The Buyer
How Saint Julien’s Lagrange is getting stronger each vintage

How Saint Julien’s Lagrange is getting stronger each vintage

Mathieu Bordes, winemaker and general manager of the 3rd growth, Saint-Julien estate Lagrange, was in town to show a remarkable 11-wine vertical of the grand vin dating as far back as 1982 and including such legendary wines as the 1990 and 2000. Bordes explains in detail how they made the 2016 which he considers one of the best-ever produced, why they were never bothered about Robert Parker’s disdain for the estate, and why two thirds of production at the estate is dedicated to making Les Fiefs, one of Bordeaux’s truly great second wines. Geoffrey Dean reports

Geoffrey Dean
22nd September 2022by Geoffrey Dean
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“Les Fiefs is one of the most famous second wines in Bordeaux. We could make less of it and more grand vin, but the owners don’t want that,” says Bordes.

When Matthieu Bordes sighs that “Robert Parker hated the Lagrange brand for a long time,” he does so without the slightest regret. “We never sought his marks,” the winemaker and GM for the Saint-Julien third growth continued. “We just try to grow the best grapes on each plant, and we never pick over-ripe.”

Bordes, who celebrates 16 years at Château Lagrange this October, is a native Bordelais and one of the most charismatic vignerons in the Medoc. A supremely capable one too on the evidence of a memorable vertical tasting of the estate’s grand vins going back as far as 1982. That was the last vintage before Lagrange was bought by Suntory, who recruited Marcel Ducasse as general manager to undertake a total restructuring of the property. It was he who lifted Lagrange out of years of mediocrity, and he stayed there until Bordes took over.

How the bar was raised with Lagrange 2016

Ducasse, then, must take credit for vintages up to and including 2006, several of which were majestic, but Bordes has raised the bar even higher in his time. The 2010, 2016 and 2019 are all magnificent wines, with the 2016, in Bordes’ view, being amongst the “two or three best ever produced” at Lagrange. Although it was a hot year, it came in at 13.7% abv and, most significantly, has a pH as low as 3.41. Consequent uber-freshness gives it wonderful harmony and balance, to go with its massive concentration, great length and silky yet powerful tannins.

The 2016 harvest was, apart from 2008, the latest ever known at Lagrange, lasting three weeks and finishing on October 24. A mild, very wet spring – beneficial for budburst – luckily featured a dry break in the same week that flowering occurred (only a few days later than the 20-year average). The mid-July heat, which peaked at 33°C to 38°C for four days, caused Bordes to suspend leaf-plucking and the vines to shut down for a period. After a hot August, hydric stress was alleviated by timely rain on September 12. An Indian summer led all of the Cabernet Sauvignon plots to reach optimum ripeness.

Cool nights were the key, aiding acid retention and pushing the pH down from its habitual level of 3.5. By contrast, in 2010, it reached 3.6, a record high. Only now, in Bordes’ view, has the 2010 reached the beginning of its tasting window. “If we’d tasted the 2010 four years ago, it would not have been approachable,” he mused, “but the 2016 is already approachable, although it will certainly continue to improve over the next few years.”

Matthieu Bordes, September 2022, Connaught, London

Changes introduced by Matthieu Bordes at Lagrange

One of Bordes’ key decisions in the vinification process has been to reduce the amount of new oak for the grand vin from 80% to between 40% and 50%. The remainder is second fill, although in the last year, he has been experimenting with 5% stainless steel.

Bordes has also steadily increased the amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend to between 70 and 80% from what used to be a 50:50 split with Merlot. Why? “Global warming,” he responded. “Merlot doesn’t age as well, so we are replacing Merlot vines with more and more Cabernet Sauvignon.” Whereas the 2005 was made up of 46% Cabernet, 45% Merlot and 9% Petit Verdot, the 2019 was 80% Cabernet, 18% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot.

Lagrange has more hectares under vine (118, with 110 currently in production) than any other Medoc classed growth. It boasts more than one hundred individual plots, of which two-thirds are Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot makes up 28% and Petit Verdot 5%, while 11 hectares are given over to white varieties (80% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Gris). Bordes revealed he has a single row of Cabernet Franc, as well as a row of Carmenere which he struggles to ripen fully.

Significantly, Bordes can vinify all his red plots separately thanks to 102 small tanks and vats. There were only 56 before he came. “That and our terroir is the key,” he professed. “We have 17 different types of soil, with a lot of gravel which leads to efficient drainage. One of our slopes marks the highest point in the appellation – 24 metres – and the grand vin plots are the higher ones.”

