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Songs Full of Light - Lafaurie-Peyraguey 1906-2018
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 27, 2019
Nothing surpasses a vertical tasting if you want to get under the bonnet of a wine and see what makes it tick. Not a greatest hits compilation of fêted vintages, but an unabridged warts-and-all vertical, an exposé of performances in every growing season, come what may – and enlightenment hinges on those last three words. Proprietors tend to avoid complete verticals since they would rather skip poor or even disastrous vintages that risk sullying reputations. In any case, stocks of such wines may have dried up years ago, since they were never expected to age, even if experience has taught me that a surprising number defy predicted short shelf lives.
This article conjoins not one but two unabridged verticals. First, there is a complete run through the most recent vintages of Lafaurie-Peyraguey from 1995 to the present day. All these vintages can be found on the market – dare I say, at very reasonable prices compared to many Grand Cru Classés. But the catalyst for this article is a remarkable vertical of 28 vintages between 1906 and 1945 conducted in December 2018 to celebrate 400 years since vines were first planted on the property. Around half the bottles came from the depleted bins at the château, and the remainder were generously filled in by Swiss collector and expert Jürg Richter. In my professional career I have never had the opportunity to examine a wine during its pre-war period in such detail, making this is the most comprehensive overview of Lafaurie-Peyraguey you are ever likely to read.
The complete lineup of Lafaurie-Peyraguey between 1906 and 1945 – in all likelihood the only time these bottles will ever congregate.
Few Bordeaux châteaux convey a sense of history like Lafaurie-Peyraguey, even if today the towering crenellated wall seems rather over-defensive in such a somnolent locale, its battlements strengthened in case those warmongers from Yquem attack. It is certainly one of the most eye-catching properties within the entire region. The enclosure towers and entrance porch of the château date as far back as the 13th century, although the majority of it was rebuilt in the 17th century. The oldest wooden structure within the château has been dated to 1431, indicating that the land was being worked at least that long ago.
The Peyraguey family, who originated from Illats, are recorded as living in Bommes around 1592–94. They planted the first vines in 1618, though by 1667 Vitis vinifera occupied no more than a hectare. Documents dating from 1671 record Christofle de Tuquoy, Abbé de Pimbo, and Elizabet de Tuquoy as the godparents to the Peyraguey family, and on September 14, 1682, they became owners of the estate. Unsurprisingly given their ecclesiastical background, they erected a chapel on the grounds, inspired by the church of Saint-Éloi in Bordeaux city. (That said, Saint-Éloi does not boast a crystal glass crucifix designed by artist Damien Hirst!) On June 23, 1709, the estate passed to their niece Jeanne de Tuquoy, who, after just six days – surely the shortest tenure ever – transferred the deeds to her son, parliamentarian Pierre de Pichard. The de Pichard family were both wealthy and influential and duly invested into what was then known as Château Pichard-Peyraguey. Pierre’s son Baron Nicolas Pierre de Pichard, consul to the king of France, inherited the estate in 1746 and later became proprietor of Château Lafite. Records indicate that at this time there were 13.8 hectares of vines, though Nicolas Pierre reduced it to eight hectares. Twelve bottles were sold to Thomas Jefferson during his visit in 1787, but alas, the future US president could do nothing when Nicolas Pierre was guillotined in 1794 and Pichard-Peyraguey was sequestered.
The arresting sight of the crenellated outer wall of Lafaurie-Peyraguey.
On July 22, 1796, the estate was sold as a bien nationale to Monsieur Lafaurie and Monsieur Mauros for the sum of 79,496 francs, though the former gradually bought out his partner and appended his name. Lafaurie’s son Pierre took over in 1836 and began expanding the area under vine while maintaining quality, thereby ensuring that it was classified Premier Cru in 1855, third on the list headed by d’Yquem. There is an apocryphal story concerning the Spanish king, Alphonse XII. The French organized a grand banquet in San Sebastian, basically in order to promote sales of their wine. The only problem was that His Majesty was not Spain’s most ardent oenophile and rejected even the most auspicious champagnes and First Growths. All seemed lost until a flagon of Lafaurie-Peyraguey was served and the king was so smitten that he bought a barrel for 6,000 gold francs.
