Can you bottle vanity?

If one guy should know, it’s Alain-Dominique Perrin, the CEO of the Richemont Group, one of the world’s largest luxury groups, with holdings including Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Piaget, Chloé, Dunhill, and may others. He is the man responsible for modernizing Cartier and bringing it back to the top of the luxury market, a business that is all about vanity.

Perrin also owns one of the most renowned estates in the southwestern France appellation of Cahors, Château Lagrézette, which has received a number of high scores from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. The consulting enologist at Lagrézette is none other than Michel Rolland, the wine world’s most famous consultant winemaker.

A dozen years ago, Perrin and Rolland began to bottle vanity in a cuvée called Le Pigeonnier, made from a patch of vines that surround a historic pigeon house on this 500-year-old property. It is the epitome of the modern reserve cuvée, with super low yields, lots of extraction, and long oak aging. Current releases sell for over $120 (the 1999 sold for $160 in Quebec).

A tree with a single cherry

I tasted the Pigeonnier in a blind, horizontal tasting of 1999 wines late last year. It stood out like a sore thumb. A sore wooden thumb.

The notes I jotted down that night were the following: “Smells like a cedar box. Dark, dense. Blackberry, maybe? Tough tannins. Dry. Rough. Only wood, with a mentholated finish.” And that’s it. Around the table the displeasure was unanimous. Nobody found anything good to say about it. A friend summarized it as “a whole tree, with a single cherry in it,” to approving laughter.

All eight bottles on the table that night had been kept in the same cellar and showed well—with this notable exception. All the wines had been decanted about four hours before serving, with about a quarter of the Pigeonnier staying in the bottle because of the huge amount of solids that had dropped out of the wine over time.

There were other substantial wines on the table, like the Balmoral Syrah from Rosemount Estate; Luce, from the Tuscan collaboration between the Mondavis and the Frescobaldis; and a Terre Rouge Sierra Foothills Syrah from Easton. There was also a Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon from Torres, a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (Ninquen Barrel Select from Vina MontGras), a Venetian Bordeaux blend (Carantan, from Marco Felluga), and a Quinta de Crasto Reserva from the Douro.

All the other wines had become more supple and well-integrated over ten years, and still showed good fruit and a bit of earth, leather, or tobacco here and there. Not that they were all perfect (the Terre Rouge felt a little sweet; the Balmoral and Luce were a little hot on the finish), but they certainly all found some kind of balance.  The Pigeonnier, overladen with stiff extract and excessive oak tannins, had lost only fruit and remained hard on every level: the chances that the wine will lose this great barrier reef of tannins at this point seem pretty nonexistent.

To boot, the wine did not fare much better with the food served afterward, as the tannins always seemed to dry out whatever else we were eating.

Tricked by a monster?

I can’t help but quote the note  Robert Parker wrote when he gave the 1999 Pigeonnier a 95, tasting from barrel samples:

“the finest wine I have tasted from Cahors. (…) A fine wine, an inky/purple-colored offering with tremendous intensity as well as an extraordinary nose of blackberries, cassis, licorice, and smoke. Extremely full-bodied, with low acidity and sweet tannin…

Mr. Perrin, in an interview given to Jamie Goode of Wine Anorak, wrote about Parker’s reaction when he tasted the 1997 Pigeonnier:

“I never forget the first time Robert Parker tasted the 1997 Pigeonnier,” recalls Perrin. “He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, this is a monster!’”

A monster? I totally agree. Only at the time, the monster was slathered in black fruit jam, which has now washed away, revealing the beast’s true nature. Critics who lauded the wine as oh-it’s-really-big-but-it-will-be-something-when-it-gets-older, in my opinion, got suckered by an original flash in the pan. Parker’s comment on low acidity is in fact a hint that this wine would probably not age well, although that does not prevent the Château from claiming that it can age and improve for 25 years or more.

This one goes to eleven

I want to be very clear about one thing: my dislike for Le Pigeonnier 1999—which, I repeat, I tasted blind with a group of friends who all thought it was the disappointment in an otherwise fine evening of 1999s—is by no means a blanket condemnation of Mr. Rolland or Mr. Perrin.

