No. 1. The biggest vineyard:
Château Lagrange today has almost 400 acres of vines (157 hectares), an eye-popping size. Not all of the land is planted to grapes, but with 300 acres under vine it is the largest of the classified growths.
As far back as the 13th century, grapes were grown on the site and various religious orders owned the land – giving rise to names such as “Chapel” and “l’Hospital” that continue to be used today for some plots.
No. 2. Foreign owners:
Suntory, the Japanese drinks company, purchased the property in 1983 from the Cendoya family, who had owned it for almost 60 years. During that time it had fallen into disrepair as the various Cendoyas spent more time feuding than farming.
Suntory scooped up the fixer-upper for 54 million francs, then about $6.4 million. One company official said there was some local resentment at the time about a “crown jewel” being sold to foreigners. But, after 30 years of subtle stewardship and seeming limitless resources, it’s hard to imagine there are any local objections now.
No. 3. Biking around the barrel room:
Suntory embarked on a Herculean renovation of the vineyard and the winemaking facility. To oversee the project, it engaged a top-flight oenologist, the late Émile Peynaud, and hired one of his former students, Marcel Ducasse, as general manager and winemaker. In the vineyard, they embarked on a massive replanting campaign, shifting the varietal mix away from merlot and toward cabernet sauvignon; they also introduced petit verdot. In all, there are 110 plots in the vineyard today.
In the winery, the old fermentation tanks were replaced with new stainless steel tanks. (These have again been replaced or supplemented more recently with smaller tanks, so almost every plot can be fermented separately.) The enormous (45,000 square feet) barrel room was expanded and renovated by the same architect who designed the barrel room at Château Margaux; it’s so large that the staff use bikes to get around inside. In all, Suntory poured about ten times the purchase price into the property and it took 13 years to become cash-flow positive.
Bruno Eynard, general manager and winemaker who has been at the estate since 1990, has a positive view of Suntory’s ownership: “They are very clever. The installed a French management team. And they understood that to make a great wine takes a lot of money.”
No. 4. The benefits of aging:
A third of the vines today are more than 30 years old, and fully 54 percent are between 20 and 29 years old – thanks to the expansive planting after the Suntory purchase. Robin Kelley O’Connor, European wine specialist at Italian Wine Merchants in New York City, who considers Lagrange to be one of Bordeaux’s “unsung heroes,” says that the vines’ coming of age has really made the Lagrange wines blossom since about 2005. “On properties with good terroir, you can see the replanting fully come to fruition in about 20–25 years.”
No. 5. Vineyard drag queen:
Petit verdot is a workhorse grape that adds oomph; Eynard dubs it a “booster” and “insurance” in case of adverse vintages. But his predecessor, Marcel Ducasse, was known to call it the “drag queen” of grapes, saying that on its own, it has too much body, too much makeup, too much of everything. Petit verdot first appeared in Lagrange in the 1990 vintage, representing 12 percent of the final blend.
No. 6. Climate change:
Global warming is the most important question for the future, according to Eynard. “In our business, we're not working for the next year, we're working for the next 50–100 years. It is very difficult to know what to do.”
Eynard cites drainage as an example. Twenty years ago, the Lagrange team tried to improve drainage, yet in the future, drought or heat waves might favor greater water retention in the soil. They are also adjusting grape varieties, reducing petit verdot since there’s less need for that late-ripening “insurance.”
No. 7. Drinking now:
Château Lagrange 1989 and 1990 are two highly regarded wines; O’Connor considers the 1990 to be one of the finest wines of the vintage. The 1995, 2000 and 2005 were all strong vintages, and more recently, the 2010 and 2009 were also standouts. Describing Lagrange as the “marvelous third growth,” O’Connor says he admires one of the property’s outstanding characteristics: consistency.
No. 8. Les Fiefs:
The estate's second wine, called Les Fiefs de Lagrange, has consistently been seen as one of the best second wines from Bordeaux and remains reasonably priced. And since it accounts for the lion’s share of the estate’s production, it has, understandably, been the château’s calling card for a long time.
No. 9. In the mood for a party:
Hosting the Fête de la Fleur is a massive undertaking, as the entire barrel room has had to be cleared of barrels (the full ones have been moved to subterranean cellars). But it comes at a good time for the estate: not only is it the 30th anniversary of Suntory’s ownership, but the group has become more consumer friendly with the introduction of a shop for older vintages and a limited set of guest rooms.
No. 10. China vs. U.S.:
Eynard has been to China five times already this year; he’s also been to the U.S., with another trip scheduled in the fall. “The Chinese today are like the Japanese 30 years ago – they want to learn about wine,” he says. “We can gain market share more easily. The U.S. remains an important market but your wine knowledge is already so high.”
Still, that did not stop Eynard from working with his distributor in April, visiting some shops in the New York City area. His schedule impressed Daniel Posner, managing partner at Grapes the Wine Company, who wrote in an email offering the “excellent value” 2009 Lagrange to his customers that: “It is fun to see the Bordelais working the market again. I almost sense that they value our business.”
Chateau Lagrange wine prices on Wine-Searcher (world wide prices, ex-tax per 750ml bottle):