It’s not easy to forgo a Sunday afternoon siesta for a guided wine tasting. When the wines are Angelus – the superstar of St-Emilion since 1988 – and Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande from Pauillac, there’s no way you can miss the experience for anything. And yes, we were rewarded with a satisfied palate and the joy of discovery.
We were fortunate to have Hubert de Bouard de Laforest, the man who turned around the ratings of Angelus with a little help from Michel Rolland, and Gildas D’Ollone, nephew of the grande dame of Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Madame May-Elaine de Lencquesaing. Here were two men representing two of the biggest wine labels from the two banks of River Gironde, yet they were pictures of humility.
Hubert set the tone when he said he didn’t agree with the term wine-maker. “We don’t make wines, we just age them,” he said. “We are mere guardians of our roots.” You get that kind of perspective when you represent the seventh generation in the business and your wines are hailed by Robert Parker for their “charming fruity intensity”.
Gildas, on his part, kept insisting that he didn’t have blockbuster wines to offer. Well, you don’t have to hard-sell a wine that’s famous for its consistent brilliance, despite its classification as a ‘Second Growth’. Some people have called it a Super Second, along with formidable players like Cos d’Estournel, but the truth, to quote Parker, is that in many vintages “it rivals and occasionally surpasses” the three famous ‘First Growth’ wines of Pauillac.
The wines we tasted covered a price range extending from 15 euros to 100 euros in the French market, but what we learnt, for the nth time, was that a great Bordeaux from a great vintage deserves the price it commands – you can’t go wrong buying one. More importantly, the take-home message for a young wine market like ours was expressed with great clarity by Gildas. Every great wine house produces wines that can be drunk every day, or once a month, or on a special occasion. We were exposed to all three categories in the course of the tasting so thoughtfully organised by Aman Dhall of Brindco Limited, the importers of the two wines.
We couldn’t detect either depth or density in Carillon de l’Angelus 2001, or in Reserve de la Comtesse 2001, the second wines of the two houses, but their velvety tannins did seduce us. Chateau Bernadotte 1999 – Pichon-Lalande purchased the chateau from its erstwhile Swedish owner in 1997 – had the elegance of a silk carpet, though it’s not a celebrated wine. Chateau La Fleur de Bouard 2001, a recent acquisition by Angelus, likewise, has the freshness you’d expect from a wine with a substantial presence of Cabernet Franc picked from vines that are more than 50 years old. These four minor players put us in the mood for greater things.
Before us were arrayed glasses filled with tasting portions of the 2001, 1998 and 1996 vintages of Pichon-Lalande and Angelus 2001, 1998 and 1995, each vintage having its characteristic shade of red. The Pichon-Lalande 2001 still needs to open up; its harsh tannins must be given four to six years to acquire palate-friendly silkiness. The 1998 promises to go far – Pichon-Lalande wines, you must remember, enjoy an extended plateau period after attaining maturity – with its tannic backbone and elegant aromas. Here’s an example of a wine that combines intense fruity flavours and a classy style.
Pichon-Lalande wines have a fair share of Merlot, in the region of 30-40%, but the 1996 had an atypically high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) and abnormally small percentage of Merlot (5%), making it the most Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine in the estate’s memory. But the wine, without doubt, was a blockbuster (even though Gildas may not approve of the description) – exceptionally ripe, extraordinarily elegant, deep and full-bodied, with a brilliant ruby hue bordering on purple, and an opulent texture, deserving every bit of Parker’s 94-96+ points.
The jury that Sunday afternoon, though, was rooting for Angelus wines, especially the 1995 and 1998 vintages. Angelus has come a long way since the “flying wine-maker,” Michel Rolland, advised Hubert in the early 1980s to age his wine in 100% oak casks (instead of vats) to add what Parker calls “an extraordinary amount of complexity and intensity to the wine”. It was creditable for Hubert to listen to Rolland because it’s a time-consuming and back-breaking process, and he was awarded the coveted premier grand cru status in 1996.
As we found out for ourselves, the effort paid off. The 1995 is a powerful offering with plenty of ripe tannins – it was the “silk carpet,” the wine showing the “harmony of an orchestra,” that Hubert kept talking about in his introductory remarks. The 1998 had extraordinary balance and a long finish – it was amazing how the wine had no rough edges, even though it has many years ahead of it. Hubert described it as “the most seductive wine” he had produced in the last 15 years. The same silkiness was already evident in the 2001 (Hubert said it was a vintage where everything was right), whose deep colour and amazing concentration of fruit flavours, balanced by a robust acidity, promised extended aging in the bottle.
Hubert described it as “the most seductive wine” he had produced in the last 15 years. Of course, he gave the credit entirely to the exceptional terroir. “Without the right terroir, even a magician can’t produce a great wine,” he said. There was more to Angelus than that. Was it the gravitational pull that a Merlot-driven wine exerts on the Indian palate? Or was it the roundness provided by Cabernet Franc? Hubert pointed out that Angelus had the highest proportion of Cabernet Franc after Cheval Blanc, the other St-Emilion superstar. Or was it the effect of the technique – fermenting the wine on its own lees for 8-10 months (out of the 23 months it spends in barrels) – he had picked up in Burgundy? The technique softens the tannins naturally without the use of sulphur dioxide.
Terroir or human intervention? We can keep debating forever the relative importance of both in the evolution of a wine. What really matters for us is how the wine-maker acts in tandem with the terroir to provide an experience that’s at once delicious and memorable.