Main image:

Château Lafleur: one of the world’s ‘most distinctive, most exotic and greatest wines’

Specialist Noah May evaluates the special ‘mystique’ of Château Lafleur, which has defined some of the greatest winemaking in Bordeaux for almost a century. An exceptional stock of Lafleur is offered in Finest Wines and Spirits in New York, 14-15 June

Once, years ago in Oslo, I had an experience with a bottle of Château Lafleur that I will struggle to forget. During a long cellar inspection, our consignor unearthed a bottle of Lafleur that had been missed from his inventory and hitherto forgotten. The vintage was 1949 — a legend, about as rare as it gets.

On closer inspection and, in a moment tinged with tragedy, we saw that the level of ullage hung sheepishly between mid and low shoulder. The condition was too precarious for us to catalogue and present a bottle of such rarity and potential value, and it was with regret that we told our consignor we wouldn’t be able offer it in the auction. Now, our client was a man of appetites, of rare style and quick decisions. In a heartbeat, it was settled: we would drink it over dinner.

A few hours later, in a restaurant looking out onto the Oslofjord and the dark vastness of the North Sea beyond, we opened the ’49 with some trepidation. The cork proved sound, and the wine poured bright and fragrant in our glasses.

On tasting the wine, we were transfixed. The savoury depths of old Cabernet Franc coupling with sweeter, winsome Merlot were striking. The wine was beautiful, unhampered by its low level; a joyful testament to the impotence of ullage over the timelessness of some great wines.

Château Lafleur is a property of remarkable standing within the upper echelons of the world’s greatest wines. It is undoubtedly one of the finest and rarest wines in Bordeaux, and more specifically in Pomerol, but somehow the property and wines transcend their geographical position, while being ultimately defined by the terroir from which they are crafted.

The wines of this modestly proportioned ‘château’ are atypical for many reasons. Robert Parker is one of the property’s greatest enthusiasts, finding majesty in many of the older vintages. ‘It is one of the most distinctive, most exotic and greatest wines, not only in Pomerol, but in the world,’ he has noted. Other commentators find an almost Burgundian quality to the wines’ elegance and individuality.

In an area of France where many of the most lauded properties are owned today by corporations, such small-scale, artisanal ownership and craft are relatively rare

The wines of Lafleur are uncharacteristic for Pomerol in their composition. The blend is an almost perfect 50/50 split of Merlot and Cabernet Franc — an unusually harmonious balance of these two grapes. Production levels are tiny for a Bordeaux property. The 4.5-hectare vineyard produces only 1,000 cases per vintage, which is small, even by the standards of Right Bank properties (compare for instance, Cheval Blanc, which fills around 8,000 cases on the Left Bank, and Margaux, which produces around 12,000 cases).

Alongside the grand vin  of Lafleur comes not a ‘second wine’, but a different  Lafleur since 1987, in the form of Pensées de Lafleur — the quintessential insider’s choice. This wine is not crafted from younger vines, but is in fact a cru  of its own, coming from a diagonal parcel of vines in the centre of the Lafleur vineyards.

The property was founded in 1872 by current owner Jacques Guinaudeau’s great great grandfather, Henri Greloud. In Bordeaux, an area of France where many of the most lauded properties are owned today by large holding companies or corporations, such small-scale, artisanal ownership and craft are relatively rare.

The wines are nothing short of legendary. The combination of quality, rarity and mystique make these some of the most collectable wines on earth. The greatest vintages of old are these days almost impossible to acquire, although many would argue that the more precise wines that have come to define the modern era of Guinaudeau winemaking and ownership may have the ability, in time, to outshine the wilder, more mercurial wines of the mid-20th century. In his award-winning book, Pomerol, Neal Martin writes, ‘There is a significant shift in style in the 1980s, where the masculine, bucolic, stalky, rough-hewn diamond of old, gave way to a more polished Lafleur that emphasised cleaner, more exuberant fruit.’

At a recent lunch, tasting the 2000 Lafleur — a wine Martin calls ‘the apogee’ of arguably the greatest vintage of the 21st century — this perspective certainly rang true. The wine is magnificent and without doubt as arresting as the aforementioned ’49. The seamless elegance, energy and poise of the younger wine suggests a future which at this point seems endless.

Château Lafleur’s wines have defined some of the greatest winemaking in the region for almost a century. They combine exquisite balance with an ethereal delicacy and unusual specificity. These are wines that have the ability to charm on release, but also to develop over decades and more. They are soulful wines that bring the superlative quality of the region and soil into sharp focus.