The wine of Château Smith Haut Lafitte is often as remarkable as the estate itself. Photo by Benjamin Zingg.License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.
La Mission Haut-Brion rivals Haut-Brion itself in its best years.
This photo is in the public domain.
Pessac-Léognan is, without fail, the home of all of the Graves appellation's most famous red wines. Although it has only existed since 1987, in that time Pessac-Léognan has picked up a reputation for exclusivity that only slightly trails the Médoc villages, St-Émilion, and Pomerol. Since its inception, Pessac-Léognan has attracted attention as a very concentrated area for the best of the powerful minerally red wines and luscious dry whites of the former Graves appellation.
The appellation is comprised of ten smaller villages, the primary two of which are the titular Pessac and Léognan. This is a major difference from the Médoc and from the Right Bank, where the top villages have their own AOCs; here, they are all merged. Nonetheless, quality is kept very high as low-quality wines seldom exist in these areas.
Pessac-Léognan was once a part of the gargantuan appellation known as Graves, which dominated early winemaking in Bordeaux. Both its red and white wines garnered international attention for their heaviness, mineral flavors, and generally full-bodied nature. Graves had been made an AOC in 1937, and its red wines were classified in 1953, followed by the whites in 1959.
But Graves was a large appellation, and competition from the Médoc's tiny, highly concentrated villages caused it to look oversized in comparison. People looking for exclusive, expensive wines were annoyed by the size of Graves, and that a better area within it did not exist.
In 1987, through the actions of some determined producers, the French government split Graves into two appellations: Graves AOC and the new Pessac-Léognan AOC, which included all the châteaux of the highest quality and all the ones in the classification. Uniformly, these châteaux were all in the western ten villages of the Graves appellation, which became Pessac-Léognan.
Climate and Viticulture
High-tech fermentation vats in Château Haut-Bailly.
This photo is in the public domain.
The gravel terraces of Graves in general are most concentrated in Pessac-Léognan, lending the wines from the appellation the characteristics that it has become known for: full-bodied, dark, dense, concentrated, very well-structured, dark currant flavors with a mineral note. Due to simple proximity, Pessac-Léognan shares climate similarities with the Médoc. Often, quartz also is found in the soils of a few Pessac-Léognan wineries.
Although there is one château that has 5% plantings of Malbec (Bouscaut), most of the red grapes used in Pessac-Léognan are the same as are in Graves and the Médoc in general:
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet admittedly is not as good in Graves as it is in the Médoc; as a result some producers often use more Merlot for the blend. Cabernet in Graves is defined by the gravel, and produces a very finely concentrated and structured wine. If not in a good blend, it would usually be too rigid and intense. In a blend, Cabernet makes up most of the character of the wine and gives the best wines of Pessac-Léognan their classic intensity and structure.
- Merlot: Merlot plays an important part in Pessac-Léognan. In some parts of the world, vinifications of the grape are light and unsophisticated, but these developments are prevented by the heavy gravel soil of Pessac-Léognan. As a result, Merlot is very important in Pessac-Léognan blends, softening the Cabernet and adding its own flavors as well. Some houses even prefer to use a majority of Merlot.
- Cabernet Franc: Cabernet Franc is not as popular here as on the Right Bank, but it is nonetheless an important grape. It lends structure at the same time as softening the wine. Most châteaux use have plantings of either none at all or around 10%, such as Haut-Brion. An exception is Château La Tour Haut-Brion, which has over 1/3 Cabernet Franc in order to make their wine more approachable and rounded while keeping it powerful.
- Petit Verdot: Château Haut-Brion, the prominent estate of Pessac-Léognan, has only 1% Petit Verdot plantings, and many châteaux don't use it at all. But it can provide important structure and bring its own flavor to the wines.
Pessac-Léognan differs from the Médoc in that two white grapes are perfectly common, and another allowed:
- Sémillon: While not as well-known as those of neighboring Sauternes, the white wines from Pessac-Léognan can also be outstanding, and they are usually made from at least half Sémillon, sometimes 90% or more. Sémillon's tropical-fruit flavors and powerful acidity carry over from nearby Sauternes, and while the wines lack the luscious sweetness of Bordeaux's best sweet whites, they offer dry wines that can be equally magnificent.
- Sauvignon Blanc: The fact is that, although Sémillon is largely responsible for the flavors of white Pessac-Léognan, without Sauvignon Blanc these wines would be too rich and heavy. Pessac-Léognan's classified estates mostly use a preponderance of Sémillon, but Sauvignon Blanc brings its citrus tang, high acidity, and complex flavor set to the table. A few estates use a majority of Sauvignon.
- Muscadelle: Muscadelle's unsophisticated but enjoyable grapy flavors are better put to use in sweet wines, but they can improve dry wines as well. Among the châteaux that have plantings are Pape-Clément, which has about 10% of their white-grape vineyards planted with it.
