Moving On: Lafon-Rochet 1955-2017


Bordeaux moves on quickly. Changes in ownership can be met with protest and handwringing, yet they amount to little more than “rearrangements of furniture”. The room remains the same. The soil and vines are unmoved while proprietors change; their tenures are consigned to history. Time moves on, inexorable and impatient, rarely inclined to look back. However, that is precisely what I will do for this piece.

Basile with his father, Michel Tesseron.

Back in the summer of 2021, I joined Basile Tesseron for a long-planned vertical tasting. Tesseron was chatty and amiable as ever, and we were briefly joined by his father, Michel. Spanning six decades, the line-up of wines confirmed the evolution of Lafon-Rochet since Guy Tesseron purchased the property in 1960. Though it can be argued that Lafon-Rochet never produced a bona fide transcendent wine that might challenge the Cos-Montrose-Calon trinity, its amelioration over the last decade cannot be ignored. During our tasting, Tesseron spoke about the context of the vintages with some interesting backstories.

Tasting what was presumed to be the unlabelled 1955, which later transpired out to be the 1964 Lafon-Rochet, he unveils perhaps the darker, less quixotic side of harvests in bygone days. “We used to work with Romani people and detainees,” Tesseron explains. “There was a knife fight between them, so my grandfather brandished a rifle and, together with the police, managed to stop them. As a consequence, we bought a machine harvester, and this is the only vintage picked by machine. In the mid-Seventies, we started using pickers from northern Portugal, which we have used ever since.” As we broach the 2000 Lafon-Rochet, Tesseron tells me how he was working in London for luxury conglomerate Richemoine and how his interest in wine was piqued when he began drinking red wine with the manager instead of cocktails. But it was attending a private dinner with a London wine merchant when he experienced an epiphany. Sotto voce, the host said that Basile would love the bottle about to be poured. So, it turned out, it had such a profound effect that Tesseron, rendered speechless and almost overcome, made excuses to leave. That wine was a Romanée-Saint-Vivant from Lalou Bize-Leroy. As he retells this anecdote, it reminds me how Tesseron has always been a refreshingly emotional vigneron, someone led by his heart rather than mind, who wears his heart on his sleeve. That wine convinced him that he had to become a winemaker, which is precisely what he set out to do.

As we taste the 2003 Lafon-Rochet, we discuss freshness. “My father was obsessed with freshness,” Tesseron continues. “He began his career at Sherry-Lehman in New York. He had wanted to be a banker and found a job on Wall Street, but he only stayed there for two months. His first love was Napa wines. It was the beginning of the Napa industry in the early Seventies, and he saw how these wines were evolving. Later, he saw how those wines were becoming massive and losing freshness. In 2003, when he saw the weather conditions, he knew he had to pick early, so he cropped in two weeks. At the time, I was working in Bordeaux for Vins des Maison Bordeaux. The weather conditions were amazing during harvest. I remember my father said he might not be there the next time you see a vintage with such ripeness levels. I’m glad we picked early. The clay soils really helped - half the estate is based on that.”

Tesseron tells me how his father was immensely proud of the 2005 Lafon-Rochet, but it was not always smooth sailing after he joined Lafon-Rochet in 2007. “I had a fight with the technical director as I did not want any more Roundup on the vines. That was my obsession [perhaps inspired by Leroy’s viticultural approach and no doubt others like her]. We had to switch ways. He didn’t care at all. We had a physical fight in our office. He was strong, but I was young. I came back at 5am the next day and had a week to learn what everyone was doing. I called Jean-Michel Comme, former estate manager at Pontet-Canet, my wife (Berangère Carsberg) and Frédéric Renaut, who worked in the vines. After two years, I asked Lucas Leclercq to join us as general manager. It might be my favorite period because we had so many things to do. Most of the time, I was in the vines or between the cellar and the vines.”

The 2008 Lafon-Rochet prompts another discussion. “I made a huge mistake. As Pontet-Canet [owned by Alfred Tesseron] was turning organic and biodynamic, I said that we would not treat the vines this year, and consequently, we ended up the only estate with a huge mildew attack. Frédéric Renaut waited until I was in Singapore before telling me. This is during a period when I should have stopped traveling. We ended up with 30hl/ha, and when I told my father, he said it was not a total loss and to think of it as a ‘half-win’. I learned that we could reduce products we used in the vines [which is what they succeeded in doing by 2010], and it is also the year we started planting bushes around the estate.”

After back-to-back successes, incidentally with the services of the late Denis Dubourdieu, in 2009 and 2010, the 2011 vintage brought Basile Tesseron down to earth. “We had a hailstorm on 1 September. I saw the whole production destroyed in minutes. It was like a machine gun. You had to fight and find a way to make a decent wine because you knew that in a few years, nobody would remember there was a hailstorm. It was an early vintage. We knew it wasn’t ripe, and we had lost half the production. You couldn’t make a wine out of the green berries, and so we gambled. The next day was above 40°C, which dried out the berries scarred by the hail, and in the end, we picked quite late. I am proud of this vintage because of the complexity of the harvest." 

