Pessac-Léognan is where it all started for fine Bordeaux. The region first gained international acclaim for excellent red wines when Château Haut-Brion raised the flag in the 1660s, over 360 years after the archbishop who became Pope Clément V first planted vines in what is now Château Pape-Clément. Pessac-Léognan may not be the most picturesque of wine growing areas, almost lost in the outskirts of Bordeaux, yet the much vaunted geology of the Médoc extends through the city of Bordeaux and into Pessac-Léognan. The gravel bank aptly known as the Graves starts after the Jalle de Blanquefort, a stream to the north of Bordeaux and extends south to include Sauternes and Barsac.
The area closest to Bordeaux had once been known as the Hautes Graves, but in 1987 a separate appellation was created, Pessac-Léognan which houses a number of hugely celebrated vineyards.These great estates, of world renown, are incongruously sited and difficult to find amidst rather chaotic, urban sprawl.
The Pessac-Léognan appellation was introduced in recognition of a change in terroirnorth to south. It was meant to highlight the superior quality of wines produced nearer Bordeaux. Although cityscape is less attractive aesthetically, man-made Bordeaux plays a critical role in the local terroir, creating a warmer meso-climate. As a result, Pessac-Léognan is generally the first area in the region of Bordeaux to be picked.
This new designation could have been inspirational were it not for the fact that, name established, there was no real marketing to tell the world about it and we continue to refer to the Graves whilst, illogically, looking for Pessac-Léognan on the label. Despite the fact that the wines of Pessac-Léognan had established a reputation before those of the Médoc, with the exception of first growth Haut-Brion, the commune was overlooked in the classification of 1855.
Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, simply separated by a road, are both owned by the Dillon family. They produce, year on year, a rival bid to be Pessac-Léognan’s flag bearer in chief. Both are deeply impressive properties.
A great favourite of Corney & Barrow however and, tiny quantities not withstanding, more accessible, is Carmes Haut-Brion. This jewel of a property, a mere 4.7 hectares in size, was gifted to the Carmes de Notre Dame order of monks by Haut-Brion in 1584. The post-revolutionary confiscation of church lands brought the property into public ownership and it was bought by a descendent of the current owners at the beginning of the 19th century. The Furt family recognise that they are very privileged in their inherited terroir and they are meticulous in discharging their responsibility to past, present and future; fabulous wine.
Another property for which we have a soft spot is Château Picque Caillou. Paulin and Isabelle Calvet run this, the sole remaining vineyard in the commune of Mérignac, a mere stone’s throw from the airport, between Château Haut-Brion and Château Pape-Clément. The soil here is, as the name suggests, very pebbly, lying over Günz gravel – a unique terroir which makes for wines of great finesse and elegance. This is a property to watch.
Château Carmes Haut-Brion
Vineyards in Pessac-Léognan Credit: CIVB/Michel Geney