30 years of Suntory at Chateau Lagrange
First published Decanter China,Full Tasting Notes here,from March 2014
A vertical spanning four decades of any great estate is always going to be a fascinating exercise. The changes reflected in a wine over such a long period of time is a lesson not just in history, and the influence of the managers, consultants and owners who take the big decisions, but also in the wider influence of economic changes that can batter any business over the long-term, not to mention global weather patterns and technological advances, both of which play their part in translating what happens in the vineyard into what we can discern in our glass.
All of these influences are even more striking in the case of Chateau Lagrange, one of the largest estates in Saint Julien with almost 390 acres of land. Under the ownership of the Suntory Group since 1983 this place has been stripped down, remade, and built back to glory piece by painstaking piece. If you want to understand the sheer hard work, guts and bloody-mindedness that it takes to return miles upon miles of vines to a state worthy of a Bordeaux 1855 classified wine, you can do a lot worse than get to know this northern Médoc Third Growth.
Thirty years ago, when Suntory – itself an historic name dating back to 1899, but better known for beer and saké than fine wine – decided to invest in the Médoc, Lagrange had been neglected for decades. Most of its classified neighbours had also suffered heavily in the post-war decades, but Lagrange was lagging behind the investments that were slowly returning to Bordeaux cellars in the 1970s. The Cendoya family had shown more interest in the forest than the vines on their land, and sold off large chunks of vineyards (to Ducru Beaucaillou among others), and let the quality of the remaining vines suffer. A fire destroyed much of the chateau (and its collection of older wines) in the 1950s, after which investment dropped even further. From being one of the largest and most impressive properties in 1855, Lagrange had shrunk to 138 acres hectares of vines, and had a full 50% of merlot vines; an unusually high proportion for the appellation that was making itself felt in light, underpowered bottles.
Suntory made plain right from the start that it was serious, investing three times the purchase price within two years of taking possession. They appointed director Marcel Ducasse, who ran the estate from 1993 to 2007, and in just two years, the overall size of the vineyard was doubled, with 150 more acres planted by 1986. And the percentage of cabernet sauvignon was sharply increased (today it stands at 66%, with 7% petit verdot to add further spice and backbone, and just 27% merlot). A second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, began with the 1983 vintage, ensuring that those young vines would have somewhere to go while they gained in age and complexity, and to give the first wine a chance to catch its breath.
At the retrospective held at the chateau this week, some of the issues that Lagrange has had to overcome were obvious. The older wines had huge bottle variation – almost every vintage we tasted had to be tried twice, with replacement bottles luckily showing more satisfactorily. Great at the estate, but less comforting if you are trying these at home. Until 1996, problems with corks were rife in the Médoc, so even famously long-living wines such as Lagrange could age prematurely. Before 2002, there were occasional problems with filtration, resulting in a wine that could be unstable or degrade in the bottle. The success of this wine today comes because the team was not afraid to confront these issues, and to deal with them.
But one of the most instructive things about a vertical is seeing not simply which wines are the best (in terms of the having the most potential; so for this part of the Médoc that would mean weight of tannins, ripeness of fruit, clear cabernet sauvignon markers, notes of spice and menthol) but weighing up which are best to drink now, which best to cellar, which are doing better or worse than expected. Verticals give us a chance to converse with an estate, to look beyond the easy wins, the shortcuts to headline vintages and instead seek out the wallflowers, the ones that will take your breath away if you open them today instead of in five years time after perfect cellaring.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1986
There is still some tannic structure holding the fruit, discernible even on the nose. On the palate, a bloom of fruit on the first attack, but it fades fairly quickly to softer leather, some rose petals and soft cherries rather than firm fruits, tobacco on the finish. A little touch of acidity obvious in mid palate as the fruit structure and tannins break down, but still plenty to enjoy, feels like a classic older Médoc that has charm, soft and gentle. This is still in its drinking window, not dead yet. Colour wise things are smoothing out, lightening up, this is medium intensity. Blue cheese lingers on the palate when I went back to this wine after being open for half an hour, this is not going to hold on for much longer. 57% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot. 86. Recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1985
The first bottle was very tired, second bottle firmer (no surprise to have bottle variation in this age of wine). Less initial charm than the 85, this feels a little more brittle, the end is more abrupt, even if there is a darker fruit spectrum in the mid palate. The colour is a touch firmer and there is a flush of menthol on the end of the palate here, so some attractive Medoc character. When go back to it after 30 minutes, again get the feeling that this has firm fruit but a little brittle on the attack – but it has softened overall. There are tannins, and blue cheese, figs, cinnamon spices, touch of after dinner cheese board feeling, so elegant. 57% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot. 88. Recommended
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1988
Some geosmin on the nose here, quite strong. Second bottle much better. The fruit is ripe, rich, round, you would be happy to open this, but acidity more apparent than with the 1989, not such a complete wine, less staying power. Still, an enjoyable older Medoc, with fruit still evident and with power. Just not great length, 59% cabernet sauvignon, 41% merlot. 86. Recommended. Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1989I love the nose on this, subtle, swirling, spicy, still full of fruit, here we get much darker spectrum, still good lively pH, would be thrilled to drink it and it could still go longer, just opening up now, full of pleasure. Warning though; it fell away quite quickly in the glass, within half an hour. 55% cabernet sauvignon, 45% merlot. 91. Highly recommended (with proviso to not decant before drinking).
