Saint Julien Elegance

17 vintages of Château Lagrange (and more)

by Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com 

13 May 2018
Bordeaux is not just about showing off expensive wines. Nor about maximum power and density. It shouldn’t be defined only as inexpensive Bordeaux AOC level wines, either. Such categories have their value and allure – to be sure.
Earlier this month, on Victory in Europe Day 8 May, one of Washington D.C.’s finest restaurants, Black Salt, welcomed Charlotte Denjean of Château Lagrange, from the Médoc in Saint Julien.
This wine lies happily in between these two extreme price categories. Above cru bourgeois to be sure, and among the better so-called “classified growths,” but not as expensive as, say, the “Super Seconds” or, of course, top tier First Growths. We are talking about a “classified growth” as ranked by the enduring 1855 Classification of wines from the Médoc and Sauternes, so Lagrange is not an inexpensive wine.

Not quite the entire line up of Château Lagrange at Black Salt 😉

Some may consider only “luxury brand” Bordeaux wines to be worth their while. But even with the (considerable) means, I would think that one should not limit a wine cellar to bottles of wine that cost, say, $1,000 each. That is what a bottle of Château Margaux 2010 costs today in retail. Certainly such top brands taste amazingly. But not too long ago, they were sold at prices reasonable enough for most serious wine fans. The 1999 Margaux, for example, I had purchased just about 15 years ago for some $125 a bottle, at that time considered rather pricey already. It now costs maybe $350+, if you can get that price at an auction.
Why talk about Château Margaux? Because also earlier this month, in Washington D.C. , I attended a truly magnificent tasting dinner of Château Margaux, with vintages spanning three decades: that dinner included such legendary vintages as 1983, 1996, 2000 and 2010. We did not taste the legend-in-the-making of 2015, which fetches as much as $1,500 for one bottle 😳 …
Supply and demand? To some extent, sure. Quality in the bottle? You bet. Margaux counts among the very best Cabernet Sauvignon driven wines in the world. Overpriced? Yes. When considering other estates, which may not be as good qualitatively, but surpass such “luxury wine prices” in terms of price/quality ratios. These days, wines like Château Montrose and Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe, or the two Pichons of Pauillac, constitute better bargains in a great year than a Château Margaux does in an average year. Which would you pick for the money? About $450 for a bottle of Château Margaux in 2011? Or a Château Montrose or Pichon Baron 2009 for at almost half that price? A no brainer.

Getting set for 17 vintages of Château Lagrange

The Château Lagrange niche 
Now Château Lagrange can sell for as low as about $50 retail, for a fine vintage like 2014. Prices can reach over $100 for some older vintages like the 1990, but generally speaking, the wine is priced between a $40 (sometimes as a futures, sans tax and/or delivery cost) to $70 per-bottle range for off-the-shelf in a fine vintage.
It does not delivery the density and power of, say, Montrose or Léoville Las Cases, but it offers suave pleasure with backbone for a medium range, classified growth that ages gracefully for three or more decades. In the end, Château Lagrange should be part of any serious winelover’s wine collection: a wine to drink and not re-sell as a “luxury product” investment.
Heart’s Delight 
Charlotte Denjean, who has been with the estate for over 10 years, travelled to Washington D.C. for a series of tasting events associated with the Heart’s Delight Auction, packed with great tastings and events. Proceeds from auction sales contribute to the cause of funding heart disease research.
Given the presence of many Bordeaux estates this time in May for Heart’s Delight, it was great to have been able to organize a “side-event” such as our comprehensive 17-vintage vertical, where Charlotte presented the wines in an easy-going and charming manner. Some 30 participants enjoyed the elegance, moderate density and sap-driven fruit of Lagrange, matched by excellent cuisine. As for the style of Château Lagrange, dinner participant and long-time Bordeaux wine buyer Paul Chaconas put it aptly:
These are wines medium to medium+ in body. They are more about elegance and refinement than about power. Saint Julien usually doesn’t have the heft of Pauillac or Saint Estephe. And Lagrange showed real consistency, while also reflecting the individuality of the many vintages.  And, not surprisingly, the dinner showed that for an excellent vintage you really need close to two decades for these wines to start showing the gorgeous bottle bouquets and complex tertiary aromas and flavors that we so love. I was happy to see the 2005 showing so well, since I own some of that. It obviously needs more time. Also interesting to see that the 2000 is beginning to blossom. I don’t taste many 2000s or 2005s since most of us have been waiting for them to develop. Nice to see we may be able to start taking a peek at some of the 2000s.  The 1996 was super, not surprisingly.  And I also loved the 1990, which had excellent balance and complexity despite being such a hot year.

