Visiting Château Lagrézette, Cahors, where aided by Michel Rolland, Alain Dominique Perrin is making some of the best wines of the southwest
Back in 1979, Alain Dominique Perrin fell in love with a ruined castle, Château Lagrézette. It was a grand fortified house built in the 15th century by the Massault family on the ruins of an earlier castle from the 12th century, but by the time he chanced on it had been more or less neglected since the 1930s. It needed a lot of work, but he committed to it, and made the purchase in 1980. Over the next 12 years he spent significant money restoring this gem, using three teams of architects. ‘The Massaut family transformed this from a medieval castle to a renaissance castle,’ says Perrin. ‘Lots of the carvings were made by Italians, with a lot of grotesque.’ He started living here in 1989, before it was finished in 1992.
Perrin is famous for turning the fortunes of luxury brand Cartier around, and in France he’s very well known. But he started out as an antiques dealer, and to this day his love for beautiful old furniture drives him, as well as his love for art. As he shows us around the castle, he keeps pointing out various pieces, which over the years he’s tracked down, including many from England. ‘You’ve taken everything from us for ages,’ says Perrin, as he shows us yet another piece of antique French furniture that he tracked down in the UK.
Perrin’s origins are the Pays Basque, but he came to know Cahors and its surroundings from playing rugby here, when he was turning out for Paris.
But it’s wine that I’m interested today. When he bought the Chateau there was no vineyard here, and he’d never planned to make wine, but in digging around the archives he found a document showing that wine had been made here as early as 1503. It’s likely that it was made even earlier, and Perrin thinks 1490 is probably the start date. At the time, some of the wine was being sent to England where it would likely have been blended with wines from Bordeaux.
It was Guy Pradel, the mayor of Caillac, who set up the vineyard. When Perrin bought the château, his lawyers told him that he had 3.5 ha of planting rights, so he asked Pradel to put the vineyard in. Initially the wines were made at a local cooperative, but Perrin had enlisted a friend of his who knew a thing or two about making wine to help. This was none other than Michel Rolland, the famed Bordeaux-based consultant.
The two have been working together here for over 30 years now, and are personal friends. Rolland initially focused attention on getting the vineyard right. The initial wines seemed pretty good, and the project grew.
In 1992 he built a cellar at the castle to make the wine, which was then extended and renovated in 2011. The vineyards have now expanded to three locations. There are 60 hectares around the castle in Caillac (gravels and clay soils), and then a further 20 at Landiech, where there are five plots with different soils, but all with a Kimmerdidgian limestone base.
Finally, there are 10 hectares at Rocamadour, with limestone soils. ‘At the beginning Mr Perrin found a wonderful terroir in Rocamadour, and spoke with lots of friends including Marcel Guigal, and he planted some Syrah and Viognier,’ says Cedric Blanc, the Lagrézette winemaker and viticulturist. The Viognier was very interesting but the Syrah was more problematic so got taken out. They were picking it at the end of October and rarely got the right maturity. One year they picked Syrah 3 November and it was snowing. The soils are pure limestone below a 1 m top soil.
‘My life story is with luxury, my life story is with fashion,’ says Perrin. ‘And the only part of my life where fashion doesn’t mean anything is my wine business. Wine is not fashion. Wine is an art de vivre; it’s an elegance; it’s about taste; it’s about food and I think that France is the country where food and wine became the most important part of their culture. I don’t give a damn about the fashion in wine. Now the fashion is bio, tomorrow it will be something else and yesterday it was something else and twenty years ago it was heavy barrels and now it’s a bit less barrel. I’m not following that.’
Winemaking is in the hands of Cedric Blanc, who began working here in 2007. Since 2017 his role has expanded beyond the cellar and he now runs the whole estate as well as the vineyards and winery. ‘The most important thing is the pruning,’ says Blanc. They use simple guyot which he thinks is the best for the Malbec. ‘Five or six buds is enough with Malbec,’ he says.
The winery is recently renovated, and its layout and tank sizes have been designed with the vineyards in mind. It’s a gravity flow winery on three layers, to avoid having to pump. The reception and pressing station is at the top, and the press has the Inertys (nitrogen lung) system, so that if desired the grapes and must can be kept away from oxygen.
Blanc says that while a lot of his attention goes on the top cuvées, the real challenge is making the Chateau and Chevalier wines because these are made in quantities of 100 000 bottles – so this is the big challenge, rather than making the top wines.