In 1865, ownership changed once again as former interior minister and minister of finance Charles-Marie Tanneguy, the Comte Duchâtel, acquired Lafaurie-Peyraguey. At that time, he was already the owner of Château Lagrange in Saint Julien. He died after only a couple of years, and his widow enlisted a very able régisseur, Monsieur Lassauvaju-Magey, to run the estate on her behalf. The death of the countess prompted a squabble between family members, and for some unknown reason, it was decided that Lafaurie-Peyraguey should be sold in two halves. E. Farinel et F. Grédy & Cie bought the half that is Lafaurie-Peyraguey today, which included the château and winery plus a slightly larger percentage of vineyard. The remainder was purchased by the owner of Château Veyres, a Parisian pharmacist by the name of Monsieur Grillon, and this now forms Clos Haut-Peyraguey. This all transpired just before the dreaded phylloxera struck the vineyard. Prior to its outbreak, the vineyard would probably have contained more Sauvignon Blanc, and it was only after the vines were replanted that Sémillon became more important. Lafaurie-Peyraguey passed into the hands of Frédéric Grédy and in 1913 absorbed neighboring Château Barrail-Peyraguey, owned by the aforementioned M. Lassauvaju-Magey, thereby restoring the area under vine to approximately its original size.
This empty bottle was passed around during the tasting. Its date cannot be verified but it probably originates from the 19th century. Note the embossed neck and deep punt.
The Cordier Era
Nineteen-seventeen saw a momentous change as Désiré Cordier bought Lafaurie-Peyraguey. This scion of the famous négociant family was already proprietor of three Left Bank châteaux: Talbot, Gruaud Larose and Meyney. Cordier introduced a long period of stability, and his tenure commenced with a series of brilliant wines throughout the 1920s. It was around this time that one of Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s more poetic admirers wrote: “Sous sa prison de verre, c’est un rayon de soleil de France, un chant plein de lumiere” – “Imprisoned in glass is a ray of French sunshine, a song full of light.”
The following decade brought the region down to earth as Sauternes, and sweet wines in general, went out of favor. Cordier passed away in 1940, and perhaps it is no coincidence that Lafaurie-Peyraguey lost a bit of shine. In response to waning demand for sweet wines, a dry white was introduced in 1957, presaging Silvio Denz’s strategy some six decades later. It came in an Alsace-shaped bottle, inspired by the family’s origins in Lorraine. In 1960, Lafaurie-Peyraguey began to rent part of Château d’Arche, a lieu-dit known as Vimeney, which was ultimately sold to Cordier and absorbed into Lafaurie-Peyraguey around 20 years later. I have little experience of the wines during the Eighties, though under régisseur Michel Laporte and subsequently under his son Yannick, quality improved. In 1982, the Cordier reign came to an end and the estate was sold to Compagnie Indo-Suez, whose deeper pockets allowed them to invest in the vineyard and renovate the château building.
The Lafaurie-Peyraguey château.
In 2014 the estate returned to private hands when Silvio Denz, owner of the luxury glassware manufacturer Lalique, added Lafaurie-Peyraguey to his Bordeaux portfolio. It was not his first foray into Bordeaux; he bought Château Faugeres and Péby-Faugeres in Saint-Émilion in 2005, as well as embarking on a joint venture with Peter Sisseck of Château Rocheyron. In recent years there has been a trend of inward investment from what you might call “wealthy outsiders,” such as Bernard Magrez, who purchased Clos Haut-Peyraguey in 2012, and Daniel and Florence Cathiard, who acquired Bastor-Lamontagne two years later; the Cathiards subsequently sold their shares to Alsace millionaire Joseph Helfrich in 2018. The reality is that in a region where profit is hard to come by, those investing in Sauternes are motivated by passion for the wine and the region rather than financial gain. Apart from his love of Sauternes, Denz was attracted by the synergy between Sauternes and the Lalique brand. One can see the former glistening gold and the latter silver, a shared luminescence. To that end, Lafaurie-Peyraguey underwent a four-year top-to-toe refurbishment. The original château building was turned into a luxury hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Jérôme Schilling, who prepared the dinner that accompanied this tasting. Alongside Château Canon, it is the most tastefully furnished property in Bordeaux, featuring a mixture of medieval, art deco and modern design. Silvio Denz’s idea is to attract visitors not only to the château, but to Sauternes, so that perhaps a pleasurable stay forges a long-term relationship with the region’s wine.
