A vertical tasting of Pichon Lalande with Sylvie Cazes in New York gave surprises about both chateau and vintages more than confirming expectations.
When I investigated second wines a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that they are indeed second best not only with regards to the grand vin of the chateau but also with regards to other wines at the same price. In comparative tastings, it usually seemed that a Cru Bourgeois at the same price point was a better wine than the second wine of a Grand Cru Classé. Since then, especially with good vintages becoming more frequent, second wines seemed to have improved somewhat, but at this tasting I was not especially impressed with either vintage of the Réserve de la Comtesse. The 2006 seemed just to be a little too thin; blind I would have taken it for a Cru Bourgeois somewhere towards the bottom of the hierarchy. The 2003 fared a bit better, but did not seem very convincing. In neither case did it seem that the second wine was a bargain based on applying the expertise of the chateau at a lower price level, which is the usual justification.
The 2005 Pichon Lalande gave real pause for thought about the vintage. I’ve never thought of Pichon Lalande as one of the most “international” of the chateaux – nothing like as exotic as Cos d’Estournel, for example – but this seemed like a throwback to the seventies. Unmistakably Cabernet-dominated, the fruits never seemed to come to life, and I was left with the impression that they might dry out before the slightly hard tannins resolve. Where was the supposed opulence of the vintage? Some notes reminded me of 1996 or 1975, with a possible imbalance developing between fruit and acidity. It definitely did not show nearly so well as the 2004, a nice wine for drinking now.
The 2003 fared relatively well insofar as it hasn’t fallen apart like so many, but nothing will persuade me that this was a great vintage, as it was being described. Where’s the elegance, where’s that traditional lightness of Bordeaux? The only thing to do with 2003s is to drink them up – or sell them off at auction.
The 2000 was a big surprise: last time I had this wine it was developing distinctly herbaceous notes. Today they showed more as cedar with some vegetal overtones. The nose was so totally different from anything else at the tasting that the lady next to me decided her glass must have a problem, and asked for another pour in a fresh glass. This wine supports those taking the minority view that for some chateaux, 2000 was not as good as 2001.
The most fascinating comparison was between the Cabernet-driven 1996 (75% Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Merlot-driven 1995 (45% Cabernet Sauvignon). The 1996 was the one wine that was really characteristic of its vintage: very classic, savory and herbaceous – in style more like the seventies than the eighties. But I think it still has a bit too much acidity and tannin for it really to mature to a classic. By contrast, the 1995 was absolutely delicious: it’s come right around in the past five years and is the peak of perfection for a left bank Merlot, soft and supple but with adequate structure. So much for the Medoc being best in the Cabernet years.
The 1985 was for me the wine that had it all: classic herbaceous notes in a context of ripe, sweet, but savory fruits: the wine of the tasting. This was not the vintage I would have picked out ahead of time as the most likely to excel. A few years ago the 1975 was showing as one of the best wines of the vintage, a slightly tighter version of what the 1985 has become today, but now the 75 has passed its peak, and the high toned aromatics suggest it is in decline.
The motto: never mind the Ides of March: beware the Vintage of the Century. 1975 has never fulfilled the expectations raised at the time (vin de garde, my foot), 1996 is not going to come around (another vin de garde that won’t make it), 2000 may be going into decline, and 2005 may not make it. The wines showing best were 2004 (a lovely restaurant vintage) and 1985 (never hailed for its longevity at the outset). It ain’t so easy as they think to judge these vintages en primeur.
Réserve de la Comtesse, 2006
Slightly spicy black fruit nose gives a fresh impression. There’s a light fruit impression on the palate with a touch of vanillin. Crisp acidity leaves a tang on the finish and gives some emphasis to the light tannins. Overall impression is that the palate is driven by relatively light Cabernet fruit. A little too acid, a little too light in fruit concentration, this is relatively disappointing for the second wine of a super-second. 86 Drink-2016.
