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Wine Growths Often Outlive Their Reputations

April 20, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Funny how a reputation can be acquired with scant justification for it.

It happens in Hollywood and it happens in the world of wine. When a wine is called a Second Growth, ranking it immediately below the top five wines in Bordeaux, it is revered and elevated to a platform. And looking up at it we are supposed to simply gurgle at the sound of its name.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville, called the Baron by its faithful, is just such a name. When the authorities established the famed Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and determined in their wisdom that Pichon-Longueville should be just below the top, it may have been making a statement about the quality of the wine as it then was viewed. Or it may have been making a statement about the wealth and position of its owner more than about the quality of the wine.

Living on Reputation

But wines change and the Classification of 1855 almost never does. Throughout the years, Pichon-Longueville has not been as impressive as other Second-Growth wines, though it is still ranked its lofty status.

This came to mind last week after I attended a tasting of 41 vintages of Pichon-Longueville dating back to 1870. The event, hosted and arranged by Riverside wine lover Bipin Desai and staged at Citrus restaurant, gave me some insights into this property. I also conjured up a host of minor-league generic messages from the event.

Two thoughts: For much of its history, Pichon-Longueville wasn't worth being rated a Second-Growth wine. But under its new ownership, I feel strongly that Pichon-Longueville will justify its rank.

Rich History

Chateau Pichon-Longueville got its name from its founder, Jacques Pichon Baron de Longueville, a president of the parliament of Bordeaux in the 17th Century. Acquiring such a title required payment of a great sum of money.

Then, before the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, the Baron died and the property was divided among various members of the Pichon family, 40% of it remaining on the Baron's side. The other 60%, including a chateau sitting across the road at the southern end of Pauillac, went to another branch of the family. It carried the unwieldy title Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a name it retains to this day.

Wine lovers know well that the two separate Second-Growth estates with the names that start with Pichon-Longueville are unique. The one they call Pichon-Lalande, for short, has been more successful. A lesser light is the one they call simply the Baron or Pichon-Baron.

(Actually the formal title of the latter property is Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon Longueville. This unwieldy name has led to the shortened Baron as the common reference.)

The Baron property was acquired in 1935 by Jean Bouteiller, reportedly one of the greatest wine makers ever to make wine in Bordeaux. Bouteiller's wines were better than many of those that preceded him and followed his death in the early 1960s. By 1963, the wines turned lackluster again and through 1985, Pichon-Longueville-Baron was a property wine lovers paid lip-service to, but knew that only in the acclaimed vintages did the wines show greatness.

On June 15, 1987, the Baron's fortunes changed. The Bouteiller family sold the estate to AXA Insurance, a huge multifaceted French company. And AXA contacted Jean-Michel Cazes, the 54-year-old dynamo behind the elevated fortunes of nearby Chateau Lynch-Bages, and asked him to run Pichon-Longueville (the name Cazes prefers). In exchange, Cazes received a small ownership position in the property.

Cazes, the son of the longtime mayor of Pauillac, Andre Cazes, attended the Desai tasting of Pichon-Longueville wines and spoke of what the winery looked like when he took over.

"We got a property that was OK, but one that was far from being state of the art," he said, politely. "The problem with Pichon-Longueville (in recent years) was that the wine maker changed every other year, so there was not much consistency. Some of the vintages are showing very well, and others not so well."

Taster's Score Card

On my score card, at least half the wines were less than enjoyable. The term I used most was "pip"--my shorthand for "past its prime." And only a small number of the wines (1928, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 among them) were superb. Even wines from 1970 and 1975, great vintages, were blah for the Baron. And the 1985 Pichon-Longueville, from a heralded vintage, was disappointing, with a dry, hard edge. It might develop in the bottle, but it's not a very generous wine.

This is a poor performance, far less impressive than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. At a similar tasting of multiple vintages of Lafite staged recently by Michigan wine collector Andrew Lawlor in San Francisco, nearly two-thirds of the wines showed greatness; only a tiny handful were unworthy.

Considering that Lafite and the Baron are only one rank apart, First Growth to Second Growth, the Lafite seemed leagues better and far more consistent.

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