Pauillac, the home of several of the world’s most famous wines, is an inauspicious small village in the Médoc. Pauillac’s land area, a little less than 8.8 square miles, is highly optimized for wine production and accounts for a rather disproportionate amount of fine, expensive wine in Bordeaux.
Other than the wine industry, Pauillac has little to differentiate it from other Bordeaux villages. Despite a beautiful maritime climate and pretty view, only 1,274 people live in Pauillac. Many of them are somehow involved in the business of wine production.
Just like the rest of the wine villages of the Médoc, Pauillac was first converted into winemaking territory in the 1700s, when foreigners saw promise in the marshy land and undertook a lengthy excavation of it. Immediately, it became obvious that Pauillac’s particular land had something significant to offer.
During the 1850s, the Rothschild family saw promise in the Pauillac land, and their investments in two châteaux turned out to be immensely profitable. Although the Rothschilds had other wine investments, such as Château Clarke, their influence in the wine world was largely felt through those two purchases. Brilliant management of the châteaux saw an increase in quality, and the Rothschild land has remained optimized to a maximum degree over the years.
The prestige of the properties was immediately elevated by the classification of Lafite-Rothschild as a 1er cru and Mouton-Rothschild as a 2er cru, in the 1855 Médoc classification. In 1973, Mouton was brought up to first status after a reconsideration of the wine’s quality. There was some controversy that a wealthy member of the Rothschild family had cajoled authorities into raising the ranking, yet 40 years later the wine clearly deserves its status.
Pauillac was made an AOC in 1936, one of the original batch to achieve appellation status. Since its official distinguishment, Pauillac’s fame has only increased, and wine from there is almost always expensive now. Some bottles command astronomical prices well in excess of $1,000.
Climate and Viticulture
Of course, the maritime climate of Pauillac is very similar to that of the Médoc in general. It is estimated, however, that the slightly higher elevation in Pauillac makes much of the difference. Increased gravel content in the soil makes Cabernet Sauvignon richer and more full-bodied, and many purists consider the grape to be at its prime in Pauillac. These subtle differences, as well as high-end wine production techniques, make Pauillac’s wine immensely long-lived.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Due to a combination of soil, elevation, and other climate factors, Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its peak in this particular region of Bordeaux. While it would be unfair to rule out other regions on a quality basis, it is reasonable to say that Pauillac wines provide the highest praised examples of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. Most of the top growths utilize 70% or more Cabernet in their blend, with 75% being around the average. One rare exception is Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, which is rarely more than half Cab.
- Merlot: Merlot does not reach the lofty peaks on the Left Bank as it does on the Right Bank, but the grape is still indispensable in order to tame Cabernet’s rowdy flavors. A few houses use more than 1/3 Merlot, but this practice is fairly rare.
- Cabernet Franc: No famous Pauillac property uses Cabernet Franc in more than a small proportion. The largest vineyard percentage on hand at the moment is 12, at Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, but indubitably that wine is an exception to the rule.
- Petit Verdot: Certainly Pauillac is one of this declining grape’s last strongholds. Surprisingly, most of the good Pauillac producers do use it to soften up their wine and provide a bit more body. However, average usage is no more than about 2%.
No less than 18 of the 61 classified wines are located in Pauillac. Pauillac lays claim to three of the five 1ers crus, making it the primary region for top-quality wine. Top-quality wine, however, also means very high prices, and the less expensive 2ers, 3ers, 4ers, and 5ers crus are not dominated by Pauillac so solidly. Only 2 of the 2ers crus and 1 4er cru are from Pauillac, and there are no 3ers crus in the village. No less than 12 5ers crus, however, are located in Pauillac, some of them underrated and others fairly modest. Of course, nonclassified wines can also be good. Of these, Château Pibran deserves special mention.
Three of the five 1ers crus in Médoc are from Pauillac.
- Château Latour: Even in poor vintages for the region, Château Latour does nothing less than sum up the complex flavors that Pauillac is known for. Whereas in its best years, Latour can be marvelously complex, combining strong perfume with equally powerful tannin and body. The château has been around for many centuries, despite extremely turbulent conditions during France’s many wars in the Middle Ages. Latour’s magic may have something to do with their percentages: they use about 80% Cabernet to make their very powerful wine, rounding it off with approximately 20% Merlot. Critics discuss this winery as arguably the peak of Cabernet’s power. Few people will get to actually experience these flavors, however; despite Rothschild’s dramatically high prices, Latour’s are probably higher on average. The 2005 vintage, outstanding as it is, costs between $1,500 and $2,000.
- Château Lafite-Rothschild: Although the Rothschilds’ banking empire was brilliantly built, wine drinkers will always admire the wealthy family for their purchase of Château Lafite in 1853. Only two years later, the value of their investment would increase dramatically with the classification of Lafite as one of the top wines in the Médoc. Since then, Lafite has displayed amazingly consistent marvelousness. Although as refined as any other top wine, Lafite has enough power to make itself distinctive. Usually 80% or more Cabernet is used, with the rest Merlot and a tiny bit of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. While it is disputed whether it is the best of the Pauillacs, no one doubts it is the most ostentatious. The prices, which can be upwards of $1,000 regularly, have determined the Lafite-Rothschild name as a top wine status symbol.
