It says a lot about the ascending status of Château Lafleur that to date it is the only Bordeaux château to release 2019 en primeur wines at the same price as 2018. So why is it the exception to the rule? With the release of the six new wines of Lafleur and sister estate Grand Village, winemaker Omri Ram takes time out to discuss the turning point of the Pomerol estate’s 3-terroir Grand Vin project, how to make a great white wine on the Right Bank, why droughts make for top vintages, the inside track on Bordeaux 2019 and how Lafleur, Cheval Blanc and Ausone are the only three estates with ‘the magic ingredient’ that makes the finest Pomerol.
Omri Ram was speaking while French lockdown was still on, although he confesses he didn’t spend one day inside – “This is France, wine is essential ‘Vive la France!’”
It says a lot that during the Bordeaux 2019 en primeur campaign, while the great and the good were dropping their prices by a third, Lafleur released their new wine at the same price as 2018 – even Mouton Rothschild released 2019s at 30% lower. The key is that Lafleur’s £5800 a case asking price is well below the market price of the previous four vintages, in fact 135% less in the case of 2018.
“I don’t give 100 during en primeur, but this is as close as it gets,” Bordeaux critic Jane Anson wrote the day after the wines’ release, cementing Lafleur as one of the undeniable bargain buys of the 2019 vintage.
But you won’t see Omri Ram and his team high-fiving – he is ambivalent about numbers, whether that be a critic’s score or scientific data about his range of wines – he prefers to only use them as a sense-check and then rely more on instinct and taste.
“We don’t concern ourselves with scores. Lafleur never gets the highest scores because of the style of wine we are making. The capacity of the Cabernet Franc in the wine, means these are not the most flattering wines. I do understand that many of the wines that receive the highest scores have this flattering effect at the beginning,” Ram says.
The 2019 vintage and the importance of drought
Four weeks ago, before En Primeur started, Omri Ram began our long and insightful discussion with an apology.
“So the 2019 wines? You will get annoyed with me because unfortunately we have another great vintage (I realise there is still some Bordeaux bashing going on). So that makes five great vintages in a row – all marked by drought. With dry vintages the vines have to suffer and you get amazingly complex, intense and very elegant wines.”
Weather-wise 2019 had a hot and dry winter, May was cooler than average but the two heatwaves at the end of June and into July had the highest temperatures ever – 40˚C that felt like 50˚C. There was then a pretty ideal August and September with sunny days and cool nights. Ram says that one or two days of intense heat will not ruin a harvest (unless you are not helping your vines) and makes the distinction between heat and dryness.
“It has been dry in Bordeaux since 2015. You need dryness and you need terroir that is very limiting – you want the vines to be restrained. The top of Pomerol is very poor soil, mostly gravel, there are a lot of stones (almost like Châteauneuf-du-Pape) a bit of clay. On very poor soil the vines start suffering early and go into water stress, and you want water stress after veraison to make great wine.”
“It’s why I don’t believe in the term ‘natural’ – vines don’t want to make wine – they care about growing… up, literally up. We want them to grow low, intense and in rows. So water stress is the survival of the plant’s DNA – inter-generational survival – the plant forgets about the growth of shoots and focuses instead on the berries to make the best possible fruit – more aromatic, more sugar, more complex. Too much dryness of course will stop ripeness, then the vines sleep and possibly may die.”
“The vigneron detects where they are in all this and when to put their vines in danger and then asks ‘What the fuck are we going to do about it?’.”
Two techniques to cope with water stress, Ram says, is to do an early green harvest which allows the vines to keep more water to survive. And his team of 15 (one for each hectare across the two estates) also cuts secondary shoots that are the ones responsible for the greatest loss of water. He explains that winter pruning is the number one task at the estates and is only given to team members in their second year.
“It is the most complex task and after that we can teach them anything…. We have a very specific way of pruning and it’s all about the details. After all it’s not our vineyard it’s our garden and we work like gardeners.”
Ram is a hands-on vigneron who is in the vineyard 24/7, and although he uses cutting edge technology, he says it’s important knowing when to use it and when to set it aside.
“It should never be the key focus, but rather it’s all about balance. Some winemakers went too far towards technology, some want to stay very old school with no technology at all – but at Lafleur it is ‘in balance’ because too much is dangerous, but to be blind to the advantages of technology is stupid. We take infra red pictures of the vineyards to show ripeness and a machine that shows flow of sap in the stem (important to determine water stress) but towards harvest we simply taste berries three times each day – each parcel – and you get three different expressions at each different time of the day. I have not found any Artificial Intelligence that can taste berries in the vineyard – and decide when and what to harvest for each wine – it relies on the human factor.”