However, Denz also has ideas about the wine itself and the role Sauternes will play within Bordeaux in the future. He recognizes that diminished demand for sweet wines means swallowing some pride and reducing production of the Grand Vin in order to focus on the most propitious terroirs. Lesser parcels are diverted toward second wines or the production of dry Sauternes. This is a divisive subject. Opponents argue that it risks making Sauternes synonymous with botrytis-affected sweet wines, although it is a move that I personally support. Bottles languishing unsold or discounted on the market damage the image of Sauternes more than a fine dry white that just happens to come from the region.
Silvio Denz poses with one of the bottles after the tasting.
Vineyard and Vinification
One of my most cherished memories is conducting a blind tasting of vintages back to the 1920s with Silvio Denz and the late Professor Denis Dubourdieu, who, along with Alsace winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss, was appointed as a consultant to give former technical director Eric Larramona an outsider’s perspective. Looking back, it was the last time I really spent time with Dubourdieu before his untimely passing. I recall him explaining his initial reluctance to accept Denz’s offer since he already consulted for d’Yquem; however, the terroir of Lafaurie-Peyraguey proved irresistible. Interestingly, at the time, Eric Larramona told me that Deiss nudged the Sauternes toward a lighter style, Dubourdieu toward more intensity. Due to health issues, Larramona has not worked at the estate since the 2016 vintage. Vincent Cruege stepped into his shoes as technical director for all of Denz’s Bordeaux properties. The vineyard manager is Yannick Laporte, whose family have a long association with Lafaurie-Peyraguey.
Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey is located in the commune of Bommes, though the 36 hectares of vineyard extend into three other communes: Sauternes, Fargues and Preignac, on the third glacial terrace where the land tips 50 meters in altitude. The soil types are variegated, though mostly gravel and clay. The vineyard currently comprises 93% Sémillon, 6% Sauvignon Blanc and 1% Muscadelle, though no Muscadelle was used in the 2017 vintage. The oldest vines were planted back in 1926. “Ten hectares are not good enough,” Denz explained when we met in London a couple of years ago. “The vineyards were graded and these 10 hectares included no A-class plots, just B, C and D. The best vineyards [and the heart of the wine] are L’Enclos and Maisons Rouges, an old Roman staging post, which comprise around 15 hectares. I would like to find more high-performing parcels with old vines close to the property. I sell off anything that is not good."
I took this picture early in the morning. This gate is one that lies opposite that main entrance to the château.
Two high-quality clones are used to replace vines rather than sélection massale. The policy is to spray only when necessary, while the use of chemicals is eschewed. One long-term goal is to encourage deeper roots, forcing them downward to extract more mineralité by severing lateral roots on the surface. Vineyard husbandry aims for between 20° and 21° potential alcohol and between 13% and 14% alcohol in the finished wine. Inspired by the approach at d’Yquem, Denz adopted a system whereby employees are devoted to sections of the vineyard, in a sort of modern-day sharecropping, so that each plot is treated separately. There is just sufficient fruit to fill the pneumatic press (depending upon size of crop and quantity of fruit; smaller lots are vertically pressed three times).
