Wine Ark Friday Focus : Pauillac
A name synonymous with good wine, (and high prices!), but have you ever wondered why?
Arguably the most expensive plot of wine-growing soil on the planet, Pauillac is home to some of the most famous names in the wine world. And for very good reason, some would argue – 3 of the 5 Bordeaux First Growths fall within Pauillac’s borders; Chateau Latour, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild. In addition to this, 15 other wineries from this region were named in the famous 1855 Classification of the Medoc as either 2nd, 4th Growths- interestingly enough, there are no Pauillac 3rd Growths!
Famous producers in today’s market such as Les Forts de Latour and La Rose Pauillac, which did not make the cut in 1855 are also grown here. Not a bad hit rate for a region of only 115 producers!
So what makes this area so special? Pauillac is small, in global winemaking terms, a mere 1,200 ha on a rectangle of vines 3km wide and 6 long (as a comparison, the Coonawarra, one of Australia’s smaller wine regions, is 5,600 ha), but one that grows the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This region is perfectly suited to this varietal, and gives the vine everything it requires to produce complex, concentrated berries, which are turned into (with a little assistance from some very expensive French oak) some of the longest-lived and intense Cabernet dominant wines on Earth. Vines have been planted in this region since the 14th Century. In fact, the original tower (la tour) of Chateau Latour was built to defend against ocean-going pirates that would raid down the Gironde (the main river that separates Left Bank from Right Bank) from the Atlantic Ocean around that time. The climate is moderated by the region’s proximity to both this ocean to the West and the river to the East. This ocean influence means frost risk is low in the spring, as are heatwaves in the summer and vine freeze in the winter; however the region always is at risk of too much rainfall. This is where the variety and geography comes in. The Cabernet Sauvignon grape, grown here for hundreds of years, has a very hardy, thick skin, which can resist wet conditions and diseases such as botrytis – as well as giving the wine the abundant tannins and structure they are renowned for! The geography consists of low, rolling hills (the highest of which is 30m above sea level- I did say low!), and the soils of Pauillac are gravel on a base of limestone and clay with small patches of iron. This gravel topsoil allows the rainfall to drain easily away into the subsoil or the river, forcing the vine to dig its roots deep for water during summer, as irrigation is forbidden here.
Although the focus in this area is on Cabernet Sauvignon, there are 5 varietals allowed in the final blend, with the other 4, in order of area under vine being Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and a tiny amount of Malbec. Each variety adds something to the whole, and a big part of the winemakers art is in the blending of these grapes from a certain vintage to create a wine better than a sum of its parts. Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone of course, bringing structure and complexity, Merlot brings plush, supple fruit in the middle palate (more is added in cooler vintages when the Cab Sauv does not ripen as well), Cabernet Franc brings tannin, Petit Verdot brings bright purple colour and Malbec is the ‘just in case’ varietal, which can add substance and weight in cooler vintages where the other varieties struggle to ripen. Each of these varieties is vinified separately; as each requires more or less time in oak- Merlot, for example never needs as long in barrel as Cab Sauv does.
Technology and research plays much more of a part in the winemaking of Bordeaux when compared to any other French region, helped along by the University of Bordeaux, which has a large and well-funded wine research centre. Bordeaux led the field in the ‘70s in regard to advancements in winery technology; temperature control during fermentation, micro-oxygenation, pumping over several times a day (draining and reinserting juice over the skins to increase tannin, colour and texture), all were the result of research out of Bordeaux University, and regions across the planet now use these as a matter of course. Wines are aged for several years before release in expensive French oak barriques to further build tannin, flavour complexity (think cedar and cigar-box) and longevity.
So you see, this region isn’t popular because of a unique soil type, or a grape variety that only grows here, or an abundance of sun- in fact this region is fairly average on all fronts in that respect- Cabernet Sauvignon, as good a variety as it is, can be grown practically anywhere, gravel isn’t so exciting, and the weather definitely isn’t anything to write home about! Instead it is the hard work and passion of the people and the focus on research and development that puts them at the forefront of global wine production of this world-class varietal. That, and a great marketing budget…
Wine Sales Manager