I’ve tasted Lagrézette a couple of times and thought it was very good, as well as the lower-priced Moulin de Lagrézettte, a very drinkable wine at a decent price. I’ve tasted a number of wines made at wineries where Michel Rolland consults (or has consulted), and I’ve liked some of them and disliked others. For instance, I have only good things to say about the wines at Alpha Omega, in Napa; Jean Hoefliger, the winemaker, whom I know personally, interprets the fruit-forward, long-maceration approach in a way that I find very satisfying and quite balanced. He shows great deference to Rolland, who consults there, and I respect that. I’ve also liked the Clos de los Siete, an Argentinian project Rolland oversees, although I do find that it is a bit over the top. Ornellaia, in Tuscany, is certainly not plonk, either. Rolland’s work can’t be reduced just to micro-oxygenation, as the film Mondovino seemed to suggest. After all, he has worked, by his own accounting, with over 150 wineries on four continents; even with a single philosophy, there have to be variations in the way the wines work out, and the way winemakers in these estates apply his approach.

Yet in this particular case, the Rolland approach is taken to extremes of ambition, in a way that can be simply summed up as: more of everything.

For this particular pigeon, yields in the vineyard are reduced, through two runs of thinning, to below 20 hectoliters per hectare (a little over a ton per acre, the average in Napa Valley being around 4 tons per acre), where average yields in Cahors are easily two or three times that figure. Vinification is worked out to produce maximum extraction through long macerations and constant pumping over and punching down, in new oak fermenters and barrels, after which the wine is aged 28 months in new oak barriques.

It’s the winemaking equivalent of cranking the amps to 11.

Again, this is not a condemnation of “big” wines per se, only of the folly of turning every dial to Max. When the Rolland approach is pushed to its ultimate conclusion, it fails utterly.

I’d even go as far as calling it a pornographic wine, in the sense that here, as in pornography, the thought seems to be that bigger and more is always better. But that tendency to blow everything out of proportion, to make the wine “extremely full-bodied,” to use Parker’s term, eventually gets you to monstrous—and ridiculous—extremes.

To understand what’s driving this particular effort in maxed-out winemaking, it’s important to note how Le Pigeonnier got started. Hard frosts in the spring of 1997 had naturally reduced the yields in that portion of the vineyard to 18 tons per hectare. Everyone thought the wine from that parcel was the Château’s best that year, so they decided to try reproduce it the next. But a vine that produces low yields because of vintage conditions or natural setting is not the same as low yields obtained through drastic intervention.

It is very possible that the Lagrézette vines found a particular balance in 1997, but under an extreme situation, not an ideal one, and extreme does not always mean best. If it did, the 2003 growing season, with its extreme heat and severe drought, would have produced the best-ever vintage in Europe. It didn’t. There is something to be said for balance and finesse.


Rémy Charest is a Quebec City-based journalist, writer and translator. He has been writing about wine and food for over 12 years in various magazines and newspapers. He writes two wine blogs (The Wine Case, in English, and À chacun sa bouteille, in French) and, as if he didn’t have enough things to do, he recently started a food blog called The Food Case.

18 Responses

  1. Ward Kadel - drXeNo

    Hi Rémy! Great article…brutally honest, yet also extremely fair and clearly well researched. My interest pricked up when I read the “low acidity” as well, and it seems that yes, wines do still need acidity in order to age well! 😉 Cheers!

  2. Kathleen Rake

    Another great piece of research, analysis, and writing Rémy. I am looking forward to meeting you at WBC10!



  3. Jean COURTOIS

    Dear Mr Charest, I have read your tasting notes regarding our wine Le Pigeonnier 1999 with great attention.
    I am amazed (since you are a professional in the wine industry) you have not given Le Pigeonnier a second chance : we all know it’s very possible to get a problem on one single bottle (cork, glass, storage..).
    Your condemnation of our wine and the people involved is so intransigent ! It looks like a settling of old scores with Lagrezette, Mr Perrin, Mr Rolland and Mr Parker..
    Anyway, let’s not start a polemic.
    Mr Perrin and I, invite you to come to Château Lagrezette at your earliest convenience for a blind tasting of a few different wines including Le Pigeonnier.
    We would of course pay for your air plane ticket if the results of the blind tasting confirm your previous written comments about Le Pigeonnier 1999.
    I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    Very sincerely,
    Jean Courtois,

  4. Kathy

    Rémy, a great piece of journalism and, perhaps, a polémique in old French.
    “But a vine that produces low yields because of vintage conditions or natural setting is not the same as low yields obtained through drastic intervention.” Is this a definition of terroir?
    I agree with Ward, low acidity means, to me, the “California Circle” of the late ’90s and early ’00s. M Rolland, and, even les Napkins (as they call themselves) are moving away from (or back) to balanced wine. It is a struggle due to high temperatures, something Cahors has to deal with but Cahors has the benefit of cold winters, even summer rain.
    What is particularly helpful is that others at the table (who seemed to know wine) tasted the same.
    If you take up the mitigated offer from M Courtois – they only pay if you find the same taste again – perhaps he should extend the invite to the entire table.
    Bon travail.

