Your Wine IQ

Pessac-Léognan


Wine By Region Right Europe Right France Right Bordeaux Right Left Bank Right Graves Right  Pessac-Léognan


Smith Haut Lafitte

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

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.

History

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

Vats in Haut-Bailly

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.

Grape Varieties

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:

Pessac-Léognan differs from the Médoc in that two white grapes are perfectly common, and another allowed:

Major Producers

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.

Subregions

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.

Haut Brion

Château Haut-Brion. Photo by BillBl on Flickr. License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.