CHATEAU LAGRANGE of the Saint-Julien Medoc appellation is one of 14 Troisièmes Crus (Third Growths) in the much revered Official Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855. Like many of its Grand Cru counterparts, Chateau Lagrange also has an illustrious history dating back several centuries, with vineyard activities for Lagrange traced all the way back to the Gallo-Roman times, pre-Middle Ages. What is, however, more fascinating is how Chateau Lagrange evolved in modern times.
Recently, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting and interviewing Matthieu Bordes, the Director General and Winemaker of this chateau during his short visit to Manila.
A PROUD BORDELAIS
Matthieu Bordes was born and raised in Bordeaux, but his family has nothing to do with the wine industry. Matthieu only decided he want to be in the wine industry at age 22, and took two college degrees — one in enology and another in agricultural engineering — to transition him into the wine world. He always knew he wanted to stay and work in Bordeaux. After several years of prolonged studies (as Matthieu casually joked about), he landed his first winery job in 2000, as the general manager of a small, 30-hectare Saint-Estephe Medoc Cru Bourgeois winery, Chateau Coutelin- Merville.
During wine training in school, Matthieu was already exposed to some of the biggest Bordeaux labels, from Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion, to Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Leognan. These amazing first-hand wine experience from the top chateaux prepared Matthieu to assume a very high position immediately after he graduated, and at a very young age of 27. Matthieu would stay at Chateau Coutelin-Merville for five years.
After Chateau Coutelin-Merville, Matthieu had a short stint with the wineries of the controversial Jean-Paul Lafragette (of the Alize cognac liqueur brand), namely: Chateau de Rouillac, Chateau Loudenne, and Chateau l’Hospital. Then by October 2006, he landed in Chateau Lagrange as an assistant manager and wine maker. By 2013, Matthieu ascended to his present position, and continued to love his work. He has indeed remained a proud Bordelais through and through.
THE JAPANESE INFLUENCE
In December of 1983, Matthieu was barely 10 years old when Japanese liquor giant Suntory purchased Chateau Lagrange. “I remembered that my parents told me of this news that a foreign company bought a classified growth chateau. And it was a huge story in all of Bordeaux then,” Matthieu recalled vividly. Little did he know then that he would eventually be working for this Japanese company as their main architect in the 21st century.
One thing that endeared Matthieu to Suntory is that Suntory is focused on quality, quality, and quality. Nothing is spared to ensure that Lagrange only churns out the best wines possible. In fact, it was during the ownership of Suntory that Lagrange created a second label, Les Fiefs de Lagrange. The idea of the second label is that Suntory wanted the Lagrange grand vin, the first label, to use only the best juices from the best vineyard plots. Lagrange has around 118 hectares of prime vineyards, making Chateau Lagrange one of the largest grand cru estates in all of Medoc — probably just behind Chateau La Tour Carnet, a Quatrième Cru (Fourth Growth), and Chateau Cantemerle, a Cinquième Cru (Fifth Growth), both from the much larger Haut-Medoc appellation.
According to Matthieu, the majority of the production of Chateau Lagrange up to as high as 66% consciously goes to Les Fiefs de Lagrange, leaving between 34% to a maximum of 44% for the grand vin. As Matthieu expounded: “leaving some good plots of vineyards for the second label uplifts both the quality of the first label as well as of the second label.”
Aside from the relentless focus on quality, Chateau Lagrange may also be the only chateau among Grand Cru estates to have an in-house Japanese chef. Indeed the Japanese influence has been seen and felt in Bordeaux. Aside from Chateau Lagrange, Suntory also co-own fellow Saint-Julien and Quatrième Cru Chateau Beychevelle.
FASCINATION WITH CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Matthieu Bordes likes to have more Cabernet Sauvignon in his Lagrange wines, and since the start of his tenure commencing with vintage 2007, Cabernet Sauvignon has jumped to above 70% of the grand vin blend in almost every single vintage since. In the last three decades or so, Chateau Lagrange had made changes in its varietal blends. Matthieu shared the changes: “In the 1990s, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were normally equal in the varietal share of the blend, with the remaining balance coming from Petite Verdot. In the 2000s, Cabernet Sauvignon’s share of the blend became 60%, Merlot went down to 30%, and the last 10% was from Petite Verdot. But since I came in, I took the Cabernet Sauvignon to 70% and above as I like the strong influence of Cabernet on the final wine.”
While to most left bank chateaux, Merlot is the second most important varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon, to Matthieu, it is Petite Verdot. “Chateau Lagrange probably has the most percentage of Petite Verdot among all the Grand Cru wines. Our estate may also have the largest existing vineyards of Petite Verdot with seven to eight hectares. Petite Verdot has a very nice effect on the wine even if it is a small portion of the blend. It can add not only color, but mid palate depth, acidity, higher alcohol and even spicy flavors.”
THE BEST VINTAGES
When asked to name his three best Chateau Lagrange vintages since he joined the winery in 2006, Matthieu said, “Without any hesitation, the best vintage for me is 2016. It is the best wine we ever produced. The weather and growing conditions could not have been more perfect. After [the] 2016, I will go with the two back-to-back vintages of 2009 and 2010 as my second and third best vintages. Both vintages were very good, but with different styles. The 2009 vintage is very modern, powerful, round, and was approachable even during the ‘En Primeur’ stage. It was also our highest alcohol wine at that time with 13.7%. The 2010, on the other hand, has higher tannin, fresher acidity, but [the] same power as 2009, and was really build for aging. At the beginning, the 2010 was quite tight, but the wine over time has improved so much, and to me in the next decade or so, the 2010 will be the second best vintage after 2016.”
Matthieu Bordes was a delight to interview. He is very modest, smart, jovial and extremely dedicated to his profession. While I had an incredible tasting of the rare older vintages of Chateau Lagrange, namely the 1990, 1996, 2000 and 2005, I am now salivating over the opportunity to try the three vintages Matthieu has chosen as his best Lagrange vintages since his reign: the 2009, 2010, and especially the proclaimed best ever 2016. These vintages are all relatively new and are probably available now from your favorite premium wine distributors. Chateau Lagrange has always been one of the most reasonably priced Grand Cru wines ever, and we hope it remains this way even for these three vintages.
The author is now a new member of UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.