Pichon Baron History

A century and a half ago there was one Château Pichon-Longueville, but the estate was divided in 1850 into the present two properties: Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (often shortened to Pichon-Lalande) and Pichon-Longueville Baron (often shortened to Pichon-Baron). Though the two Pichons were officially divided in 1850 and the wines made individually from 1860, the estate was not legally separated until 1908. On the death of the second Raoul, Baron de Pichon Longueville, a widower for nearly 30 years, the ownership of the two Pichons had reached the third generation from the Joseph who had originally decided to split the estate. For another 25 years, until 1933, there were to be Pichon descendants at Baron.

Then the estate was purchased by the Boutelliers, direct descendants of a wine steward to Louis XIV and a family that has been intimately connected with a number of important Bordeaux estates. The prize in the family portfolio, however, was Pichon Baron. For nearly 30 years, under the aegis of Jean Bouteiller, Pichon Baron continued to produce wine which, if "old fashioned", i.e. long macerated and somewhat dense in style, nevertheless enjoyed a high reputation. It was on Jean Bouteiller's death in 1961 that the troubles began. Bouteiller's oldest son, Bernard, was only in his early 20s when his father died. Bernard was inexperienced, and he was badly served by an incompetent maitre de chai who was not as meticulous as he should have been in carrying out the orders he had been given. There was also a lack of investment; the resources were inadequate, and the equipment became increasingly out of date. The result was that Pichon Baron in the 1960's (after a fine 1962) became rather inky and coarse. The quality was even more disappointing in the early 1970s. From 1978 onwards some critics detected an improvement - the wine became less "masculine", more supple, and elegant; others continued to criticize them for being terribly inconsistent. In cask they often showed very well, but in bottle they never seemed quite to live up to their early promise. Part of the difficulty was a rapid turnover of maitres de chai. Another contributing factor was the lack of a bottling hall. The crop was bottled in the courtyard by a contractor, irrespective sometimes of the fact that it was 60 or 70 degrees in the shade.

Then in 1987 came the news that Pichon Baron had been sold. The ownership of the estate was split up between a number of members of the Bouteiller family; and the majority of these shareholders, against, it was further rumoured, the wishes of Bernard Bouteiller himself, were attracted by the price offered by the company AXA MIDI, the second largest insurance company in France. Upon the acquisition of Château Pichon Baron, a subsidiary company, AXA Millésimes, was created. Jean Michel Cazes, properietor of Lynch Bages and Les Ormes de Pez and a contemporary of AXA Chairman, Claude Bebear (they were both born in 1935, first met at school, was brought in as administrator. Cazes also happens to own a large insurance agency as well as running the family vineyards. Having raised the quality of Lynch Bages from its already high level to that of super second (connoisseurs refer to "super seconds" as Châteaux that are making such high quality wines that they approach the level of of the top second growths and sometimes even rival the quality of the elite first growth châteaux.) Cazes' appointment ensured that the full potential of Pichon Baron would be quickly realised.

The price AXA paid was startling. Pichon Baron was a vineyard of approximately 75 productive acres with an inadequate chai and an attractive but dilapidated chateau. When this and other plots are in full production there will be about 125 acres under vine. Together with other parcels which have been recently bought, the intention is to raise the productive area to 150 acres, macking Baron the same size as its sister Château, Pichon-Lalande. The vineyard is planted with 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot. The investment required to rebuild the chai and renovate the chateau was 40 million francs. This came on top of the initial cost of 200 million for the property plus a further 80 million for stock on hand and other items. Was it worth it? In the words of Claude Bebear: "There is a future in top quality wines. It was a good investment, similar to top quality real estate...provided it is top quality and aimed at the top end of the market." Cazes and Bebear fully expect Pichon-Baron to soon reach the price levels of its much more illustrious sister château, Pichon-Lalande. What AXA and Cazes have done must be seen to be believed.

They planted fallow land on the estate, more than doubling the acreage under vine. They built a new computerized winery with a stunning neo-Greek façade and state-of-the-art equipment. With AXA's very deep pockets, Pichon-Baron can afford to wait longer for the grapes to ripen, pick them faster, and age the wines in a greater percentage of new oak barrels. Since the Cazes takeover, Pichon Baron has been going full throttle ahead and is taking advantage of its prime Pauillac location - with Pichon-Lalande and Latour contiguous to its vineyards. Winemaker Daniel Llose, also the winemaker at Lynch-Bages since 1976, has made tremendous improvements in the wine. The turnabout has been breathtaking, and within three harvests Pichon-Baron has leaped to the very top of the heap. The 1987 (a vintage not noted for great wines in Bordeaux) was a stunning achievement for the year); the 1988 was one of the top wines of the Médoc; and the 1989 was an awesome achievement. It was so good and such a radical improvement over the past that The Wine Spectator selected it as the Number One Wine of 1992 in its annual TOP 100 awards. Pichon Baron has risen to the level of many of the top wines made in Bordeaux today, including the famous "first growths" and still sells for 4 times the cost of this top level Pauillac.

by Andrew Lampasone

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