Passing the Baton: Lynch-Bages 1945-2018


[Post-script: This article was written and submitted prior to the passing of proprietor Jean-Michel Cazes, who died on June 28. A bona fide legend, Cazes was an entrepreneur, a charismatic bon viveur only equalled by his friend, his partner-in-crime, the late Anthony Barton. Both men lit up the darkest rooms. I was fortunate to have met him countless times over 25 years, one of the last, when he offered reminisces about vintages for my “Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide” book, and another just to say bonjour during the vertical that was the catalyst for this piece. Unwaveringly friendly, approachable and witty, Cazes always had time to chat about wine or whatever else was occupying his mind and was always looking forward to the next adventure. He had many in his storied 88 years. I was in Bordeaux when news of his passing emerged. I was not the only person to sense a significant page turning, a chapter closing, as we spent a balmy June evening discussing how he is the last in a generation of proprietors that did not work for Lynch-Bages, but for the good of the region of Bordeaux. I considered re-editing this article, but apart from one or two minor tweaks, chose to keep it as it was written…]

I have never been to the Emerald Isle. I would love to sip Guinness in some rustic inn bursting with blarney and sing-song as geometric formations of boys and girls tap-dance out in the street. It’s just a question of finding time. I will do so one day. In the meantime, I have to listen to Enya, read Joyce and drink Claret, whose roots lie over the Irish Sea…such as Lynch-Bages.

My association with this Pauillac estate stretches back to the salad days of my career, many moons before I dipped a quill into an inkwell and ruined wine writing. Exporting Bordeaux to Japan for my former employers, Lynch-Bages was one of the most popular wines because it was widely known, easy to pronounce, comparatively cheap and tasted delicious in a classical Pauillac style. My erstwhile company bought one pallet after another, guzzled in multitudinous restaurants as soon as it was written on their wine list, especially off-vintages such as 1994 and 1997, making them rare to find now in the market. The upside is that I often had the pleasure of meeting proprietor, the late Jean-Michel Cazes, one of the most articulate and, vying with the late Anthony Barton, most charismatic personalities in Bordeaux. Subsequently, I became acquainted with the Cazes family, not least his son Jean-Charles, who currently runs their several estates, as well as overseeing the construction of Lynch-Bages’s winery.

Though I have penned several articles over my career, I was long overdue for another. Jean-Charles Cazes invited me to the estate for a vertical tasting of 25 vintages served single-blind, followed by a smattering of more mature vintages. These have been augmented by others, mainly poured from larger formats at the château and the “sprinkles on top,” a couple of post-war vintages. But first, we examine the history of Lynch-Bages, focusing on the inter-generational bonds between André, Jean-Michel and Jean-Charles Cazes.

Jean-Charles Cazes pictured in the 1930s when he ran an insurance company in Pauillac.


Before I map out the history, I recommend readers seek out the recently published “From Bordeaux to the Stars,” a personal memoir of Jean-Michel Cazes that makes for engrossing reading, available in English and French. One of the best books on any Bordeaux château? Without question, yes.

As its name insinuates, there are Irish roots. The Lynch family is said to be descended from Galway at the time of the Norman Conquest. John Lynch (born 1669) most likely fought with French soldiers and traveled back with them to Bordeaux, where he set himself up as a wood and leather merchant. Lynch became both wealthy and took French nationality, his son Thomas marrying Elizabeth Drouillard in 1740. His wife had inherited Domaine de Bages, once the fief of the Seigneurs de Lamarque. Their son Jean-Baptiste enjoyed a successful political career and was mayor of Bordeaux between 1809 and 1814. In 1824, the estate was sold for F300,000 to a Swiss wine merchant, Sebastien Jurine. During his tenure, the estate was ranked as a Fifth Growth, implying that Jurine had allowed the vineyard to decline at the most inopportune moment. Following squabbles over inheritance, Lynch-Bages sold once more to Jérôme-Maurice and Henri Cayrou in 1865, and they benefitted from the knowhow of renowned Polish régisseur M. Skawinski. It then passed from Jérôme-Maurice’s daughter to General Félix de Vial, and it remained in his hands until 1939.