Cellarmaster Christophe Navarro oversees élevage that usually lasts for between 16 and 20 months, employing between 40% and 70% new oak. The cellars were renovated by the previous owners and are all fully air-conditioned and humidity-controlled. Unfortunately, I do not have specific data for vintages predating Denz’s acquisition, although the technical sheets for vintages post-2013 indicate a more flexible approach to new oak, with some vintages, such as 2014, seeing less new wood. Residual sugar levels hover around 130g/L, subject to the growing season, of course. Since the 2013 vintage, bottles of Lafaurie-Peyraguey have been embossed in smoked glass with one of René Lalique’s original designs, “Femme et Raisins,” a quite beautiful piece in its own right. The estate produces a second wine, La Chapelle de Lafaurie-Peyraguey, as well as two dry whites, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey Grand Vin Blanc Sec and Lys de Lafaurie-Peyraguey. You might also see a couple of private cuvées sold exclusively in Switzerland.
The Wines: 1906 to 1945
The flight of Lafaurie-Peyraguey from 1906 to 1945 is the most extraordinary Sauternes vertical that I have conducted over 20 years of tasting. I do not become starry-eyed over either age or rarity, and that is reflected in my appraisals, including this one. Yet there were occasions during this vertical when the wines were almost impossible to encapsulate in words. One general observation: These wines traced vintage reputations but did not necessarily follow them, particularly in poor and maligned growing seasons that miraculously, almost inexplicably, bore wines that glistened with charm and allure. Therein lies the magic of Sauternes: its time-buckling robustness, its glacial pace of maturation and its effortless ability to achieve profound levels of complexity and pleasure.
This tasting disproved the idea that the improvement in quality of Lafaurie-Peyraguey was contemporaneous with Désiré Cordier’s acquisition in 1917. Without detracting from the wines under his aegis, the estate was already making outstanding Sauternes, and perhaps they encouraged Cordier to invest. Apart from 1906, vintages between 1907 and 1919 are poor-to-middling growing seasons against an unenviable backdrop of market malaise and war. Now over a century old, bottles from this era are rarely seen, and as a consequence, speculation about their quality tends to be deduced from vintage summaries, instead of actually tasting the wine. Wines from this era can confound presumptions and mock the sages who turned up their noses at the time.
The 1906 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is evidence of a sensational growing season in Sauternes, a wine with class, pedigree, complexity and joie-de-vivre undimmed after more than a century. Just like the 1906 d’Arche last year, it revels in its age, its power undimmed by time, as if another century in bottle would be absolutely no problem. It provided a spectacular start to the tasting and whipped up anticipation: what did subsequent vintages have in store?
On paper, the 1907 Lafaurie-Peyraguey ought have been a significant comedown from the 1906, but in reality it was magnificent. While oïdium ravaged the reds and rain ruined the harvest, those same downpours created the perfect conditions for botrytis. The result is a fabulous wine that threatened to usurp the supremacy of the previous vintage. The 1908 and 1909 Lafaurie-Peyraguey were not in the same class, though certainly nothing to be ashamed of; the 1910 was missing in action and unlikely to have been produced since it poured the entire year. Moving into the following decade, I was not really moved by either the 1911 or 1913 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. The latter is from a year when botrytis was slow to form, and it was marred by some volatility. Then, just when my guard was down, in came the barnstorming 1914 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, so elegant and complex that you almost forget that Europe had just entered into bloody war. The following year was virtually a write-off for the entirety of Bordeaux, though the “ruffian” 1916 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is admirable, if overshadowed by the regal 1917 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, a vintage that I had encountered back in 2013 chez Jürg Richter. It is almost inconceivable how such fabulous wine was produced when Europe was self-immolating with war.
The 1918 Lafaurie-Peyraguey was more a curiosity, but it is followed by a quartet of outstanding consecutive vintages. Perhaps I would have expected the latter to surpass the previous two, since it is a renowned Sauternes season, yet all offered so much freshness and vitality, the 1919 slightly aszú-like in style thanks to a discreet oxidative touch, and the 1920 lightly spiced and with impressive weight. The 1922 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is an amazing wine, which was unsurprising since it was the highlight of the aforementioned tasting with Denis Dubourdieu and Silvio Denz four years ago. A legend among Sauternes cognoscenti, thankfully this bottle showed similarly. It is surely one of the greatest wines of that vintage. Consistency is upheld throughout this golden decade for Sauternes, the Twenties being the most benevolent series of growing seasons until the Nineties, and the 1926 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is one of the highlights, tangy and marmalade-like in style. The one outlier, the one vexing disappointment, is the 1928 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. It ought to have been up there among the greats, yet it is comparatively straightforward on the nose and excessively bitter toward the finish. It is the one dropped catch in an otherwise textbook decade, perhaps some kind of advance payment for the wine that followed.
