Assessing 15 vintages of Léoville Poyferré

By Panos Kakaviatos for Wine-Chronicles.com

24 January 2019

Over the last nine years, I have been organizing comprehensive verticals of top Bordeaux estates, sometimes several times in one year, and often in Washington D.C. 

The most recent, a Friday evening 18 January 2019 dinner at the French embassy in Washington D.C., featured Château Léoville Poyferré, with estate co-owner and recently named director Sara Lecompte-Cuvelier presiding. The cover photo is by David Zimmerman, who took many of the photos for this blog entry.

We assessed 15 vintages, all ex-château and reaching back (not too far) to the celebrated 1990. Chef Mark Courseille of the French Embassy restaurant Le Café Descartes again showed some magic to go with the wines.

This was the second time I had organized a dinner at the French embassy. Two months before, I had organized a dinner for Château La Conseillante, with 16 vintages, which was reviewed in several media, including Isaac James Baker in his influential wine blog and by participants like Kevin Shin in Cellar Tracker.

With restaurant director Max Jacquet, myself, director of Château Léoville Poyferré Sara Lecompte-Cuvelier, restaurant chef Mark Courseille and sommelier Laurant Lala (photo by David Zimmerman)

The great Léovilles

For the 32 wine geeks who attended, it was both useful and fun to taste relatively recent vintages of this famous second growth in the appellation of Saint Julien, to see how the wines are evolving at this point in time.

As most readers know, Léoville Poyferré, Léoville Barton and Léoville Las Cases were once part of a single, sprawling estate, only divided after the 18th century, as the French Revolution had destabilized many a château ownership. From the single estate, Château Léoville Barton was established in 1826. Las Cases was founded some 14 years later, in 1840. Not too many years later, Poyferré was established.

Fast forward to today, and you have Eric Boissenot who consults Léoville Las Cases and Léoville Barton, and Michel Rolland who consults Poyferré (since 1994).

Methods and styles vary among the three, which makes it great to compare and contrast.

I had already organized over the past few years tasting dinners with Léoville Las Cases and Léoville (and Langoa) Barton, both in Washington D.C., so it was fun to finally organize one in Washington D.C. with Léoville Poyferré. As celebrated wine author Jane Anson wrote in 2017, “the Léoville trio is among the surest bets in the world of fine wine”.

Champagne start 

We gathered at the embassy at about 6:30 pm and enjoyed Champagnes paired with excellent mignardises that the embassy restaurant provided, including delectable truffle-based hors d’oeuvres, along with foie gras and tuna on toast.

Among the Champagnes (many thanks to participants who brought them), the Krug NV was superb, perhaps the most impressive of the bunch, but the 2002 Dom Perignon proved as ever a delight to drink. The Piper Heidsieck “Rare” 2002 was also excellent, as was a very precise and vivacious Pol Roger 2008 Vintage Brut.

15 vintages of Léoville Poyferré 

At about 7:45 pm, we sat at lovely tables in a spacious room (photo below, thanks to Chris Loukaitis) where the temperature and lighting proved conducive to a tasting experience. It was great to have nine stems per person, permitting participants to hold on to earlier poured wines. Restaurant director Max Jacquet works with the talented sommelier Laurent Lala, who had opened all 45 bottles that had been delivered ex-château by Léoville Poyferré for this dinner: three bottles per vintage. No cork problems encountered, thanks to an earlier check by the château staff using a Coravin for all wines. Bravo Coravin.

The foods were excellent, thanks to talented chef Mark Courseille. He crafts such delicious concoctions that combine French tradition with thinking out of the box. The only issue for me was that the dessert – a thoroughly delicious chocolate – proved a bit too sweet for the dry reds. Other than that, the pairings worked out: even the lobster course, believe it or not!

Fantastic start to dinner: Croque Monsieur with … snails!

As for the wines, when in bold, I liked in particular. When red and bold, even more. If underlined, too? A kind of wine nirvana.