In Conversation with Jean-Charles Cazes

In January 2023, I sat down with co-proprietor Jean-Charles Cazes upstairs in the new glass-fronted winery buildings overlooking Pauillac, seeking his personal insight into the family’s history. He is always refreshingly candid. I departed with a deeper understanding of how the previous tenure has influenced each member of the Cazes family and how father-son relationships have been a guiding hand.

“It was my great-great-grandfather, Jean Cazes, known as ‘Lou Janou’ in French patois, who came to Bordeaux from Ariège at the bottom of the Pyrenees,” Jean-Charles Cazes explains. “He had nine brothers and sisters. He was looking for work in the late 19th century, crossing the country with a pick-axe to assist in the vines. Back then, Bordeaux needed workers [to replant] after phylloxera. My great grandfather, Jean-Charles Cazes, was born in St. Lambert in 1877, and he was the first generation born in the Médoc [Pauillac].”

Cazes’s first wife died young, and after remarrying, he served in the First World War and saw military action at Ypres and Verdun. His experience during wartime, like so many men, significantly changed his outlook on life.

“In the 1920s, he started as a baker in Pauillac and the family still owns the building. In 1925, the bakery burnt down due to embers. He used to put them into a bucket and store them below the staircase. One day it set fire and burnt down the bakery. He looked for another job and was hired by the local bank in Pauillac as a clerk to do the paperwork. He tried different things and was quite entrepreneurial. He started selling insurance policies in the Médoc, including to château owners, something he could understand after the fire. That’s how he met the owner of Lynch-Bages, the General de Vial.”

Jean-Michel Cazes meeting one of the descendants of the Lynch family, Mrs. Loïs Blosse-Lynch, in Galway in 1985.

“The family was broken after the Great Depression. Fifteen of the classified Growths changed hands during the Thirties. Vial could hardly pay the farmers. He asked my great-grandfather to look after the vineyard and keep it ticking over, free of any rent. This agreement lasted until the end of the Thirties, by which time he had a sound knowledge of viticulture. He co-founded the local co-operative while continuing the insurance company, which became the largest in southwest France, perhaps the entire country. This kept the family afloat when the wine business suffered, a steady business that kept bread on the table. We only sold the insurance company in 2000 and the original building a couple of years ago.”

During the Thirties, like many châteaux, Lynch-Bages languished unsold on the market. Jean-Charles Cazes became a tenant farmer, undertaking his first harvest in 1933. However, only one Bordeaux merchant, Cruse & Fils Frères, agreed to buy the wine and ended up accepting their entire harvest. At least Cazes broke even. In 1937, thanks to a loan from Crédit Agricole, he made an offer to de Vial to buy the estate. The old war veteran, who must have been full of pride, resisted for a long time, despite his precarious financial circumstances. Finally, he acquiesced, and on 23 February 1939, Jean-Charles Cazes purchased Lynch-Bages for F265,000. A year later, he also bought the Saint-Estèphe château, Ormes de Pez, that was virtually given to him. Given those prices vis-à-vis previous sales figures, it is clear that the estate was in somewhat ruinous condition by that time.

“After the Second World War, some of the best parcels of vineyard were planted with potatoes, which was crucial during wartime. People had to eat. My grandfather André Cazes joined him at the estate. He was a prisoner of war for four years. Therefore, he was not in good shape when he returned. Jean-Charles was a bit stubborn, dressed in his boots and beret, and in a way, André was more modern. It was difficult for them to get on, so they split the activities. André grew the insurance business, and in the Fifties, he became the mayor of Pauillac, which he held until 1992. Jean-Charles ran the vineyards. He made stunning wines in the Fifties, and as a rule, he always started to pick eight days after Latour. It was risky, but it often paid off. When Alexis Lichine, of Château Prieuré-Lichine, was doing blind tastings, Jean-Charles always had a list in his pocket that showed Lynch-Bages doing well against the First Growths. Other châteaux were picking earlier and made wines with higher acidity. Lynch-Bages from this era could age very well, but he drank young wines and believed that the entire production should all be sold straight away. My grandfather, André, put away 1955s for Sylvie [Jean-Charles’s elder sister and owner of Château Chauvin in Saint-Émilion], but years later, when my father was looking for them, Jean-Charles informed him that he sold it all to Lawton. That’s why we don’t have much old stock.”