The decade culminates with the sensational 1929 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. This stands as one of the greatest Sauternes of the century. In my experience, it ranks alongside the 1929 and 1945 d’Yquem, 1929 Climens and 1945 de Fargues. As I have written before, true perfection is obvious and unequivocal. My tasting note says it all, and the three-figure score is merely a stamp of my appreciation for this elixir. Chapeau, M. Cordier!
You might describe the 1920s as the beginning of Sauternes’ long dusk. Those were the final halcyon years when Sauternes was revered as equal to, if not above, its red counterparts in the Médoc. The following decade was beset by poor growing seasons against a backdrop of a wine market eviscerated by the Depression. Though no records can verify, I doubt the property produced a Grand Vin in 1930, 1931 or 1932. Yet during the 1930s, Lafaurie-Peyraguey managed to eke out one or two exceptional wines and a couple of surprises. The 1933 Lafaurie-Peyraguey comes from a cool vintage yet surprisingly lacks acidity and bite. The 1934 Lafaurie-Peyraguey was a much better season for Sauternes but, though very commendable, it is slightly stilted compared to the high points of the previous decade. The 1936 Lafaurie-Peyraguey conveys an odd toothpaste aroma and feels shallow, though the 1937 Lafaurie-Peyraguey compensates with a gorgeous waxy nose and a vivacious, candied palate that has as much spring in its step now as it must have done as war loomed. The 1938 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is a real surprise, offering Japanese matcha and candlewax on the nose and displaying impressive body and viscosity considering the challenges of the growing season. Neither the 1939 or 1944 Lafaurie-Peyraguey had much to offer, the latter being just about drinkable. One would expect a great 1945 Lafaurie-Peyraguey given the quality of Yquem and de Fargues, and indeed, it has a wonderful marmalade and crème brûlée bouquet, immensely concentrated even if it misses the élan of the 1922 or 1929, or the panache of the 1937.
The Wines: 1955 to 1989
For the sake of completeness, I have added miscellaneous notes for bottles from 1945 to 1995 that I tasted at various dinners and off-line events, several of them at the property. By coincidence, the 1955 Lafaurie-Peyraguey appeared at Château Talbot four days later (article in the pipeline). One would presume that the Cordier family kept a stash of Sauternes at their Saint Julien property. I actually found more precision here than in the slightly disappointing 1947 or the 1959 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, which is a little flat-footed on the finish. I have few tasting notes from the Sixties and none from the Seventies, a decade wherein the property lost its way, beleaguered, like many Sauternes, by lamentable growing seasons and dwindling demand. Equipment at Lafaurie-Peyraguey became outmoded, the horizontal presses used between 1967 and 1977 handling the wines in a rough fashion. The wines were matured in iron vessels with very modest use of oak barrels, presumably to cut costs. That said, the 1966 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is a reminder that even when the estate lost its mojo, it could still whip out a stunning wine. In 1978, Laporte installed gentler vertical presses and increased the use of oak aging. Following a lackluster 1986, the 1989 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is a return to form, evincing more completeness and harmony, though the 1990 Lafaurie-Peyraguey could have been better.
The Wines: 1995 to 2018
Let’s now examine what you might call the modern era of Lafaurie-Peyraguey. This was actually the second time I conducted a vertical of recent vintages, so it was interesting to compare notes with bottles tasted in 2015, and I comment on any changes where appropriate.