First flight : 2014, 2012, 2010

The 15 wines were served in five flights of three. The first dish counted as my overall favorite for its originality: a Croque Monsieur with … snails! The sauce meurette was great. And the wines? The 2014 never ceases to impress me as an excellent vintage for many a Bordeaux estate, and Léoville Poyferré is no exception: bright red and dark fruit, purity of expression, some oak derivation but not over dominant and actually enhancing the experience. Sure, too young, but very promising. Bravo! Next came the 2012, which was not double decanted. It should have been, but thank goodness we gave it time in glass (and the embassy staff had nine glasses per person, so it was easy to let it sit in glass for a while). The nose is robust with dark, jammy fruit. The palate was closed at first, but slowly opened up. As expected, not quite as long on the finish nor as pure as the 2014, but certainly a rich mid palate that is pleasing. Then came the 2010, which most everyone agrees is a vintage legend in the making: the case with many top estates in Bordeaux. The words opulent, rich, suave and bold come to mind as adjectives. Noted wine writer Michael Apstein, a fan of fine Burgundy, said that it was so delicious that it could have been paired “even with a rubber tire”. Still quite youthful, however, so hold on to any 2010s you have for at least another five years for an early drinking window.

Pouring 15 vintages, with Sara Lecompte-Cuvelier and Washington D.C. member of the Commanderie Michael Besche

Second Flight : 2011, 2008, 2002

The second course was interesting to pair. Chef Courseille came up with a truly delicious lobster “purse”, that is to say lobster meat in a ravioli like pasta, flavored with carrot ginger sauce. Thankfully, the sauce seemed to have a beefy stock that matched the tannins of these reds. Perhaps not ideal, the match worked overall, as these vintages were higher in acidity making them more accessible with the thick pasta “pocket” over the lobster. Most diners thought that the 2011 paired best and also proved to be the best among the three vintages. It was rich and even enveloping. The somewhat stiff tannins of 2011 from barrel have melted. The 2008 was somewhat foreboding. But I liked its character and its briskness. It is a wine of character, and may end up being better than the 2011 down the road. Finally, the 2002 – saved by a late summer that ripened (finally) the Cabernets – was better than expected, but not as good as either the 2008 or the 2011. For some, the 2002 paired better with the lobster.

From left to right: Michael Besche, Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Liquors and wine writer Michael Apstein

Third Flight : 2001, 2000, 1990

The third serving of roasted lamb loin in a Bordelaise sauce with eggplant caviar and tomato confit proved perhaps to feature the best overall flight of the evening. The 1990 – the oldest that we had over dinner – shined bright. All bottles came ex-château, but could there have been slight bottle variations? Whatever the case may be, it was hard to beat the lovely crushed tobacco and crushed mint freshness from a wine nearly 30 years old.

Darn tasty lamb loin: perfect with this flight of wines

For me the 2000 proved a contender for “wine of the night”. Quite powerful and delicious at the same time, with both density and length. It is just entering an early drinking window. I would perhaps tip my hat to the 2005 for “top wine”, but the 2000 can be seen as having entered “more firmly” an early drinking window. Compared to the 1990 and the 2001, the 2000 showed more “dimension” amongst the three, with somewhat superior nuance and depth. The 2000 at this estate has always struck me as an excellent wine, since I first tried it back in 2003, when Robert Parker hosted the Heart’s Delight 2000 vintage horizontal in Washington D.C.

But let’s not forget about the 2001. By the end of the last flight, noted wine writer Michael Apstein was remarking how well the 2002 was holding its own, but then – compared to the 2001 – the 2002 was clearly less impressive. For me, the 2001 proved charming and refined, with a certain Saint Julien elegance and poise coming to mind. All three wines were fun to drink with the lamb.

At least nine glasses per guest (photo by David Zimmerman)

Fourth Flight : 2006, 2005*, 2004

Served with Cantal, Comté and Saint Nectaire cheese, this flight proved how excellent the 2005 vintage was in Bordeaux. While I appreciated the ripe richness of the 2006, whose tannins have settled down finally, it lacks the more elegant expression of the 2004, which reminded me a bit of the 2001 and perhaps the 2014, too.

The one in the middle …

The 2005 was gorgeous: aromatics more refined and deeper than the other two. The palate? Full bodied and long, with density but not in a modern, monolithic sense. It is just barely entering any kind of early drinking window, so I would guess another five years in your cellar would be great for a proper early drinking window. The 2006 was marked by harvest rainfall that made the tannins somewhat hard, and that vintage is finally coming around.

It was great to promote discussion amongst participants following each flight!

