We join our wine scribbler Jim Walker and his fellow oenophiles as they embark on another day of their fabulous 1988 tour of the Bordeaux wine region. On that day they visited the Pauillac where they met up with Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages and Château Pichon Longueville Baron.
The day dawned cool and overcast (take a peek under Wine to read all about our first delicious days in Bordeaux), but the prospects of meeting Jean-Michel Cazes and sampling the wines under his care and tutelage cast a warming glow over the seven of us (Hélène and me, Nora Farrah and Arnaud Ratel, Becky and Loïc de Kertanguy and our host and guide, François Chandou). It was a short coach ride from our base at Château Beaumont to the Bordeaux wine appellation of Pauillac and more specifically, to our destination: Château Lynch-Bages.
Before getting into our adventures with M. Cazes, let me tell you a bit about the Pauillac wine region. It is situated on the left bank of the Gironde River between the Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien wine regions. Arguably the most famous of the Haut-Médoc appellations, it includes three of the five classified First Growths of Bordeaux (Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Mouton Rothschild, which was elevated to First Growth status in 1973). The other two First Growth Bordeaux are Château Margaux located in the Margaux appellation and Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan.
There are about 5,000 acres under vine in Pauillac that are tended to by some 115 different growers. Not all of them make their own wine, preferring instead to sell their harvest to the cooperatives. Almost eight million bottles of wine on average are produced in the appellation each year.
The first Pauillac vineyards were planted in the late 13th century, but these were few and far between. It took the Dutch to clear the region’s swamps in the late 15th and then 17th centuries, before widespread cultivation of vines took hold. Today, the principal grape varieties for the area’s red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a small amount of Carménère.
The limited white wine production is crafted mainly from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Although Pauillac encompasses a relatively small geographic area, there is considerable variation in its soil types and thus in the style of its wines. But, in general, the reds are elegant, powerful and complex. They tend to share aromas and flavours of black currants, cedar, tobacco, lead pencil, spices and damp earth. A delicious mélange indeed.
We soon arrived at Château Lynch-Bages. Unlike the palatial Château Ducru-Beaucaillou that we had visited the previous day, the cluster of buildings here would be kindly described as utilitarian. François knocked on what we took to be the main door and was soon joined by an animated, welcoming gentleman. It was Jean-Michel Cazes. I was delighted to learn that Jean-Michel spoke excellent English honed while studying for his Masters of Science degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas as a Rotary Scholar.
Jean-Michel was born in 1935 in Bordeaux. His family has roots in the Basque Country of northern Spain. He earned a bachelor degree in engineering from the École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris, where he also played rugby. After completing his studies in Texas, he served in the French Air Force for two years, latterly as lieutenant. He then spent seven years as a sales manager with IBM France followed by another two as president of the Schneider-Empain Group, living in Paris throughout. During this time, he married Maria-Thereza Carregal Ferreira from Portugal and with family origins in Mozambique. In due course they had four children — Anne Christine (Kinou), Marina, Catherine and Jean-Charles.
Jean-Michel returned to Pauillac in 1973 to join his father André Cazes, who had trained as a lawyer and was a prisoner of war during much of WWII. Once released, he established an insurance business and eventually assumed control of Lynch-Bages in 1960. He was a longtime mayor of Pauillac and as such officiated at Jean-Michel and Maria-Thereza’s wedding. Jean-Michel’s grandfather Jean-Charles, who died in 1972, started out as a baker in Pauillac and acquired Lynch-Bages in 1939 after managing the property as a tenant farmer for six years.
After introductions, Jean-Michel took us on a short tour of the impeccably tended Lynch-Bages vineyards, then through the wine-making facilities before leading us into a large, roughly finished room on the second floor of the winery complex. Over by a wall of windows there was a sight to behold. A virtually endless row of wine glasses aligned on a shiny white bar. Let the tasting begin! And so they did.
First was a 1982 Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, a Cru Bourgeois red wine from the Saint-Estèphe appellation. Jean-Charles Cazes had purchased the property in 1940. Its name translates simply as ‘the elms of Pez,’ the nearby village. This was an easy-drinking wine, dark garnet in colour with lots of blackberry, cherry and cassis fruit, spice and smoky oak.
Next to make the ultimate sacrifice was a bottle of 1985 Château Haut-Bages Averous, the second wine of Lynch-Bages (renamed Echo de Lynch-Bages in 2008). I found it to be quite remarkable for a second wine made from grapes grown on younger vines. It was beautifully balanced and exhibited gobs of red and black berries, gentle cedar and coffee notes. Marvellous stuff!
Its big brother, the 1985 Château Lynch-Bages (nicknamed ‘lunch bags’ in the UK) then took the stage. It was designated a Fifth Growth wine in the official 1855 Bordeaux classification. Largely thanks to the work of André and Jean-Michel Cazes, it far exceeds that humble rank. There are many wine cognoscenti who say that in some years it belongs among the First Growths. Based on this tasting, I would certainly agree with them. It was a deep plum colour and offered up intense aromas of cassis, raspberry, lead pencil, anise, cedar and tobacco. It was a pure delight in the mouth – big, round, balanced and long. By the way, they produced about 400,000 bottles of this masterpiece.