“This arrangement lasted until the mid-Sixties when Jean-Charles became…let’s say…less astute in his choices. André took over the reins and re-established trust with the négoce. The Seventies were difficult. My grandfather bought back a bit of luster to Lynch-Bages, not least by producing good wines in difficult vintages, except in 1968, the last time it was sold off in bulk. My father, Jean-Michel, joined in 1973. He had been working for IBM in Paris. He decided to switch careers and take over the estate when my grandfather hinted, he might sell….”

As explained in the book, this was due to the pressures of running the estate, mayoral duties and all the administration that entails.

“My father had only just married my mother, who was expecting a cosmopolitan life in Paris. Suddenly, she was joining her husband down in the countryside of Bordeaux. Actually, the first time André suggested he might sell, my father didn’t react, but the second time he mentioned it, he decided to come back. This was the time of the oil shock and high-interest rates. My grandfather was relying on short-term loans from Crédit Agricole, and they suddenly pulled out of the market. The banks had assured André that they would renew the loans. Together with my father, they were invited to Bordeaux by the bank manager and were told to repay the loans. They were shocked. The bank told them: ‘When the negociants are sick, properties die.’ My father was crying. They were left at the door of the bank. That was the nadir.”

The now disused old cuverie.

“The period afterward was a struggle. Things really started to fall into place in the late Seventies. Three factors underpinned the future success of Lynch-Bages throughout the Eighties when we were on top of our game. Firstly, my father managed to pull a few strings, got some finances and built a new cellar. This included new stainless-steel tanks and renovating buildings next to the wooden cellar that was used until the 1974 vintage. My father always said the 1975 was good because he could monitor the temperature, something that you cannot do in the 100-year-old vats [in fact, the winery was virtually unchanged since 1866!].”

“The winery was modernized and completed in 1978, the start of a renovation program that lasted until the Fête de la Fleur at Lynch-Bages in 1989. Secondly, and very importantly, my grandfather André invested and planted vines even during that difficult financial period. My father thought André didn’t know what he was doing, planting new parcels in 1973 and 1974. But by the early Eighties, those vines began to blossom when some other château only began to replant. Thirdly, there is the appointment of Daniel Llose in 1976, who replaced the old winemaker who had no idea about malolactic fermentation and was stuck in his ways. Llose was young and a grafter, working with Jean-Michel by themselves. Another advantage was that my father spoke English. In those days, Baron Philippe de Rothschild asked Jean-Michel to represent Mouton-Rothschild at events in the USA. Can you imagine that now? His first trip to the USA was in 1977 or 1978. At that time, the yields were very good, around 60hL/ha. You don’t need tiny yields to make a great wine.”

Jean-Michel Cazes was not just the proprietor of Lynch-Bages. He embodied the estate and its wine, giving it a friendly face and a smile. A tireless and peripatetic salesman, he was a dab hand at novel ways to promote his wines: the first tasting on China’s Great Wall, and in 1985, a half bottle of Lynch-Bages taken into space by the first French astronaut Patrick Baudry on the Discovery space shuttle and supplying a huge number of cases to serve on board Cathay Pacific in the 1990s.

Jean-Charles and Jean-Michel Cazes at the property in 2021.

“I never worked with my dad. He’s a loner. He’s a trailblazer that you follow. He’s not a good team worker. He has always surrounded himself with the right people and let them get on with it. He’s charismatic, and people like to be around him. I joined the family business in 2002 and took over from my father in 2007 after studying economics in Bordeaux. I was born and raised at Lynch-Bages and grew up seeing what my father was doing and always thought it was fun. As I grew older, I began falling in love with the product, and so very early on, I thought I would come back. So, the date was set: 1 January 2007. People thought he could not pass on responsibility, but that’s exactly what he did. He was very clear in directing people to me and not my father, even though I was 33 years old. I was lucky because when I had three mentors: Daniel Llose on the technical side, commercial director Malou Le Sommer and financial director Pierre Doumenjou. When my father retired, he made sure to leave an organizational structure.”