Tasting the 2012 Lafon-Rochet, Dubourdieu shoes were filled by a Pomerol icon. “That was our first year with Jean-Claude Berrouet. The idea of switching from Denis to Jean-Claude is because I had always been a fan of his wines. They had elegant tannins. He is the king of clay, which is what I was looking for. His approach is very humble. There were long discussions. He gave us that extra touch. It was Lucas Leclercq that called him, and Jean-Claude Berrouet replied that if he could work with me, he would love to. He understood we wanted to make wine that we love to drink.”

As we taste the 2015 Lafon-Rochet, Tesseron explains how the vintage’s reputation did not spare him from a stressful picking. “We had a huge storm at the beginning of harvest, and we had to stop. The harvesters were in the room eating. We had to wait almost five days because everything was so wet, then restarted slowly, so it was a drawn-out picking. The Merlot was ripe, but the Cabernet had to wait.”

After this, Tesseron visited Piedmont for the first time, another revelation since the trip altered his way of thinking about wine, particularly concerning acidity. Later, in 2018, there was a great furor when he went against the tide of popular opinion and moved away from organic farming that they had practiced over the last eight years. Tesseron was concerned about the levels of copper being used and encountered stiff rebukes from more evangelical organic winemakers and on social media. Personally, I felt that Tesseron made many valid points, notwithstanding that he still advocated the use of non-polluting synthetic chemicals. By this point, as the ambassador of Lafon-Rochet, Tesseron was obliged to travel. He enjoyed the peripatetic aspect of this vocation, not least meeting new people, but as time went by, there was a simmering sense of dissatisfaction. “You don’t feel like a winemaker anymore,” he says, “and after a few years, I decided that was not my life.” In his last couple of years at Lafon-Rochet, Tesseron eschewed the glitzy side of running of classed growth and dedicated most of his time to the vineyard or his family.

Basile Tesseron tasting through the Lafon-Rochet lineup. 

What Happened Next

After the vertical, the conversation continued at Château Larrivaux, the Haut-Médoc estate inherited from Carsberg’s side of the family. I remember feeling as if something was amiss. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something unspoken. We talked about biodiversity and agroforestry. Tesseron was enthused about planting 2,500 trees that year, and in hindsight, this long-term project gave a misleading sense of continuity. Weeks later, Tesseron told me that his heart had moved on from Lafon-Rochet that day. In August 2021, I found out the reason why. It was announced that real-estate investor Jacky Lorenzetti had purchased the Fourth Growth for an undisclosed sum, a sum reflecting the fact that Grand Cru Classés rarely come up for sale. Lafon-Rochet was added to Lorenzetti’s portfolio that includes his other Saint-Estèphe, Lilian-Ladouys, as well as Château Pédesclaux in Pauillac and Château d’Issan in Margaux. Sixty-one years of ownership by a dynasty synonymous with the Médoc would end.

I was taken aback. Tesseron had always been devoted to the estate, his family’s future bound up in its vines. His aunt, co-proprietor alongside his father, had decided to sell her shareholding, and it was too much for any family member to buy, one assumes, including Alfred Tesseron. There was no foul play. But to Michel and especially Basile Tesseron, it must have felt that the château had been “stolen” in broad daylight, the carpet pulled out from under its devoted guardian and future owner. Returning just before he was due to hand in the château keys, Basile Tesseron seemed drained after such a protracted family dispute, dealing with lawyers and legalese that conspired to drag him away from his vines. A fresh start for him and his young family suddenly seemed appealing. It was a new beginning.

After vinifying their valedictory 2021 vintage, the Tesseron family vacated Lafon-Rochet. Jacky Lorenzetti appointed the able Christophe Congé as managing director, Congé having spent 22 years next door as an oenologist at Lafite-Rothschild/Duhart-Milon. Speaking to Congé in subsequent visits, there are plans to convert the vines to organic viticulture in line with their other estates.

The distinctive chartreuse-hued façade was pale blue not so long ago.

In January 2023, I made a short trip to Bordeaux to tie up a few loose ends of forthcoming articles and, by chance, received a message from Basile Tesseron asking when I would next be down. I had not heard from him since the sale, and we met for supper in Bordeaux with his wife and Larrivaux’s winemaker. I found him happy. Much happier than I expected. Chipper. There was that smile and wry wit. The sale of Lafon-Rochet must cause heartache, thinking about what might have been. However, the responsibility, administrative duties and traveling that his position obliged diverted him away from what he really loved. Though no longer part of the Grand Cru Classé and all the attendant camaraderie, he remains good friends with those closest to him. I got the sense that the storm had passed. Tesseron is now busy hatching plans for Larrivaux, including planting around a disused quarry and making the château itself habitable so that one day he might move there.

Lafon-Rochet moved on.

So has Basile Tesseron.

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