- Château Mouton-Rothschild: Acquired by the Rothschild family at around the same time as Lafite-Rothschild was purchased, Mouton-Rothschild is nearly as famous as its sibling and produces very similar wine in Pauillac. While not possessing the best land or production techniques to make it #1 in this highly competitive wine area, Mouton combines high-fashion status with an equally strong pedigree of approbation from the wine community. Mouton-Rothschild uses about 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc in the average year, sometimes with a little Petit Verdot thrown in. Famed artists draw the colorful, modern label design each year. Nevertheless, the château can produce wine with flavors intense and complex enough to please any Bordeaux classicist. Price ranges from $250 to $850 for the best vintages, and much more for antiques.
Only two of the 14 2ers crus are located in Pauillac.
- Château Pichon-Longueville, Pauillac: As much as 1/3 Merlot is used in this fruit-forward, significantly more modern wine. Although they cost over $100, and sometimes even more, these wines are often hailed as reasonably priced considering their reputation, classification and status. Although rich and dark, they display somewhat different character than other Pauillacs. Critics favor the wine, but not everyone likes the style, making Pichon a slightly controversial château. Considering the price of this wine, that may well be a bargain for people looking for less traditional Bordeaux blends in Pauillac.
- Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande: Although strong, this wine has a smoothness that is rarely found in Pauillac, probably due to its high percentage of Merlot. The château also often uses high percentages of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, making Cab rather less significant here. Overcoming a downturn in the 2000s, recent vintages have been shown to be more consistent. Traditionalists may not enjoy its unconventional, powerful-dark-fruit flavors that can often overpower the typical Pauillac tannins, but critics including Robert Parker hail this divergence. As a result, prices have moved from reasonable to a bit high, sometimes over $200 for the good vintages.
There are no 3ers crus in Pauillac, while only one house, a Rothschild investment, has 4er cru status.
- Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild: A Rothschild wine that can regularly be found for under $100? Alas, these wines are nowhere near the lofty status, in both elegance and expense, of those made at the 1er cru Rothschild houses. For some reason, the Pauillac land of Duhart-Milon-Rothschild was never optimized to the high status of Lafite and Mouton. However, for those without unlimited resources, these wines can offer a traditional essence of Pauillac for a relatively reasonable price.
- Château d’Armailhac: The unstable vintages of the 2000s seem to be behind this château, with recent offerings displaying a medium-bodied nature and mastery of flavors. These have earned high ratings and if prices don’t catch up soon, will be among the best bargains in Pauillac.
- Château Batailley: A solid, traditional wine that can be quite reasonably priced.
- Château Clerc-Milon: Although expensive considering its status, this wine can rank among the best Pauillacs when certain factors coincide. A number of vintages have been closer to 2er cru territory.
- Château Croizet Bages: Well-priced but inconsistent wines.
- Château Grand-Puy Ducasse: Another good value made in a traditional style.
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste: This modern château makes wines that show off powerful fruit flavors, but go light on the tannin and display less complexity than your typical Pauillac. This wine is probably underrated and should be more of a 4er or 3er cru, but prices already reflect that fact. Despite the fruit-forwardness, most critics recommend long aging of the wine.
- Château Haut-Bages-Libéral: A modern, more light, less expensive style is what differentiates this somewhat obscure wine.
- Château Haut-Batailley: Another good option for conservative Pauillac flavors.
- Château Lynch-Bages: A strong, well-made 5er cru, this wine is more on the level of a 2er cru in its best years, and rarely less than a 3er cru even in its worst. A period of poor quality in the 1850s led to the drastic underclassification of this wine, which has improved greatly since 1855 and in recent years. This wine offers classic flavors with a slightly modern touch. The 2005 vintage made #3 on Wine Enthusiast’s 2008 Top 100 list. Not everyone is as happy with the château’s light tannins and controlled richness, but at the wine’s current price it provides a good opportunity for savvy investors. Nevertheless, prices were over $100 in 2005, and whatever remains of this wine’s bargain status is quickly disappearing.
- Château Lynch-Moussas: Another classicists’ Pauillac, that, however, can seldom be found at the same relative bargains as some of its competitors.
- Château Pédesclaux: Tough to find and inconsistent, but in good vintages this can be one of the best bargains in the appellation.
- Château Pontet-Canet: Pontet-Canet is not a collector’s delight due to high production numbers, but it always offers reasonably priced, very well-made Pauillac. It is one of the most commonly seen Pauillacs, with a power of flavor that rivals top châteaux, even if it does not have the same complexity. Due to the intensity, critics recommend many years of aging.
Twelve of the eighteen 5ers crus are from Pauillac. Although Lynch-Bages is the most well-known and underrated, others can provide bargains to people who want to sample the appellation’s flavors without paying an audacious price.
Although there are some very small villages within Pauillac, very few of them make a significant difference. Pauillac land is generally so preferable, and the classified wines there so dependable (with, of course, some exceptions), that any detailed location of the château in question would probably be rather irrelevant. Careful buyers are better off learning the classification and rating pedigree of the wine they are thinking of buying.