BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 08, 2020
“I’m turning Japanese” announced The Vapors in their catchy 1980 New Wave classic. Part of me turned Japanese in the mid-1990s. Marinating in this alternative society for a year, I absorbed facets of its culture and societal quirks, had my brain slightly rewired by the experience. But the more you think you understand Japan, you realize the less you actually know. The West really learned about Japan via global brands that changed our lives during the 1980s technological boom: Sony, Toyota and Canon. Despite their omnipresence, Japan remains a mysterious country. Its people are friendly yet distant with their unique rituals and etiquette, their obsessive attention to detail and indecipherable language and writing. They even eat their fish raw!
Something that cannot be understood can induce fear. The unknown can be unsettling. So in 1983 when Château Lagrange, a sacred Grand Cru Classé, passed into Japanese hands, it caused ripples of consternation, outcries from die-hard Bordeaux traditionalists declaring that it was the beginning of the end.
In some ways they were correct...
It spelled the end of Lagrange making very average wine.
It was the beginning of a renaissance that has seen Lagrange becoming one of the most consistent estates on the Left Bank.
This article looks at the history of Lagrange with valuable insights courtesy of head winemaker Matthieu Bordes, followed by a complete unabridged vertical tasting that encompasses the entire era under Suntory from 1983 to the present day. This article gets a little more technical than usual, but it will hopefully give readers a better understanding of what it takes managing such a large property.
From left to right, technical director Benjamin Vimal, general director Matthieu Bordes, estate director Keiichi Shiina and PR manager Justine Memmi.
It is said that agriculture was present on the site of Lagrange in Gallo-Roman times, the name of the lieu-dit originating from Villa Grangia. In the Middle Ages it was a local manor that accommodated a branch of the Knights Templar that consisted of two domaines, the Maison Noble de Lagrange de Monteil in the west and Tenure de Pellecalhus in the east. Pope Boniface dissolved the Templars in 1312 but existing lieux-dits named La Chapelle and L’Hôpital give credence to these origins.
The timeline becomes opaque with scant information. What is known is that the land passed into the hands of the de Cours family, local seigneurs and that in the early 18th century it belonged to Baron de Brane de Mouton. He most likely was the first to cultivate vines that begat the first wine known as Brane-Saint-Julien, widely regarded as the finest in Saint-Julien after Léoville. It was subsequently taken over by Arbouet de la Bernède who constructed the original château. In 1790, shipper and merchant Jean-Valère Cabarrus acquired the estate and in 1820 erected the rather incongruous Tuscan tower designed by Visconti. Cabarrus’s daughter, Thérèse Taillen, was purportedly a woman fair of face that allegedly saved many from the guillotine and I was fascinated to learn, count Jules Ouvrard, erstwhile owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, as one of her paramours.
Cabarrus expanded the acreage under vine as well as acquired vineyard land further north that still bears his name, Pontoise-Cabarrus. In 1832, John Lewis Brown, who lent his name to Cantenac-Brown, bought the estate for 650,000 Francs and constructed the original winery. Alas having invested beyond his means, he was forced to sell in 1842 to Comte Charles Tenneguy Duchâtel after banks foreclosed and broke up his substantial vineyards. Duchâtel charged his bailiff, Mon. Galos, to run the considerable 120-hectare estate and installed clay drainage channels in the vineyard. This investment and consequent melioration in quality of wine led to Lagrange being awarded Third Growth status in the the 1855 Classification.
Upon Duchâtel’s death in 1860, the property passed through the hands of itinerant family members for fifteen years and subsequent owners found running this large estate difficult and because the volume was so large, resorted to using alternative labels in order to try and sell the entire production. A slump in demand for wine in the 1930s put Lagrange in a dire predicament and barrels began piling up. Consequently, parts of the vineyard were sold including a 32-hectare plot to Jean-Eugène Borie in 1970 that begat Château Lalande-Borie. Other parts were sold to Henri Martin to create Château Gloria and in the meantime, the uninhabited château suffered major fire damage. The incumbent proprietors, the Cendoya family, now presided over a 157-hectare estate with just 50-hectares under vine, half planted with Merlot where Cabernet Sauvignon would have been more suited.
