From a wine lover’s point of view, Pessac-Léognan offers what no other appellation around Bordeaux can — top quality whites as well as outstanding red wines. Moreover, Pessac-Léognan is the only area, other than the Médoc, to feature one of the 1855 classified First Growths.
Of course, during the famous (some might call it “infamous”) classification, only Château Haut-Brion was allowed to compete. Since then, a Graves Classification was formatted in 1959 to give local wines their rightful place within the rankings and, in 1987, Pessac-Léognan was granted an AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).
Talence is home to Châteaux Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and Pape Clément. In Léognan are Domaine de Chevalier, Carbonnieux, Fieuzal, Haut-Bailly, Malartic-Lagravière and Olivier. Finally, Smith-Haut-Lafitte and La Tour Martillac are located in Martillac.
Certainly, from a historical point of view, Pessac-Léognan and Graves have no reason to envy the Médoc or the Right Bank. The first vines planted in the Bordeaux Left Bank were planted in Pessac by the Romans. Château Pape Clément was already famous in the late Middle Ages, after the newly elected Pope Clément V was gifted the Château and its vineyards. Château Haut-Brion was very much established by the early 1600’s. Known as Ho Bryan at the time, collectors (who included Thomas Jefferson) considered Haut-Brion the finest wine in France during that era.
In terms of specifics, the Pessac-Léognan appellation consists of about 2,600 acres of vines, with 80% being planted to red varietals and 20% to whites. The whole of Graves is about 6,000 acres planted to vines with a third of them being planted to white varietals.
The soil in Pessac-Léognan is generally made up of layers of gravel and stone with sand and clay subsoils. Extensive pine forests help protect the vineyards from harsh weather and generally the temperature is the warmest of all Bordeaux’s growing areas. The heat from nearby housing and industrial activity adds to the overall warm climate.
In red wines, vines are planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a little more Merlot in the final blend than in the Médoc, as well as a bit of Cabernet Franc and a touch of Petit Verdot. The overall style offers notes of minerality of course (gravel, gravel) but also of forest floor and smoke. That allows the wines of Pessac-Léognan to marry best with hearty foods. Mushrooms make for a particularly delicious pairing.
Whites in the Pessac-Léognan appellation are blended of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The flavor profile is of grapefruit and nectarine, especially when the wines are young. Personally, we love the crisp acidity and serve the whites with seafood and oysters. As the wines age, they take on aromas of honey and nuts, and will resemble a lighter version of the better Montrachets, with incredible aromatics. Most Pessac-Léognan whites do not go through malolactic fermentation and get no skin contact (for freshness) however, the better ones are barrel fermented.
Châteaux Haut-Brion & La Mission Haut-Brion
Both estates are owned by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the Great Grandson of Clarence Dillon, a Texas banker who bought Haut-Brion back in 1935. And, both estates are managed by the same winemaker — Jean-Philippe Delmas. The legendary estate has received numerous 100-point ratings over the years. In 2016 alone, Haut-Brion received five 100-point ratings.
La Mission Haut Brion dates back to the early 16th century, when the Lazarists priests cultivated the vineyards. Robert Parker has awarded the property 100-points on six occasions! In 2009, the Liv-ex Bordeaux Classification considered Château La Mission Haut-Brion as a potential First Growth property, based upon the “estate’s consistent performance over the last century.”
Château Pape Clément
Named after Pope Clément V, who was gifted the property, this estate is currently owned by Bernard Magrez, the proprietor of 15 more wineries in Bordeaux, another 15 in Languedoc-Roussillon, 3 in Provence, one winery in Napa and several other estates around the world.
At Pape Clément, Magrez has enlisted the help of Michel Rolland and made huge investments to upgrade the quality of the wine from the early days. Magrez also employs drone technology to determine photosynthesis in the vineyards, potential advance of disease, etc. A thoroughly modern man!
Château Smith Haut Lafitte
In 1990, Daniel and Florence Cathiard bought historic Smith Haut Lafitte, a property that dates back some 800 years, but was in decline at that point. The Cathiards, both professional skiers, had met in 1965 while on the French national ski teams. At Smith Haut Lafitte, the couple invested in extensive renovations, which began to pay off in top-rated wines, including a 100-point release in 2009. Today, the property is consistently ranked among the best estates in Bordeaux.
Endlessly creative, the Cathiards also own a line of beauty products — Sources de Caudalie — made from wine by-products (seeds, stems, skins, etc). A 5-star hotel and restaurants are also on the estate, while Caudalie Spas are located all over the world.