2020 – battling the elements and the pandemic
Omri Ram was speaking while French lockdown was still on, although he confesses he didn’t spend one day inside – “This is France, wine is essential ‘Vive la France!’.”
For the fifth year running Bordeaux has not had a winter, he says, with no real cold temperatures meaning that the soils are hot and the vines start growing early in the season.
“On 20thMarch we had bud burst which is the first time I have seen Merlot bud burst in Bordeaux before my home of Israel. We had nice sun mid-March – sunny days – which is fun to work in but is a red flag – you can easily get Spring frost.”
This duly happened, although a combination of two wind towers (for 4.5 hectares) and smudge pots (“a last resort”) burning organic beef fat managed to protect the vines from any damage.
Mid-April was stormy “with the most rain we’ve ever seen” with hail wiping out some neighbour’s entire 2020 harvest in five minutes. “So now the biggest challenge is rain and humidity, so we have black rot, downy mildew and botrytis lifting their head now.”
“We use essential oils in the vineyard like orange oil which is great against mildew, but then if it rains every day you have to spray every day, the soil gets full of water, and a hand-held spray is not so effective, so we have small caterpillar tractors.”
“We’re organic – not because we want a nice label on the bottle (we don’t) but because of respect for yourself and your neighbours – we live next to the vineyards.”
As for adapting to these challenging extreme weather patterns, it is the reason Ram insists that you call him a vigneron.
“I am a vigneron not a winemaker – a vigneron needs to understand what’s going on in the vineyard – the vines, the climate and soil. Some people adapt vineyards to what is going on but we believe the opposite… we have to adapt to the vineyard.”
Lafleur’s three Grand Vins from three different terroirs
Omri Ram started his career in the wine trade – as an average sommelier (his words) in Tel Aviv – he decided he wanted a change of career, studied viticulture and then worked in wineries in Israel, New Zealand and Spain, before arriving in Pomerol during the challenging vintage of 2013 and has had a string of great vintages since.
37 years old Ram is cellar-master at 4.5 ha Pomerol estate Château Lafleur, and also vineyard manager at 16.3 ha Château Grand Village in Fronsac. Both properties are run, and the vineyards directly managed, by Julie and Baptise Guindaudeau, who took over from Baptiste’s father Jacques and mother Sylvie, with everyone at both estates involved in all stages of production.
Château Lafleur, which is nestled next to Château Petrus (“I have to be good neighbours as I want to drink Petrus every now and then”), produces three wines – the eponymous Château Lafleur which accounts for 90% of production, Les Pensées de Lafleur which comes from a 0.68 ha plot with different soil to the main estate wine (but which is within the 4.5ha vineyard) and a new third wine Les Perrières de Lafleur which is grown and produced in Fronsac at Château Grand Village. Les Perrières’ first ‘proper’ vintage was 2018 but was called Acte I, Acte II etc during its first five years after a separate vineyard was created in 2009.
The vines for Les Perrières are coming from Lafleur’s massal selection and so with the wine having the same blend 50/50 Merlot/Cabernet Franc, the same vinification process and the same team – the only difference is in the terroir, the aim being for Lafleur to have three Grand Vins made from three different soils – gravel soils (Lafleur) sables clay (Les Pensées) and hard Astéries limestone (Les Perrières).
It is interesting to hear Ram describe Pensées as being more typically Pomerol than any of the other wines, “Pensées is our Pomerol wine. Lafleur is not so much Pomerol – it tastes like a hybrid of Left Bank and Pomerol.”
The idea for Les Perrières came out of their love of limestone.
“We had a very theoretical question – could we take the great vineyards of Lafleur and put it on limestone? We love limestone and two of the best, great wines of the plateau of St-Émilion – Ausone and Canon – come from clay sitting on limestone, it is great terroir.”
After a search that started in 2004 a separate vineyard was located in Fronsac and planted in 2009 with cuttings of old vines of Merlot and Bouchet (old school Cabernet Franc from 1961 vines) from Lafleur.
“Fronsac is an area that historically had no money so the five hectares were planted with shitty shitty clones of Merlot – big bunches – and the wine tasting like water. So we have planted with wheat, then mustard, then flowers – different cultures to rejuvenate the soils. It used to be herbicided but now we are getting micro organisms in the soil which is 30cm deep on mother rock of limestone. So it is a version of Lafleur – same blend, same genetics and we will have three wines, one on gravel, one clay and one on limestone. We don’t do 1st/ 2ndand 3rdwines – and declassify if we’re not happy with them – we are talking about crus not labels.”