- Château Bouscaut: Bouscaut is the only classified Pessac-Léognan to utilize Malbec, with 5% of their vineyards planted with it. They also use more Merlot than Cabernet. They have had a long history, although it was interrupted by a fire in 1962. Bouscaut is more noted for its white wines than the red; the white wine has a reputation for excellent tropical fruit and mineral flavors, great elegance, and a full body. Prices of the white are in the 30s. The red is slightly less expensive with a roughly equal pedigree.
- Château Carbonnieux: Although not widely available, Carbonnieux's wines, both red and white, are highly competitive in their class. They have a long history in Graves and are quite consistent. The rich white wine's pedigree tends to be in the high 80s to low 90s, and despite its expense it provides competitive flavors for the appellation. The more reasonably priced red offers well-balanced, complex if not perfectly structured flavors.
- Domaine de Chevalier: For mysterious reasons, this estate is a domaine rather than a château, but it seems to make little difference regarding their wine. Indeed, the white is deservedly one of the most highly regarded in Pessac-Léognan, offering up tropical fruits, minerals, and a concentrated finish. Significantly, the white is never overpriced. The red is equally highly regarded, offering classical flavors without complete unapproachability. At $70, it is about the same amount as the white.
- Château Couhins: This is one of the wineries that uses mostly Sauvignon Blanc in their white wine. It has declined since the classification due to property instability, and it is now hard to find much information about their wine, never mind purchase it. The white wine is higher regarded than the red.
- Château Couhins-Lurton: This châteaux's percentages sound almost experimental: 100% Sauvignon Blanc for the white and over 3/4 Merlot for the red in most years. Sauvignon Blanc's citrus tang comes through clearly in the white, which at $40-odd per bottle is less expensive than most of the wine in the appellation. The red is less well-known but can often be very well-priced. Both wines are well regarded, but consumers will want to take their own stylistic preferences into account before buying a bottle.
- Château de Fieuzal: The white wine made at this estate is about half Sauvignon Blanc and half Sémillon. As a result, it is citrussy but also full-bodied and luscious. The red wine has Médoc-styled percentages but is more medium-bodied, focusing on complex and intriguing flavors. A minerally note is typical. The red wine is more noted, but the white is more expensive. Both generally have good ratings and are under $50, which is a good value.
- Château Haut-Bailly: The long history of this château, although it contains a few ups and downs, has given it a pedigree for red wine that, while not on par with the leading estates, certainly falls into a "second tier" of Pessac-Léognan reds. Differentiating itself with firm but not heavy flavors, the blend uses mostly Cabernet but also includes some Cabernet Franc, which may be responsible for the more friendly flavors of the wine. The 2005 is outstanding, with dense flavors more typical of a Pauillac, but costs over $100. The typical price is closer to $50.
- Château Haut-Brion: Both red and white wine are produced at this phenomenal estate, which is Pessac-Léognan's most merited and famous château, if not necessarily its best. Like Bordeaux itself, a marriage brought the château into focus back in the 1500s, and since then none of its owners have neglected it. It always had a reputation of producing luxurious, expensive wine favored by the high classes. Among those who praised the wine far before the Médoc classification were Jonathan Swift and Thomas Jefferson. The Médoc classification of 1855 was only supposed to include reds from the Médoc, but Haut-Brion was included due to its reputation at that point. Over 150 years later, it still has a reputation for being the most famous Pessac-Léognan. Although La Mission Haut-Brion has rivaled Haut-Brion in sheer power of flavors, Haut-Brion always wins on its elegance. Its seemingly endless layers (this wine is famous for being "layered", a technical term unique to wine experts) careen through an infinity of flavors, always showing complexity and refinement. In sub-optimal years, Haut-Brion uses the harvest for second wine, which can also be stellar. Prices of the red wine range from $225 (2002, rated 95) to $1,400 (2005, rated 100). Most commonly they are in the $500 range. The white is also very expensive, but not as good as La Mission Haut-Brion's famed white wine.
- Château Latour-Martillac: The distinctive black, brown, and white label of Latour-Martillac should help wine laymen tell the difference from legendary first growth Château Latour. Pessac-Léognan flavors are clear in the traditional, well-priced red wine. A very small amount of white is also made, but this is rare. The pedigree is good for both red and white wines, and both can often be found for under $30.
- Château Malartic-Lagravière: This wine is considered an underachiever of its appellation. Like many châteaux, it fell into a period of slow decay during the 1970s and 1980s, started to recover in the 1990s, and began a full-scale comeback in the 2000s. Since the 2003 vintage, ratings have returned to form and $40 bottles of this wine are starting to look underpriced. Consistency is still not optimal, but in the good vintages this château expresses Pessac perfectly.
