No. 1. Towering frights:
The château’s first owner, Joseph Stanislas Gruaud, built a tower in 1740 that looked over the nearby vineyards and the village of Beychevelle. Flags were flown from the tower to denote the nationality of the most recent customers. “It was a way to boast to the neighbors that he had sold his wine,” says general manager Jean Merlaut. Monsieur Gruaud appears to have been a little eccentric: legend has it that he would sometimes use the tower as a sentinel post.
Today, it is used to fly the national flags of its 9,000 visitors a year. A warning, though: be careful not to leave any loose items, such as pens, on the tower's ledges on a windy day, as I did. The château’s unassuming gardener below may get a nasty shock when they fall from a great height!
No. 2. The coat of arms:
The château's coat of arms, representing many aspects of the estate’s history, adorns every label of Gruaud Larose. The two lions are a nod to local historic figure Eleanor of Aquitaine, who in 1152 married Henry Plantagenet (later King Henry II of England). The ship acknowledges a powerful 16th-century governor of the region; vessels passing his home dropped their sails in tribute to him. The bunch of grapes flanked by anchors represents the importance of wine and the Gironde Estuary to the area.
No. 3. Reunification:
The original estate was divided in 1865 into two crus, Gruaud Larose-Bethmann and Gruaud Larose-Saget, named after the families that inherited the property. In 1917, businessman Désiré Cordier bought Gruaud Larose-Sarget from the widow of Baron Sarget de Lafontaine, and in 1935 he bought the Bethmann family out of the other cru, thus restoring the estate to its original size. (At the time of the first purchase, Cordier was already owner of Sauternes estate Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. He went on to buy Château Talbot in Saint-Julien and Château Meyney in Saint-Estèphe.) Château Gruaud Larose has changed hands a number of times since it was reunified. Today, it is one of 21 estates owned by the Taillan Group, which also owns Bordeaux négociants Ginestet.
No. 4. Bang for your buck:
Gruaud Larose has "never caught the eye of the investment market," says Joss Fowler, director of Fine & Rare Wines in London. This means the prices of this second growth have stayed relatively reasonable. Until recently, it had a reputation as a wine for die-hard claret lovers, and lacks some of the gloss of fellow Saint-Julien estates. But it also has maintained a sensible attitude toward pricing.
Nick Pagoria, retail sales manager at Hart Davis Hart in Chicago, notes that even in highly esteemed vintages, the château's pricing has been cautious. "Gruaud has always provided good value. The 1982 trades around $300–$350 and the 1986 at $175–$200. When you compare it to many other second growths of similar quality, Gruaud does quite well on value. In vintages like 2009 and 2010, they came out around $85–$110, which, given the quality and the overall price inflation of those vintages, provides great value."
No. 5. Cabernet crush:
“We had a lot of frost in the 1950s," says Merlaut, "so people put merlot in the warmer areas [of the vineyard] and cabernet sauvignon in the cooler parts, because it buds later.” But this was not necessarily in the best interests of wine quality. In recent times, "we have moved the cabernet sauvignon to the best parts of the vineyard,” i.e. the places where it ripens.
The ratio of cabernet sauvignon has been steadily climbing in the past decade. Today, cabernet accounts for 60 percent of the plantings, with merlot sitting on 30 percent. Cabernet franc and petit verdot make up the rest. Malbec no longer plays a role at Gruaud Larose. There are plans to continue planting cabernet so that it accounts for 70 percent of the vineyard within 10 years.
No. 6. A "bargain" of a second wine:
The estate’s second wine was introduced in 1979 and is named Sarget de Gruaud Larose, in honour of Baron Sarget de Lafontaine. Previously, wines that didn’t make the grand vin were sold under the name of the appellation, Saint-Julien.
Production varies depending on the quality of the vintage. In the tricky 1997 vintage, 80 percent of estate’s production was bottled as Sarget, with only 20 percent deemed good enough to go into the grand vin, whereas in 2005, 55 percent of the total production went into the first wine.
Joss Fowler says Sarget is “often an out-and-out bargain, particularly in strong vintages. The 2009 is a particularly good example.”
Going forward, Giles Cooper of Bordeaux Index is keen that the estate continues with its "fair pricing strategy for both its grand vin and second wine. "It’s important that they never lose sight of what made them so popular in the past. Smart pricing means than they can remain, as they have always been, on the wine lists of top restaurants and in the cellars of enthusiastic collectors – not simply on the tables of billionaires."
No. 7. Twenty leagues under the sea:
In February 1872, a ship called the Marie-Therese left Bordeaux bound for Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam carrying 2,000 bottles of 1865 Gruaud Larose. The vessel sank in a storm in the Gaspar Straits in Indonesia. One hundred and twenty years later, several hundred of the bottles were brought to the surface. The wine was tasted and found to have some floral notes, but otherwise to be 'dead.'
No. 8. Ready, aim, fire:
Since 1997, there has been a hail-prevention cannon in the vineyards of Gruaud-Larose. “There are only three in Bordeaux,” Merlaut proudly proclaims. “There’s a radar looking out for the risk of hail," he explains. If it detects some coming, it fires, sending out soundwaves "that break the surface of the hail so you get smaller hail — or, ideally, no hail. 2009 was a horrible hail year, yet we didn’t have any problems here at all.”
Perhaps Gruaud-Larose should have loaned the cannon to the growers of Entre-deux-Mers during the 2013 season!
No. 9. Royal ties
The motto Le Vin des Rois, Le Roi des Vins (The Wine of Kings, The King of Wines) is written on the château’s coat of arms. While the wines are respectable, they certainly aren’t the jewel in Bordeaux's crown. Joss Fowler calls them “solid” in terms of both style and quality.
However, the motto has been an inspiration to creative types: a poem eulogizing the estate was written in 1869. Then in 1907, a song dedicated to Gruaud Larose-Sarget was sung at the Bordeaux maritime exhibition, which lasted six months and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
After 28 bars of music (!), the lyrics finally begin, but they certainly wouldn't win any songwriting awards. Translated, part of the song says: “Nothing is better than a good wine. Never fear drinking too much because nothing is better for your health. In particular, taste and taste again the good wine of Larose-Sarget. Yes, don't stop tasting. Believe me, it is the king of wines, the wine of kings.”
Lorde can breathe easy on the U.S. Billboard charts this week.
No. 10. What to drink now:
Gruaud Larose is a wine that requires patience, says Nick Pagoria. "Gruaud is a bit misunderstood. The wines require time to lose some of the hard shell but, given time, can blossom into incredibly elegant and beautiful wines. If they are able to get the word out to consumers that Gruaud Larose is a wine that handsomely repays cellaring…" He suggests the 1982, 1990 and 1995 vintages for current drinking.
Similarly, Fowler picks out the 1982 and 1990. "Perfectly stored bottles of 1982 can be a revelation and show just how good Gruaud can be; 1982 Gruaud is arguably up there with the first growths," he says. He also nominates the 1996 as great for drinking now, but says there's no rush: "There’s still another decade in it."
Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):
|Wine Name||Avg. Price|
|Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien||$108|
|Sarget de Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien||$32|
|Larose de Gruaud, Saint-Julien||$33|