Last but certainly not least was a 1982 Château Baron de Pichon Longueville, better known as Pichon Baron, a Second Growth Pauillac (more about that later). It was a big, fruity wine showing intense notes of cedar, sweet cassis and lots of exotic spices. It was a splendid conclusion to a terrific tasting.
Still on the second floor, we trundled over to a kind of reception room where Jean-Michel proceeded to produce and ceremoniously unleash a magnum of 1981 vintage Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne. Talk about sublime. As we contently sipped away, Jean-Michel spoke of his admiration for the Napa Valley and how the Californians had turned it into a world class tourist attraction. “That’s what we must do here in the Bordeaux area,” he enthusiastically expounded. “We need to modernize the city of Bordeaux, create wine appreciation and cooking schools, open world-class restaurants and hotels, rejuvenate the local villages and install other attractions that draw in the tourists.” I couldn’t help but admire his vision and passion, although I have to admit to being somewhat skeptical about it all.
We progressed to an informal, light lunch served in the family quarters back on the main floor where the inspired Bordeaux development conversation continued in earnest. Along the way, nature called. I remembered that there was a loo on the second floor off the tasting room. So I took my leave and up I went. On the way, I passed the forlorn, lonely magnum of Cristal still on ice and more than half full. What would my brother do under such circumstances? Why, he’d grab one of the tasting glasses and pour himself a wee dram. Thus inspired, that is exactly what I did.
Lunch concluded, Jean-Michel offered to take us over to Château Pichon Baron for a visit. The château and estate had been purchased by the investment arm of the large French insurance conglomerate AXA in 1985. They wisely selected Jean-Michel to run the property and eventually all of their wine holdings held under their AXA Millésimes subsidiary. Among their other assets in Bordeaux were Châteaux Suduiraut in Sauternes, Cantenac Brown in Margaux and Petit Village in Pomerol. Abroad they owned Quinta do Noval, a first rate Port producer in the Douro Valley in Portugal and the Tokaji producing Disznókő estate in Hungary.
From afar the château was an impressive and imposing sight. But the illusion faded as we neared it and completely vanished as we entered. It was nothing but a decrepit, empty shell. There were no kitchen, interior walls or, perish the thought, washrooms (just holes at either end of each floor that led to goodness knows where or what!). We climbed up on unfinished stairs to the top floor where allied prisoners had been held during WWII. The walls and ceiling were plastered with anti-Nazi graffiti. Jean-Michel explained that the first orders of business at Pichon Baron were to rejuvenate the vineyards and modernize the winery. Then he would concentrate on bringing the château to its intended glory.
We returned to Lynch-Bages where Jean-Michel invited us into his private den for a parting chat. Predictably, discussions returned to Bordeaux and his development plans for it and his businesses. As we left, he presented us with signed copies of Bernard Ginestet’s Pauillac with the inscription: ‘Amicalement de Pauillac, 2 Juin 1988,’ It was a wonderful day spent most amicably with Jean-Michel Cazes.
Here’s a bit of an update about what Jean-Michel has accomplished since our encounter. The best way I can describe him is an entrepreneur on steroids. He managed the wine holdings of AXA Millésimes until 2000, the family insurance agency, and the Cazes family estates until 2006 when he handed over the reins to son Jean-Charles. Under Jean-Michel’s watch the properties expanded to include Château Villa Bel-Air in Graves (recently purchased by the Ballande family), L’Ostal Cazesin the Languedoc, Domaine des Sénéchaux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Xisto, Roquette e Cazes in Portugal and Tapanappa Wines in Coonawarra, South Australia. He completely modernized every aspect of both Château Lynch-Bages and Château Pichon Longueville Baron, completing the latter château most opulently. The wine of Pichon Baron had a very spotty record during the sixties and seventies, but Jean-Michel made sure it regained its Second Growth reputation.
In his spare time, he decided to completely rejuvenate the nearby hamlet of Bages. In 2003 he opened the Au Baba D’Andrea bakery there, named after his grandmother’s famous Rum Baba desert. Café Lavinal, a typical French brasserie designed in a 1930’s style was added in 2006 and the Bages Bazaar gift shop, the Boucherie de Bages (butcher shop) and the Cercle Lynch-Bages tasting school soon followed. Then he created the nearby four-star Relais et Châteaux hotel, Château Cordeillan-Bages with its two-star Michelin restaurant. While all this was going on, he was travelling the world as ambassador for his wines and all of Bordeaux.
Regarding his vision for the city of Bordeaux, the town fathers subjected the citizenry to five years of sheer hell as what was once a pretty grotty place was transformed into a sight to behold. While this metamorphosis was going on, his sister Sylvie (35), as president of the Fondation Pour La Culture et Les Civilisations du Vin, oversaw the conceptualization and completion of La Cité du Vin, a spectacular museum of international wine culture. Jean-Michel’s dream of creating a Napa Valley in France had been fully realized.
The 1985 Lynch-Bages that we tasted was designated Wine of the Year by the Wine Spectator magazine in 1988. In 2002 Jean-Michel was awarded La Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government and in 2003 he was chosen Man of the Year by the wine magazine Decanter.
In 2007 he received the Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award and in 2011 the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute of Masters of Wine. There is so much more to the story of Jean-Michel Cazes, but I have far exceeded my allotted space. Suffice it to say in conclusion that it was great fun and a real treat to have enjoyed a day with him.
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