"Pomerol is Merlot. It's where Merlot was born," says Dany Rolland of Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, one of Pomerol's most celebrated wine estates.
It is this identity with the Merlot grape that sets Pomerol apart from other well-known Bordeaux villages, such as Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe. Yet most Pomerol wines are not 100-percent Merlot, and except for one or two renowned producers – like Petrus, one of the world’s most famous wine estates – Pomerol and its wines are a bit of a mystery, even to dedicated lovers of Bordeaux.
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To better understand the identity of Pomerol, I sat down with representatives from six of this village's estates to learn their thoughts about this territory, from its history to its current status quo. How they describe the character of their terroir, how they are dealing with climate change, and how they market their wines were among the topics of our discussions. These interviews took place recently in Chicago at the annual Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting, and the vintners were: Ronan Laborde of Château Clinet (he is also currently the president of the Union des Grand Crus), Nicolas de Bailliencourt (Château Gazin), Jean-Baptiste Soulier (Château Rouget), Augustin Belloy (Château Beauregard), Fran?ois Estager (Château La Cabanne) and Rolland, whose husband Michel Rolland is one of the most eminent enologists in the world.
As to why Merlot is the dominant varietal in Pomerol, Laborde commented that while several varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Malbec and even a few others that are no longer found in Bordeaux, were all planted throughout the village, all of that changed after 1956. That year, as Laborde explained, there were frosts that killed a large part of the Right Bank vines. "People took advantage of that to replant what they formerly had with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to Merlot."
Laborde notes that this decision was based on the "fast maturity" of the grape, as Merlot is harvested earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. "The style of the wines were now more delicate," he continues, "easy drinking, soft." As to the question of why these wines now displayed this character, "we know now, thanks to science, why the style of the wine is like that on the terroir of Pomerol pairing with Merlot". The key factor, as he notes, is the high percentage of clay in the local soils.
Clay, as Laborde describes, "preserves the Merlot from over maturity, which is sometimes the drawback of Merlot; sometimes there is a taste of dried prunes. We don't have that in Pomerol too much because of the clay soils. When the roots go down deep in the summer during a drought, they can still get to the water because of the clay." He adds that as there is a good proportion of iron in the clay, this is beneficial for more elegant wines as the iron helps to diffuse the tannins. "That's what the wines are so creamy in texture, so easy drinking, because of all those elements."
De Bailliencourt concurs regarding the importance of clay in Pomerol and its contributions to the wines' overall character. "Because of the clay subsoil, we make fine and complex wines sometimes just with Merlot; in this way, we avoid blockbuster tannins, big wines that don't reflect the style of Pomerol. Thanks to this subsoil we can make very interesting wines." He also notes that other varietals combine to result in special wines in Pomerol. "We also plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for the backbone and structure and complexity of the wines."
Soulier points out the variety in Pomerol wines. "The wines of Pomerol have a different style, a different complexity with each chateau. We are all looking for the red fruit and the elegant tannins that you find in Merlot. But inside Pomerol, you can choose different styles of wine, be it more modern or more classic. It's a huge complexity in a small terroir. It's unique in the world, especially in Bordeaux, because on average the wineries have between 6 and 8 hectares [15-20 acres] of vines, which is quite small."
Rolland takes the conversation a step further, comparing Pomerol with another great French wine region. "Pomerol is like a climat in Burgundy," she comments. "You are at one place where it's 100 meters elevation and you have a specific terroir and then close by, you have another terroir. Each chateau has different subsoils and terroir, and that is why you have so many expressions of Pomerol."
She says that Pomerol is also special as it has never been classified, unlike the ranking of estates in the Médoc in 1855 and the one in neighboring Saint-émilion, introduced in 1955. "Pomerol has said 'we don't need a classification'," she explains. "It's the only great place in Bordeaux without classification."
Climate change has been a concern for vintners around the globe for many years now, and Pomerol is no exception.
"In 2003, we began the harvest of the first plot on September 1," proclaims Estager. "In 2017, we did the first plot on August 17. Once again, we are lucky because we have clay. We had two months without rain, but it was not a problem for this area. In other areas with sandy soils, two months without rain would be a problem. Clay is like a sponge – it retains water." He notes that while Chateau La Cabanne is usually 95-percent Merlot, his 2017 is 100%-percent Merlot, as he lost part of his Cabernet Franc due to early season frosts that year.
Laborde remarks that the region's vintners look at changes in climate very carefully.
"If it continues to warm up as it has in recent years, in the long term, an association such as the French National Agronomic Institute wil probably change to clones of Merlot that ripen later. In the short term, we can try and adapt to keep the freshness, because that is what people like in our wines."
Pricing has been a concern with the wines of Bordeaux for some time now. How do these vintners regard pricing of their own wines and those of Pomerol in general? "It is more expensive to produce wine these days," comments Estager. "People think about the 'best' wines and some say that Pomerol is expensive, but you can find some Pomerol on retail shelves for $20."
For Belloy, he has increased the price of Beauregard because of a conscious decision to limit production. "We reduced the selection from 70 percent of the property [maximum yield] to 50 percent. I don't think pricing is a problem. We have to continue to make the best wines by decreasing crops and making the best selection. I don't think there's a problem with price for Bordeaux. Maybe for the Grand Cru Classe."
Laborde notes that "some of the most expensive wines in Bordeaux come from Pomerol. Like Petrus. It's a place where you have the highest price for vineyards, as the land is so expensive. This is because of the scarcity and the quality you get regularly in this territory."
As for sales and marketing, these estates export between 85 and 90 percent of their production. Top markets vary for each producer, but the most common export countries are the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, China and European nations such as Belgium and Denmark. Soulier comments: "More than looking for new markets, we're looking for new consumers. We hope that new consumers understand that Merlot is about fruit and drinkability. With [the release of] the 2017, the wines can be enjoyed sooner, compared to the 2015 or upcoming 2018."
De Bailliencourt reminds us of the way business is done with sales of these wines. "Talking about distribution, most of us are not selling directly, but through the Bordeaux négociants. It's very important to keep the traditional markets, the European markets and not concentrate yourself on let's say, China or America, as these markets are constantly moving, so you may have problems. It's very important to keep the contacts with the traditional markets, especially in Europe with England of course, but also Belgium and Denmark. This is very important. For a while, China looked to high prices. But it's more important for us to look not at money, but at traditional wine lovers and not forget them."
Do the producers believe the wines from Pomerol are better than other Bordeaux? Some didn't want to touch this question – understandably so – but Laborde elaborated on the quality of Pomerol wines. "I think it's above average. I am talking about the large scale of Bordeaux, with 60 appellations. There are today only 14 appellations that are part of the Grand Cru area; Pomerol is part of that.
Soulier notes: "The wines of Pomerol have a different style, a different complexity with each chateau. We are all looking for the red fruit and the elegant tannins that you find in Merlot. But inside Pomerol, you can choose different styles of wine, be it more modern or more classic. It's interesting to taste all the wines from Pomerol and see what you prefer. Regarding the 'fight' between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Merlot represents the legacy of Pomerol."
De Baillencourt has the final word. "It's a matter of having Merlot wines from all over the world, realizing that Merlot from Pomerol has a specific old-style manner. We cannot really compare with the other wines from Bordeaux. The Right Bank and the Left Bank have their own specificity. It's the differences of all these wines that make Bordeaux."