Pondering Pomerol

OK. I’ll start by apologizing; I’m a sucker for alliteration so “Pondering Pomeol” it is.

So, what’s to ponder? Of all the major wine regions of Bordeaux, Pomerol was the last to begin to make sense to me. Maybe that is because when I started tasting in Pomerol in 1997 with the en premiur showing of the 1996 vintage, the darling wines of the time were the Michel Rolland-influenced Merlot monoliths and the doors to tasting the Moueix wines (which offer a counterpoint) were then closed. I encountered a lot of these same sorts of monolithic reds in St. Emilion but in St. Emilion there was always a host of other wines in a variety of styles. Maybe is was because a lot of the Pomerol producers made tiny amounts of wine and those wines seemed to sell for exorbitantly high prices (before exorbitant pricing became the norm in Bordeaux). Or maybe it was because, as a young man coming up in the Cabernet Sauvignon-centric wine-world of Texas from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, I had never been much exposed to and so had never developed a taste for Merlot-based reds not just from Pomerol but from anywhere in the world.
So, as I started tasting in Bordeaux beginning in 1997 …

Let’s pause there and note that that statement reads “Tasting in Bordeaux,” not “Tasting Bordeaux. The “in” makes a big difference. I’ve been tasting and drinking fine red Bordeaux since 1976 and have worked around great Bordeaux wines since 1979 when I worked as a sommelier at the Rotisserie for Beef and Bird in Houston. I really began to focus on red Bordeaux as a salesman at Glazer’s in 1982. Also in 1982, I “fell in with bad company” in that I became a regular in a very good tasting group that met at the old Confederate House restaurant in Houston where three of the men I credit as my early teachers – Michael Lonsford, Bill Edge, and Harold Delhommer – routinely shared great wines from their cellars. Most of the best tastings I attended over those earlier years in Business were focused on Bordeaux and my early personal drinking was largely Bordeaux as well. It’s just that the vast majority of those red Bordeaux wines came from the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated left bank appellations of Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, St. Estephe, Haut Medoc, and Graves. (Graves because at that time, Pessac Leognan had not yet been carved out of Graves.)

So, as I started tasting in Bordeaux beginning in 1997, I was exposed to a broader range of Pomerol and St. Emilion and other right bank appellations than I had ever experienced. St. Emilion was easier but I thought Pomerol was all about 85-to-100% Merlot blends that were riper and higher in alcohol and more concentrated and more extracted than the wines from most of the rest of Bordeaux. The wines I was tasting were already leaning heavily toward black fruit flavors and alcohols were often a point or more higher in these Pomerols than on comparable left bank wines. For me, tasting in Pomerol was often more miserable than pleasurable and it sometimes seemed that the only bright spot was visiting Vieux Ch. Certan (aka “VCC”).
The contrast between the wine at VCC and the wine at, say, l’Eglise Clinet in the 1996 vintage could not have been more dramatic. Both Alexandere Thienpont of VCC and Denis Durantou of Ch. l’Eglise Clinet were informative host who “built the sample” as we talked a barrel thief to draw wines from a variety of different barrels to make a representative blend (that way of sampling is much more common in Burgundy than in Bordeaux) so the samples were as fresh and lively as they could be. But the wine from l’Eglise Clinet was riper, heavier, and more dense with black fruit. It was impressive and I was impressed (and certainly told that I should be impressed) but I didn’t enjoy the wine. The wine at Vieux Ch. Certan seemed to danced across my palate with as much red as black fruit and much more nuance. It was ethereal and I gave me great pleasure. At least, that’s how I remember it. At that point, l’Eglise Clinet was above VCC in the Pomerol pecking order but that has now changed.