Acquainted with both father and son, I ask about the similarities between them and their business acumen for a start. “We are connected in the sense that we were both entrepreneurial,” Cazes replies. “When you throw him an idea, he goes with it. He let me do the same. When we launched the estate in the south of France, he offered his advice, but it was up to me. That is because he did not want to duplicate the obstinacy of Jean-Charles.”

“My first big decision was to buy a property in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 2006/2007. We had to hire a new technician in 2006, and that was my choice, Nicolas Labenne, who came from Calon-Ségur, which was good timing as I could choose someone with whom to grow together. He is a talented technician with a modern approach.”

This shot gives you an idea of the size of the reception. I remember Cazes telling me how difficult it was to find a door that big.

I ask what changes have taken place in recent years.

“Today, we have more precise viticulture, monitoring canopy growth. Though not certified organic, we’re one step from that. We have 40 hectares completely farmed organically. But I am not happy just using copper in vineyards against mildew. I want to keep a balanced approach without dogma. We farm in a respectful way, mindful in terms of working the soils. We don’t use herbicides, and our wines have to be zero molecules in terms of chemical residues. The farming methods are very different from before. We use three lines of sorting, one optical and two manual lines. The impact of technology is almost meaningless compared to the changes in viticulture. It looks striking during harvest, but I’m not totally convinced it makes a difference apart from in very challenging years. The 2014-2020 vintages are the most impressive ever - there is little to sort out in those kinds of vintages.”

I ask Jean-Charles what the future holds?

“What’s next? I’m focused on improvements in Haut-Batailley. We started thinking about the new winery at Lynch-Bages in 2009, and during that time, there came a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy that property. We have planted more vines in Pauillac [19 hectares] in two years than probably any other person. I’ve had to build a team there. That’s going to keep me busy for the next five years. In my free time, I like reading and water sports. I’m building a new house at the moment, a couple of kilometers from the ocean. You have to switch off. That’s important. It’s only 30 minutes from here. That’s my primary home now. There I’m a stranger to the locals.”

Jean-Charles Cazes, up on the roof of the new château building that overlooks Pauillac.

The Wines

This article is a blend of several different tastings. The main one was a vertical of 25 vintages between 1995 and 2019, which Cazes decided would be more fun to taste single blind. We knew the vintages in each series but not the random order they were being served. No need for the oldest bottle that I have ever tasted, as you will find the 1899 Lynch-Bages already in the database, to date, the only red Bordeaux that I have encountered from this legendary year.

In the formative years, due to my company’s aforementioned role in distributing the wine in Japan, I visited here perhaps more than any other Bordeaux château. It was sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Mouton-Rothschild”, which is rather derogatory. However, one should remember that Baron Philippe himself probably coined the term after a blind tasting when several notable châteaux owners mistook Mouton-Rothschild for Lynch-Bages.

It is perhaps easy to divide the tasting notes into pre- and post-Jean-Michel Cazes, and that is what I did myself since there is no doubting his impact. But researching this piece, though one can take the 1982 as an inflection point, it is essential to remember that this was not simply a case of Cazes waving a magic wand. The foundations were put in place during the troubled seventies, so Jean-Michel could benefit from the foresight of both his father and himself. The 1970 Lynch-Bages has always been a strong addition to that vintage, and out of double magnum, it’s your quintessential old-school Claret, signaling that this Pauillac could equal more illustrious names. I wish I could say the same for the 1971 Lynch-Bages that Jean-Charles Cazes poured blind at the end of lunch, a lovely gesture, but I wish I had been conceived a few months earlier.

The Eighties is a decade when one by one, each vintage ridicules its Fifth Growth ranking. Taking the wines between 1982 and 1990, very few châteaux cruised at such altitude, including First Growths. Perhaps the best bottle of 1982 Lynch-Bages in recent months was not tasted at the property, but a spellbinding example cracked open at a dinner in Covent Garden that is just entrancing. Of course, there are odd misfiring bottles, and I could not get my head around a disjointed 1985 Lynch-Bages tasted with Jean-Charles Cazes at the property, eclipsed by a statesmanlike 1986. Fortunately, another bottle of 1985 was reinstated by adoration. Many consider the 1989 and 1990 Lynch-Bages as pinnacles of Jean-Michel Cazes’ achievements, and incredibly, Daniel Llose and himself duplicated their achievements at Pichon-Baron in those years. Line these up against that year’s First Growths and watch their knees tremble. The monumental 1989 Lynch-Bages tasted out of double-magnum would slay all-comers.

