The vineyards of the estate date back to the 17th century when Jacques de Pichon, Baron de Longueville, with the help of his father in law, Pierre de Rauzan, began to assemble the vineyards. The Chateau, where it exists today, was built in 1851, designed by Charles Burgeuet, by Raoul de Pichon-Longueville, one of the four children of Joseph de Pichon-Longueville. The estate remained in the family until 1933 when it was sold to the Bouteiller family. In 1987, AXA purchased the property and restored and furnished it in a style appropriate for a mid-19th century estate, under the management of Jean-Michel Cazes. The current Technical Director and Winemaker of Pichon-Longueville is Jean-Rene Matignon who has been with the estate since 1985. Matignon is a humble man who clearly loves the Chateau and is quite happy making wine with AXA and Pichon.
The Chateau is a renaissance-style mansion with four turrets and is thought to be the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle at Disney World. In 1989-1991, the cellar was completely redesigned by Jean de Gastines and Patrick Dillon, a Franco-American team chosen by competition organized with help from the George Pompidou Center in Paris. The goal was not only to create a world class cellar but to harmonize the buildings with the existing Chateau and grounds. It is one of the only underground cellars in Bordeaux. They chose stainless steel tanks to easily move and change the placement of them if needed. Originally the cellar was designed to receive grapes underground to be sorted by hand but they have since moved to an outside receival area complete with a 125,000€ optical sorter to augment the hand sorting. When asked if the machinery vs. hand sorting makes a quality difference Matignon shrugs and says “The way of using the equipment is more important than the equipment itself”. He says that the changing of the cellar from the old to the new has helped with dissolved oxygen (DO) considerably.
The Estate vineyards are comprised of 73 hectares of gravelly soil planted to 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot. The gravel is 5 meters deep over a bed of calcaire that helps the vineyard retain water during the summer months. The average age of the vines are 30 years with 9,000 vines per hectares however the oldest vines on the estate are 80 years old and consistently make the Grand Vin. The Grand Vin is Chateau Pichon-Longueville and usually is around 15,000 cases and is generally produced from the 45 ha of original estate vineyards. The second wine is called Les Tourelles de Longueville and usually is around 12,000 cases. Matignon has made several changes to the vineyards since he began. He has installed more drainage to control the water levels in the vineyards. “One must be flexible and close to the weather” he says. He has also halted mechanical harvesting, is using less herbicide, and is leaving more leaves on the vines than before. The estates stopped using insecticides in the mid 90s in favor of pheramones. Copper use has also dropped as a build up of copper in the soil has become a large problem throughout Bordeaux. Where they used to spray 10-12 kg/ha of Bordeaux Mix, they now only use .5-.7 kg/ha (around .2-.3 kg of Copper Sulfate/ 1kg of Bordeaux Mix). Studies have shown that soil bacteria will metabolize 2-3 kg of Copper per year so Matignon hopes that eventually the amount in the soil will decrease over time. His largest worry right now however is the Flavesance de Raie. The Flavescence is a bacterium that has become problematic due to the importation of the Scaphoideus titanus leafhopper species fromNorth America. The disease shows first symptoms through stunted growth, yellowing leaves, black pustules and inhibited lignification. The second season, the symptoms are more pronounced and can shrivel grape clusters after which the vine declines rapidly. It will kill an infected vine in 3-4 years. The estate is not only using pheromones to combat the leafhopper but is also using natural pyrethrum based insecticides to reduce the population as well as using traps to see how effective their spraying is.
In the cellar, we toured with both Matignon as well as AXA Millésimes current Managing Director, Christian Seely who has been at the helm since 2001. Prior to his current role he was the Technical Director of Quinta do Noval in Portugal since 1993. He took us through the library and showed us the oldest bottle in the cellar, a 1905 Chateau Pichon-Longueville. Traditionally the Chateau only bottled with a front label but opted to change to having a back label as well in 2005 as the list of legal requirements for labels grew beyond what they could reasonably fit on a front label. In the barrel cellar, we spoke a bit about oak aging. The estate uses 70-80% new French oak for the Grand Vin where all total there is around 50% new with the balance being 1-2 year old wood. “It’s important to keep the lots separate” says Matignon “That way you know how each parcel is turning out.” Six different coopers are used however both Matignon and Seely believe that it is the toast that matters the most in barrels rather than the forest or Cooper. “Different coopers are more appropriate in some vintages than others. Using many coopers helps maintain style and helps mitigate vintage variations” says Seely. We tasted two barrel lots of the same Cabernet Sauvignon lot to determine the difference. The first wine showed fine grained dusty tannins and a very low oak toast profile. The second wine was still low toast but higher than wine 1 with slightly more spice and dark chocolate bitterness on the finish. Wine 1 was aged in Saury Premium, a barrel bent by water. Wine 2 was aged in Tauransault TS, a barrel with 5 years of wood aging prior to forming the barrel with fire. On average the Grand Vin spends 16-17 months in barrel. The 2004 spent 15 months as it was a lesser vintage while the 06 spent 20 months. They built a completely new addition to the cellar in to allow for storing longer aging vintages. When asked how he justified it to the board Christian Seely said “It is difficult to analyze the ROCI on small changes but they make all the difference.” Today, stricter selections have led to half as much Grand Vin being produced than in the mid 90s. It took the journalists about 3 years to notice the change as it was made in 2000 and the scores didn’t reflect it until 2003. Seely laughs and says there were some tough moments during that time. “Success is measured by many factors, not just ratings of wines”.
The 2011 vintage was similar to 1999 but with more ripeness. Hot weather during June led to a loss of 1/3 of the fruit for the year. The Grand Vin for 2011 will be 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot which is barreled in November. The entire blend is de-barreled and assembled in February right before the en Primeur campaign during which it is re-barreled and racked a total of 3 times before final disgorgement for bottling. In 2011, the fermentations took between 17-30 days for both primary and ML which are co-inoculated. 2010 was a difficult fermentation year and they took much longer than average. Total Phenol levels are analyzed to help determine pressing. Matignon is also looking at the differences between must that is pumped and must that is gravity fed to fermentors. We were able to taste two of the lots he experimented with. The gravity fed wine was softer with more pronounced fruit while the pumped wine was more structured and seemed to have more depth. He believes that there is a place for both techniques to increase the complexity of the wines. We were also able to taste through several varieties of the 2011 vintage.
Grand Vin Merlot: Deep dense fruit with strong oak and structured tannins. Matignon feels that the oak is too much at this point but feels it will settle out over time. This Merlot comes from the older vines from the estate.
Grand Vin Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of violets and raspberries, with fine grained dusty tannins. It had just finished ML and had Sulfur added.
Cabernet Franc: Strong aromas of violets with intense oak and strong tannins. 1 month in barrel so far. Matignon believes that the vineyards are too dry for Cabernet Franc and that the tannins of this lot are too drying because of this.
Petit Verdot: Black fruits, and strong tannins. This wine comes from a four year old vineyard planted with selected clones. The original vineyard was virus ridden and mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon so it needed to be removed.
On climate change, Matignon says that Bordeaux needs to adapt to the weather. He predicts it will be a viticultural problem. Perhaps they will change the rootstocks or use older techniques to reverse the ripening trend in the vineyards such as halting leaf pulling or reducing the numbers of leaves at the top of the shoots.
Special Thanks to the Ch. Pichon-Longueville staff and AXA Millesimes for the information above.