Please Don’t Change La Conseillante, M. Rolland

Perhaps because it is on the area of the graves right at the border with St. Emilion—one third of the vineyards even extend into over the border—La Conseillante has always been one of my favorite Pomerols. While I sometimes find the openly lush quality of Pomerol to be a bit too rich for my palate, La Conseillante strikes a more restrained note, partly due to a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc.

The secret to restraint is not simply a function of the grape varieties, however, because along the same lines, Château Magdelaine was always one of my favorite St. Emilions. Although in its day it actually had one of the highest proportions of Merlot, it always had a beautiful restraint, in fact, in some vintages I found myself thinking more about the left bank than the right bank in terms of comparisons. It was for me a sad day when Moueix decided to stop producing it as an independent château and combined it with Château Belair-Monange. It never achieved great success in the marketplace, perhaps because of its restraint, which brings me back to the theme of La Conseillante.

La Conseillante has had its ups and downs. It had a great reputation in the fifties and sixties, declined in the seventies, and then came back in the eighties. Until the 1990s, the vineyards were planted with 45% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and 10% Malbec. Then in the modern trend, Merlot came to the fore, reaching 65% by the nineties, and 80% by the 2000s. The proportion of Merlot in the grand vin in recent vintages has varied from 81% to 89%.

When I visited La Conseillante a few years ago, winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte summarized the unique character of the property: “La Conseillante is not entirely typical of Pomerol, which is known for power and richness; we are known for elegance and silky tannins. We can mix in one bottle the roundness of Pomerol and Merlot with the elegance of Cabernet Franc. We don’t want to compete for the biggest wine of the vintage, we want to preserve our elegance, and the silky tannins. That’s why we are not considered to be a Parker wine.”

But things are changing. Marielle Cazaux became the estate manager in 2015, and Michel Rolland has been consulting winemaker since 2013. Does this mark a move in a direction of greater plushness to more of an international style? There haven’t been any noticeable changes in winemaking so far, although the tradition at La Conseillante has been to perform malolactic fermentation in the concrete vats, and Michel Rolland is known to be an advocate for MLF in barrique. That would probably bring a softer, lusher impression to reinforce a move to a slightly richer style anyway in recent years, although of course that’s common all over Bordeaux.

At a recent tasting, the 2000 was the standout vintage: just at that tipping point when primary fruits have gone and there are slight signs of development. For me, it is perfection now, partly because it adds intimations of the left bank, with that faintly savory quality, to counterpoise the richness of Pomerol. It’s the perfect moment to see the true character of the wine. The 1990 was an illustration of why I have reservations about hot vintages and rich styles: just a bit too overt for my palate, more of a rustic impression, blurring the palate, compared to the laser-focus of 2000. The 1985 was a bit of a disappointment, with the fruits drying out, leaving a somewhat herbaceous impression with medicinal notes that recalled old Bordeaux. But on a rough count, opinion seemed more or less equally split as to which vintage was preferred, so something for everyone here.

Going back to the previous era, or perhaps more accurately to the beginning of the modern era, the 1982 (tasted later a day later) is very much in the lineage of the 2000, but seems if anything even fresher: that sense of Medocian restraint is there, but the fruits are lusher, smooth and silky, with a fainter herbal counterpoise. To be fair, the 1982 is now a little variable: a previous bottle earlier this year seemed a little tired and would not have compared so favorably with the 2000.

Although somehat ullaged, a bottle of 1966 was something else: incredibly youthful, rich, round, and ripe on opening, and then slowly converging in style with the 1982 and 2000 as a faint herbal counterpoise develops in the glass. I’m not sure that it would be easy to identify as the oldest wine in a blind tasting. Once again, there’s some variation between bottles, as the previous bottle, a few years ago, seemed distinctly more claret-like, where this one seems the most Pomerol-ish of all.

La Conseillante was really doing something absolutely right to produce wines like the 1966, 1982, and 2000: so please don’t change it, M. Rolland.

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