Whereas 1982 is widely seen as a pivotal year for many Bordeaux estates, with respect to Lagrange, it is unquestionably 1983. In November that year, Japanese beverage company Suntory purchased the estate for a sum of 54 million Francs. This was a significant and in retrospect, prescient acquisition. It woke up conservative Bordeaux to the fact that in the future, international companies, including those from a completely different cultural heritage like Japan, would invest in the region. One must consider the background at the time. Lagrange had been in the doldrums and despite its status its wines were perennial under-performers. Its wines sold for just a few Francs, therefore Suntory’s motivation was not to benefit the bank balance. On the contrary, it would have required many years of long-term investment.
Suntory were already aware that there would be resistence from the French and acted with tact and diplomacy. They initially approached Marcel Delon at Léoville Las-Cases for a third party view on Lagrange and to tip them off if a competitive approach was made. It required lengthy negotiation and lobbying, plus the green light from the French government before company president, Keizo Saji could sign the contract. Perhaps to their chagrin, Delon declined an offer to help run the estate. So along with current oenologist, renowned Prof. Emile Peynaud, they appointed Marcel Ducasse.
Ducasse was a Pyrenean 40-year-old man who graduated in physics and chemistry from Bordeaux University before spending 13 years as a technical consultant at the Institut Technique de la Vigne et du Vin. He worked alongside Delon and Peynaud, as well as an experienced oenologist that worked at Suntory, Kenji Suzuta. Not only did Ducasse have brilliant minds at his disposal, he also had what must have seemed like unlimited funds. Some 200 million Francs were spent renovating the estate, commencing in the vineyard (details in the following Q&A). High yielding rootstocks such as SO4 were rooted out and exchanged for low yielding Riparia, 3309 and 101-14 and a new winery was constructed in time for the 1985 harvest. In 1996 they introduced a white dry Bordeaux, Les Arums de Lagrange, comprising of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Gris and 20% Sémillon. In 2004, Kei-ichi Shiina was appointed as Vice-Chairman of Lagrange, having worked as a researcher at Geisenheim University before joining Suntory in 1988. He has been the discrete guiding hand and was still at the helm when I conducted the vertical tasting a year ago. I recently learned that he has returned to Japan in the interim and his replacement is Rakusa Sakurai, who I hope to meet on my next visit.
Q&A With Matthieu Bordes
Following my tasting I wanted to dive deeper into Lagrange and asked Matthieu Bordes if he could answer some of my questions. His answers were so informative that I reproduce them here as a Q&A.
Can you tell me about your background? How did you come to work at Lagrange? What have been your inspirations?
I was born in Bordeaux and joined the University of Science of Bordeaux to graduate in cell biology, then took a diploma in oenology before graduating from agronomic engineering school.
I participated in the harvest since when I was eight-years old. Each year during weekends at the end of September, my family met to harvest the 50 rows of vines that belonged to my grandfather. We made white and red for family and friends. It was certainly during this period that my interest in wine emerged. The harvest was a unique moment of joy and sharing. I did numerous internships from 1996 to 2000 around Bordeaux such as Château de Malle, Smith Haut Lafitte and Cheval Blanc, working for two years with Kees Van Leeuwen, that allowed me gain knowledge in the viticulture and vinification of the great wines of Bordeaux. I started in Saint-Estèphe at Coutelin-Merville and afterwards worked at Rouillac, Château de L’Hospital and Loudenne. In 2006, when I was 32 years old, I joined Lagrange as assistant manager, before taking over general management in September 2013. I felt that Saint-Julien is the best appellation and working at a large estate you are never bored. Marcel Ducasse did a great job with Suntory and I was sure about the potential of the terroir. I subscribe to the Japanese philosophy that you should take a long-term view because quality will always triumph.
Map showing the types of soil at the estate, courtesy of Château Lagrange.
Can you describe the vineyard: size, sub-plots, the various types of terroir and geology.
