When wine enthusiasts think of Pauillac wine, three names usually come to mind: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild, and Château Latour. However, these first-growth châteaux aren’t the only Pauillac producers that matter. A recent discussion on the Wine Berserkers forum proves this point. One member asked for recommendations on the most consistent non-first-growth wines in Bordeaux. The majority of the wines that other members recommended came from Pauillac. They all seemed to agree that Pauillac produces wines of extraordinary quality, even if they’re from producers classified as second or even fifth growth.
This is why many collectors choose to start Pauillac wine collections. Wines from this region receive top scores from critics and can age for very long periods of time. Although producers from this area only make traditional Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, there’s still plenty of diversity of flavor in these wines, making the tasting experience very exciting. If you want to start your own Pauillac wine collection from scratch or you’re looking for new wines to add to an already extensive collection, then this guide will help you discover the best wines that this region has to offer.
Why Pauillac Wine Is Among the Finest in the World
The Pauillac wine-growing commune is located on Bordeaux’s famous Médoc peninsula. This peninsula is known for producing wines of exceptional quality; Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien, and Margaux are also located here. However, while there are plenty of top-quality terroirs in the Médoc, many Bordeaux enthusiasts consider wines from Pauillac to be the finest and most valuable. In the 1855 Médoc Classification, which ranked Bordeaux’s best wines, three of the top five producers came from Pauillac. The high quality of these wines is due to the area’s unique terroir.
How Water Impacts the Vines
Pauillac is sandwiched between two bodies of water: the Gironde River to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Cooling oceanic winds give the wines some healthy acidity. Likewise, the river also provides some benefit to the vines, supplying water deep underground that the roots can access during especially dry years.
Every terroir in Pauillac has a slightly different soil composition that makes the grapes taste distinct from those grown in neighboring vineyards.
Soil Composition Plays an Important Role
The finest Pauillac grapes are never diluted, even when the region receives a lot of rainfall. That’s because the rocky, gravelly soil prevents the vines from absorbing too much water at once. This is especially true of the northern half of the region, where there is a deep layer of gravel under a top layer of sand, limestone, and marl. The vines here have to extend their roots very deep into the soil in order to find nutrients and water. This stress gives the grapes more concentration and layers of flavor. Grapevine canopies are often sparse due to a lack of water, which exposes the grapes to more sunlight and allows them to ripen more fully. The resulting grapes are small and very flavorful.
At the southern end of the region, the elevation is lower and the soil composition is very different. These soils are richer in iron and clay and also contain more sand. As a result, the soil here drains more slowly, so the wines tend to be less concentrated. This is why many Bordeaux collectors seek out wines made in the northern terroirs of Pauillac.
Pauillac Is Very Diverse
While you can generally define Pauillac wine as rich, full-bodied, and deeply concentrated, the region has many microclimates that alter the flavor profile of the wine made there. For example, every terroir has a slightly different soil composition that makes the grapes taste distinct from those grown in neighboring vineyards. Pauillac producers take pride in these differences. My friends who collect great Bordeaux vintages can often tell the difference between a glass of Château Latour and a glass of Château Lafite Rothschild in a blind tasting. Moreover, while producers in Pauillac primarily use Cabernet Sauvignon in their blends, each producer will add a percentage of other grape varieties as well, which also affects the flavor profile of the wine.
A Guide to the Wine Varieties of Pauillac
In Pauillac, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. The region has a longstanding tradition of growing Cabernet Sauvignon, likely because these grapes grow especially well in fast-draining soils. However, this wine region also grows high-quality Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carménère, and Malbec. The percentage of each grape variety in a Pauillac wine varies, but a typical blend looks like:
Nearly all Pauillac wine contains at least 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, so you can expect to find the classic characteristics of this variety, to some extent, in every blend. The addition of Merlot makes Pauillac wines taste rounder, so if you like this style, then look for blends with a higher percentage of Merlot. Cabernet Franc can also soften Pauillac wine. Many winemakers use this grape in the blend when the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes didn’t ripen as fully as they had hoped. If a producer uses more Petit Verdot in a blend, the resulting wine is usually more tannic and deeper in color. More Malbec also gives a darker color and more prominent tannins to the wine. And finally, blends with Carménère add spicy, smoky, and red fruit flavors. This grape isn’t widely-planted because much of the plantings were destroyed by the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century. Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Clerc Milon still use this grape in their blends.
Every producer has its own unique blend. To start a Pauillac wine collection or add to an existing one, you should identify the producers that make blends that appeal to your tastes.
How to Invest in the Best Pauillac Wine Producers
Nearly every Pauillac producer makes high-quality wines. The growing conditions in the region are ideal, so even fifth-growth estates are worthy of consideration. However, if you’re looking to buy only the top-rated, most valuable bottles from the area, then you should start by seeking out wine from the following producers:
These first-growth producers are highly sought-after among collectors and sell for the highest prices on the secondary marketplace.