In one vintage, processing 300 tons of fruit is typical for this winery, and average production is 300 000 bottles. Blanc says that since he arrived, he’s been looking to extract less. He thinks the wines were good, but perhaps too strong. Now the grapes are moved to the vat by gravity, and rather than using pump-overs, he does punch downs with a hyrdraulically operated plunger, which is more gentle. He has five different cooperages for barrels, and isn’t looking for the flavour of new wood in the wines. The grapes are picked ripe, giving the tannins a chance to soften on the vines, but he’s not looking for over-ripeness. The result is red wines that have a softness and approachability, as well as the intensity that comes from Malbec in this part of the world.
La Rosé de Julie Malbec 2020 Côtes du Lot
12.5% alcohol. Hand picked, cold grapes pressed whole bunch. Stainless steel ferment at 18 C, kept on lees for three months with stirring every month, bottled end of January. Very clean and fresh with lovely fruit. Fine cherries with a citrus/pear core. Supple, fruity and aromatic. Very stylish. 88/100
Roseberry Malbec 2020 Côtes du Lot
12.5% alcohol. 3 g/l residual sugar. Named after Berangere, who is nicknamed Berry. Very fruity and expressive with a bit of sappy detail, showing sweet cherries and pear fruit, with a lovely fruity quality. Has a touch of raspberry, with lovely fruitiness. 89/100
Le Pigeonnier Rosé Malbec 2020 Côtes du Lot
Fermented in 400 and 500 litre barrels, aged on lees with battonage. Lovely intense aromatics here with grapefruit and some wood spice as well as lovely pear, peach and plum fruit. Very fine and expressive with lovely volume and weight: there is a rounded texture, some smoky brioche and lovely citrus intensity on the finish. This could age. 92/100
Merveille de Rocamadour Viognier 2018 Côtes du Lot
15% alcohol. Fermented in 3700 wooden tank with a stirring system. Powerful and wonderfully aromatic with peach, apricot and ripe pear. Lovely rich texture with some sweetness from the alcohol and a detailed, spicy, orange peel finish as well as touch of cucumber. This is a lovely distinctive wine, with bags of Viognier character. 94/100
Le Pigeonnier White Vision Viognier 2018 Côtes du Lot, France
15% alcohol. Selection of the grapes. 400 and 500 litre barrels, 20% new oak. This is concentrated and intense with powerful pear and peach fruit with some apricot and a hint of fennel. Viscous and multi-layered with some cinnamon and candied lemon peel over a peachy background, with some warmth on the finish. A very distinctive expression of Viognier. Finishes warm and nutty. 94/100
Purple Malbec 2018 Cahors, France
14% alcohol. No oak. Supple, juicy and fruity with nice floral berry fruits and a nice touch of green. Easy-drinking and tasty, this is quite pure and fruit-driven. 86/100
Seigneur de Grezette Malbec 2018 Cahors, France
14% alcohol. No oak. Juicy and bright with red cherries and berries, showing a touch of spicy structure, some green hints, and very approachable fruit. A lovely ripe expression of Malbec with nice focus and balance. 88/100
Chevalier du Château Lagrezette Malbec 2018 Cahors, France
The second wine of the estate, 10% new oak, all in barrel for 12-14 months. Mostly younger vines and the first terrace in Caillac near the river. Fresh, juicy and bright with some fine spiciness and a bit of structure, supporting ripe blackberry and cherry fruit. It’s supple, drinkable and fruit-driven with good drinkability and purity. 89/100
Langrezette De Ma So Malbec 2019 Cahors, France
14.5% alcohol. From Landiech, 100% new oak. Ma So is a pun on Massaut, the original owners of Lagrezette, and it’s also the nickname of Sonia, Alain’s daughter. The wine is made in support of a children’s charity in Madagascar, and tries to incorporate some of the flavours from here. It is made with the help of Matilde de Laurent of Cartier, the in-house perfumier there. Label design is by the artist Malala. It’s spicy and peppery, with some smoky notes and a touch od wood. The palate is powerful, rich, quite tannic with bold black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, and a sweetness on the finish. Lots of intensity here: a very forward expression of Malbec. 92/100
The first vintage with the new label of the Château wine was 2003. Each year Perrin chooses an artist to produce a new expression of a view of the castle – a unique representation of the château.