Fifth Flight : 2003, 2009, 2015

It was so great to be able to compare these vintages! By the fifth flight the 32 dinner participants were able to compare “polar opposite” vintages 2002 (wet and cold August) with 2003 (hot and dry August), for example. The chocolate dessert proved too sweet for pairing with these Bordeaux, but I had placed the richest vintages for this final serving. As Michael Apstein remarked: it was good that we all had time to taste the wine, before the dessert was served. As delicious as it was, it was not an ideal match. In any case, what can we say about these wines?

Well, the 2003 was pretty darn good! I recall enjoying it along with the 1982 with Didier Cuvelier at the Saint Julien restaurant some 10 years ago, and it held its own against that legendary vintage. It comes across rather interestingly fresh, with crushed mint and some pencil lead. Maybe it lacks the density and the length of the 2005 or the 2000, but is a pretty good vintage indeed.

Seduction in bottle.

While not the “modern monster” that aptly describes, say, Cos d’Estournel, the 2009 was softer albeit showing signs of “double chocolate cake”, lacking just perhaps the nuance of either the 2005 or the 2010. But its smooth and ripe character seduced me.

The 2015 reminded me of a better 2009, with more structure to frame the ripe fruit. Very young, the oak derived aspects came to the fore, but I think it will evolve quite well. Again, for the money, 2014 is just as good for me, albeit a different style. Shortly after this tasting dinner, I again tried 2016s from bottle during the UGCB tour in Philadelphia, and I think that Léoville Poyferré made a superb wine in 2016, with higher acidity that suits the estate well, but we did not have it over the dinner.

A fun evening, to be sure!

For another perspective on the wines from this dinner, check out the notes by Kevin Shin.

Saint Julien in general 

Between Margaux and Pauillac on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, Saint Julien is a small appellation of 920 hectares. And it is packed with classified growths, including several so-called Super Seconds. Brands like Gruaud-Larose, Ducru Beaucaillou, Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton and Léoville Poyferré are famous and can rival First Growth quality in some years. Other well known estates include Beychevelle and Branaire Ducru, which face one another as you enter the appellation along the D2 roadway.

As far as the eye can see, the land is covered with pebbles that naturally regulate soil temperature. Gravel, sand and clay are the other components of this geological alchemy, the result of sedimentary deposits by the Garonne in the Quaternary period. The vineyards of the appellation stretch over gravelly ridges that have been finely chiseled by erosion and designed to promote excellent drainage.

Vine plots of Château Léoville Poyferré (courtesy of the estate website)

More about Léoville Poyferré

The vineyard of Château Léoville Poyferré sits on gravely, well drained soils that create a balanced environment for the vines. Soil analysis is the basis for vineyard practices, which are adapted to the condition of the vineyard (tillage, earthing up…). Prior to vegetation, manure is added. In early May, various canopy management techniques are employed according to vine growth and desired results.

About three weeks before harvest, Didier Cuvelier, Michel Rolland, Isabelle Davin (Château’s oenologist), Bruno Clenet (Vineyard Manager) et Didier Thomann (Cellar Master) go through the entire vineyard to taste the grapes, which completes the results from analysis.

Since the arrival of Michel Rolland in 1994, grapes have been harvested into small crates. The grape bunches are first sorted by hand on tables before destemming, then a second time by optical sorting maching before crushing. Each vineyard plot is vinified individually in one of the 56 stainless steel vats, of which twenty seven are double-walled.

Vinification is mainly focused on the quality and finesse of the tannins, characterized by research and innovation in maintaining qualitative tradition and lineage of the style of Léoville Poyferré. The 27 double-walled tanks are used for cold pre-fermentation macerations for 6 days. The extraction of color occurs gradually and pure fruit aromas are revealed. Particular care is taken in the selection of barrels for subtle oak in harmony with the wines. The wines are aged in barrels for 18-20 months. Michel Rolland provides advice for vinification and blending.

I love the tasting room at Château Léoville Poyferré : Tasting their superb 2016 vintage at the estate last year with (left to right) Didier Cuvelier; Sylvain Boivert, director of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés en 1855 and wine author Jane Anson.

The 80-hectare vineyard has undergone an ambitious program of planting and restructuring over the last 25 years. Modern winemaking facilities, according to the estate’s brochure, “balance modernity and tradition”, featuring the latest technological advances, while the barrel cellars respect “Médocain traditions”.

