Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tasting the Noughties with Château Pichon Baron

Producers: Château Pichon Baron, Château Petit-Village

What does the insurance business have to do with wine? Quite a bit, if you’re talking about AXA Millésimes, the subsidiary of French insurance giant AXA. For a risk-averse company to invest in wine with its unpredictable and cyclical nature would seem to be a pretty big gamble. However, the strategy of purchasing run-down, historic vineyards with established credentials and then turning them around has paid handsome dividends.

AXA Millésimes now boasts a portfolio of eight wineries in France, Portugal and Hungary, but its crown jewel remains the winery that it acquired in 1987 – Château Pichon Baron. Originally this was part of an estate owned by Jacques Pichon Baron de Longueville, but when he passed away his property was divided between his son, Baron Raoul Pichon de Longueville and his three sisters. The first became known as Château Pichon Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville while the second took on the equally unwieldy name Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. From 2012 onwards the label on the wine was shortened to Château Pichon Baron, a name that was already widely used, albeit unofficially. The size of the property has grown from 33 hectares at the time of acquisition to its current 73 hectares. The château itself is an impressive turreted building with a water feature out in front that acts as a reflecting pool.

Despite the wine’s lofty ranking as a second growth, the estate saw a period of underinvestment and poor winemaking decisions in the 1960s and 1970s that produced some rather coarse vintages. Some of the changes that the AXA team took to reverse the château’s decline include reverting to hand harvesting and moving the bottling process in-house. In 1991 a new adjoining winery was built by architects Patrick Dillon and Jean de Gastines, a much needed expansion of space that also included an underground cellar. Selection criteria for what goes into the grand vin (a typical Pauillac blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) has also become more stringent, resulting in lower production.

Brand Ambassador Corinne Michot was in Singapore recently to share some vintages of the revitalised Château Pichon Baron. Corinne is no stranger to the world of wine, having earned her stripes as a sommelier with the Hotel du Vin boutique hotel chain and later at the Michelin-starred Angela Hartnett at the Connaught. Along with the grand vin we also tasted the second wine Les Tourelles de Longueville. Les Tourelles has been made since 1986 from a dedicated plot called Sainte Anne that is mostly planted with Merlot. It also contains small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the blend. Last year the château announced the release of another second wine, called Les Griffons de Pichon Baron. Les Griffons is closer in style to the grand vin, containing more Cabernet Sauvignon than Les Tourelles and no Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.

In a welcome contrast to the powerful wines of Pichon-Baron, the tasting also included a couple of wines from another property under the AXA Millésimes stewardship, this one in Pomerol on the right bank of the Dordogne. Described by Corinne as “a triangle right in the heart of Pomerol”, the 10.5 ha Château Petit-Village is a fraction of the size of Château Pichon Baron. “You can see all of the vineyard when you are in the middle of it,” she claims. The winemaking team at Petit-Village are aided by consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt who has advised several other properties on the right bank. Due to the smaller production of Petit-Village, it is not distributed as widely as Pichon-Baron. “France, Belgium, Switzerland and Singapore,” says Corinne, adding “if we sold in China they would drink everything in one day!”

With the exception of Petit-Village, the wines at the tasting were all made during the last decade, offering a brilliant glimpse into the vintage conditions of years such as 2003, 2006 and the vaunted 2009 and 2010. We tasted Petit-Village first, moving on to Les Tourelles and finishing with Pichon Baron.

Tasting notes:

Le Jardin de Petit-Village 2011 – An open bouquet with notes of crushed blackcurrant and plum backed with a hint of cedar. Soft and juicy fruit on the palate with a minty, herbal note. Plenty to like about this.

Château Petit-Village 2011 – From vines with an average age of 30 years. Deep ruby core with aromas of sweet cherry and light floral notes. Smooth, satiny texture and very fresh. For mid-term cellaring.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010 – Firm tannins with cigar box and black fruit character, but a little thin and stemmy.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron Les Tourelles de Longueville 2009 – Wrapped in toasty oak notes with a bit of gamey meat and tobacco tossed into the mix. Tannins appear greener than the 2010.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron Les Tourelles de Longueville 2008 – Bottled using screwcap for the UK market, which apparently wasn’t well-accepted. Savoury and light-bodied with sweet damson fruit and charry oak. Not very intense but possesses enticing freshness.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron Les Tourelles de Longueville 2006 – The 2006 Les Tourelles is starting to show signs of evolution with notes of tea leaf and soy sauce beneath blackcurrant and plum flavours. Full bodied with alcoholic heat on the palate.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron Les Tourelles de Longueville 2003 – A wine that’s drinking beautifully now. Medium acidity, with ripe fruit flavours and a hint of fruitcake and dark chocolate. Well-balanced.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron 2010 – Intense and structured with excellent fruit concentration. Tight and vinous, yet manages to convey a sense of freshness and vivacity. Polished to a T.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron 2006 – Still very much in the early stages of its development, the 2006 vintage reveals lifted aromas of cassis and violets. The palate is sleek and balanced with ripe, dense tannins and a firm finish. A commendable effort in an overlooked vintage.

Château Pichon Longueville Baron 2003 – Shows the full body and mid-palate warmth characteristic of the vintage. Sturdy, palate-coating tannins and medium acidity with a hint of bell pepper.

You can find the wines of  Château Pichon Baron and Château Petit-Village at Crystal Wines.

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