  5. Kathy

    PS… M Perrin needs a wine social media manager.

  6. Lenn Thompson

    Remy: You know that my stylistic preference is most definitely away from wines such as this. “More everything” just isn’t my style, but I have to ask — knowing that the acidity was low at the beginning, which would make one expect that it wouldn’t age well, is it fair to write as you have here?

    Now sure, if they are saying it will age 25 years or more in typical winemaker hyperbolic discourse, yes, they open themselves up to this. But, don’t most agree that these pornographic, steroid-juiced wines are better younger? Again, this isn’t my favored style so I honestly don’t know.

    Love the honesty here. There needs to be more honesty and less rhetoric in wine writing.

  7. Tim

    I’ve only just recently started reading your various posts and I must say you are both eloquent (I’m an English teacher by day) and meticulous (I’m a wine taster/writer by night). You are exceedingly fair as I have also recently tasted blind a 1999 Balmoral Shiraz and it was terrible, unanimously so around the table of 8 that evening. If this Cahors was worse, well that speaks volumes for me. I have been bemoaning the “big, monster” wines for a decade now and only recently have I seemed to find any agreement. Your story reminds me of an encounter I had a couple of years ago at a wine festival.
    I was tasting a California Pinot Noir from Fess Parker that had received 95 points from WE or WA, I can’t remember which. I swirled, tasted, spit, retasted, spit and then poured the remainder of my glass into the spit bucket. I must have had a less-than-pleased look on my face because the woman who poured the sample immediately asked what I thought. I should say now that I am opinionated and honest, but I don’t relish confrontation. I politely said that the wine was “not my style” and checked the alcohol level on the bottle. It said 15.1% (I think, but it was above 15%). She stated unequivocally that it was one of the highest rated wines in the show (over 1000 wines) and that I needed to retaste it because my first impression was obviously wrong. I should have politely declined and moved on, but I decided to give it another chance. The second taste was worse. She demanded to know how I could dislike a wine that they could not supply enough of to satisfy demand. I blurted out, “because it is a poorly made wine, although I suspect it was made this way intentionally”. I stated much of what I have read from some of your posts, Remy, “It is an unbalanced wine and I am not interested in these types of wine”. Unfortunately, the person who was pouring the wine that afternoon was one of the winemakers, a relative of Fess Parker. She was insulted and I was embarrassed. Nobody won the encounter. But I think that if you have to make Pinot Noir at 15+% because of hot growing seasons, maybe you shouldn’t be growing this varietal in that location.
    Sorry about the long post but please keep up the great writing and I look forward to future posts. BTW, take M. Courtois up on his offer. I suspect you’ll be able to pick out his “vanity” wines immediately and you’ll get a free trip to France.
    All the best,

  8. Remy

    Well, I’ve taken a while to reply, and I apologize for that.

    My short answer to Mr Courtois’ challenge is definitely yes, and it has been so from the start. However, along with other folks at Palate Press, we were looking to provide a definite plan, with the when and how of answering the challenge, something which is, for various reasons, taking a little longer than we expected.

    Beyond working out calendar and availability issues, there are many questions that would need to be addressed, in a retasting of Le Pigeonnier 1999, with regards to Mr Courtois’ proposed formula. For instance, what other wines would be in the blind tasting? Who would control the blind tasting to ensure that everything is done clearly, in a verifiable and mutually satisfying matter? And also, doesn’t the fact that Lagrézette offers to pick up the bill only if I still don’t like Le Pigeonnier create an incentive for me to hate it again?

    I’m sure those details can be worked out properly, and hopefully we can do that soon, so that the retasting can happen in the best conditions possible. I’ll keep everyone posted about what happens next.

    Now, as to the points made by Mr Courtois, I would first like to say that I have little doubt about the condition of the bottle we tasted. First of all because I’ve been tasting wines from that particular cellar for about 10 years, and it has proved very reliable. Also, the bottle’s owner told us, well after everyone had made their comments, that he had tasted another bottle and that his impression was the same.

