DOMAINE de Leoville from the Saint-Julien appellation of Bordeaux was not only one of the oldest wine estates in Medoc, but it also used to be its largest estate way back in the 18th century with over 200 hectares of prime vineyards. By 1826, part of the estate was purchased by Hugh Barton, which gave birth to Chateau Leoville Barton. And by 1840, the estate was further split into Chateau Leoville Las-Cases and Chateau Leoville Poyferre. All these three Leoville estates made the still much revered Medoc Bordeaux Official Wine Classification of 1855. All three were classified as Deuxièmes Crus (Second Growths) — just a notch below the First Growths.
The largest of the Leoville estates is Chateau Leoville Las Cases with around 98 hectares and is under the ownership of the Delon family. The second Leoville estate is Chateau Leoville Poyferre with roughly 60 hectares and is under the Cuvelier family. The third and smallest of the Leoville estates is Chateau Leoville Barton with 47 hectares and is still being managed by the same Barton family. Chateau Leoville Las Cases has been the most prestigious of the three Leoville estates, with prices easily double to triple those of the other two Leoville wines.
AN ENTHRALLING VISIT TO CHATEAU LEOVILLE LAS CASES
The image of the label of the grand vin of Chateau Leoville Las Cases of a lion atop a concrete gate is actually the structure that greets visitors to the chateau. The vineyards of Leoville Las Cases border those of Pauillac where their illustrious neighbor to the north is no less than Chateau Latour. While all the original Leoville vineyards were already demarcated to their respective Leoville owners, the buildings and parking area inherited from the previous ownership remained very much intact, and weirdly crosses both Chateau Leoville Las Cases and Chateau Leoville Poyferre properties.
Chateau Leoville Barton on the other hand, owns only vineyards from the former Domaine de Leoville parcel and does not have its wine-making facilities in the Leoville estate. Instead, it is being made and cellared at nearby Chateau Langoa Barton, a Troisième Cru (Third Growth) also from the Saint-Julien appellation owned by the same Barton family.
When we arrived for a visit at Las Cases, we basically parked in the common parking area for both Chateau Leoville Las Cases and Chateau Leoville Poyferre. Chateau Leoville Las Cases is the crown jewel of Domaines Delon, the wine company of the Delon family — which includes Chateau Potensac of Medoc appellation and Chateau Nenin from the right bank Pomerol appellation. We were welcomed at the chateau by Domaines Delon managing director Pierre Graffeuille and market manager for Asia, Florent Genty.
Leo of “Leoville” is symbolized by the lion, and the beautiful backyard garden of this chateau has a fountain with four lions as its centerpiece. The first place we visited at the chateau was the fermentation room, where you can see pretty much the traditional and the modern. There were the temperature-controlled wooden vats, stainless steel vats, and even a concrete fermentation structure.
There was also the somehow controversial reverse osmosis machine. Chateau Leoville Las Cases is known for (though critics would say notorious for) being unbashful in their use of reverse osmosis to draw out excess water for better wine concentration, especially on very wet vintages, and it has served the Las Cases wines well as evidenced by their long lived wines. But being a bit rebellious is not surprising for this chateau as back in 1988, Leoville Las Cases did the unthinkable and withdrew from the Conseil des Grands Crus Classes (despite being a Second Growth) and refused to participate in any of their events, though the chateau remained classified because of the prevailing French wine law.
From the wine-making facilities, we went to the main building. While its facade showed its authentic past, upon entering the main door, the mundane exterior transformed into glamour and charm. From the paintings that ornament the walls, the antique pieces, to the chandeliers, everything was so harmonious that the inside looked like it popped out of an interior design magazine.