Lagrange: facts and figures

Lagrange does not seek organic certification, but it does follow organic practices in a third of its vineyards. Sustainability and biodiversity are the estate’s watchwords. Sheep graze the cover crop, which is largely grass with wild flowers sown in it. Bee hives and bird boxes have been re-introduced, and no chemical herbicides are used on the domaine. Level 3 of HVE (Haute Valeur Environmentale), the highest form of adherence to environmental practices, is rigorously followed at the insistence of the owners.

Suntory’s commitment to the quality of their grand vin is underlined by the very high percentage of estate fruit that goes into their celebrated second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange. Nowadays, two thirds of Lagrange’s annual crush is generally earmarked for Les Fiefs. Contrast that figure to 1982 when the entire harvest went into the grand vin. This has an effect on margins of course, but Suntory commendably are not looking to maximize profits. The 2009 Les Fiefs, with its velvety soft tannins, saw 20% new oak and is made from vines with an average age of 30 years.

“Some of the vines for Les Fiefs are as old as 50 years, while the oldest for the grand vin date back to 1952 on what is a Merlot plot,” Bordes revealed. “Les Fiefs is one of the most famous second wines in Bordeaux. We could make less of it and more grand vin, but the owners don’t want that.”

Depending on the yield, Lagrange’s annual production is 200-250,000 bottles of grand vin and more than 350,000 bottles of Les Fiefs.” Yields have varied over the last few years: 35hl/ha in 2021, 26 in 2020, 49 in 2019 and 36 in 2018. Bordes expects 38-40 from the 2022 harvest.

As for markets, France remains the biggest, with a 23% share, followed by the United States and Japan. Both the UK and China import 5%, and it is clear Lagrange would be happy to see the former’s share increase. Equally evident is the quality and value that both their grand vin and second wine offer drinkers.

The wines tasted on the day

Les Fiefs de Lagrange 2009 (57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 8% Malbec): Bordes considers the second wine ready after 3-4 years but says it will last 20.

Lagrange 2019 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot): record-breaking levels of sunshine, and ‘the longest harvest and the richest grapes in the domaine’s modern history’ in Bordes’ words. ‘It reminds me of 2009 as there is no dryness or harshness. It will take its place among our iconic vintages.’ Blackcurrant, black cherry and liquorice notes with silky tannins.

Lagrange 2016 (70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot): a great vintage memorable for the low berry weights (30% below the average of the previous years). Only 22 mm of rain between 23 June and 12 Sept. Complex and dense with beautiful harmony and balance (13.7% abv)

Lagrange 2015 (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot): another fine vintage if not in the same class as 2016. An excess of rain in September obliged Bordes to employ reverse osmosis to extract some water. Full-bodied, yet elegant with ripe, velvety tannins.

Lagrange 2010 (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot): ‘unprecedented concentration of tannins of extreme fineness’ according to Bordes. Non-stop sunshine from May ’til the end of October, but cool nights as a rule. Late picking due to the drought. Deep colour with powerful structure, notable concentration and many layers of complexity.

Lagrange 2005 (46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot): a ‘superlative’ year in Bordes’ view. Less powerful than the 2010 with extremely soft, well-integrated tannins. As he puts it, ‘the mid-palate is suave with a pleasant freshness, the whole presents harmony and rare elegance worthy of the greatest wines of Saint-Julien.’

Lagrange 2003 (57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot): heatwave conditions in June, July and August, before beneficial early September rain. Thanks to the estate’s second earliest harvest, which started on 11 Sept, the abv was only 13%. No acidification necessary. Beautiful complexity and opulence.

Lagrange 2000 (59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot): jasmine/minty aromas and more tertiary notes with cigar box, cedar and leather. Super silky tannins. Stunning.

Lagrange 1996 (57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot): ‘beautifully noble with great tannic strength’ as Bordes put it. A superb vintage. Cigar box and tobacco, with smoky notes and jasmine. Chaptalisation required to get it to 13% abv, which underlines how the climate has changed.

Lagrange 1990 (44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot): legendary vintage, the first to include some Petit Verdot.

Lagrange 1982 (52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 48% Merlot): still a special wine if slightly past its best. Interestingly, all the fruit went into the grand vin with no Les Fiefs made. There was a huge yield as no green harvest was carried out (unlike 1990, which is showing better).