Memories Tumble Out: Pichon Baron 1937-1990


Grey. 1978-1982. Dartmoor ponies. Grandparents snoozing in deckchairs. An F-14 screams overhead. Hammer the tortoise (munching lettuce). Sooty, the cat (RIP)

Blue: 1988-1989. Puerile ‘Public Enemy’ poses in the Lake District. Pony-tailed teenagers drinking cider five-minutes before a police raid. Pebbles, the dog (RIP)

Red: 1993. Black and white arty images - Richard Avedon had he idled away an afternoon on Two Tree Island, Essex, with his bored and unemployed mates.

White: 1994-1995. Neon-lit Shinjuku skyline. Mountain-top shrines. Japanese schoolgirls in sailor’s uniforms and a constellation of peace signs. Frank, the dog (RIP).

Green: 2002. Cheap suit and gaudy tie outside Yquem. Michael Broadbent in half-moon spectacles imparting wisdom. Girlfriend self-tied in a yoga knot in the garden. Brian and Uma, the cats (AWOL).

What the hell am I rabbiting on about now? These are the dozen colour-coordinated photo albums that sit on my bookshelf, each a pictorial account of my life between certain years. Open a page and memories tumble out. They are analogous to conducting a vertical tasting, since they too tell the story of a producer over a specific period of time. Like old photographs, they instinctively encourage us to contemplate the coeval circumstances, the backdrop, what might have been transpiring behind the scenes. We instinctively relate that to our own lives. Maybe like me, whenever I drink a particular vintage, I momentarily reflect about what I was doing or where I lived or who I was with at that time. The one crucial difference is that whilst we can look at a photograph an endless number of times, wine is martyred as soon as the cork is pulled.

Last March, I had the privilege of flicking through the “photo album” of Château Pichon Baron. I had to brush off the dust of this one because it covered the years 1937 to 1966. Having already examined the recent era following a comprehensive vertical covering 1983 to 2018, I wanted to delve back further in time, research for a project I have been working on. I asked proprietor Christian Seely whether Pichon Baron had a decent library of older vintages? Regrettably and predictably he answered they had hardly any older vintages. Like many châteaux, entire productions were sold and remaining bottles picked off over lunches and dinners by its erstwhile managers and owners. One hardly ever sees vintages of Pichon Baron that predate the Eighties, in fact, it is easier to forage First Growths from that era. Nevertheless, Seely promised to rifle around and eventually told me that he found “one or two bottles including some I would like to try myself. Call me when you’re next down.”  

This photo depicts the rear garden of Pichon-Baron around the turn of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the château-building looks virtually unchanged between now and then.

So I cordoned off an evening and pulled up at Pichon Baron, presently undergoing major construction work, the frontage likewise cordoned off as a new building is erected. To be honest, knowing the paucity of stock, I anticipated maybe three or four bottles and I would have no complaints about that. However, my eyes bulged upon entering the tasting room as I surveyed no less than 18 vintages that had been dusted off, some vintages where they are down to their last two or three bottles. Seely mentioned that it was the first time he had undertaken such a retrospective and probably the last time, so what you read here might well be the only account of this period in Pichon Baron’s life. This was no cherry-picking of lauded vintages. Rubbing shoulders with the 1947 and 1961 were wines from forgotten, esoteric and even derided growing seasons such as 1943, 1951 and 1956 that exponentially increased my intrigue. After all, gems can be found in the most unexpected places.

This experience was not just for my own benefit. Alongside Seely and communications director Corinne Ilic, retiring winemaker Jean-René Matignon and incoming winemaker, Pierre Montegut were present and just as eager to participate in this “archaeological dig”. It was to be a shared learning experience where opinions bounced between us. Readers can peruse my tasting notes at their leisure. I recommend re-ordering them chronologically since this is how they were tasted, but before doing so, a little background information.

If you wish to know about the genesis of the estate, then I refer readers to my previous article. The Bouteiller family acquired Pichon Baron in 1933, one branch of the current owners of Château Lanessan. With their purchase, the last remaining members of the Pichon-Longueville dynasty vacated the estate and closed a significant period of Bordeaux’s early history. Clive Coates MW, writing in “Grand Vin” is complementary of Jean Bouteiller, who took over the running of the estate, writing that he “continued to produce wine which, if ‘old-fashioned’, i.e. long-macerated and somewhat dense in style, nevertheless enjoyed a high reputation.” Seely mentioned that in this period, Pichon Baron would have been vinified in old concrete vats. I wondered whether there was any means of temperature-control apart from the rudimentary practice of dunking blocks of ice to cool an over-heated must, which surely must have been the case in the infamous hot 1947 season. Jean-René Matignon told me that when he started his tenure in the 1980s, the original vats had heated coils to manage temperatures that were probably installed twenty or thirty years earlier. The château building itself was billeted by German soldiers in 1943, and during wartime, as across all of France, the wines were made by the women, children and the elderly, something to consider when reading my notes on the 1943 and 1945.