With a long, illustrious history dating back to 1461, Château Haut-Bailly has consistently produced excellent vintages. In fact, from the late 1800’s until 1920, the estate wines commanded the same price as the First Growths. A fact that clearly speaks to the quality of the property’s terroir. By 1955, however, the Château was in desperate need of repair. It was then that Daniel Sanders, a Belgian wine merchant bought the estate and proceeded to renovate the cellars and winemaking facilities as well as replanting the vineyards.
Today, Veronique Sanders is at the helm, aided by her technical director, Gabriel Vialard. Over the past few vintages, Château Haut-Bailly has produced stunning wines with top ratings to match. Current prices may not yet match the First Growths, but that’s good news for collectors!
One of the most bucolic estates in Pessac-Léognan, Domaine Chevalier has also become one of the top wine producers in the region. The property is managed by Olivier Bernard, who has almost doubled the size of the estate by purchasing adjacent land. The 120-hectare Domaine now has 65 hectares under vine. Bernard has also overseen the construction of a new winery and vat room. In 2014, 8 new 80-hectoliter, egg-shaped cement vats were built for vinification of the red wine. All these renovations have dramatically improved the stature and reputation of Domaine Chevalier.
To conclude, while Pessac-Léognan has been in the shadow of other wine-growing areas in the past decades, the quality level both in white and red wines has risen considerably in recent years. Not only are stalwarts Haut-Brion and La Mission on a par with the very best, renovated properties such as Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Pape Clément, Haut-Bailly, Malartic-Lagravière, and Domaine Chevalier are signaling that this region truly has it all!
Here, an exceptional collection of wines from the top estates within Pessac-Léognan.
2013. $64.99. 2 bottles
2016. JD-98 JS-98 RP-98. $119.99. 7 bottles
2016. JD-98 JS-98 RP-98. $244.99. Magnums. 3 bottles.
2018. JD 97-100 RP 96-98+ DC-98. $109.99. 25 bottles (arriving in 2021)
2011 Château Le Pape. $29.99. 2 bottles.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion
2010. JS-100 RP-100. $2,229.99. Magnums. 3 bottles
2014. JS-96. $204.99. 10 bottles
2015. JS-100 JD-98 RP-98. $384.99. 12 bottles
2016. NM-99 RP-98+. $414.99. 11 bottles
2018 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion. $80.49. 2 bottles (arriving in 2021)
Château la Tour Martillac
2018. $35.99. 36 bottles (arriving 2021)
Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion
2010. $99.99. 9 bottles
1988. $358.99. Double Magnum (3 liters) 2 bottles
2015. AG-96+ JS-96. $52.99. 35 bottles
2016. JS-96 WE-96. $57.99. 12 bottles
2017. WE-94 DC-93. $46.99. 12 bottles (arriving fall 2020)
2018. WE 94-96 DC-95. $48.99. 48 bottles (arriving in 2021)
Château Pape Clément
2009. RP-100 JS-98. $369.99. Magnums. 3 bottles
2015. JS-99 JD-97. $104.99. 22 bottles
2016. JS-98 JD-97. $99.99. 12 bottles
2017. JS-96 AG-96.$85.99. 12 bottles (arriving fall 2020)
2018. JS 97-98 RP 96-98. $88.99. 35 bottles (arriving in 2021)
Château Smith Haut Lafitte
2009. RP-100. $259.99. 16 bottles
2011. 94+ $88.99. 10 bottles
2012. RP-95. $88.99. 6 bottles
2013. JS 91-94. $69.99. 1 bottle
2014. JS-96 WE-96. $85.99. 40 bottles
2015. JS-99 RP-97. $119.99. 40 bottles
2016. RP-98 DC-98 AG-98. $109.99. 19 bottles
2016. RP-98 DC-98 AG-98. $229.99. Magnums. 3 bottles
2017. RP-97+ JS-97. $92.99. 12 bottles (arriving fall 2020)
2015 Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte. AG-92+ $33.99. 40 bottles
2016 Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte AG-94. $33.99. 69 bottles
Domaine de Chevalier
2009. JS-97. $95.99. 8 bottles
2010. JS-96 RP-95. $95.99. 11 bottles
2015. JD-97 AG-97. $73.99. 16 bottles
2016. JD-97 JS-97. $79.99. 14 bottles
2017. JS-96 JD-95 $58.99. 30 bottles (arriving fall 2020)
Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc
2018. WE 95-97. $54.99. 24 bottles (arriving in 2021)
Château Pape Clément Blanc
2018. JS 88-99. $134.99. 24 bottles (arriving in 2021)
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc
2017. RP-97+ JD-97. $115.99. 20 bottles
2018. JS 97-98 JD96-98. $109.99. 18 bottles (arriving fall 2020)
2017 Hauts de Smith. DC-93. $36.99. 56 bottles
2017 Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte. $39.99. 29 bottles.