Heart’s Delight tasting, Sofitel, Washington D.C. with – from left to right – Daina Paulin of Château Haut Bailly, wine promoter Arnaud Bellone, and Charlotte Denjean of Château Lagrange in Saint Julien

Dinner participants included friends and wine connoisseurs and vintages ranged from 2015 to 1985, which was crafted just two years after current owner the Suntory Group purchased Lagrange to bring about a Renaissance to what could be described back then as a Sleeping Beauty. This article from a few years back for Decanter China by Jane Anson sums this story nicely.

A fine white 

Everyone found something to enjoy from the 17 vintages of Château Lagrange, including the rather scarce dry white produced from 7.5 hectares (soon to be nine) at the estate: Les Arums de Lagrange 2016: it displayed depth, ripeness and precision.
My overall preferences among the reds 
Out of some 50 bottles, one ended up being corked, and I am sorry we did not detect it beforehand, because it turned out to be one of the three 1985s. One of the 2000s served was a bit off, as well.

Participants at Black Salt dinner: Dimitri Galanis, at left in both photos, myself in the middle in the upper photo, and Charlotte in the middle in the lower picture and Evangelos Spyridakis to the right in both pictures. Photo provided by Barbara Spyridakis: thanks!

But let’s get to the positive news. Among my favorites from the dinner? As usual, an underrated 2014, so pure and bright in its red fruit expression – and look at Wine-Searcher and you get this bottle for well under $50. The trio 2008-2009-2010 was an expected hit, all in crescendo direction. I think the 2009 is in a sweet spot today, the 2008 has a bit more grip, while not as seductive and the 2010 combines the best of both – and will be truly ready to drink in about 10 years time for an early drinking window. The 1996 was another highlight: it showed fine vigor as well as depth. My table happened to have had an agreeable 1985, a superb 1990, an underrated 2003 (the cooler clay soils of this estate fared well against the torrid heat of that vintage, so one did not get such a marmalade aspect as one could), and an excellent 2005 that still needs another decade to fully open, but it exuded subtle power and certainly very refined tannins.
Champagne start  🍾
Before the Les Arums de Lagrange was served, we enjoyed excellent bubblies. Thanks to participants for bringing these wines. Chris Bublitz brought a bottle of Cedric Bouchard Blanc de Noirs Cote de Bechalin 2008, quite precise and rich at the same time. Randy McFarlane contributed a Gosset Excellence Brut Champagne, off the restaurant menu, very smooth and lively. Both Kevin Shin and Adam Feinberg brought one bottle each of the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006: such breadth and veritable vinousity, this is perhaps my favorite 2006 “top flight” Champagne I know so far. Tim O’Rourke brought a magnum of Dom Ruinart 2004, very smooth and precise and delectable. And Paul Nitze brought a bottle of Chartogne Taillet Les Beaux Sens 2011, which I did not get a chance to taste, but heard was delicious.  In any case a positive mood was set with such fine bubblies.

Nice way to start with 08-09-10 Château Lagrange

Food and wine pairings 
The foods were amazing – and for a restaurant specializing in fish and seafood, the chef and his staff excelled with meat-based dishes served appropriately for Château Lagrange. Not on the menu was a delectable opening: a mini fish taco, which proved just perfect for the Les Arums de Lagrange 2016.
In terms of the wines served, the star of each flight is in red and in bold.
First Course 
Château Lagrange 2008, 2009, 2010 

Foie Gras Terrine Salted Biscuit, Pickled Rhubarb, Caramelized Rhubarb Coulis / This was a nice size portion of foie gras terrine and its richness was matched well by the vibrant energy of the 2008 vintage. The riper density of the 2009 proved another fine match. The 2010 was at first a bit disjointed but time in glass brought forth its superior charms: a wine of larger scale than the two preceding, and in need of a bit more cellaring before being ready. All in all, the 2009 provided the most pleasure in this flight.