As for the new vintage of Les Perrières, 2019, Ram admits he is amazed at how it is working.
“We have created Lafleur on limestone – it is Lafleur on the palate – but taking it in a more precise, direct, limestone expression and also very silky… it is one of the greatest wines we’ve ever made and it is coming into the big league.”
Bouchet not Cabernet Franc
When talking about what makes Lafleur special, Omri Ram identifies the grape Bouchet as key and distinctly different from Cabernet Franc.
“We make real Bouchet part of the blend – real Bouchet – some others say they have it but they have Cabernet Bouchet. Only three properties have real Bouchet – Lafleur, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. VCC have some, a few of the others, but nobody kept it after the frost of 1956 – people replanted with Merlot.”
Part of the Bouchet plantings at Lafleur originates from the massal selection done by previous owner André Robin during the 1930s. His daughters managed to save many of the vines after the devastating frosts of 1956 and today, for the past 15 years the Guinaudeaus have been busy re-establishing this massal selection so that all of their present-day plantings originate from that specific genetic.
So what gives Bouchet its point of difference over Cabernet Franc?
“Mostly with Cabernet Franc the style is cassis, forest floor, bell pepper but Bouchet gives more aromatic profile it is not flamboyant fruit. Cabernet Franc is more chunky with rigid tannins, Bouchet has silky tannins, it gives a silky texture and is very precise, Merlot goes sideways, so the spine of the wine is Bouchet and we put layers of Merlot around the wine – to give it more substance.”
Even though Bordeaux styles have changed to allow for earlier drinking, Ram says he likes to make wines to age.
“In the first five to ten years you only get 10-15% of what the wine can deliver. So Bouchet is the centre of the blend – giving silkiness and minerality at the back of the palate and it helps make wines last a long time. Bouchet is the real identity of Pomerol – in 2018, for example it preserves freshness and elegance.”
As for Merlot, Ram is unequivocal about where it grows best.
“Merlot is a shitty variety apart from the Right Bank of Bordeaux – when I was a sommelier one of first things I learned was that there’s Merlot and good Merlot.”
Making a great white wine on the Right Bank
As a winemaker Omri Ram had never worked with Merlot and Cabernet Franc before taking the job at Lafleur, but he had worked with Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand and confesses to being glad to see the back of it when he moved to Bordeaux. So the last thing he was expecting at his ‘interview’ was to be told about the estate’s exciting new project at Chateau Grand Village – to make a 100% Sauvignon Blanc!
“I am not a fan of them – they are a bit obvious. After New Zealand I was in Sauvignon Blanc trauma – green asparagus, cats pee, passion fruit. Then four months later I was at Lafleur and when I was told about the new project my face dropped – but it has surprised me and everyone else since,” he says.
Chateau Grand Village has been in the family since the 17thcentury and produces three wines, with Les Perrières also being vinified there. The red Chateau Grand Village is a 80/20 Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend, Le Blanc de Grand Village 60/40 Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon. And the third wine, another white, is Les Champs Libres, which is that 100% Sauvignon Blanc wine – all massal selection from Sancerre genetics, the wine vinified and aged in barrel for nine months.
“When you look at the great white wines of Bordeaux, they are all grown on gravel (hot soils that ripen quickly) – but we like clay not gravel so we thought why not have white Bordeaux grown on clay and limestone? there are not many whites on the Right Bank.”
“We wanted to make an elegant wine – elegant and subtle – but in the 1970s vignerons had uprooted a lot of their Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and planted new clones so we went back to Sancerre – to make a Bordeaux white but with a genetic that was lost. We have tried to express the terroir of the Right Bank through the real varieties of the Right Bank.”
The vines were planted in 2010. Vinification is simple, with the fruit pressed whole-bunch directly into Burgundian barrels.
“So with the right genetic and the right terroir we end up with something great and fresh – maintain a precise centre and have some flesh – by combining the two elements.”
Les Champs Libre has been a huge success in the market with Jane Anson calling it “easily one of my favourite white wines in Bordeaux.”
So why is Château Lafleur the exception to the rule in this en primeur campaign? Apart from the fact that the top wine has always gone steeply up in value, the answer should be pretty clear …. the wines they make are truly exceptional.
Omri Ram was talking with Armit Wines buyer Nicolas Clerc as part of a series of exclusive webinars for sommeliers. Armit Wines is a partner of The Buyer. Read more about them by clicking here.