AMERICANS have traditionally shown great affection for "finds"--that little restaurant tucked away on a back street, the type that gives more auspicious establishments a run for their money. This quest for "finds," however, is not limited to our shores.
More and more American wine drinkers are discovering another one of France's gems--the delightful Wine wines of Pomerol. But we weren't the first on the scene. For years, these generous, full-bodied, fruity wines have been eagerly sought by knowledgeable connoisseurs--notably the English, Belgians and Swiss who, even today, remain the principal beneficiaries of Pomerol's production. But with a greater number of these vintages reaching the American market, the Europeans may have to learn to share.
Located about 30 kilometers from Bordeaux, this tiny, bucolic appellation has produced wines for hundreds of years. Curiously enough, despite its position as one of France's preeminent appellations, the chateaux of Pomerol have never been officially classified, as is the obsessive custom in other wine-producing regions of the country.
With the exception of the fabled Chateau Pe'trus--now Bordeaux's most expensive red wine--many wine consumers are unaware of the style of the wines produced in Pomerol, or of the high quality of its finest chateau-bottled wines. ing, then, is a guide to Pomerol and a dozen of its best estates.
The appellation's vineyards extend eastward from the outskirts of the commercial town of Libourne. Here the estates are quite modest compared to the glorious and aristocratic chateaux of the Medoc and Graves regions to the west of Pomerol. The production of the properties is also small, with the average major chateau producing no more than 2,000 to 2,500 cases of wine a year. Chateau Petrus, for instance, produces only 3,000 to 4,000 cases of wine in a good vintage in contrast to the 20,000 to 25,000 cases turned out by such luminaries as Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Lafite Rothschild.
The style of wine produced in Pomerol is fruitier and earlier maturing and more generous than most of Bordeaux's other red wines. The merlot grape accounts for 75 percent of the vines planted, with the remaining 25 percent of vines planted in cabernet franc, called "bouchet" by the local vignerons. In addition, there are several small and insignificant cabernet sauvignon vines in the appellation.
In contrast, there is rarely more than 25 percent of merlot vines in either the Medoc or Graves vineyards. Undeniably, it is the merlot which accounts for the supple and delicious character of Pomerol's wines.
Recent vintages have been kind to Pomerol. Since the merlot grape ripens earlier than the cabernet sauvignon, the harvest in Pomerol often starts and sometimes finishes before the vignerons in the Medoc have even begun to pick a grape. Consequently, Pomerol wine growers can sometimes gather healthy, ripe merlot grapes before the frequent rains which can arrive in September and October, and thereby can often have a very successful vintage when their brethren to the west are washed out. Such was the case in 1964, 1967, 1971 and perhaps in 1980.
The success of Pomerols in recent years is obviously a result of the high quality of the wines, yet much of the recognition the area receives is limited to its most famous property--Chateau Pe'trus. While there are opponents who argue that Latour or Lafite or Mouton are greater wines, Pe'trus is Bordeaux's most expensive and most intensely flavored wine, and by many accounts the best of the Pomerols and perhaps the best of Bordeaux. It can be, in fact, overwhelming, with a remarkable intensity and viscous, ripe flavors that literally coat the palate. However, at $75 a bottle, most people pass up the opportunity to indulge in such glories.
Petrus does have its challengers, and the one legitimate heir to the throne of Pomerol is the seldom-seen wine of Chateau Lafleur. Lafleur's vineyard is adjacent to that of Petrus, and the average age of the vines here is actually older than those of its neighbor. Old vines produce the greatest wine, but the older they are, the less wine they produce. Thus most estates today tear out vines after they reach 40 to 50 years of age for economic reasons. Notwithstanding the destruction of many of the appellation's merlot vines due to the severe 1956 frost, the average age of the vines at Petrus is 40 years; at Lafleur, the average age is 60 years. Two of Pomerol's most respected and influential spokesmen, Christian Moueix, the manager of Pe'trus, and his enologist, Jean-Claude Berrouet, readily admit that Lafleur wines frequently rival their own, a fact that has been curiously ignored by the wine press.
Lafleur is an interesting property run by two elderly sisters who have never married, and by their own admission, never drink wine. Marie Robin, 82 years old, and her younger sister, Therese Robin, 72 years old, produce a highly concentrated, old-style Pomerol which simply must be tasted to be believed.
Both sisters have run the vineyard since the death of their father in the 1940s, and an inspection of the estate will show that there has been no attempt to modernize the vinification or to take any shortcuts. In addition to their refusal to tear out the old vines, the Robin sisters conduct a very traditional, long and warm vinification aimed at high extract and plenty of tannin. In fact, a glimpse of the rundown, old wooden fermentation tanks which share quarters with the Robin's flock of sheep and chickens makes one wonder if a little modernization might not propel Lafleur to even greater heights. Therese, whom her older sister calls "La Petite," rides a bike daily to the vineyards, eight kilometers, to meet guests and conduct business. Lafleur produces approximately 1,200 cases of Pomerol each year, and it usually sells for one-third the price of Pe'trus. For the first time in years, several Washington shops (Calvert/Woodley, Morris Miller Liquors and A & A Liquors) have small quantities of the marvelous 1979 Lafleur for $26 to $28 a bottle. Expensive it is, but the wine will be splendid if held for three to five years.
After Pe'trus and Lafleur, I would rank the estates of L'Evangile, Trotanoy and LaFleur Pe'trus as the next three finest wines of this region. L'Evangile is situated on the Pomerol-St. Emilion border opposite the famous St. Emilion property of Cheval Blanc. The wine is firmer than many Pomerols, and seems to need five to eight years to shed some of its tough character, but the property is extremely well run, and the wine is available in the Washington market. Both Trotanoy and LaFleur Pe'trus are owned and managed by Christian Moueix. For many years, Trotanoy was the wine I bought for my cellar, because of the high cost of Pe'trus. However, since 1976, Trotanoy--while still very good--has lightened up in style while getting even more expensive. LaFleur Pe'trus is a typical Pomerol--fleshy, fruity and supple--it is a joy to drink and very capably vinified.
There are several other Pomerol chateaux worthy of serious interest. Certan de May is now making splendid wine after a mediocre period in the 1950s and 1960s, while its neighbor, the Belgian-owned Vieux Chateau Certan--well respected in the wine textbooks, but not nearly as highly regarded by people in the know--produces consistently good wine, but rarely ever makes a spectacular bottle. Another good Pomerol, Petit Village, is now produced under Bruno Prats who is probably better known for his fine Medoc property, Cos D'Estournel. This wine was especially good in the 1979 vintage and should not be missed if encountered. La Conseillante, Latour-a'-Pomerol, Le Gay and Nenin are other fine properties in Pomerol that can be counted on to produce excellent wines. All can be found in the Washington market.