The vineyard has belonged to Lagrange for more than 400 years. There are 103 plots in one single block of over 118 hectares. It is located on the highest point of the appellation, 24 meters above the sea level. Ten years ago we conducted a survey and dug 200 holes in the vineyard to further our knowledge about the soil and subsoil. We found 17 different types of soils that can be grouped into five main types, mainly Günzian gravelly soil on limestone subsoil. It was one of the first vineyards to be drained with clay drainage in the middle of 19th century. Even nowadays we found some of them when we replant plots. I consider terroir as the more important key point for being able to produce amazing wines. The current chef de culture (vineyard manager) is Philippe Gayraud. He has been here since 1998 and manages 30 permanent workers.
What is the composition of grape varieties? How have the plantings changed since 1983 and did this alter the style of Lagrange?
Nowadays the vineyard comprises 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. There was less Cabernet Sauvignon in 1983 when 56 hectares were planted. In 1985/1986 Marcel Ducasse planted 60 hectares with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. I consider Cabernet Sauvignon the backbone of the wine. In 1988 Ducasse decided to plant Petit Verdot on our best terroir to be sure picking them ripe every year. The 1990 vintage is the first with Petit Verdot at 12% in the blend. Petit Verdot is really helpful in boosting the blend. The new plantings of 60 hectares led to the inception of Les Fiefs de Lagrange that represents around 60% of production. We add some old vines whose fruit we consider is not at the level of Lagrange.
Since I arrived in 2006 we have been working on introducing more Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard and in the final blend it is generally over 70%. There was 80% in 2019 compared to 60% before 2007 and sometimes less. Along with the First Growths and two or three other châteaux such as Leoville Barton, we have the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc.
I don’t think that we altered the style of Lagrange because the idea is to make the best grapes on each plot and with our knowledge, techniques, facilities, the risks we take and global warming, Cabernet Sauvignon performs much better than Merlot and our wines are becoming more consistent. We are able to produce the real style of Saint-Julien or Médoc. We are looking for richness, fleshiness, structure and freshness to highlight our terroir.
What is the approach in the vineyard in terms of pruning, rootstocks, clones and so forth? Do you use selection massale at all? Also have you conducted any trials of organic and biodynamic?
We manage the vineyard in a very traditional way: traditional pruning Double Guyot and Poussard Guyot, six or seven buds to improve the flow of sap, ploughing the soil and maintaining different species of grass in some plots to improve life in our soil. We don’t use any herbicides or insecticides. Since 2008 we have managed plots organically and did trials of biodynamic to understand them and transfer the good results to the rest of the vineyard. Nowadays 30 hectares are managed close to these cahier des charges [specifications]. The DNA of our company is to preserve the harmony between human and Nature. Lagrange is certified HVE 3 and ISO 140001. We have plenty of clones and rootstocks (56% is 101-14) on different soil types that give us a lot of information and guide us in replanting almost two hectares per year to keep the vineyard in good condition. That rate means the average regeneration of the entire vineyards is around 60 years. The oldest plots date from 1952.
It is not possible to do massale selection because of viruses in our old vines, as is the case in many old plots in Bordeaux. It is maybe the main reason for their high quality level because they produce the lowest yields. But it would be a mistake to propagate them and plant new plots with infected vines. So we generally plant the best clones according to our expertise, the knowledge accumulated due to having plenty of plots and examples in our large estate. That is extremely helpful!
How do you conduct the harvest, for example, choosing the date to pick, how harvesters are recruited? Has this changed during COVID [N.B. This tasting predated the pandemic.]
I consider the date of picking as the second most important factor in amazing wines. With my assistant manager Benjamin Vimal, we taste grapes three hours per day during harvest to choose the plots we want to pick. We pay attention to the taste of the skins, seeds, balance, tannins, aromas and flavours. The goal is to harvest at the optimum maturity on each plot, even those that go into Les Fiefs every year. We use NDVI map to help us separate or divide almost 20 plots. We work with three teams to adapt to the rhythm of harvest as we become close to maturity. Pickers come from Médoc, Bordeaux, France, Italy and Spain. We take charge of the campsite to welcome them in good conditions.