Château Lagrezette 2014 Cahors, France
14% alcohol. 18 months maturation in French oak. This is ripe and sleek with textured black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, with a slight saltiness and a touch of sour cherry on the finish. There are notes of liqourice and spice, and it is starting to soften, but it still has some grippy structure. 92/100
Château Lagrezette 2015 Cahors, France
15% alcohol. A warm, sunny year, and one of the best vintages for the winery. Very ripe grapes led to intense expressions of Malbec. Sweetly aromatic with some leafy notes, an autumnal character (game and smoky leaves) and sweet fruit. The palate is ripe, sweetly fruited and has soft tannins, with the emphasis on bold blackberry fruit and a slight salty edge. There’s a touch of cured meat savouriness, and then a warm, spicy finish. Real depth here. Lovely intensity, exploding on the finish with marmalade and spice. 93/100
Château Lagrezette 2016 Cahors, France
15% alcohol. A damp year until the end of July, then afterwards very warm summer. Fresh and floral on the nose with some peppery notes. The palate is fresh and bright with some sweet cherry and plum fruit, some liqueur-like richness, and hints of olive and pepper. Lovely definition to the fruit, with some brightness. Has some structure with a nice density, and finishes fresh with good acidity. So different to the 2015, even though the grape analysis at harvest was very similar. 94/100
Château Lagrezette 2018 Cahors, France
14.5% alcohol. Big frost in spring, and they stopped pruning, and then they got a yield of 55 hl/ha when the average for this vintage is about 20. This is supple, fresh, bright and expressive with lovely well-defined black cherry and blackberry fruit, supported by good tannic structure. This has some polish, but not too much, with lovely focused fruit. Has a slight salty finish. 94/100
Cuvée Marguerite 2016 Cahors, France
15% alcohol. Named after Marguerite de Massaut, the original proprietor here back in the early 16th century. This is from Landiege and its floral expression is typical from this vineyard. 18 months is barrel, one-third new oak. Inky dark and intense with concentrated sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit with good structure under the ripe, lush fruit. This has amazing intensity with some spice, chalk, liquorice, roast meat and olive character. Grainy and fine on the finish, this is ripe, pure and very fine. Lovely intensity. 95/100
Cuvée Dame Honneur du Chateau Lagrézette 2016 Cahors, France
Selection of grapes from Caillac. Low yield of 30 hl/ha, aged 22-24 months in new oak. Concentrated, fresh, intense and vivid with some spicy, woody notes alongside fresh black cherry fruit, with a touch of raspberry. Good structure here, with freshness as well as ripe oak. Has quite a spicy, cured meat and soy dimension to it. Has some warmth from the alcohol, which adds a sweet, slightly salty edge. Such a distinctive wine. 94/100
Paragon Malbec 2012 Cahors, France
A selection of different terroirs of Landiech, in this case mostly the gravel part. Aged 22 months in new oak. Concentrated, powerful and structured with ripe, sleek blackberry and black cherry fruit, and a slight salty character. Smooth tannins, but there’s a slight savoury edge, too. Really expressive, showing a bit of bite. 95/100
Paragon Malbec 2015 Cahors, France
15.5% alcohol. A selection of different terroirs of Landiech, in this case mostly the gravel part. Aged 22 months in new oak. This is ripe and multidimensional with floral black cherry and blackberry fruit with a salty, peppery edge and a sleekness on the palate. Great concentration here, with a wall of well-defined sweet black fruits and some notes of olive and prune on the finish. There’s some alcoholic warmth, but overall the impression is one of freshness and lovely fruit intensity. The oak is completely absorbed. 96/100
Le Pigeonnier Malbec 2011 Cahors, France
This is from the vineyard next to the chateau with a beautiful pigeonnier. Concentrated and dense with great, spicy, tarry floral black cherry and blackberry fruit, showing good intensity. Nice tannic structure here, too. This is very nicely balanced with ripeness but also generosity. 95/100
Le Pigeonnier Malbec 2016 Cahors, France
16% alcohol. This is from the vineyard next to the chateau with a beautiful pigeonnier: it’s famous as the only pigeonnier with 6 legs, and now it has been converted to bedrooms. The artist César stayed here when he came on one of his many visits. 22 months in new oak, 6000 bottles made. Floral, aromatic with sweet black cherry and blackcurrant fruit on the nose. This is really intense and structured on the palate with good tannin, some notes of chalk and gravel, and fresh, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit. The oak has been swallowed up by the intense fruit with lovely focus and grip. This may have a lot of alcohol, but the overall impression is of a ripe but fresh wine with good structure. Very expressive: a brilliant expression of Malbec. 96/100
Mon Vin 2015 Cahors
The last wine is not commercially available, but is a private bottling for Perrin. About nine years ago Rolland came here with an unlabelled bottle and a glass and presented it to Perrin. It turned out to be a special wine fermented in an upturned barrel, mainly from Landiech but also with some Caillac fruit. It’s concentrated, very ripe, and sweetly fruited with smooth tannic structure. Grainy, grippy, chalky and quite lovely.
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