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Pauillac’s pulling power.

The Wine PageIf you had to single out one appellation of Bordeaux to head the list, there would be no argument. It would be Pauillac. Its name is associated with class in wine circles. Just mention Pauillac at Bordeaux wine tastings, and it always creates excitement and anticipation. Not least, because three out of the first five of the Medoc and Graves, Chateaux Lafite, Latour and Mouton Rothschild, all hail from this illustrious commune. As well as a long list of “super seconds.” Dynamic wines like Pontet Canet, Pichon Longueville Baron and Lynch Bages spring immediately to mind. In fact, from medieval times to the present day, Pauillac’s wines have always ranked among the Medoc’s elite. And not only domain wines, but also those from the area’s two main parishes, St-Martin de Pauillac and St Lambert de Rignac.

Wines that would be considered first class elsewhere are relegated to the bottom of the list in elitist Pauillac. They include such gems as Chateaux Pedesclaux, Fonbadet, La Tour Pibran, Anseillan and Bellegrave. The upscale

Pauillac wines have the quintessential flavours discerning claret lovers look for in Bordeaux. So often, perfectly balanced combinations of luscious fruit with oak, dryness and subtlety, depth of substance and complexity. Not to forget, whimsical cigar box scents, a suggestion of sweetness, and above all, vigorous vivacity.

The three great wines of Pauillac are all dramatically different. Chateaux Lafite Rothschild and Latour stand at opposite ends of the parish and pull in opposite directions in character. Lafite more towards the smoothness and finesse of a Saint Julien and Latour more towards the emphatic firmness of a Saint Estephe. Lafite, with over 90 hectares, is one of the bigger vineyards in the Medoc, and makes at least 1,000 barrels of its fabulously expensive wine. (We are talking hundreds of dollars for even the least sought-after vintages.) And you get what you pay for. This superstar wine icon has a refined, perfumed, polished, almost gentleman-like character. If it were human, Lafite would be Cary Grant. It’s worth remembering, for the sake of one’s bank balance, that its second label is the equally suave Carruades.

The bolder, more solid Latour seems to spurn elegance, expressing its extremely privileged situation (on the hill nearest the river) in robust depths, which take decades to reveal their complexity. And Latour has the great merit of evenness over the vintages. The chateau’s second wine, Les Forts de Latour, from separate parcels of land to the west, is considered and priced as a second Cru class. And a junior selection, still gorgeous and often richly savoury, is sold simply as Pauillac, and offers the best value of all.

The Baron Philippine de Rothschild at Mouton makes a third kind of Pauillac. Displaying strong dark and full flavours of ripe blackcurrant and a pedigree so great, for many a wine enthusiast, it’s no less than the Holy Grail. Given the 10, or often, even 20 years the wine needs to mature (depending on the quality of the vintage), these bright deep purple hued wines reach into the realms of perfection, where they are rarely followed. Sadly, the over-indulged millionaires who usually drink it tend to be impatient creatures by nature, and too much Baron Philippine is drunk far too young.

Being a flagship Bordeaux wine region means there are draconian rules to be adhered to. And in order to have the right to the Pauillac appellation of controlled origin, red wines must come from the commune of Pauillac, and from the precisely defined parcels of Cissac, Saint Julien, Saint Estephe and Saint Sauveur. Winemakers must satisfy precise production conditions, and grape varieties must be Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cot or Malbec. Whether one agrees with the strict (some would say, restrictive) Appellation Controlle regulations or not, there is no doubting the sheer beauty of the voluptuous red wines from Pauillac. Indeed, if there is one defining characteristic that distinguishes the wines from others, it’s their beautifully captivating full-bodiedness. Sure, Pauillac’s wines can be very expensive. But if your budget is generous, you can certainly buy, drink and cellar some of the greatest wines in the world.

Finally, an intriguing clash of interests occurred in the town of Pauillac about 20 years ago. At the urging of some local businessmen, including the owner of Chateau Lynch Bages, Mr. Andre Cazes, Shell Oil Company shocked the wine world by announcing that it planned to build a large oil refinery on the Gironde riverbank - less than a mile from the great vineyards of Mouton and Lafite. Armed with scientific studies showing that the factory's emissions would have no effect on the grapes, or the wine made from them, Shell went ahead with its plans. And to pacify the suspicious wine producers, if only a cynically little bit, Shell painted the refinery smokestacks green. For a time, Gallic tempers flared, and there were dire predictions that the refinery would be more devastating than the phylloxera epidemic a century before. As it played out, there was no perceptible effect on anything other than the skyline. And last year, Shell announced it was shutting down the Pauillac plant. This time, the outcry was prompted by the possible economic impact of the shutdown, and no one talked of any victory for wine makers. However, should you feel the need to irritate a condescending French sommelier, complain to him that you can “detect strong octane tones, similar to Shell premium leaded petrol” in a Mouton Rothschild he is snobbishly offering for taste! Sorry, French wine connoisseurs. You know I’m only joking. And I couldn’t keep up the flattery for the whole column!


Peter James


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