Coates avers that after Jean Bouteiller’s passing in 1961, to use the author’s vernacular, troubles began. Indeed, my handful of notes between the Sixties up until the late Eighties are not complementary. Frankly, that period saw a series of substandard wines unbefitting a Second Growth, and they tarnished its reputation. Jean-Michel Cazes and his wingman, technical director Daniel Llose, were appointed to run Pichon Baron following its purchase by AXA-Millésimes in 1987. Quality improved significantly and normal service resumed by the brilliant one-two in 1989 and 1990.

Prior to this tasting, I was rather indifferent, perhaps dismissive, of vintages prior to AXA’s tenure. This vertical proved that one should differentiate between vintages made by Jean Bouteiller and those by his son, a pertinent reminder that as much as we talk about the importance of terroir, you need someone at the helm who is motivated by quality. Compare the quality of Pichon Baron from 1945 to 1961 and 1970 to 1987 that come from the same land, the same vines and most likely the same equipment… You could be drinking wines from two entirely different estates.

We commenced with the oldest vintage, the 1937 Pichon Baron, born just four years after the Pichon-Longuevilles had sold the estate. It was elegiac, timeworn, frayed at the edges but certainly not undrinkable. It was commendable after 85 years and it boded the question that if this 1937 did not disgrace itself, what did we have in store for the following vintages? That question was answered by the 1943 Pichon Baron. It is not a vintage that I have encountered often, although it is reputed to be the best wartime growing season, if you discount 1945. This was a revelation! It displayed far more vigour than the 1937, armed with gorgeous fleshy red fruit, almost Burgundy-like malleable tannins, quite pure with admirable fruit concentration. Moreover, it evolved in the glass. Returning after 45 minutes and expecting to find it oxidized, on the contrary, the 1937 had continued to blossom and gained harmony. This readjusted my expectations for the following wines. Perhaps we were in for some treats? As it turned out, this was a case of judging each individual bottle on its own merits, irrespective of vintage reputation and in a couple of examples, being able to call for a precious back-up if the bottle was deemed to be unrepresentative.

The run from 1947 to 1966 was almost complete. I asked Seely if the estate produced wine in disastrous seasons such as 1946 and 1951, but no records exist, neither could I find any mention in any wine literature, though I am certain that they would have released a 1948. The 1947 Pichon Baron was atypically rather rigid and lacked the richness of its peers gifted by that intense hot summer, though the strong eucalyptus note and volatility gave away the vintage on the finish. I felt that perhaps the élevage might have been too long. The 1949 Pichon Baron was more refined and less volatile, yet I was initially disappointed by its austere finish, even though it improved in the glass. This is one of my favourite post-war vintages, but this bottle was not the calibre of others. The 1950 Pichon Baron was the second genuine surprise after the 1943. Generally considered a Right Bank vintage, the Médoc wines tend to be hard and austere. Yet after 10 minutes, it magically transformed from a rather ossified Pauillac into a wine with hidden tension and vigour.

Things seem to go off the boil during the first half of the Fifties. Whilst I can excuse rather ordinary showings of the 1952 and 1954 Pichon Baron, the 1953 Pichon Baron ought to have been much better. I found this rather hard and one can conjecture, over-extracted at the time, consequently it was bereft of precision, a bit ersatz compared to other vintages. I am inclined to believe there are better bottles out there, hence the question mark against my score. The 1955 Pichon Baron was absolutely divine. That was no surprise to this wine writer that has proselytised this growing season for almost 20 years, and since then, connoisseurs have come round to my point-of-view that in 1955, the entire region produced great wines that were under-appreciated for many years.

