We always love a challenge, particularly when there is an opportunity to root for an underdog. Thus, it was with great anticipation that we recently joined a handful of other wine professionals to blind taste an underdog Saint-Emilion wine alongside neighboring chateaux that ranked among the region's best.
The mystery wine was Chateau Lassègue, a 2003 partnership of the French-born Pierre and Monique Seillan and American wine icons, the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke.
Also present at the tasting were the Seillans, who were eager to tout the region but particularly eager to have professional tasters see first-hand how well Chateau Lassèque can stand up to heralded wines that cost significantly more. It did well.
The other wines in the tasting, all from the 2009 vintage, included: Chateau Ausone, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Canon la Gaffelière and Château La Mondotte. Ausone and Pavie are rated premier grand cru classes(a) – the highest wine classification in St. Emilion. The other two are classified premier grand cru classe(b). Chateau Lassèque is simply grand cru. Seillan, aware of the complications that come with a premier grand cru classification, seems unmotivated to seek a higher ranking.
The classification system in Saint-Emilion is complex and muddled. Unlike Graves and Medoc regions of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion changes its classifications every decade or so. The 2006 classification was wrought with lawsuits and changed yet again in 2012. A wine's classification is immensely critical to its price. Chateau Ausone fetches around $2,000 a bottle; Chateau Pavie is about $400. At $85 a bottle, Chateau Lassègue is relatively a bargain.
Although Chateau Lassèque was not our favorite of the tasting, it held its ground with aplomb and grace. As Seillan rhetorically asked, is the difference between his wine and a premier grand cru really worth $1,900?
We were not surprised that Chateau Lassèque tasted like a grand cru classe wine. Several months ago we sampled Chateau Lassègue wines with Monique and were impressed with their balance and elegance. But the chateau's story became even more impressive after hearing Pierre’s passion for Chateau Lassègue’s unique soils and his “micro-cru” philosophy.
“I am a vigneron,” he proudly says. “I’ve been working in dirt since I was 16.”
His work in eight French appellations for several chateaux exposed him to the differences between soils. This knowledge allows him to create wines that captures the unique qualities of each vineyard block.
Seillan credits his wine's quality to the 10 different soil types found at the estate. There is limestone at the plateau, clay on the slopes and gravel at the bottom. Pierre is meticulous about hand-picking each of the blocks separately and fermenting them in separate stainless-steel tanks. Only then can he taste the unique properties of each block and go about the business of blending.
The southwest-facing estate gets more hours of sunlight than any other property in Saint-Emilion. While others are waiting well into late summer for their grapes to reach phenolic ripeness, Seillan is harvesting his vineyards before cold and wet weather sets in. Many of the vines from this 17th century estate are more than 60 years old.
“I believe we have the most exceptional vineyard in Saint-Emilion,” Seillan says.
Seillan's family roots go deep too. Both of his grandfathers were vignerons. His great-great grandfather was a vineyard consultant and his father owned a cork company. He has wine in his blood.
It was a coincidental meeting with the Jacksons in the mid-1990s that led to the creation of an enduring American-French partnership. Together, the families created the highly regarded Vérité brand in 1998. This incredibly complex California wine has been given more awards and 100-point scores than any other.
For those looking to stock a cellar with a Bordeaux from an elite neighborhood, Chateau Lassèque is worth the price.
Kim Crawford South Island Pinot Noir 2015 ($19). New Zealand’s pinot noirs are recognized by their bright, youthful fruit and this one is no different. Blackberry and red currant flavors with a kiss of oak.
FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($32). The cool climate of this region produces a beautifully textured chardonnay with fresh acidity, citrus and apple aromas and delicious pear/apricot flavors with a dash of spice.
La Follette North Coast Pinot Noir 2014 ($22). Very reasonable in price, this medium-body pinot noir has delicate features that we enjoy with the right meal. What we have liked about this producer year over year is the purity of fruit that comes out from its wine. Fresh cherry and strawberry notes with hints of earth and spice.
Albatross Ridge Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 ($55). This pinot noir from Carmel Valley and Monterey County is remarkable for its rich and juicy strawberry and cherry fruit dashed with mushrooms mineral.
Clayhouse Petite Sirah Paso Robles Red Cedar Vineyard Old Vines 2013 ($23). Very deep ripe and rich blackberry and black raspberry nose and flavors. Very smooth and opulent in the mouth -- a real crowd-pleaser.
Attilio Ghisolfi Barolo Bricco Visette DOCG 2011 ($80). Although this delicious Barolo needs time, it shows a great deal of promise for the patient. A nose and flavors of berries, tar and roses can be coaxed from the glass over time. The tannins are already smooth, but wait for at least 5 years to enjoy this fantastic Barolo.
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