History (taken from the website)

In 1638, Maître Jean de Moytié, ennobled Bordeaux bourgeois, councilor to the Bordeaux parliament, owned a vineyard planted atop a gravel ridge called Mont-Moytié. It was among the first historic estates of the Medoc established before the Fronde (civil wars in France between 1648 and 1653) along with Chateau Margaux, Chateau La Fitte, and Château de Calon…

The legacy of Alexandre de Gascq-Léoville

The heirs of Alexandre de Gascq-Léoville kept the estate intact. By 1775, the wines of Léoville were sold under four different names: Abadie, Lacaze, Chevalier, and Monbalon. A century later during the viticultural slump, Hugh Barton acquired the Chevalier and Monbalon domains, thus establishing Château Léoville Barton in 1826. The rest of the Léoville vineyard (Abadie and Lacaze holdings), still in the hands of the Lascase descendants, accounted for three quarters of the original estate. In 1840, the Lacaze parcels became Château Léoville Lascases, which was inherited by Adolphe de Lascase. His sister, Jeanne, inherited the remaining Abadie parcels, which were transferred to her daughter, who was married to Baron Jean-Marie Poyferré de Cerès. Château Léoville Poyferré was born.

The Cuvelier connection

In 1804, Henri Cuvelier founded a wine trading company in his hometown of Haubourdin in the north of France. The family business developed rapidly, driven by the revival of interest in Bordeaux wines in general and the Médoc Classified Growths in particular. The family expanded their operations during the 19th century with a dense commercial network stretching from Normandy to Flanders.

Close up from the château, courtesy of the estate website

1855 and all that

Following the honors of the 1855 classification, Baron Poyferré courageously fought a bout of powdery mildew that lasted until 1863. He finally resigned himself to selling Léoville Poyferré in 1865 to the Lalande and Erlanger families, wine brokers and bankers respectively.

Tough times

As of 1866, Armand Lalande presided over the destiny of the domain for the next twenty years. Armand Lalande was succeeded at the helm of Léoville Poyferré by his son-in-law, Edouard Lawton. The château’s label bears the “demi-wolf” of the Lawton family coat of arms. Hard times struck again: first powdery mildew, then phylloxera in 1879. To top it all off, mildew hit around 1885. Through it all, Léoville Poyferré passed these tests with head held high.

Cuvelier purchases in the Médoc start in Saint Estèphe

In 1903, the Cuvelier family acquired Château Le Crock in Saint-Estèphe. The 32-hectare vineyard is located on the gravely Marbuzet plateau between the prestigious Châteaux Cos d’Estournel and Montrose. The meticulous work carried out on the soil and the vines allowed the wine to be quickly honored by the ranking of “Cru Bourgeois” in 1932.

In 1920, the Cuvelier family purchased Châteaux Léoville Poyferré and Moulin Riche from the Lawton family. Château Moulin Riche (c. 1885) was classified as a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel in 1932. These two “new pearls” of Saint-Julien would attract much attention and become references for the appellation.

While Paul Cuvelier continued to run H. Cuvelier & Fils in Haubourdin, his brother, Max Cuvelier, founded a wine trading company in Bordeaux to be closer to the vineyards and thus facilitate procurement and distribution. Max’s sons have since taken over: Didier Cuvelier became Managing Director of Châteaux Léoville Poyferré, Moulin Riche and Le Crock in 1979. His brother, Olivier, has directed H. Cuvelier & Fils in Bordeaux since 1985.

Co-managed by Bertrand Cuvelier and Baudouin Fauvarque, the new wine trading company in Haubourdin was purchased by Mr. Lepoutre and Mr. Bigo in 2002. The name remains unchanged and the company continues to distribute wines from the Cuvelier estates.

Argentine connection

Following in the footsteps of Paul Cuvelier, Bertrand Cuvelier embarked on a new wine challenge in 1998 and purchased land in Mendoza, Argentina at the foot of the Andes Mountains to establish a vineyard. His cousin, Jean-Guy Cuvelier, joined him and together they realized the Argentinian dream of their grandfather.

Good times!

New generation

Anne Cuvelier since 2006 manages hospitality, wine tourism and public relations for Châteaux Léoville Poyferré. Her training in languages and international experience are an invaluable asset in developing the image of the chateau for clients and foreign visitors. And since 2017, Sara Lecompte-Cuvelier has taken the helm to direct the estate overall.

 

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