Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pichon-Baron Pichon-Lalande Showdown

Meetings of the Media Wine Guild are typically pleasant and edifying. It's not usual, though, that they are historic. But the one held April 27, 2009—which featured vertical tastings, from 2000 to 2006, of neighboring Pauillac domains Chateau Lougueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (hereafter referred to as simply Baron and Lalande)—was just that.

And it's not me who called it historic. It's the managers of those two fine Bordeaux properties themselves, who were in attendance. "We have never done this tasting before," said Christian Seely, manager of the Baron site. Gildas d'Ollone of Lalande concurred.

So why should they even think to do such a tasting in the first place? Well, there's good reason. The two Chateaus are side by side, and are historically linked. They were once part of the same property, owned by Pierre de Rauzan. As I understood the story from Seely, this changed when the Baron married into the winemaking family. Rauzan gave them the estate, which was rechristened Chateau Pichon Longueville. Of the children the marriage produced, the daughters divided the estate into the two Pauillac Chateaus we know today, while the sons got 60 acres of vineyards around Château Margaux.

It was amusing to see the two grand men diplomatically making the cases for their wines. Though they behaved civilly enough to one another—and I was told that whatever rivalry there once was has subsided—you could tell the gentleman eyed each other with a certain modicum of underlying suspicion and jealousy. Seely, English, curly-haired, bow-tied (his signature cravat) and smiling, was the the more canny as self-marketing, peppering his speeches with wry asides and self-deprecating humor. The old, white-maned Frechman's d'Ollone's dignity was coiled more tightly; humor was not an arrow in his quiver.

Though both Chateaus share the same undulating ground and gravelly soil, there are appreciable differences in their wines. Baron wines typically use somewhere around 65% Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend, and very little Cabernet Franc. Lalande used to employ something along the lines of a 45-35% mix of Cab vs. Merlot, but in recent years has inched the Cab up to around 65%.

There was much to like in the offerings of both vineyards. Obviously, these are world class wines, so there were no bad bottles, just ones that were comparatively better than others. Overall, I preferred the Lalande wines, mainly because I found more depth and variation in the various vintages. The 2000, in particular, had a mushroomy, barnyard nose, and earthy palate of mushrooms and green olives that positively stood out among its brother bottles. The Baron wines routinely furnished inviting and enjoyable notes of cherry, berries and other red fruit, with greener notes as the wines got younger. (The 2006 was extremely extracted.) The Lalandes, however, often gave out enticing, more challenging flavors of charcoal, pencil lead and darker fruit. To put it another way, the Barons with bright, the Lalandes were moody. (However, it may be that, money-wise, the Barons are the bargain wines; the Lalandes are considerably more expensive.)

But that's just my opinion. I was informed later that a table of the Guild's senior members, Bordeaux purists all and Cab nuts, were liking the Baron wines best.

There was little debate, however, as to the wine of the afternoon. That was the Lalande 1985, served with lunch. As one member said, "it sang." An amazing wine, smooth and integrated, with touches of mellow mushrooms and green brush, and beautiful character and depth. Mature, but alive. It was heavenly. Seely even jokingly admitted he would not dare to show the Baron 1985 against it.

Also served with the meal were the Baron 1989 (amazingly full, juicy and lively for a 20-year-old wine); the Lalande 1989 (a deep nose, an even palate of rose and dark fruit, and lots of depth); and a 1990 Baron (too hot, just too much, with extracted fruit and diffuse flavors). A member also contributed a double magnum of a 1975 Lalande. This was fairly good, nice and silky, but a bit tired and not nearly as impressive as the 1985.

The room was well-attended. Any extra table was needed. And talk was excited and non-stop. We must have more showdowns like this in the future.

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