The dining area where we were very fortunate to be invited for a “wine lunch” was luxurious in all the details including shiny crockery and cutlery. This “wine lunch” was absolutely my best lunch of all time — nothing comes remotely close. The food was not only amazing, the wines we had throughout the multiple course meal were seemingly impossible to duplicate, and, of course, we had the privilege of dining with both Messrs. Graffeuille and Genty. The wine lineup we had followed this sequence: Champagne Delamotte blanc de blanc 1999, Coche-Dury Grand Cru Corton-Charlamagne 1995, Chateau Nenin 2005, Chateau Pontesac 2003, Clos du Marquis 2000, Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1996, Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1989, and Sorrel Hermitage 1990.
CLOS DU MARQUIS IS NOT CHATEAU LAS CASES SECOND WINE
Clos du Marquis may have been one of the earliest recorded second label from a Grand Cru Classe chateau, as this wine was first released in 1902 (117 years ago), as the other label and cheaper alternative to the grand vin Leoville Las Cases. Clos du Marquis was ahead of even the Pavillon Rouge of Chateau Margaux which was first released in 1908. Chateau Margaux, however, may have started the second wine concept, when, prior to the Pavillon Rouge name, the other wine of Chateau Margaux was simply labeled as “Chateau Margaux 2nd wine” — and this was being sold way before the 20th century.
Clos du Marquis, as Mr. Graffeuille would insist, is never really viewed as the second wine of Chateau Leoville Las Cases. It is considered as its own unique wine brand, as it comes from vineyard parcels distinct from those of Las Cases, and the vineyards have their own different soil, subsoil, and qualities. In fact, most recently, with the 2015 vintage, Clos du Marquis has its own second wine too, the La Petite Marquise. While both Leoville Las Cases and Clos du Marquis wines are made from majority cabernet sauvignon, Leoville Las Cases normally contains more cabernet franc and the Clos du Marquis more merlot. The official second wine of Leoville Las Cases started with the 2007 vintage, under Le Petit Lion du Marquis de Las Cases label.
CUSTOMARY TASTING NOTES
For this column, I included only my tasting notes on the four Chateau Leoville Las Cases vintages and the two Clos du Marquis vintages, all enjoyed during a visit this February in Bordeaux. All the wines were tasted at Chateau Leoville Las Cases in Saint-Julien, with the exeption of the Leoville Las Cases 1945 vintage, which was drunk over dinner at Chateau Kirwan in Margaux.
• Clos du Marquis 2014: “fragrant on the nose, with lots of ripe berries, lavender, herbs and eucalyptus, very fresh yet already approachable, silky body with very soft tannins”
• Clos du Marquis 2000: “more complex nose with vanilla, cedar, blackcurrant, supple body with nice grainy bitter-sweet tannins, acid is lively and well intertwined, and finish is long and grapey”
• Chateau Leoville Las Cases 2014: “big and bold flavors, a lot of very ripe fruits, peppercorn, mushrooms, the sweet oak starting to surface after more swirling, full-bodied, powerful on the mouth but with good acid backbone, long, deep and flavorful; still a baby, but amazing potential awaits more years of aging”
• Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1996: “still fresh, more subtle on the nose, some earth, meat, raisins, vanilla, supple on the palate, ripe with nice juiciness, incredibly delicious, with nice persistence of berries and oak on a long finish”
• Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1989: “a lot of finesse on the nose, with aromas of blackcurrant, blueberries and violets, the wine on the palate is still quite luscious, very flavorful with nice juicy notes, long with lingering peppery and licorice finish; a 30-year gem that can still keep for years”
• Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1945: (in half bottle care of Yann Schyler of Chateau Kirwan): “this wine smells and looks like a wine 30 to 40 years younger than its vintage, nose has raspberries, mint and violets, on palate there is still freshness, though tannins have thinned out a bit, and texture towards light-medium, but this is a wine closing in on 75 years old, and it is still happening, with a finish that is raisiny and still delectable”
Chateau Leoville Las Cases has built a loyal fan base because of its style of wine that is powerful yet elegant, full-bodied, and meant for long-term aging. Even if the chateau wanted out of Conseil des Grands Crus Classes, Chateau Leoville Las Cases will forever be Saint-Julien’s proudest, and all the chateaux around this appellation are better off because of this.
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.