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1990
Showing those firm purple colours of a middle-aged Médoc. A slight touch of animal, brett, on the nose (less good filtration than today, will have developed in the bottle), but underneath this, there is lovely, rich fruit, this is a warm, rich, exotic fruit spectrum, prunes and summer plums, clearly ripe fruits, harvested at the right moment. The weather was so hot during harvest that student pickers wore bathing suits apparently! There is a tough masculine edge of steel becoming apparent in this wine now, feels ready to drink, but demands something from you, the tannins are insistent. This is ready to drink, but offering plenty of future potential. 44% cabernet sauvignon, 44% merlot, 12% petit verdot. 93. Highly Recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1994
Nose still fairly closed here. Lagrange is renowned for being a wine that takes time to age, time to open up, but on the palate this is in fact pretty soft. Not huge amounts of impact. Good texture, silky smooth, feel a cabernet influence here that is more marked than in previous vintages, but strangely lacking in mid palate impact. This is a good wine, feel it is still holding back. Looking for faults and not finding them, but not finding much to be joyous about either. 60% cabernet sauvignon, 31% merlot, 9% petit verdot. Rainy at harvest. 88. Recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1995
Nose is fairly reserved when you compare it with other St Juliens of this vintage such as Gruaud Larose. Real beauty on the palate though, this is delicate, get wild blackberry, delicate mid palate that raises its game, get some mouthwatering tannins and ph levels that really pull you very lightly towards the finish line. This feels like deft winemaking, getting a real Saint Julien elegance. 44% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, 13% petit verdot. Dry and sunny during harvest. 94. Highly recommended. Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1996Here the nose is gaining in power, amplitude, but on the palate I am not sure about this, quite tight, feels out of step with the others. Went for a second bottle and found the same think, think perhaps it is the alcohol levels, this feels much more of an unwieldy brute, I get a certain hardness on the nose and first attack. Perhaps oak too obvious, eugenol cloves, all a bit hard. 57% cabernet sayvignon, 36% merlot, 7% petit verdot. 89. Recommended, but definitely one that could benefit from a decanter/carafe before drinking.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1997
This has an open, warm, inviting nose, much more than some others from this vertical. Soft, not intense. Huge pleasure today, if you like subtlety. This is quite a high acidity level, we are not with a wine that is going to last forever. Some markers of an ageing wine here, touches of dried fruit, and the finish trips itself up. Starts well, but doesn't have the staying power of the best vintages. 50% cabernet sauvignon, 33-% merlot, 17% petit verdot. 87-88. Recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 1998
This has that delicacy and power, walking the line, beautifully poised, one of my favourites here, full of promise, just utterly mouth-filling black fruits, good tannins, firm and enveloping, but with lovely mouth-watering quality, masculine in a protective way, movie matinée idol. 65% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 7% petit verdot. 94. Highly recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2000
Colour taking on depth and power. Very different on the nose here, get a more toasted clove, coffee burnt oak nose, although still the usual 50-60% new oak used, this is just vintage effect with warmer weather. Lovely coffee hints, an exuberant fin de siecle feel here ironically. Fruit is warm, texture silky but also firm, feel you can get your hands around this, although alcohol a little high. All very enjoyable, not quite ready to drink yet, give it another five years I would say, or get the decanter out. 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. 93. Highly recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2001
An elegant, classic vintage in many estates, still get a smoky nose, but more restrained compared to the 2000, that is all Mardi Gras and this is all Bluebird cafe, more intimate. Restrained, tannins still holding something back for later. Good persistency, really struck by how young this is at 13 years old. 62% cabernet sauvignon, 27% merlot, 11% petit verdot. 91. Highly recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2002
Beautiful dark plum colour, we are almost in the not-budging-since-primeur colours here, again smoky nose, just starting to open up. Lovely silky tannins, this is a gorgeous wine, strong cabernet markers, dark tight fruits, 54% in the blend, this feels like it has staying power, but could also be perfect to drink with a good meal right now. Feel those tannins, they insist, get that masculine power and bristle. 54% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, 13% petit verdot. 92. Highly recommended
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2003
