to heavier soils; take a walk in the vineyards of the appellation's most western châteaux and you will find little gravel, the vines here dig their feet into a dark and gritty sand.

Pauillac

The gravel mound of Pauillac is divided into two, in a vaguely diagonal fashion, by the Chenal du Gaer, which flows past Artigues (a small village west of Pauillac, just behind Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste) and then cuts through the land before emptying into the Gironde just to the north of the town of Pauillac. Those Pauillac has two distinct lobes; to the north and west the land reaches a height of 24 metres above sea level; underfoot there is an estimated 9 metres of gravel, interspersed with seams of compact sand and clay, with deeper limestone. On this section can be found Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Pontet-Canet and others. To the south and east is the Bages plateau, which is naturally home to Château Croizet-Bages, Château Haut-Bages-Libéral and Château Lynch-Bages. The plateau does not quite reach the same heady heights achieved by the lobe to the north, the maximum altitude here being around 15 metres above sea level. All the same, the gravel beds are just as impressive, and equally deep at around 9 metres, and wines of extremely high quality are possible, especially close to the water where Château Latour is to be found. At the western edge, beyond the D206 which also cuts across the appellation heading for Pauillac the mound of gravel is known as the Grand Puy, and the vineyards of Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse and the aforementioned Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste are to be found here.

Pauillac

Regardless of whether we are talking about the northern or southern love, it is the deep gravel bed that makes Pauillac what it is, combined with good drainage of course, which is part natural and part man-made. The well-drained gravel is best exploited by Cabernet Sauvignon, which dominates here just as it does in St Julien. Although the gravel is a little deeper to the west (before it gives way to the sand, anyway), the drainage is certainly most efficient to the east, closer to the Gironde. And here, as in St Julien, the greatest châteaux sit alongside the D2, as close to the water's edge as possible. Here lie the aforementioned Château Latour, Château Pichon-Lalande, Château Pichon-Baron and Château Lynch-Bages to the south, and Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Pontet-Canet (pictured above) to the north, among others. As a general rule the further west you go, the less imposing the wine, not necessarily a bad thing as they are still of very good quality, yet they can also offer something more affordable than those châteaux which overlook the Gironde. There are always some exceptions of course, and here Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste stands out, as this estate makes some excellent wines despite being located near the western edge of the commune, near Artigues. There are also some châteaux, located a little closer to the Gironde, that have a tendency to disappoint.

As for climate, the general rule with the Médoc is that the further north we move, the later the ripening will be. The difference between one commune and the next is of course indistinguishable, but the difference between these more northerly communes and Pessac-Léognan, to the south of Bordeaux, can be several days if not a week or two.

Appellation & Classification

Pauillac

At A Glance

Pauillac

Established: Nov. 14th, 1936

Area: ~1100 ha

Varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenère

Soils: Deep bed of Rissian & Würmian gravel

Max. yields: 57-63 hl/ha (figure varies with the vintage)

Although the leading châteaux of this particular part of Bordeaux have histroies that strech back many centuries, the appellation itself was only delimited in 1936, early on in the story of France's system of appellation d'origine contôlée. In fact the decree was signed off on November 14th, the same day that the St Julien appellation rules were also made law.

The appellation is essentially a single-commune affair, although as is often the case a few hectares in neighbouring communes qualify, as specifically laid down in the appellation rulebook. To the north and south both St Estèphe and St Julien have vines that qualify; most plots are very small, less than a hectare each, although there are larger lieux-dits which are eligible including Blanquet (4 hectares) in St Estèphe and Montauban (8 hectares) and Les Cailloux (3 hectares) in St Julien. Perhaps less of a surprise is the fact that two communes to the west of Pauillac also contibute a few hectares. West and north is Cissac-Médoc, which has only a few tiny eligible plots, while directly west is Saint-Saveur where there are numerous vineyards that qualify, including Béherré, which gives and impressive 12 hectares.

As for the 1855 classification, there are eighteen classed growth estates here, including the three first growths. As already discussed of these Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated in 1973, after a long campaign by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. I provide a detailed account of his efforts that led to this unprecedented promotion in my profile of this estate, and so I shall not go into it in any more detail here. Happily, Pauillac also succeeds on the second rung of the classification. Although I could point out a handful of estates ranked at this level in St Julien and Margaux that do not seem to produce wine worthy of second growth status, there are no such accusations here in Pauillac. Although both Château Pichon-Lalande and Château Pichon-Baron have had their difficulties over the years, both today are turning out wines of exceptional quality.