The challenge for me in Pomerol was finding other wines that had some of the elegance of VCC. As time passed, I began to be exposed to wines such as l’Evangile and La Croix St. Georges, Lafleur and Le Pin, and finally the Moueix doors opened so, in addition to tasting at Petrus, I also began tasting Trotanoy, Lafleur-Petrus, Hosanna, and more. Tasting in Pomerol became less of a chore and more of pleasure.
But none of that tells you what Pomerol is. Pomerol is a small town (with a 2008 population of 718 people) and wine appellation on the western outskirts of Libourne. While wine grapes have been grown in Pomerol for hundreds of years, Pomerol did not produce mostly red wine until the 1800s and did not really begin its international rise in repute until after World War II. The big jump in Pomerol’s reputation came with Robert Parker’s coverage in 1983 of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage.

Pomerol’s appellation laws require red wine only with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec as the only permitted grapes. Maximum yields are 42 hl/ha. And the minimum alcohol content is 10.5% (which seems irrelevant given current alcohol levels in supposedly under-ripe vintage).
The terroir here is largely sandy clay over limestone with variables that include spots of gravel and sand. The most famous terroir is the rise under and around Ch. Petrus which features a unique blue-clay-over-iron-rich-sand. Several of the top chateau boast plantings that are at least in part on this rise.
Most of the chateau are planted to mostly Merlot but a few have as much or more Cabernet Franc and some even have substantial plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t think of any of the better Pomerols that use any Malbec.

The chateaux in Pomerol lack the grand houses of the Medoc or Graves and the vineyards are much smaller in size so the amount of wine produced is much less. While typical Chateaux in the Medoc may produce over 40,000 cases in a particular vintage, 4,000 cases or less might be more typical of Pomerol.

As with most wine appellations, it is easy to generalize about the winemaking but there are almost as many variations as there are chateaux. In general, grapes are picked ripe or riper and crushed before fermentation in tanks which may be wood, concrete, or stainless steel. Cap management is usually pump-over (remontage) but may be punch downs (pigeage) or rack-and-return (delestage) or some combination of the three. Malolactic may be in tank or barrel. Many chateau have returned to using basket presses but with modern computerized controls. Percentages of new oak can range from 0-to-100% and barrels types can be barriques, cigars, or larger sizes. Some producers rack the wines from barel to barrel several times during aging while other employee “micro-oxegenation” using aerators not unlike those in fish tanks to give some air to the aging wines.

The wines of the Pomerol appellation have never been officially classified. While there is a pecking order, it varies somewhat with who is doing the ranking. The following are the wines I pay the most attention to.

The Top: Ch. Le Pin, Ch. Petrus
The Second Tier: Vieux Ch. Certan (trending up), Ch. Lafleur, Ch. Trotanoy, Ch. l’Evangile, Ch. Lefleur Petrus, Ch. La Conseillante
The Third Tier: Ch. Petit-Village, Ch. La Croix St. Georges (trending up), Domaine de l’Eglise, Ch. Latour-a-Pomerol, Ch. Clinet, Ch. Gazin, Ch. Certan de May, Ch. La Pointe, Ch. Nenin

(I know; I’m leaving out a lot of big name chateaux such as l’Eglise Clinet, Bon Pasteur, Beauregard, Croix de Gay, Rouget, and more as I don’t have enough of a taste for them to know where to fairly put them without resorting to the 1855 technique of simply plotting prices – which would certainly not agree with my personal pecking order. But then not everyone likes everything and these are the Pomerol wines I most enjoy.)

Pomerol – depending on its level of weight, extraction, alcohol, ripeness, etc. – goes with the same sorts of foods that typically accompany other high quality red Bordeaux. Younger wines tend to go well with grilled steaks and lamb and older reds go well with roasted or even braised meats. Virtually all of them pair well with poultry including the obvious chicken and turkey but also duck, quail and (my favorite) pigeon.

Prices range from as little as the upper $30s for some of the lesser known chateau and the second wines of some of the more known properties to as much as several thousand dollars per bottle for even younger vintages of the likes of Ch. Petrus and Ch. Le Pin. It is easy and even fashionable to complain about the prices but Bordeaux pricing (and that includes Pomerol) is more directly market driven (willing seller meets willing buyer) than the pricing of any other wine region in the world.

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