All petit verdot went into the first wine in this vintage, and even though there was still the drought, in the Médoc they harvested at the end of September, a month after Pessac! Get that exoticism, that heat, strong black pepper spice, a flash heat in the mouth. Far more staying power than many 2003s, this does not feel dried out and tired, even though it does feel different, less Médoc, more southern, less elegance and staying power, more of a punch than a carress. But have to say that it has interest. 57% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, 10% petit verdot. 89. Recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2004
This is an underrated wine, no doubt about it. Brooding, dark fruits but clean, good tannic structure, this is going to run and run... Understated but clean, enjoyable, powerful, very good. 54% cabernet sauvignon, 36% merlot, 10% petit verdot. 92. Highly recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2005
Power, clean, heavy in fruit, utterly excellent, right at the beginning of its drinking promise, maybe not quite in the window yet, but a shadow of it. Aromatic impact is immediate, caressing fruits. Feel more slick coffee chocolate from the oak, a touch too much impact from the alcohol clear heat, but brought back into line by the tannins at the close of play. Monumental, great achievement. 46% cabernet sauvignon, 45% merlot, 9% petit verdot. 95. Outstanding.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2006
Lovely, charming nose, very Médocain, well structured, touch of menthol, touch of spice, all the things that we love about a good Médoc. Pretty yielding right now, this is not giving a whole lot away. It’s clandestine for me, keeping its secrets hidden. A long way to go, and I worry that I am getting hints of brett, or just not totally clean, well defined fruit. Still, there is potential here. 59% cabernet sauvignon, 41% merlot. 90. Highly recommended.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2007
Beautiful colour, it has real merit, a smooth, suave texture, although feel that the alcohol is too high – or rather the fruit is too soft to balance it out fully. Compared to many of its peers from this vintage, this is an aristocrat, an excellent example of what can be achieved in 2007, but it still is far from achieving the success of the best years of Lagrange. Good attack, but fades quickly to softness on the finish, there is no need to wait to drink this. 68% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 7% petit verdot. 89. Recommended. but don’t cellar for too long.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2008
Lovely rich spreading purple colour. This is powerful, the team at Lagrange seems to be going all out for a big Médoc character, a burly cabernet sauvignon feel, really shows why this estate has a reputation for slow ageing. It's good, but lacks some of the charm of other 2008s for me from this appellation. More power, less elegant. Taste-wise we are heading to northern Saint Julien now. 72% cabernet sauvignon, 26% merlot, 2% petit verdot. 92 Highly recommended. Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2009Optical sorting from this vintage onwards. Powerful, black fruits, coffee, liqourice, ripe fruits but not exploding with crazy alcohol levels. A little tight, a little squeezed in Lennie Of Mice and Men style. This is clearly a great wine, but it is closed, a long way away and more so than many 09s. The blend is 73% cabernet sauvignon, 27% merlot. 94. Highly recommended
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2010
Beautiful dark colour, almost impenetrable . Here the wine almost hovers above the page, it has such verticality, such delicacy along with the power. This is dangerously charming without giving any secrets away, utterly delicious, you could lose your head over this wine. Proves to me once again that of the 2009/2010 camps, I am firmly in the latter. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot. 95. Outstanding.
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2011
No need to be ashamed to buy the 2011 says Bettane!!!! Here a high 62% cabernet sauvignon, 32% merlot, 6% petit verdot. Unexpectedly masculine, here again, these are big wines, I am surprised by their physicality, they mark you with their Médocain character, for me they lose some of their Saint Julien subtlety and charm because of it, veering north towards Pauillac. Is that what they are looking for? It’s good though. 91 Highly recommended
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2012
Not bottled yet, still ageing, 67% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 3% petit verdot. Still clearly in the prise de bois moment, this has the full eugenol, smokey bacon, coffee flavour going on, but also utterly bursting with promise. Real interest, barely budged from en primeur, full of potential. This is not a small year for a small wine, clearly not. 92+. Highly recommended
Chateau Lagrange AOC Saint Julien 2013
Blended in January 2014, we are on avante premiere, a full 75% cabernet sauvignon here!! Plus 21% merlot, 4% petit verdot. As expected, bright purple, puce, uber-reflective. Hmmm, should they have shown this yet??? Very very tight, sour, good ph perhaps but not sure that the fruit is there, like tasting the 2004s perhaps in their infancy, which have worked out well, but this is tough to taste. Fruit is clean, but tart. 89-90. Hard to say yet if this is recommended or highly recommended, but looking forward to trying again in one month’s time.