The second-growth estates produce wines that are almost as fine as the first growths (some Bordeaux enthusiasts even prefer them). Still, because they have second-growth status, they usually sell for hundreds of dollars less on the secondary market compared to first growths. The quality-to-price ratio is usually excellent.
The problem with categorizing producers into growths is that sometimes the classification doesn’t accurately reflect the overall quality of the wine.
There are no third-growth producers in Pauillac; however, there is one fourth-growth estate:
Fourth-growth producers are usually worth slightly less than second growths on the secondary market. However, there isn’t as massive a difference in price between second and fourth growths as there is between first growths and second growths. For example, 2010 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande is worth $185 per bottle, while 2010 Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild is worth $125 per bottle.
- Château Pontet-Canet
- Château Batailley
- Château Haut-Batailley
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste
- Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse
- Château Lynch-Bages
- Château Lynch-Moussas
- Château d’Armailhac (formerly Château Mouton-Baronne-Philippe)
- Château Haut-Bages-Libéral
- Château Pédesclaux
- Château Clerc-Milon
- Château Croizet-Bages
As you can see, there are many fifth-growth Pauillac wine producers to choose from. Each of these producers has its own distinctive style, so it’s worth tasting a few to find out which you enjoy most. The problem with categorizing producers into growths is that sometimes the classification doesn’t accurately reflect the overall quality of the wine. For example, Château Lynch-Bages is often highly praised by critics, yet it’s still classified as a fifth growth. The estate’s co-director Charles Thuillier says, “We’re a fifth growth but are often told that our wines are the quality of a second growth. Château Pontet-Canet is in a similar situation.” The original 1855 Classification is rarely amended. For this reason, you should look beyond the rankings and consider each producer on its own merits.
Choosing the Best Pauillac Wine Vintages
Pauillac wine producers can usually make top-quality wines even in difficult years, however, some vintages are more reliable and valuable than others. Here are the best Pauillac wine vintages of the past 30 years:
- 2016: A very dry summer put stress on the vines, producing grapes that were very concentrated and tannic. These wines are also quite aromatic.
- 2010: Perfect weather conditions resulted in well-structured wines that are ripe, powerful, and have just the right amount of acidity. They have excellent aging potential.
- 2009: Warm weather made these wines lush and rich. They are less structured than the 2010 but should also have great aging potential.
- 2005: A rainy spring followed by a warm, even summer gave these wines great depth and structure. The flavors are very layered and will continue to develop with time.
- 2003: A very hot growing season produced intense, bold wines. Quality was uneven across other parts of Bordeaux, but many Pauillac producers made exceptional wines.
- 2000: The first half of the growing season was cold and wet, but the weather started to warm up by mid-summer. These wines started out quite acidic and tannic but have softened beautifully with age.
- 1995: The weather was ideal, with a cool spring, hot summer, and a slightly rainy harvest season. These wines are perfectly balanced, well-structured, and very long-lived.
In cooler growing conditions, Pauillac wine can become a bit too acidic and lean. Many of the best wines are produced in years with hot, dry summers because these conditions allow the grapes to ripen fully and become more concentrated in flavor. Pauillac is naturally cooler than many surrounding winegrowing regions, so the wines rarely taste too alcoholic or fruit-forward, even when the weather was warm. For this reason, you should look for wines made in warm years whenever possible, as these will be the most balanced and will have excellent aging potential.
Additional Tips for Investing in Pauillac Wine
If you want to lay down Pauillac wine, plan to hold onto your bottles for at least ten years. Even fifth-growth producers make wines that develop slowly over time; however, the longest-lived Pauillac wine is usually made by the first- and second-growth estates. These wines reach peak maturity between 15 and 40 years after release, depending on the vintage quality and storage conditions. Some of the finest Pauillac wine can age for 100 years or more. This is rare, but there are a few exceptionally old wines, like 1787 Château Lafite Rothschild, that are still traded on the secondary market today. Not all of these wines are still drinkable (many are long past their peak), but they represent an important piece of Bordeaux history and continue to gain in value.
Because there is so much diversity in Pauillac, it’s worthwhile to try both young and old wines from multiple producers in the area.
You can also drink Pauillac wine young. Some vintages can be quite lean and unapproachable in their youth, but in warmer years especially, you can usually find a few bottles that are enjoyable within just a few years of release. Because there is so much diversity in Pauillac, it’s worthwhile to try both young and old wines from multiple producers in the area. The region is small (only about nine square miles total and home to about 115 châteaux), so you could potentially sample wines from every producer. When you try a variety of wines from this region, you’ll discover new, exciting Pauillac producers and blends that will add significant value to your Bordeaux collection.
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