- Château La Mission Haut-Brion: While it does not boast such a high level of celebrity praise, nor share the status symbol of Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion has red wines that can equal or surpass neighboring Haut-Brion quite commonly. The La Mission Haut-Brion red is more traditional than Haut-Brion, offering up flavors more reminiscent of the Médoc. In its best vintages, such as the 2000, the wine boasts incredibly diverse dark fruit flavors, a dark color, flawless layering and texturing, and a finish lasting over a minute. In vintages such as the 2000, where the flavors of both wines were honed to near-perfection, only a matter of personal choice dictates whether Haut-Brion or La Mission Haut-Brion is the superior one. Undoubtedly, however, La Mission's prices are slightly lower—the 2005 costs $1,000 ($250 less than Haut-Brion) and the 2000 "only" $450. The white wine was labeled as Laville Haut-Brion prior to 2010. The château Laville Haut-Brion produced good white wine until 1931, when it was sold to the owner of stellar red wine house La Mission Haut-Brion. A number of changes took place, and soon Laville Haut-Brion, wholly owned by La Mission Haut-Brion, was generally credited as the best dry white in Graves. There are too many flavors to warrant description; the wine is subtly layered with high acidity and full body. Its elegance is undeniable. Critics are in unanimous agreement that this wine exhibits a dazzling array of flavors and good structure. Prices range between $150 and $300; apparently the $625 2007 vintage was especially good.
- Château Olivier: The medium-bodied red wine produced by Château Olivier provides a well-priced option that lacks the sophistication of some other Pessac-Léognan reds, but nevertheless offers up diverse flavors with inarguable elegance. The wine has perhaps been showing better lately. Prices are around $30, not a bad deal for a classified wine in a very expensive appellation. The white has even a higher pedigree than the red, offering a full-bodied and long finish with excellent tropical fruit flavors. Since it costs less than the red, it is a significant value.
- Château Pape Clément: Located solidly in the second tier of Pessac-Léognan estates, perhaps behind only Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion in objective quality, Château Pape Clément is also the oldest château in Bordeaux. The first plantings were made in the year 1300, with the name originating from Pope Clement V, the original owner. While good, these wines never led the appellation until the 1800s, when a succession of improvements to the property and shrewd owners brought it close to the level of Haut-Brion. A series of inconsistencies, however, led it to even be excluded from the original Graves classification, although that mistake was later rectified. Nowadays, Pape Clément's wines are much more solidly reliable. The red wine is the most well-known, with plantings composed of about two-thirds Cabernet and one-third Merlot. No other grapes are planted. Extremely intense despite the Merlot usage, it is not as perfectly structured or layered as Haut-Brion or La Mission Haut-Brion, but can often equal them in complexity and diversity of flavor. Sometimes the red is full-bodied enough to be confused with Médoc houses in blind tastings. The white has very high ratings, offering full-bodied intensity that rivals the red wine. Traditional by way of its elegance and power, it also offers a long finish. Prices of the red and white are similar—only occasionally under $100, typically $150-$250, and in great vintages much higher.
- Château Smith Haut Lafitte: Smith Haut Lafitte has completed an impressive turnaround recently. It used to be rather inconsistent, but of late has been producing excellent full-bodied red wine. The château itself is easily recognizable due to its red garages and extensive coverage by green vines. Full-bodied, classically styled, and rich, this excellent wine often resembles Médocs in style, but has become more refined in recent years. The cost is usually around $50, which is a value considering the wine's pedigree. The Sauvignon Blanc-based white is also well-priced, with exotic flavors and high acidity.
- Château La Tour Haut Brion: Not to be confused with châteaux Latour, Haut-Brion, or La Mission Haut-Brion, La Tour Haut-Brion made a competitively priced red wine. Although the château's last vintage was 2005, this only makes the currently available vintages more collectible. Over a third Cabernet Franc was planted, extremely unusual for the appellation. Perhaps as a direct result, the wines are approachable despite being full-bodied and powerful. At $50 or less, the château's wine was usually well priced. No white wine was made. La Mission Haut-Brion will now include this château's grapes in their harvest.
Château Latour Martillac has a distinctive label and makes
well-priced Pessac-Léognan red and white wines.
This photo is in the public domain.
Pessac-Léognan is a region where the classification is recent and relevant enough so that few producers outside the classification are among the best wines. Larrivet-Haut-Brion and la Louvière are two significant exceptions, offering excellent unclassified Pessac with distinct flavors that at the same time proudly declare their origin. Prices aren't anywhere near low, though—most of the time, the wine buyer looking for very inexpensive wine may be better off with Bordeaux Supérieur, as good châteaux have little reason to offer bargain wine in an expensive appellation.
Pessac-Léognan AOC is its own AOC, and there are no AOCs within it. All wine from the appellation should be labeled exactly as Pessac-Léognan AOC. And yet it contains 10 small communes of its own, two of which are Pessac and Léognan.
Pessac itself is the home of Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, and Pape-Clément, in other words, the most famous châteaux in the appellation. Léognan claims six, including Haut-Bailly. Cadaujac is the home of Château Bouscaut, and the Couhins houses hail from Villenave-d'Ornon. Latour-Martillac is, not surprisingly, located in Martillac. Laville Haut-Brion, the La Mission Haut-Brion-owned white wine house, is in the commune of Talence.