Pauillac

Strangely, at this point the commune seems to disappear from the classification, with no third growths and only one fourth growth, Château Duhart-Milon, which has been owned and managed by the Lafite branch of the Rothschild family since 1962. and then suddenly, on the fifth rung of the classification, Pauillac is back with a bang. Here are Château d'Armailhac and Château Clerc-Milon, both owned by the Mouton branch of the Rothschilds, as well as some high-flying and over-performing estates which make a mockery of the 1855 classification, including Château Lynch-Bages, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (pictured above) and Château Pontet-Canet. There are also some good value opportunities at this level. There are also, it has to be said, one or two properties that seem to perenially disappoint.

Wine Styles

If it is not St Julien that receives your vote as leadng commune of the left bank, then surely it is Pauillac. St Julien gives many exactly what they desire from this particular part of the wine world, with its pure blackcurrant and damson fruit, cerebral and savoury depth and occasionally stern tannic backbone. But these aspects of the Médoc can also be found here in Pauillac, sometimes wth even deeper, darker seams of fruit, and no less savoury structure than in St Julien. And there are sometimes other elements to the flavour profile to be discovered here, complex nuances of cigar and tobacco, cedar and pencil shavings especially. And at the very top of the classification, the wines are underpinned by broad and towering tannins which carry them forward through many decades, if indeed not centuries. The first growths have libraries of old bottles that stretch back into the 19th century.

As I have suggested the greatest wines come from the vineyards closest to the Gironde, and so it is here at the likes of Château Latour and Château Pichon-Baron that this interplay of black fruit and cedary complexity is most evident. Further inland though, the wines have a very similar style, although perhaps somewhat toned down, the essential elements all here, but some of the more nuanced complexities are perhaps absent, the flavours themselves less intense. Nevertheless, excellent examples of what it means for a wine to be Pauillac can be found here in Château Haut-Batailley (pictured below), Château Batailley and even lesser growths such as Château Pibran, which is under the management of the AXA team that also runs Pichon-Baron.

Pauillac

These are all, however, generalisations, and all of the top wines in Pauillac have their own distinctive personalities. Château Latour is the most profound of all in my opinion, the most concentrated, the most paradoxical in how it combines substance and structure with elegance and verve. It is perhaps only natural to place it apart within the commune, and indeed to my palate in terms of style it invites comparison with the super-second estate of Château Léoville-Las-Cases, which sits right next-door but in the St Julien appellation, rather than the other Pauillac first growths. Also next-door, but within the Pauillac appeallation, is Château Pichon-Lalande; the wine here has all the dark fruit of the commune, but is nuanced with a seductive spice, a style that to me seems to want to mirror the otherwise unique wood-spice edge that characterses the wines of Château Mouton-Rothschild. The wine of this estate is, to my palate, the most distinctive and easily recognosed in the appellation, thanks to that very particular seductive spice, a feature of the wine which in all honesty is difficult to describe and I occasionally resort to 'Mouton spice' in my tasting notes. It is certainly a contrast with the wine of neighbouring first growth Château Lafite-Rothschild which, along with Château Pichon-Baron, tends to exhibit great purity and definition as a hallmark. These are very cerebral and correct styles, Lafite in particular academic and surprisingly unyielding in its youth, but they both evolve to reveal previously unhidden complexities as they age.

Finally, next-door to Château Mouton-Rothschild is the revitalised Château Pontet-Canet, and I cannot conclude this brief guide without mention of its status as the leading example of biodynamic viticulture in Bordeaux. Where Pontet-Canet has lead others, including Château Climens, Château Palmer and Château Durfort-Vivens have followed. And as for the wines, they have the fruit concentration, purity and definition that we would normally associate with a second growth estate, an impressive turn-around as the estate was in the doldrums just a few decades ago.

There are joyous delights to be found here in Pauillac, and if your budget is limitless you can buy and cellar some of the greatest wnes in the world. For wines of similar merit, but selling for a more affordable price, look to the lesser growths of the commune, or look north to the many great value wines that can be found in St Estèphe, the next stop on this journey through the communes of the Médoc. (28/12/00, updated 24/1/08, 27/4/14)