It is always fascinating to taste a wine from the infamous 1956 vintage, when a majority of Bordeaux vineyards fell victim to a pernicious period of freezing temperatures that February, so cold that it killed many vines outright. As a consequence, examples are rarely seen. This 1956 Pichon Baron was one-dimensional but certainly not undrinkable. It is a curiosity, moreover, a historical artefact of a catastrophic episode in Bordeaux’s timeline. It is amazing how quickly vineyards recovered. Just 12 months later, the 1957 Pichon Baron turns out to be one of the big surprises, cedar and mint on the nose, well balanced with an elegant finish. It even improved in the glass. It contrasts with the 1958 Pichon Baron that like many in this vintage came across stolid and lacked some charm. 

I have tasted the 1959 Pichon Baron several times before, one of those wines with a much higher reputation out of magnum. This was definitely the best bottle that I have encountered with divine juniper and red fruit on the nose, not quite as corpulent as its peers yet with fine density and grip on the finish. The 1960 Pichon Baron is dry and monotone, whereas the 1961 Pichon Baron was again, the best bottle that I have tasted, vivacious and briny on the nose with a grippy, spicier palate than the 1959. Bottles with sound provenance will not improve, but they should cruise for a few years yet. It probably shades a very commendable 1962 Pichon Baron that blossomed in the glass, more fleshy than expected and fanning out wonderfully on the finish. The 1964 Pichon Baron comes from a Right Bank vintage and this showed signs of dilution from the rains that plagued harvest. Better is the 1966 Pichon Baron, though we broached two bottles as the first was tired. The second had attractive cassis aromas, lovely balance with gentle grip and a delectable minty finish. Old school, but very good old school. Finally, I include one additional note for a 1971 Pichon Baron opened at Christmas at Tristan restaurant, but this was ponderous and chunky.

That was that. We repaired to the dining room for a quick bite, Seely inviting each person to choose one bottle to taste with a light dinner. As we sat down, he added one bottle without any label. A mystery vintage. I took a sip…

I heard choirs of angels. My senses melted. It was profound. Utterly profound.

“Any ideas,” asked Seely.

I cannot remember my exact words but I suggested that it must be the greatest bottle of 1989 or 1990 that I have ever drunk. It was so precocious and yet effortless. The delineation was mind-blowing, and it improved with every swirl of my glass.

He smiled. His bow tie started whizzing round, which may have been a hallucination. Seely showed me the cork…

It was the missing vintage, the 1945 Pichon Baron.

I was totally blown away by this bottle that exists on a completely different plane to every other wine that I have tasted from this estate. I could never imagine that Pichon Baron could attain this ethereal level. Unlike Mouton-Rothschild, the 1945 Pichon Baron does not boast a great reputation. In fact, the only other professional tasting note that I found is courtesy of (who else?) Michael Broadbent. He observed that some bottles were dried out, others rich and penetrating. I can only assume his three stars is an average of his experiences. This was definitely the latter. Why such variance? Well, like all these vintages, the wines were most likely bottled according to demand and at different times with different levels of expertise. This must come from a batch bottled at its zenith. I doubt that if I encountered another 1945 Pichon Baron, and the likelihood of that infinitesimally small, it would not reach this ethereal level. A one-off? Maybe… However, on this evening, this was without any doubt a perfect wine, hence the score.

We finished not in Pauillac but in Sauternes, of course, with a Château Suduiraut. The 1967 is a vintage that I have not tasted for a number of years. This testified my previous encounter with that potent Barsac-like bouquet, mandarin and quince with a background adhesive tincture. The palate is fresh and vibrant unlike many in that era, tangy orange rind and quince with a comparatively dry finish (the residual was just 70gm/L). Whilst not quite as ethereal as the 1967 Climens, which I tasted a few weeks later, it is the best Suduiraut of that period.

Final Thoughts

It had been a remarkable tasting. There are very few occasions where I have been afforded such a comprehensive examination of a château over a given historic period (perhaps the vertical conducted at Lafaurie-Peyraguey in December 2018 is the nearest that springs to mind.) I departed with newfound appreciation for the work of Jean Bouteiller and whereas I had been dismissive of Pichon Baron prior to AXA’s acquisition, now I know that there was a period, perhaps forgotten by cognoscenti, when its wines often reached Second Growth quality: 1943, 1955, 1957 and 1959 in particular. The 1945 Pichon Baron? That was more a gift from heaven. The tasting had been like flicking through an old family album: some images sepia-tinged and out of focus, others crystal clear. The wines made me think of the forgotten people that worked that land in those years, persevered during wartime, trudged through the rain in 1951, surveyed the damage in 1956 or perhaps celebrated the success of the 1959. If only someone had had a camera at the time.  

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