Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande was not a wine I had tried before, and so when I received an invitation to a vertical tasting at Bonhams auction house on New Bond Street ahead of a large fine wine sale, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Arriving before my two friends, I had a chance to wander amongst the C16th and C17th paintings hanging on the walls of the tasting room. I reflected briefly on how much longer both the fine art and fine wine market could continue to defy the enveloping gloom in the financial markets, but was thankfully snapped out of this gloomy reverie by the arrival of my friends Roger and Robbie. We started, as is customary, with the younger wines:
Reserve de la Comtesse 2005 - The biggest criticism of Pichon Lalande is that it falls over in the very good years (witness 1990) and so I was intrigued to sample the much maligned 2005. I was surprised to find that only the second wine was on offer from this year. Was the Chateau trying to hide something by not showing the grand vin? A refreshing nose of vanilla, toast and red fruits on the Reserve made me wonder what the negative fuss had been about, but in the mouth the wine felt tart and acidic, with none of the feminine grace that is supposed to characterize the Chateau. I suspect the first wine may not have been a great deal better. Oh dear.
Reserve de la Comtesse 2004 - On the plus side, Lalande is also renowned for producing superior wine in years when others struggle. This was borne out by the 2004s. The Reserve showed an interesting herbaceous nose with hickory / BBQ smoke notes. It was a little thin with not a great deal of excitement; but was an improvement on 2005. The grand vin Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2004 was much better. Ruby red with pinkish edges, the nose was sullen at first. But after much coaxing it started to reveal some genuine density and concentration of black fruits, vanilla pod and even some tar. I found the wine to be silky, harmonious and long, with a 30+ second finish. The structure was much better with the fruit much more prominent. I did worry slightly, though, and the level of oaking - and this was a recurring theme for me throughout the vertical. I wondered whether at times the Chateau tried to compensate for under ripe fruit with excessive oak. But the 2004, trying clearly trying to express a new world style, was balanced and approachable and pretty drinkable right now.
The scorching conditions of 2003 provided a challenge to all Bordeaux producers, and for me the Reserve de la Comtesse 2003 pretty much flunked the test. The nose betrayed ‘over ripe’ (I won’t write ‘burnt’) fruits which suggested that they had rather stewed on the vine, and again I found the oaking to be overpowering. The result was a wine that lacked a coherent structure - with vanilla and cedar elements failing to knit properly with what acidity was there. The Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2003 was much more successful. Again the nose was sulky and backward, but eventually released some glowering savory and charcoal notes. The wine was dense and concentrated on the palate. The acidity was on top but the fruit was there in support and this had the feel of a wine with a good future ahead of it.
Both the Reserve de la Comtesse 1999 - which was served from magnum - and the Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1997 (en demi) were disappointing. The 1999 Reserve lacked ripe fruit and yet again I sensed that the winemaker had tried to redress the balance by over-oaking (unsuccessfully). The 1997 Comtesse was thin and insipid. We moved on quickly.
As is usual, the best was saved till last. I was delighted to see both the 1996 and 1995 in the vertical, as these have been described by Robert Parker as the best back to back vintages ever produced by Pichon Lalande. It was also interesting that both Parker and Neal Martin scored the two wines very similarly. For us, however, the 1996 was the clear favourite of the two, with only one person scoring the wines equally. The Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1996 filled the glass with hickory smoke and grilled steak aromas. On the palate the wine was full of feminine grace. A little backward still, but creamy and luscious with real purity. The Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1995 was a fairly distant second. It showed a more austere nose of stinging nettles and undergrowth. A more savory palate that the 1996 with less forward fruit, I felt the wine was let down especially by the slightly dry and dusty tannins at the finish. I wondered how much longer the wine would really hold together.
So overall it was an excellent and varied introduction to this classic Chateau. But the best thing was that all the wines put together cost significantly less than the still life painting of the dead goose on the wall. Perhaps fine wine isn’t such bad value after all...