Réserve de la Comtesse, 2003
First touch of garnet in appearance suggests some development, but not much evident on fresh black fruit nose, except a bit of lightening in fruit intensity. Palate shows very good acidity for 2003, black fruits with vanillin overtones, but the fruits already are beginning to dry out and the tannins are beginning to stick out just a little. Not a bad result for the vintage but somewhat lacking in focus. 86 Drink-2014.
Pichon Lalande, 2005
Medium ruby color already with a touch of garnet. A mellow nose has a very faint touch of nuts. The palate is smooth and fresh, not at all the blockbuster you might expect from the reputation of the vintage. The overall impression is quite classically Cabernet-driven, fruits with a touch of asperity backed by tannins that don’t seem very generous, decent structure to age well, although softening a little in the glass to become nuttier. Blind I would put this down as an average rather than great year, and in short, more of a throwback to the classic style than would be expected from 2005. 88 Drink 2014-2021.
Château Pichon Lalande, 2004
A garnet touch to the color suggests some development. The fresh black fruit nose gives a faint impression of perfume. Nice balance on the palate between black fruits, just a touch of asperity from the tannins shows retronasally, but overall the tannins are quite soft. This is a very good result for the vintage, producing a wine that will drink well now and hold for a few years. A perfect restaurant wine. 88 Drink-2018.
Château Pichon Lalande, 2003
Age indicated by medium garnet color with some orange at rim. Black fruit nose shows blackcurrants and a touch of cedar, even a faint touch of herbaceousness on the nose, somewhat surprising for this vintage. Rich and chocolaty on the palate, with tannins that are ripe but giving a faint impression of being over cooked. The wine becomes a touch hard on the mid palate in the glass. It may be that the tannins will outlive the fruits. The wine is not falling apart, as many are, but it gives a slightly clumsy impression, not atypical of this vintage. It should be drunk in the near future. 87 Drink-2015.
Château Pichon Lalande, 2000
This wine is full of surprises and has changed yet again. What appeared as herbaceousness two or three years ago now shows as an intense cedary aroma on the nose, following through to palate and finish. The dusky garnet color still appears relatively youthful. It is hard to pick out the fruits on nose and palate against the background of cedar, but they seem to be in good balance with the acidity and tannins. The wine gives a very dry, classic impression: it is lean rather than opulent. 90 Drink-2021.
Château Pichon Lalande, 1996
Medium garnet color. Classic nose, with fruits turning savory, although no tertiary development yet. Completely classic on the palate, a throwback to the seventies in style, dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Savory black fruits have a touch of herbaceousness, with the sense of bell peppers carrying through the long finish. The acidity is less pressing here than in some wines of the vintage. This should continue to mature in the classic style – which is to say savory with vegetal overtones rather than overtly fruity – until the tannins overtake the fruits. 89 Drink-2020.
Château Pichon Lalande, 1995
This wine is now at a delicious point, much softer and more open than the 1995. The garnet color is beginning to lighten up. The nose shows notes of nuts and semolina, giving over to slightly more vegetal notes (nut less intense than a few years ago). The palate is soft, supple, and fleshy – the antithesis of the classic 96. This is really delicious right now; although there is decent structure, it does not have great potential longevity. 90 Drink-2016.
Château Pichon Lalande, 1985
The hit of a vertical tasting of Pichon Lalande. Lightening garnet color. Classic nose showing bell peppers and a touch of cedar. Acidity quite noticeable on the palate, which generally follows the nose. Beautiful balance, now a point with savory fruits not yet turning tertiary. Elegant and delicate, with bell peppers strengthening on finish. Very fine grained structure. A bit of a surprise that this year should end up with such a completely classic development. 92 Drink-2016.
Château Pichon Lalande, 1975
This wine probably peaked about five years ago, when it showed an absolutely classic aroma and flavor spectrum of a left bank, Cabernet-dominated wine. It’s still in the same tradition, but the fruits are beginning to dry out. It’s a lightening garnet color with a touch of high toned aromatics on the nose. The fruits on the palate start out surprisingly sweet, but the touch of bitterness intensifies in the glass: you have the sensation that the fruits are drying out in the glass, allowing the bell peppers to become more dominant on the finish. Slowly the dryness of the finish takes over. 88 Drink up.