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10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About... Pichon Baron

Château Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville
© AFP | Château Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville
Jane Anson explores one of Bordeaux's most photographed neo-classical châteaux.

No. 1. It's the oldest in a family of eight:

Pichon Baron – or Château Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville to give its full name – is part of wider network of estates owned by insurance company AXA Millésimes.

Its sister properties include Château PibranChâteau Petit VillageChâteau Suduiraut (all in the Bordeaux region), Domaine de l’Arlot (Burgundy), Quinta do Noval (Portugal), Disznoko (Hungary), and Mas Belles Eaux (Languedoc) – 525 hectares of vines in total.

AXA bought Pichon Baron in 1987.

No. 2. The English connection:

Good luck finding a better example of English breeding than AXA Millésime’s English director, Christian Seely, who manages the group's vineyards. Rarely seen without his bow tie (he apparently favors those from Charvet on Place Vendome) and bespoke Savile Row suit, Seely studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge, after school at Harrow. His family were 19th-century coal miners from Nottingham; needless to say they owned the mines, rather than went down them.

No. 3. An aristocratic heritage:

The estate dates back to 1646, to the marriage of Anne de Longueville and Baron Bernard de Pichon. Their son Jacques married Therese des Mesures de Rauzan, whose father, Pierre Rauzan, a landowner in Margaux, then bought vines in Saint Lambert in southern Pauillac – so beginning the Pichon-Longueville estate.

In 1850, the estate was divided in two, with the other half becoming Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

No. 4. Le cirque du vin:

Jean-René Matignon, technical director of Pichon Longueville, remembers that when they reintroduced hand-harvesting for the 1987 vintage (like many châteaux in the Médoc, Pichon had experimented with machine harvesting earlier in the decade), they hired a team of traveling pickers who turned out to belong to a circus for the rest of the year. They arrived with caravans and animals in tow, and there was even a llama on the lawn.

"To celebrate the end of the harvest that year, we got to watch a free circus show," says Matignon. Today, the château’s pickers (minus the circus) come every year from Andalucia in Spain.

L-R: Christian Seely; the harvest gets underway
© AXA Millèsimes–B. Desprez/Château Pichon-Longueville–deepix | L-R: Christian Seely; the harvest gets underway

No. 5. The floating cellar:

The neo-classical 19th-century château at Pichon Baron is one of the most talked about and photographed in the Médoc. So when architects were asked to redo the cellars, there was uproar, with concern centered on the ornamental pond in the lawn, whose waters reflect the château spires. What followed was an extremely complicated process in which the reflective pond was taken out, a subterranean cellar build underneath, and then the pond put back, serene as ever.

Architect Alain Triaud says: "Not only the château building but even the trees on the property are listed, so we had to work extremely carefully with the existing space."

Unusually for such a cellar, there are no pillars: "The workers had told us that these often put up constraints for smooth moving of the barrels during the course of the year," Triaud explains. "The roof is reinforced concrete, with hidden concrete beams running across the length of it. It’s a similar idea to the construction of a bridge."

No. 6. Oldest vines:

The oldest vines at Château Pichon-Longueville are more than 80 years of age, and their grapes continue to feature in the composition of the estate's first wine: Château Pichon-Longueville.

Although the estate is 73 hectares in total, only 40 hectares go into making the first wine. This is the original terroir of the estate, on the plateau directly opposite Latour – the land that was first purchased by Pierre Rauzan. 

A second wine is also produced: Les Tourelles de Longueville.

No. 7. The oldest bottle in the cellars dates back to 1905:

And technical director Matignon is the man to seek out if you want to know how it tastes.

"When I arrived in 1985, the first two winters that I worked here were very tough," he recalls. "The conditions were so bad that we weren’t able to get anything done either in the cellar or in the vines. So we decided to re-cork all the old vintages. Every single one.

"I had discussed old vintages with colleagues, sommeliers, and friends, but to be able to personally try them all out, and to imagine the work that had gone into them – to understand the living history of the effect of difficult vintages, of war, and of near-perfect harvests, it was something that I have never forgotten, and often return to in my mind when I am tasting the new vintage each year."

The design of the new underground cellar eschews pillars so barrels can be easily moved
© Château Pichon-Longueville–A. Benoit (deepix) | The design of the new underground cellar eschews pillars so barrels can be easily moved

No. 8. What do drink now and how much you'll have to spend:

It's best to head to either the 2007 or the 2003 Château Pichon-Longueville, according to Patrice Bernard, owner of Bordeaux's Millesima wine merchants (they sell direct to the public, unlike most Bordeaux merchants).

"You can't wait too long with the 2007," he says, 'but it's great to crack open over dinner with friends right now, or over the next few years.The 2003 is also excellent to drink now; generally the Left Bank survived the heat of 2003 better than the Right Bank."

Bernard doesn't, however, see Pichon as being a big investment wine. "Its position has improved over the last few years, and it's making increasingly good wine, but it's still not up there with collectors in the same way as Léoville Poyferré or Pontet-Canet. It's got some way to go yet.' 

No. 9. Home improvements

The name Longueville is derived from the Latin words Longua Villa, meaning the "long house." Until 1840, the original buildings of the château (known then as the manoir of La Baderne) stood right alongside what has now become the Route des Châteaux. In 1851, former owner Raoul de Pichon Longueville razed the original château and moved the impressive new building he had constructed further back from the road, to offer a better perspective for visitors. 

No. 10. World wars and revolutions:

Like all the Médoc chateaux, it has had to prove adaptable to outside influences. First, the family survived the 1789 French Revolution through then-owner Joseph renouncing his title and becoming a simple "farmer" in Pauillac (although he did spend several weeks in prison for his dubious political leanings).

Centuries later, towards the end of World War II, part of the German fleet moored in the port of Pauillac and was the target of Allied bombing. To avoid the danger zone, many port-area residents moved further away from the river, with some ending up at Château Pichon-Longueville. Today you can see traces of graffiti on some of the stone walls inside the château building, attesting to the difficult conditions of the war years.

 

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron wines, their prices and available vintages on Wine-Searcher (worldwide prices, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):

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