I must thank Wilkinson Vintners for sending me the 1995 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Both this and the 1996 are good, solid Sauternes that have aged well over the last two decades, though they would not rank among the greatest vintages. The uptick in quality is signaled by the superb 1997 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, which conveys much more chutzpah and tension than the previous two vintages. I have had the 1997 several times, and this was in fact the best bottle I have encountered. Perhaps it is just entering a sweet spot after 22 years. The next three vintages are decent enough, though the 2000 Lafaurie-Peyraguey reflects a miserable growing season when everyone in Bordeaux seemed to make great wine apart from Sauternes. Matters improve with the 2001 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, although given the reputation of the vintage, I would have expected more complexity. Certainly, comparing the 2001 with more recent vintages, I suspect that a better wine would have been made under the present management. While the 2002 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is par for the course, the estate produced a very commendable 2003, a vintage that I often find a little too unctuous for my liking.
I found more consistency after the 2005 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, the wines imbued with greater tension and sense of energy. Both the 2006 and 2007 Lafaurie-Peyraguey are excellent, among the best in Sauternes these years. Then there is another step up in quality after the magnificent 2009 and 2010 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, the latter the solitary recent vintage at the December tasting. I can understand why Denz and his team wanted to show it off: it is enticing and complex on the nose, with immense concentration and tension on the palate. The 2011 Lafaurie-Peyraguey is an impressive follow-up, and perhaps both show the deficiencies in the 2012 Lafaurie-Peyraguey, which can be forgiven since the growing season was so poor that neighboring Yquem elected not to release a Grand Vin. It is a pleasurable wine but feels light and lacks the presence of other vintages, not least a stunning 2013 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Given the dearth of quality elsewhere in Bordeaux that year, it is a shining beacon of quality, one of my favorite vintages in recent years alongside the 2015 Lafaurie-Peyraguey and the recently bottled 2017 Lafaurie-Peyraguey that I actually rated higher than the 2016. Finally, I include a barrel sample of 2018 Lafaurie-Peyraguey that looks promising, although I intend to re-taste this in Bordeaux in the near future.
That is what I would call a comprehensive overview of a château. You don’t often have the opportunity to taste 60 vintages of a single wine spanning some 112 years, and it is humbling to contemplate how the world changed between 1906 and 2018. Yet Lafaurie-Peyraguey is the constant, tracing a timeline between those years. That is not to say that things have not altered at the estate. Changes in vineyard aside, the current strategy of focusing on only the best terroirs for the Grand Vin, parsing out others for dry white wine, will inevitably lead to more consistency and greater heights. In practical terms, there is less sweet wine to sell in a market stubbornly indifferent to its virtues.
Denz is pragmatic about this
fact. Wielding his business acumen and financial clout, he has taken a
different approach. The be-all and end-all of Lafaurie-Peyraguey is not its
wine. Lafaurie-Peyraguey is a hotel. It is a restaurant. It is a chapel. It is
a gallery. It is history. It is a destination. And yes, it is a winery. Just a
cursory glance at the website demonstrates that the estate is a package of all
these things. It has to be, to remain
commercially viable and ensure its own survival. As I wrote earlier, the
corollary is that visitors foster a kinship with the region and nurture a taste
for Sauternes. Purists may take umbrage at Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s reinvention and
claim it risks erasing the region’s bucolic charm and diluting its raison d’être. The counter-argument is
that it is merely returning to a time in history when Sauternes was revered by
the wealthy as the wine ne plus ultra;
and more prosaically, what other options are there? Guiraud has certainly
adopted a similar strategy, and of course Yquem could easily embrace more oeno-tourism,
even if it seems reluctant to do so.
The vertical of older vintages left a deep impression, due not only to the hedonic attributes of those wines between 1906 and 1945, but to the humbling fact that such a tasting is unrepeatable. Some might argue that it is irrelevant, since the wines were made long ago and are virtually unobtainable. I disagree. These bottles revealed the true potential of Lafaurie-Peyraguey and provided insight into why it was ranked the third-best cru in Sauternes in 1855. They demonstrated longevity verging on indestructibility and served as a counterpoint to the youthful vintages in this report. My abiding memory of the tasting was that ethereal 1929 Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Sitting next to Jürg Richter, I remember him laughing with a mixture of delight and incredulity. That is the magic of Sauternes. They are songs full of light.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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