    Mr Courtois also states that: “Your condemnation of our wine and the people involved is so intransigent ! It looks like a settling of old scores with Lagrezette, Mr Perrin, Mr Rolland and Mr Parker.” I am very surprised by this. Maybe he missed the paragraph where I stated that this opinion on one wine was “by no means a blanket condemnation of Mr. Rolland or Mr. Perrin.” And also the one that said: “I’ve tasted Lagrézette a couple of times and thought it was very good, as well as the lower-priced Moulin de Lagrézettte, a very drinkable wine at a decent price. I’ve tasted a number of wines made at wineries where Michel Rolland consults (or has consulted), and I’ve liked some of them and disliked others.”

    I’ll admit that I have lost a certain amount of respect for Mr Parker over the last couple of years, because of ethical issues and insulting blanket statements directed at wine bloggers. But he did not make the wine, which is the essential point, here.

    I’d like to thank Kathy, Lenn and Tim for their comments – as well as Mr Courtois, as I am glad that he took the time to respond.

    Kathy, I like your point about terroir, and the fact that low acidity may be less of a struggle in Cahors than, say, at the bottom of interior valleys in California. Indeed, I do think that highly restricted yields would not work the same as naturally low yields. In that, as in other matters in winegrowing and winemaking, you have to find a balance, and that doesn’t seem to be what is happening here, for that particular wine.

    Lenn, I do agree that low acidity is indeed not favorable to aging, from my experience, but that doesn’t mean that “typical winemaker hyperbolic discourse” should be tolerated or approved. At a very basic level, it’s bad customer service to sell someone a very expensive wine, telling him it will be great in 20 years, only to create a hyperbolic disappointment.

    Tim, I was particularly interested in the idea that since the Fess Parker wine was highly rated, you would have had to like it, according to the winemaker. Why would one person’s taste, publicized or not, create an obligation to like the wine for everyone else? As I’ve said in a previous comment, there isn’t a single model to winemaking, and there isn’t a single model to wine tasting.

    This means that others may well like Le Pigeonnier 1999, even though I didn’t. I believe my opinion is justified, and it is based not only on a sensory impression, but also on years of trying to understand how wine “works”, how it evolves, etc. However, it is still one man’s opinion.

    Who knows, I may yet have a different opinion on my next tasting of the 1999, in which case I’ll be happy to state this, and make amends if necessary. But I’m fairly confident that what I will taste will not be so different the second time around.

    I am looking forward to the next tasting, and to see how the next chapter unfolds.

  9. Pamela @ Enobytes

    Hey Remi, I love the honest and straight shooting-style review. I haven’t tried the Pigeonnier so I don’t have an opinion on the wine but I wanted to chime in on the food pairing. I recently had an oak tree in a glass tasting (highly tannic wine, I tell yeah!)) and it was really tricky to pair these rascals with food. The best pairings leaned towards grilled and blackened protein dishes. Strangely enough, you’d think a smoked brisket would work (smoky, yes, but the lack of fat in the protein did not) and even the grilled vegetable pairing sucked (IMHO vegetarian dishes seem to enhance the bitterness and accentuate the dryness).

    Have a great time in France! 🙂

  10. devil's advocate

    This article is an excellent and thoughtful effort, whether others agree about your opinion or not. That’s what good blogging is about.
    Playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment – although he may not be a real devil – it’s really hard to say something deep in a foreign language without some kind of ambiguity. When I read the French posts Vinternet on Twitter, I can’t help but cringe sometimes at the lack of sincerity. Give Courtois a point for trying. Ironic that Courtois means ‘courteous’ in French 🙂

  11. Adventures Abroad: Malbec Days in Cahors, and Ontario Chardonnay in London

    […] I’m just about to get on the plane that will take me across the Atlantic, as I head out to Cahors, in Southwest France, for the International Malbec Days and a particular tasting challenge at Château Lagrézette. The former provided the opportunity for the latter. Indeed, with Malbec Days inviting me to Cahors, I was able to take up the folks at Lagrézette, one of the most renowned producers in Malbec, when they challenged me to have a second taste of their 1999 Pigeonnier, a reserve bottling that I reviewed rather negatively in February. […]

  12. Further thoughts about that whole Lagrézette challenge thing…

    […] Last week, in conjunction with my participation in Malbec Days, I took part as planned in a blind tasting of eight malbec wines organized by Château Lagrézette, Cahors’ best known wine producer, internationally. The whole event, as I wrote before on this blog and on PalatePress, was a “rematch”, following my review of Le Pigeonnier 1999 as an example of vanity winemaking. […]