To harvest at the right time you need to be flexible. It means stopping for few days if necessary or harvest very quickly. For that you need a very efficient harvest reception like the one we created in 2009. Being able to pick 15 hectares per day by hand with perfect sorting conditions gives us a strong advantage. (Don’t tell that to others, as we would like to keep one step ahead!) COVID hasn’t changed our way of working but during summer, because of the uncertain situation, we took an option on renting a harvest machine in case of nobody could have come to France if lockdown had begun. In the end, we didn’t need it.
What is the sorting procedure at Lagrange? When were sorting tables or optical sorting introduced.
We harvest in a small 10 kilos box, sorting in the vineyard by pickers, sorting on vibrating tables by hand, a gravity de-stemmer, a second vibrating table and an optical scanner. We were the first estate to rent one in 2009 with Château Haut-Brion. The result was so good that we purchased two optical sorting lines in 2010.
Can you give me the specifications of the winery? How do you apply pigeage/remontage and how does it change according to the type of vintage?
All the plots are grouped around the château. That means we can be very efficient. Fifteen minutes after picking, all the grapes are in the vats. The winery is equipped with 102 stainless steel vats for 103 plots. They are easy to clean and easier to control temperatures compared to oak and concrete. Since 2008 we have done a lot of plot and intra-plot selection. The vats are various sizes from 36 to 220 hectolitres. We can do everything: pumping over, délestage, pigeage, R Pulse system to avoid using pump. The choice or mix of choices depends on what we have tasted in the vineyard plot by plot, the skin and seed quality, the tannins. The goal is always to produce the richer, powerful, silkier and harmonious wine on each plot without losing elegance. We adapt the most appropriate vinification process of each vat according to the plot. There is no recipe but a lot of experience and feeling.
Do you use natural yeasts? What kind of fermentation temperatures do you aim for and what is the length of cuvaison? How does Lagrange use the vin de presse and how much is usually added to the final blend?
That question is funny because all selected yeasts come from natural yeast located on the grape’s skins as, for example, the L13, which was selected a long time ago on the grapes of Lagrange’s vineyard. But we prefer to use selected yeast regarding the safety, for the kinetics and success of alcoholic fermentation. Additionally it helps the co-inoculation with bacteria to do the malolactic fermentation at the same time. The goal is to have less volatile acidity and more precise aromas. We have been managing fermentation like that since 2005. Fermentation temperatures are between 24°C and 28°C depending on the plots. The maceration period, including fermentation, is from 18 to 30 days depending on grape variety, vintage, plot and so on. We have always used the pressed wine in our blend because it meliorates the wine. We make the blend in January, four months after the end of the alcoholic vinification and the press generally represents between 8% and 14% of the final blend depending on the vintage.
Can you share details about the barrel maturation?
The élevage is 17 to 21 months depending on vintage and our tastings during the year. We mature the wine in 220-litre French oak barrels from seven cooperages: Berger, Taransaud, Seguin Moreau, Demptos, Saint Martin, Boutes and Stockinger. Racking is traditional à esquive (via a small bung) every three months. We use around 50% new oak and 50% one-year old oak. In a very powerful vintage such as 2016 or 2019 we can use up to 60% new oak. We have been working the same way since the 19th century and the only change has been the control of microbiology to avoid brettanomyces. We have just started experimenting with amphorae from the 2019 vintage. We are always trying everything and choose the best result for our wines.
How do you decide what goes into Les Fiefs de Lagrange?
The main difference between Lagrange and Les Fiefs is the terroir and the quality of the grapes. I consider the blend as the third most important point to be able to produce amazing wines. We always taste the 110 samples blind with my team to judge the quality of each plot or sub-plot four months after the harvest. We make the best wine that we can, which is the reason why we produce less Grand Vin than Les Fiefs. There is only 30% to 45% of Lagrange on average, which helps us improve the quality of Les Fiefs. This strong selection can only be done in the top Bordeaux estates.
What are the challenges or advantages of running what is one of the largest Grand Cru Classé?
