The World of Fine Wine’s Simon Field MW is in Bordeaux for the 2021 vintage en primeur tastings. In the latest of his dispatches from the region, he reports from Pichon Lalande, where the steady conversion to biodynamics is taking effect.
The Baron stares silently at the Countess. Pale neutral stone and the secrets of nearly 200 years, now interrupted by the traffic of the D2 and, latterly, by extensive building works at Pichon Baron.
Discreet low-lying outbuildings are being transformed either side of the Château itself, the main task of architects in Bordeaux today, it seems, being to intervene as modestly as possible.
At Pichon Baron the masons look set to succeed; they have certainly succeeded thus across the road at Comtesse de Lalande, and elsewhere: Haut Bailly comes to mind immediately.
Others, such as Beychevelle, are a little less subtle with their grands projets.
Back at Pichon Lalande (as the Anglophone market tends to call it) winemaker Nicolas Glumineau describes the struggles of 2021.
The vintage was the first to be farmed completely organically, with formal accreditation set for 2024, including nearly half of the vineyard under stricter biodynamic protocol.
The plan is executed methodically. Each year 4ha (10 acres) of the 100ha (247-acre) estate is uprooted (usually Merlot) and slowly transformed to biodynamic viticulture, with selection massale Cabernet Sauvignon currently the favored varietal, a significant statement for a property long associated for the quality of its Merlots.
“The Rouzaud family gave us full support and active encouragement,” Nicolas says, echoing similar words from Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon at Champagne Louis Roederer, which also falls under the Rouzaud umbrella.
“But,” he adds “as with any period of transition, the nerves are tested in a vintage such as 2021 … by the end of it I was mentally and physically exhausted.”
From the tasting room we can see the vines of both Pichons, of Latour and of Las Cases, beyond it the Gironde Estuary.
The sky is cloudy, the horizon broad and deep like a Ruisdael landscape. We are in late May and the flowering is almost complete.
Nicolas describes the tall vines as a “forest”; the flowering has basked in exceptionally warm weather and all is set fair for 2022.
A far cry from 12 months ago, a time of incessant rain, then humidity and then, of course, an encroachment of mildew.
There were also the challenges of coulure, especially with the Merlot. “At least we managed to avoid the frost here!” Nicolas jokes. Nonetheless the conditions of 2021 added up to a serious challenge, especially during a period of strict viticultural transition.
Bordeaux 2021: Hard work
Hard work, for sure, but hard work which was very successfully negotiated. Yields were down by two-thirds to 15 hl/ha, the Merlot worst affected but all three varietals undergoing the necessity of ruthless selection.
Nicolas defers to the quality of the soil, generally flat, but complex of construction, its composition more and more granular and friable the deeper one goes, positively welcoming all the microbial activity that has come with the new viticultural regime.
In 2021, however, intense selection could not be avoided.
Hard work in the winery too. In 2021 extraction had to be even more gentle than usual. Nicolas aspired to keep cap of skins “unctuous and moist” through remontage, “imprisoning” the juice beneath the chapeau, and coaxing glycerol and polyphenols with soft persistence.
Later in April came the assemblage. Nicolas describes the minutiae of the process, every permutation rehearsed to try to get everything just right, then further fine tuning with the addition of press juice, which itself had already been segregated into batches.
A complex and at times perplexing jigsaw. But then, pace Nicolas, the eureka moment, the moment when during yet another blend tasting, suddenly the tannins seemed so pure and so integrated that one could finally discern them all the way from the tip of the lips to the very back of the palate.
Only then was Nicolas confident that the perfect blend had been achieved. In 2021 for a long time, he wasn’t sure if that moment would come at all. But come it did, much to everyone’s relief.
He smiles. “On a fait le job.”
2021 Château Pichon Lalande
(88% Cabernet Sauvignon / 10% Cabernet Franc / 2% Merlot)
Far more reserved than the Reserve de la Comtesse, the senior wine has monumental Cabernet Sauvignon building slowly and remorselessly: gravel and cassis, blueberries and plum, hints of tobacco leaf and earth.
Brucknerian revelation comes finally and with it a softer, silkier cadenza, very Lalande, very becoming, if slightly hesitant, as if the Comtesse is trying on her new Cabernet robe and wondering whether or not it will suit her. It does.