PARSING PESSAC LEOGNAN and the GRAVES REDS
By Charles M. Bear Dalton
Left Bank. Right Bank. The Middle. These are terms with precise meanings to the Bordeaux aficionado but to a lot of wine drinkers, left and right are relative. The idea here is that you are standing on a bridge across the Garonne river in the city of Bordeaux looking north along the river and Gironde estuary to toward the Atlantic Ocean. The west bank is on your left and the east bank is on your right. Technically, the right bank is all the area on the east side of the Garonne river but for most Bordeaux consumers in America, the term “right bank” actually brings to mind the right or eastern bank of the Dordogne river where the famous regions of St. Emilion and Pomerol dominate the vinous landscape. The area between the the Garonne and the Dordogne – which is technically called the “Entre Deux Mers” but which I often refer to as “the middle” – often gets ignored. The “left bank” is the area of Bordeaux to the west of the Garonne river. Technically, this includes the Medoc and Haut Medoc (to the north of the city of Bordeaux) as well as Graves and Sauternes (to the south of Bordeaux). However, for most Bordeaux-drinking Americans, “left bank” brings to mind the Medoc and especially the Haut Medoc. The Graves and its prestige appellation Pessac-Leognan (along with sweet white appellations Sauternes, Barsac, and Ceron) are often forgotten as in “out of sight, out of mind” – as in behind our theoretical north-looking bridge-stander.
But it wasn’t always so. In fact, there was a time when the Graves was Bordeaux. In fact, Graves was already famous for both its red and white wines when much of the Medoc was still a swamp. Graves is the birthplace of “Claret” – the English name for the then red (as opposed to now more purple) wine of Bordeaux. The export wine trade with England goes back to the marriage (in 1152) of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II of England with wine going to England and coal and iron coming back to Aquitaine. Initially, all of the wines exported to England were produced in the Graves. Until the Dutch came in the mid-1600s, much of the Haut Medoc and Medoc north of the city Bordeaux was marsh and swamp. Founded in 1306, Ch. Pape Clément was the first known named chateaux in all of Bordeaux. In 1663, famed diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned tasting Ch. Haut-Brion (which he called “Ho Bryen”) in London. It is reputed to be the first recorded mention of a Bordeaux wine “by name” in London. At this time, Haut Brion (sometimes called “O’Brien”) was by far the most expensive Bordeaux wine in London.
After the Dutch drained the Medoc in the mid-1600s, the Medoc gradually rose in reputation as the top producing area for red Bordeaux. This trend culminated in the famed 1855 Classification of the wines of the Medoc and the Graves, in which only Ch. Haut-Brion was included among the red wines. All the other reds were from what is now the Haut Medoc.
At about the same time the Dutch arrived in the Medoc, the Cabernet Sauvignon vine was developed from an accidental crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. And it is thought (but not known) that this happened in the Graves where both of the parents were (and are now still) widely grown. Cabernet has gone on to become the most important grape at all of the top left bank chateaux (including the areas both north and south of Bordeaux).
In 1953, an official classification of Graves wine was commissioned by the INAO and completed for its red wine producers. In 1959, the classification was updated to include dry white wines. In 1987 after a campaign lead by chateau owner Andre Lurton, the area of Graves closest to Bordeaux and containing the communes of Merignac (location of the Bordeaux Airport), Talence, Pessac, Gradignan, Villenave-d’Ornon, Cadaujac, Léognan and Martillac,all the top (classified) properties the part of Graves was granted its own AOC as Pessac-Leognan. The intent was to recognize the place that produced the best wines and create a higher appellation than simple Graves. The result was other than the intent as the name “Graves” was diminished in reputation and value and it took a while for even those in the wine business to adopt “Pessac Leognan.” It seems to me that the new appellation new contributed along with urban sprawl, not much marketing, and an American (at least) lean toward richer, more extracted wines to a further diminishment of general interest in the wines of the area.
And that’s a real shame. While the reputation of Graves and Pessac-Leognan may have slipped, the quality of the wines has not. Graves and Pessac Leognan has the gravelly terroir best suited for Cabernet Sauvignon interwoven with the clay over limestone terroir better suited to Merlot. The typical red Graves blend ranges from as little as 35% Cabernet to as much as 75% Cabernet with the balance generally made up of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with a tiny amount of Petite Verdot and even some Malbec. Ratios (Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Cabernet Franc) can run 45-40-15, 60-40-0, 70-25-5, or – well you get the idea. While Cabernet Sauvignon is the top variety, the ratio of Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot is more nearly balanced in Graves and Pessac Leognan than anywhere else in Bordeaux.
Balance is the key word here. The wines of Pessac Leognan and Graves are often more balanced than opulent, more elegant than hedonistic. They are maybe closer to the old ideal of fine “claret.” For me, Pessac Leognan red is the thing to remember when elegance, balance, and finesse are important at the table. Think of these southern left bank reds as pairing with food in the same manner as their younger northern (Medocaine) cousins but with slightly more refined table manners.
1959 GRAVES CLASSIFIED GROWTHS (Sorted by Commune)
Cadaujac: Ch. Bouscaut
Léognan: Domaine de Chevalier, Ch. Carbonnieux, Ch. de Fieuzal, Ch. Haut-Bailly, Ch. Malartic Lagraviere, Ch. Olivier
Martillac: Ch. Latour-Martillac, Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte
Pessac: Ch. Haut-Brion, Ch. Pape Clement, Ch. Le Sillage, de Malartic
Talence: Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion, Ch. Laville Haut-Brion (which is now known as Ch. La Mission Haut Brion Blanc), Ch. La Tour Haut-Brion (which since 2005 has been absorbed into Ch. La Mission Haut Brion)
Villenave d’Ornon: Ch. Couhins, Ch. Couhins-Lurton
Although Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion look across a road at each other, they are in fact in different communes within the Pessac Leognan Appellation.