We then skip to 1995, which is a shame because it was the 1991 to 1994 vintages that I used to buy by truckload for Japan. Maybe I might ask Jean-Charles to pull them out next time I’m at the property. The latter half of the Nineties did not really replicate the heights of the Eighties, though tasting blind, I was stunned when we all elected the 1997 Lynch-Bages as the best of the quintet. That was another vintage that I bought heavily for Japan.

The 2000 and 2001 Lynch-Bages are fine solid Pauillac wines; whereas I usually prefer the latter, it was pipped by the millennial on this occasion. The 2003 Lynch-Bages sticks out like a sore thumb and though a commendable effort for the vintage, the weakest of that decade alongside an underwhelming 2006. The 2008 Lynch-Bages is where the recent era really begins, the first since 1990 that transcends expectations, a marker laid down for succeeding vintages. Perhaps the 2009 Lynch-Bages could show a little more finesse, the 2010 Lynch-Bages much purer and crystalline. Together with the excellent 2008 Lynch-Bages, they foreshadow recent releases. It might not be my favorite recent vintage, but the 2011 Lynch-Bages punches above its weight and overshadows the following vintage. We’ll skip the 2013 Lynch-Bages that fell victim to the appalling growing season. Since 2014, the estate seems to have raised its game another notch, and vintages such as the ethereal 2016 Lynch-Bages touch the heights of the 1982 and 1989, and maybe in the long-term, it will surpass them. Subsequent vintages have all testified to an estate that has rediscovered the same consistency that Jean-Michel Cazes offered in the Eighties so that it is currently one of the most formidable wines within the appellation, often challenging the supremacy of the First Growths.

Final Thoughts

Lynch-Bages is inextricably entwined with the Cazes family. Under Jean-Michel Cazes, it unleashed wines that charm Bordeaux lovers to this day. In hindsight, it’s a pity that the proposed reclassification of the entire 1855 Classification ran out of steam after his friend, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, achieved his goal. No doubt, this Fifth Growth would have been a major beneficiary. Its status has little bearing on its reputation these days. That derives from the quality and consistency of its wines. Now it has a functional, state-of-the-art winery to match what this considerable estate that overlooks the village of Bages, whose cluster of restaurants and boutiques, inspired partly by Michel Guérard at Eugénie-les-Bains, is arguably the only attraction to entice tourists up from the city. The Cazes family has not only been crucial for Lynch-Bages but for the appellation and Bordeaux as a whole. One château proprietor recently remarked that Jean-Michel Cazes was their beacon, their eminence grise.

Of course, his are impossible shoes to follow. Fortunately, Jean-Charles is both a chip of the old block and his own man, ably assisted with a tightly knit family, not least his three sisters: Kinou, Marina and Catherine. They share the same business acumen and wry sense of humor, a bit more Mediterranean joie-de-vivre than one finds elsewhere, especially in straightlaced Bordeaux. It sounds banal, but there’s always a sense of “fun” surrounding Lynch-Bages. I feel that much of that rubbed off onto Bordeaux itself, hitherto a rather self-conscious place of suits, ties and serious expressions. Perhaps one of Jean-Michel’s greatest legacies might be that he taught Bordeaux that it’s O.K. to laugh?

His handing over to his son, perhaps more abrupt than I presupposed, was nevertheless a smooth transition. He’s a natural ambassador, as I witnessed myself at the winery's inauguration in 2022 when his speech was entertaining, self-deprecating and moving in all the right places. He clearly is a sharp businessman, as proven by their acquisition of Haut-Batailley from the Borie family, and like is “old man,” just a fun person to be around, symbolized by the jukebox that stands in the dining room even if it only plays Johnny Halliday. Oh, that’s the other thing; he can take a joke.

Talking of jokes, I’ve got one for you. There’s an Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman. The Irishman emigrated from his homeland to create one of the finest estates in Bordeaux. Not sure about the Scotsman, but this Englishman will eventually visit the Emerald Isle. Then again, I say that every year.  

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