Second Course 

Château Lagrange 2006, 2005, 2004 

Veal Cheek & Ricotta Ravioli with Wild Morels, English Peas, Sunchoke Purée, Mushroom Veal Jus, Crispy Sunchokes and Pea Tendrils / What a delicious second course, the ravioli tasted home made fresh, with a most tender veal. The mushrooms lent a fine tertiary touch complementing especially the 2004, which was perhaps my least favorite of the flight, even if it was charming and exuded some red fruit brightness. The 2006 was my second favorite of the flight. For several years, many 2006s from the Médoc have seemed closed, but many seem to be opening up, and exhibit density and “thickness” on the palate, more so than the 2004, without being heavy handed. The 2005 proved the most precise and crystal clear in expression of fruit and tannic finesse, and had the longest finish of the three: still youthful but just beginning to enter an early drinking window.

Superb duck breast at Black Salt!

Third Course

Château Lagrange 2003, 2002, 2000 

Mallard Duck Breast with Duck Confit Wild Rice, Braised Kale and Dried Cherry Jus / My goodness was this duck savory and rich, juicy and meaty and… delicious. The jus was great, too. 2003 seemed to please some palates, given the cooler soils of Lagrange maintaining some freshness, but I liked the linearity of the 2002 just as much. Of course the 2000, with superior body and depth compared to the two others, shined brightest, and it was a pity that one of the bottles was a bit off.

Fourth Course

Château Lagrange 1996, 1990 (small pour), 1989, 1985 

Duo of Elysian Fields Lamb with Braised Shank Ragu, Royal Trumpet Mushrooms, Duchess Potatoes, Asparagus, Heirloom Carrots and Red Wine Jus / Another excellent course from the chef at this superb Washington D.C. venue. The braised ragout and mushrooms complemented well the older vintages. We had a rather delicate and charming 1985, with tertiary aspects, even smoky, that went well with the lamb. The 1989 was more robust, with ripe black fruit rather than red, and it pleased many palates. I liked one bottle of the two 1990s that came at the last moment: Charlotte brought a bottle from the estate as did Ben Giliberti of Calvert Woodley, so many thanks to Ben for bringing that bottle, which was more focused and just delicious. It was a close call to pick my favorite from this flight, a toss up with the 1996, more youthfully tannic and yet getting a bit tertiary. It stood up best to the weight of the dish, but the 1990 was the most fun.

Older vintages matched well with fine lamb at Black Salt

Final Course

Château Lagrange 2011, 2014, 2015 

Artisanal Cheese Plate with Blu di Bufala, Purple Haze and Thomasville Thomme / We went back to the future for the cheeses. Although the 2015 has the most potential charm, I liked the 2014 tonight most for its linearity and purity of fruit that matched well the richness of the cheeses. The 2011 seemed a tad closed, so would see a better day down the road. Sure, the 2015 may be the best wine, but it is too early to call. I tried it again a few days later at a Heart’s Delight auction event, and it was delicious, but I still like the focus of the 2014 more at this early stage.

Bravo to Black Salt director Jim Sole for taking extra care to double decant many of the 17 vintages we enjoyed.

Once again, many thanks to Charlotte and the team of Château Lagrange for shipping some 48 bottles (plus the one bottle of 1990) to Washington D.C. to share with us.

Kudos to Jim Sole and his team at Black Salt not only for a great dinner and excellent service throughout, but also for superb preparation ahead of time. I had arrived with wine educator Maria Denton a few hours before to go through the bottles, but Jim had already opened most and double decanted recent vintages. Older vintages we opened just before service, to let them breath and be rid of deposits of which there were not that many. And thanks to all who came! I trust that we had a great time.

Fine montage from the dinner by Dimitri Galanis

About Château Lagrange

With an altitude of 24 metres, the centre of the domain marks the highest point of Saint Julien. The estate covers 182 hectares (450 acres), of which 120 hectares (292 acres) are under vine, located in the west of the Saint Julien appellation. Most of the plots benefit from a drainage system. The 120 hectares under vine form a single block, planted on the region’s famous Günz gravel soils, with some clay and sand in certain areas. This variation in soils – along with a range of levels of vine maturity thanks to Suntory’s replanting programme – has led to the vines being managed plot by plot, before being picked by hand and fermented separately.

Grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon best expresses its character in the Médoc. When this grape variety is planted in the estate’s deep gravelly soils, it constitutes the very backbone of the wines of Lagrange – and ensures excellent aging potential. The best vineyard terroirs are reserved for this grape, which covers 67% of the estate. As for the Merlot, this earlier variety does well on cooler soils, making up 28% of the vineyard. Then for a final touch, 5% of Petit Verdot lends complexity to the wines. The white wine vineyard covers 7.5 hectares (19 acres) and is planted with Sauvignon Blanc (60%), Sauvignon Gris (20%) and Sémillon (20%).

