August Hochschild meets Jean-Charles Cazes, whose family’s Bordeaux wones are a favourite of the cognoscenti
I am off to meet Jean-Charles Cazes, who has recently taken over the running of the family’s famous Bordeaux vineyard from his father, Jean-Michel.
Arriving early, after spending the night at the neighbouring Château Cordeillan-Bages hotel, also owned by the Cazes family, I walked around to the front of the family’s pretty pre-Empire château surrounded by cedars and climbing roses.
Although technically only a Fifth Growth classification, Lynch-Bages is a good example of why the 1855 Classification can so often be unhelpful, or indeed unreliable. The château has long punched well above its growth weight, which is why it is deservedly popular with members.
Turning around, I look down the sloping vineyards to the distant river Gironde and the outskirts of Pauillac. My next thought is of the soldier John Lynch, one of the first Irish Wild Geese, who in 1690 came to settle in this part of the world to escape religious persecution at home.
Inheriting the property through marriage, the Lynches eventually sold the property at the beginning of the 19th century and subsequently it went through many hands until 1939, when it was first tenanted and then bought by the one-time baker, then insurance salesman and finally vintner, Jean-Charles Cazes.
His namesake and grandson is the fresh-faced Jean-Charles, aged 35, who has every intention of continuing his family’s legacy. As one of Bordeaux’s most eligible bachelors, he tells me he is just about to move into a renovated former granary next door to the estate, as well as keeping up his apartment in Bordeaux, some 50km away. Leading me upstairs to a modern office, I ask how Lynch-Bages (a 90-hectare estate) has become one of Bordeaux’s best-known brands.
Jean-Charles opens out his hands, ‘Once in America, my father was rhetorically asked the same question. So he answered, “The terroire?” “No,” came the answer. “Well, how about the quality and consistency?” “No.” “Then perhaps the packaging, the label?” “No.” “Then why?” “Because it’s so easy for us to pronounce.”’
Leaning back, I briefly imagine a wildcatter from the boondocks of Alaska getting his tongue around Château Malescot Saint-Exupéry, or Pédesclaux. Jean-Charles shakes his head, ‘But seriously, my grandfather was a pioneer viticulturist. When he took over the vineyard, he was very particular in selecting exactly which grapes to plant where, and even more stringent about when to pick the grapes, leaving it as late as possible to allow them to be fully mature, yet running the risk that he might lose them to rot. My father built on this.’
Jean-Michel had a promising career with IBM in Paris before returning to Lynch-Bages to take over the reins. During trips to the USA, he was particularly impressed by the wineries in the Napa Valley and set about transforming Lynch-Bages’ cellar, replacing the old wooden and concrete vats with those made of stainless steel.
However, these American travels yielded further fruit, in that he followed the example set by the owners of the First Growths by hosting dinners to show their wines. Jean-Charles continues, ‘In the 1970s there were three or four of these dinners a year and this encouraged visibility and loyalty – it worked,’ he shrugs, ‘now of course there is a Bordeaux dinner virtually once a week.’
One reason that Lynch-Bages was also able to prosper during the 1970s and 1980s – when many great Bordeaux vineyards ended up being sold or couldn’t afford essential re-investment – was that the family had shrewdly diversified their commercial interests, in particular through a joint wine subsidiary venture with insurance giant AXA, with whom Jean-Michel had close connections. ‘When the very good vintages of the 1980s came along we could afford to wind down these interests,’ says Jean-Charles.
In 2000, his father Jean-Michel sold the insurance side of the family business to concentrate on vineyard investments around the world. This ever-burgeoning portfolio of estates includes properties in France, Portugal and Australia.
Jean-Charles then leads me up a narrow wooden staircase to flooring built around all the old wooden vats. Railway tracks run across the wide-spaced planked floor and there is a plethora of ancient tools and devices that looks like part of an agricultural museum exhibit. They are.
Jean-Charles points to a crane and bucket at the far end to the attic. ‘That was used for bringing up the grapes, and that,’ he swivels around pointing to an immense tray of wheels, ‘was where they trod the grapes.’ The contraption was built in 1850 and, in its day, was the state of the art for wine making. ‘Everything is based on gravity, so they used fewer pumps,’ he says.
‘But more importantly it was less dangerous for the workers, because the asphyxiating CO₂ would filter down and they would not have to breathe it in.’ Modernisation made the plant redundant in 1975. ‘I want to look again into how we can use gravity in making our wines,’ he says.
‘We are always thinking about how we can make improvements. Now, would you like to taste the 2005?’ Automatically my head nods.
During the en primeur season I tried many of the lauded 2005s and indeed the Lynch-Bages offering is no exception to what is a staggering wine. The balance between the fruit, acid and tannins will no doubt deliver what his vineyard has done for so long. The proverbial angst is that one has to wait another good fifteen to 20 years to drink this great beast.
‘A short-cut to lunch,’ Jean-Charles says as he takes me through a cellar door leading back into the sunlight of the Bages village square. It’s a building site. No, it’s a film set, with a brand spanking new café, a bakery and a bazaar, the estate wine shop. All in glistening white stone and with smart ice cream-coloured awnings.
We take a seat in front of the Café Lavinal and Jean-Charles continues his explanation as we study the menu. ‘My father is now concentrating more on our hospitality business,’ he says.
By this he means the family’s burgeoning restaurant, café, hotel and retail empire. This includes the celebrated Michelin-starred Le Chapon Fin restaurant in Bordeaux, where the chef since 2003 has been Nicolas Frion, formerly a star pupil of chefs Boyer and Bocuse.
Closer to home there’s the cutting-edge two-star restaurant (tipped to become a three-star) at the Cordeillan-Bages hotel, about a ten-minute walk down the hill. The latter’s acclaimed kitchen is run by head chef Thierry Marx, a former soldier and black belt in judo, who is regarded as one of the rising stars of modern French techno-cuisine.
If you are planning on a visit, book early as French foodies will travel all day to taste such signature dishes as liquid quiche lorraine, bean-sprout risotto and sweetbread spaghetti.
The menu at the Café Lavinal is less ambitious; more like a traditional brasserie. My eyes light up as a pretty brunette waitress appears with a bottle of the Blanc de Lynch-Bages, a wine I had only heard about before. The label has something of a cult status with wine buffs on account of its scarcity.
While Lynch-Bages is famous for its claret, fewer people know that the chateau also produces a very fine white. Originally, it was only produced privately for the Cazes family and their friends. ‘There was an article in Vogue, or somewhere, saying that it was the smartest white wine, because it was only to be found on the proprietor’s table,’ says Jean-Charles. ‘So we started selling a small quantity.’
The current demand comes as no surprise. The 70 per cent Semillon and 30 per cent Sauvignon has a honeyed nose and taste, the slight sweetness counteracted by lemon and minerals. It is a stunning wine. I look across to the newly-opened Au Baba bakery across the little square.
More than 75 years after the Cazes family originally acquired the vineyard, it’s good to see that they are still in the bakery business. Just then a bottle of Ormes de Pez, a Saint-Estèphe appellation, is put down on the table.
I am very fond of this wine, but in my infinite gluttony, I can’t help thinking of a double-magnum of vintage Lynch-Bages.