By Charles M. Bear Dalton
While pouring Ch. Tour Sieujean Pauillac 2009 at a recent Women of Wine (a worthy group combining two of my favorite things) fund raiser benefiting the Houston Area Women’s Center (a most worthy cause), I introduced the wine as “Pauillac’s newest chateau” – and got back a lot of blank looks. Oh, everyone liked the wine but most of this mostly wine loving crowd didn’t seem to know what Pauillac is or that Pauillac is the spiritual home of Cabernet Sauvignon. As one of Texas’ most notorious wine geeks, I was baffled. I thought almost everyone who enjoys wine knows about Pauillac … or at least that they should. And maybe, in a way, they do. They know about Ch. Lafite and Ch. Latour and Ch. Mouton, all of which are located in the Pauillac appellation.
Unfortunately, while most of the wine loving world has heard of these top three chateaux of Pauillac, they have never tasted them and, with the steep prices these wines now routinely fetch, are unlikely to. And even though they are aware of the most famous produce of this most prestigious appellation, apparently many wine lovers are unaware of the appellation itself.
So please allow me to introduce you. Texas, please meet Pauillac. Pauillac, please meet Texas.
The Pauillac appellation is located to the south, west, and north of the town of Pauillac, entirely inside of the larger Haut Medoc appellation which itself is located on the east side of the Medocaine Peninsula to the north of the city of Bordeaux. The appellation is bordered by St. Julien on the south and St. Estephe to the north with a portion of the Haut Medoc to its west. To the west, the Medocaine peninsula is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean (actually the Bay of Biscay) and to the east is the Gironde Estuary where the confluence of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers meets the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
With a population of over 5,000, Pauillac is the most significant of the towns of the Medoc. In addition, many find Pauillac to be the most significant appellation of Bordeaux. In addition to three of the five first classified growths of the Classification of 1855 mentioned above, Pauillac is home to 15 other classified chateaux and a number of others not included in that most famous classification.
Prior to the 17th century arrival of Dutch drainage engineers, the terroir of, Pauillac, was mostly swampy. The Dutch put in a series of ditches and added drainage tiles turning what had been a gently rolling swampy terrain into the gently rolling gravel mounds we see today. The ideal gravel and sand terroir extends from the beginning of the vineyards very close to the Gironde estuary across the appellation to the eastern border with the Haut Medoc. The deepest gravel areas including the hilltops and the plateau offer the best drainage and therefore the best terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon.
While Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape variety of Pauillac, the other Bordeaux red varieties find a place in the mix. Merlot is next most important followed by Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. There is a bit of Malbec in the total plantation and a tiny amount of Carmenere. The best (and most classic) wines of the Medoc contain from 65% to as much as 80% Cabernet Sauvignon. A typical blend from a good vintage might be 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petite Verdot. In a cooler year, the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon may drop and the Petite Verdot will not be used leading to something more like 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc.
Winemaking in Pauillac is fairly straight forward with the harvested grapes sorted, de-stemmed, and crushed before being fed into temperature-controlled tanks for a pump-over fermentation and an extended post fermentation maceration. The tanks may be wood, stainless steel, or concrete. Many of the newer tanks are conical. After fermentation and the extended maceration – which causes an early polymerization of the phenols (tannins, anthocyans, flavonoids, and other compounds) which helps the young wines to show better when they are first released – the young wine is racked into oak barrels (with anywhere from 25% to as much as 100% new barrels depending on the vintage and the quality of the chateau) for malo-lactic fermentation and aging for from as little as nine months to as long as 21 months before final assemblage and bottling.
Pauillac wines are marked by their dusty terroir notes (from the gravel), dark red and some black cherry berry fruit, and distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon tobacco leaf herbal note along with the nuance of cedar and notes of black pepper and spice. (A friend just told me that her glass of Pauillac smelled like a Christmas tree – which is the full expression of Cabernet’s cedar component.) They tend to be elegantly structured but fuller-bodied with a welcome phenolic chewiness. Good Pauillac from all but the most awful years has the structure to age for at least a decade and in some cases (top vintages from top properties) for six or more decades. Most modern vintages (post 1981) have been drinkable on release and for up to a year or so out before they begin to “go dumb” as they close up and begin their adolescent development in the bottle. During this time, the wines are drinkable and even give pleasure but often show the marks of vinous adolescence. At some point, usually between 8 and 12 or even 15 years (again depending on the property and the vintage), the wines emerge from the dumb stage having lost some of their youthful freshness and obvious aromas but having taken on the more complex yet integrated “bottle bouquet” of a mature (meaning ready to drink) wine. The transformation is not unlike that of a pretty girl becoming a beautiful (if more complicated and occasionally vexing) woman.
Pauillac and food are the best of friends. The young wines are perfect with grilled beef and lamb. The more aggressive tannins (phenols) of the younger wines helps cut the juicy fat of the grilled meat and their more robust flavors handle the stronger charred crust that makes good grilled steaks. As the wines age and soften, they pair better with roast beef and roast lamb which are less likely to overpower the wine. With full maturity, I like them best with birds, especially quail, doves, and pigeons. In Bordeaux, many of the locals will tell you a simple roast chicken is the best foil for Pauillac. For me, the most complementary spices are rosemary and black pepper. A little garlic is OK as is some onion but both should be used sparingly. Rosemary’s culinary companions sage and thyme are also welcome to this party.
The Classified Wines of Pauillac
First growths: Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Mouton Rothschild
Second growths: Château Pichon-Longueville (Pichon Baron), Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande (Pichon Lalande)
Fourth growth: Château Duhart-Milon
Fifth growths: Château Pontet-Canet, Château Batailley, Château Haut-Batailley, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Château Lynch-Bages, Château Lynch-Moussas, Châteaud’Armailhac, Château Haut-Bages-Libéral, Château Pédesclaux, Château Clerc-Milon, Château Croizet Bages