Every year it is a big challenge managing such a large estate and being able to do better than a smaller one. Every process needs to be well prepared. With 220 pickers and one million vines, nothing can be left to chance. But our owners give me all the keys to perform. They just ask for quality. I have some of the best staff on the Left Bank: four oenologists and two agriculture engineers, plus Eric Boissenot as consultant. It is a young, knowledgeable, trained and dynamic staff. There are more advantages running one of the largest estates. It gives us more knowledge, more financial possibilities, greater variety of different terroirs to make the best blend, the best choices in every vintage. Compared to a winery with 15 hectares of vineyard, they need up to eight vintages to improve by experience in terms of crossing data between soil/subsoil, vintage, weather conditions, clones, dates, vinification, blind tasting and analysis. Since 1983 we have amassed so much data that it gives us an advantage.
This was my second complete vertical of Lagrange. This unabridged examination of every vintage since Suntory’s acquisition in 1983 is a rare case whereby an estate was happy to share the highs and the lows of consecutive seasons. It makes for a far more interesting analysis because the challenging vintages often reveal as much, if not more, than easy ones.
To be honest, I do not need to write too much. There is no need to analyse each vintage in turn because the tasting notes make it clear that having languished in the doldrums throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there is an upward curve in quality after 1983. Don’t dismiss the entire history of Lagrange pre-Suntory out of hand. Following the tasting, Bordes served blind one of a handful of 1959 Lagrange bottles remaining in their cellar and it was glorious! This vertical also proved that success did not come overnight. Even by the Left Bank’s standards, this is a huge property. Think about it – 1,000,000 vines. Such was the state of disrepair and gargantuan task in hand that it was not until the late 1980s that we begin to see a perceptible improvement. Major steps followed in 1996 and then 2008. Hereafter Lagrange truly deserves its Third Growth status. One major factor behind this slow melioration is that Merlot contributed a disproportionately large percentage of the vineyard and final blend, around 40% in the 1980s compared to 15-20% nowadays. It means that vintages from this era never had the structure or longevity of those in recent years.
There are other factors at play. Bordes explained how they have had no brettanomyces since the 2000s and began de-selecting more of the total production into the Grand Vin, for example, the millennial vintage utilizing just 34%. Meanwhile, they began to become more adept at handling hotter vintages and later harvest such as 2003, 2008 and 2012. You could argue that it is only since 2008 that Lagrange has stepped up to the plate, reaching a high point with the supremely gifted 2010 but than achieving a higher level from 2016. These are in a far higher league that even the high points of the wines made in the 1980s and 1990s.
I asked Bordes for his own overview. What was his take from the vertical? What were the successes or failures?
“It was the third time over the last 13 years that I did such vertical. You can easily notice success or failure,” he replied. “The 1980s to the 1990s for me represent the two decades of Lagrange’s rebirth. Since 2008 there is more precision and richness. Our wines once needed time to reach their peak but we have enlarged the window by improving our techniques so that nowadays you can enjoy them much more in their youth, after four or five years. The peaks last much longer than older vintages. To improve every year, at the end of harvest my team and I meet to exchange our thoughts on success, regrets or failures. Even if I love the vintage very much, the main failure in 2009 was not including Petit Verdot in Lagrange. You just have to taste the 2009 Les Fiefs to realize and ten years later I haven’t forgotten. Maybe there was too much extraction in 2010 that makes it unapproachable for the first eight years. Fortunately the maturity is really good and now the tannins are silkier.”
Suffice to say that Lagrange is now in better shape than ever and that is 100% thanks to Suntory’s masterclass in foreign proprietorship that respects its history but applies long-term meticulous care and devotion that is part of Japan’s DNA. In fact, you would never know that a Japanese company owns Lagrange unless you noticed one or two of Japanese names or their in-house sushi chef. This is one of the few occasions when I can write that a Grand Cru Classé’s remains extremely reasonable given the quality, so much so that it presents a false impression of inferiority. In reality, countless blind peer group tastings have proved that Lagrange easily holds its own against strong and often more expensive opposition. I hope that they continue to view their resistence to price inflation as an achievement that should be applauded because it means many Bordeaux-lovers continue to savour its wines.
So now we know what happened to Lagrange. How about one-hit wonders, The Vapors? A bit of digging around, and I discovered that they reformed in 2016, still tour the UK and that song is just as catchy now as it was forty years ago.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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