Viticulture

A high density of plantation – 7,500 to 10,000 vines per hectare – rigorous pruning, de-leafing, thinning out in July and traditional ploughing contribute to rich and concentrated grapes. Traditional hand picking allows the estate to sort bunches and ensure that only the best of them arrive healthy for the press and fermentation. The harvest is handpicked into individual crates and then sorted manually and by an optical sorting machine when necessary.

Vinification 

Traditional Bordeaux vinification is carried out in 92 temperature-controlled stainless steel vats of varying capacities, thus allowing separate vinifications to respect the character of each plot and soil-type. Lagrange thus joins a growing number of quality minded Bordeaux estates that carry out parcel-by-parcel harvesting and vinification. Placing all or part of a given plot into its own vat means that the estate is able to harvest at or near optimum ripeness.

The total vatting time varies from 16 to 28 days, depending on tannic development in fermenting wines. The temperature of fermentation never exceeds 28°C to preserve finesse and freshness, which is something I notice at this estate more often than not. The selection of press wine is performed “barrel by barrel” allowing a wider choice range during the blend tastings.

Following consultation with the estate’s oenologist, the ever present and talented Eric Boissenot, the wines are blended a few months after harvest, to promote harmony of tannins and plot origins. Wines are aged in French oak barrels, of which 60% are renewed each year. They are racked every three months. During the 20-month maturation period, the cellar is maintained at 15°C and ambient humidity is carefully controlled. The second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, spends a year in oak, 20% of it new, and the white wine usually – Les Arums de Lagrange – ages in 30% new oak.

Pastoral setting to the west of the Saint Julien appellation

History

The estate was once owned by the ultra famous Baron de Brane, the Bordeaux parliament member who once owned the current estate of Mouton-Rothschild among other properties. His heart, so the saying goes, was at Calon-Ségur in Saint Estèphe, which he had also owned. The Tuscan-style tower that has become the emblem of Château Lagrange was built in 1820 by the Italian-born French architect and designer Louis Tullius Joachim Visconti.

From Jefferson to Duchâtel

During a trip to Bordeaux in 1785, the later-to-be 3rd U.S. President Thomas Jefferson included Lagrange among his “Third Classified Growths” in his own rating, pre-dating the 1855 Classification (which also ranked Lagrange a Third Growth).

Drainage system

In an early advance for Bordeaux, a certain Count Charles Tenneguy Duchâtel purchased the property in 1842 and introduced a  drainage system that helped to confirm the estate’s 1855 classification. It improved the wine immensely, and was quite an innovation for the mid 19th century.

A period of decline

A series of financial misfortunes led to decline, with parts of the property sold well into the 20th century. In 1970, for example, 32 hectares were sold to Château Ducru Beaucaillou. Henri Martin of Château Gloria also acquired parts of the estate for his excellent wine. By 1983, the remaining holdings of Lagrange were purchased by the large Japanese company, Suntory.

Renaissance

Japanese liquor giant Suntory ended this long period of mediocrity with Marcel Ducasse as director and winemaker. Large budgets from Suntory allowed him to replant vineyards and improve cellar conditions, leading to a Renaissance for Château Lagrange.

About Black Salt 

For those readers who do not know Black Salt Fish Market & Restaurant, it’s Washington’s premier seafood restaurant – often topping restaurant lists in the competitive nation’s capital. Committed to the sustainability of fish and shellfish stocks worldwide, the restaurant also prepares superb meat-based dishes, as participants discovered on 8 May 2018.

 

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2 Comments on “Saint Julien Elegance

  1. Sounds absolutely fantastic. Would love to have more of this here in Brazil, not just in the form of dinners that cost more than a fund-raising dinner in the USA….Taxes and import duties in Brazil are just insane. There are some importers of excellent Grand Cru’s, such as Grand Cru, Mistral, Decanter, and more recently VINDAME (https://www.vindame.com.br).

    Would invite Wine Chronicles to have a look at what is happening in Brazil…if only to be even more merry with the situation elsewhere! Cheers!

    • Would love to check out the wines of Brazil! Thanks for posting ☺️.

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