Second wines are no longer à la mode. In Bordeaux, these junior siblings – traditionally made with declassified fruit from the Grand Vin – are being rebranded as alternate expressions of a château. While this has fast become a familiar trope among the region’s master marketeers (who wants to suggest that anything is lesser?), for the Guinaudeau family of Ch. Lafleur the idea has become a fundamental part of their philosophy.
“A new cuvée, a new label – that’s marketing,” says Omri Ram – the man at the helm of the Guinaudeau estates today. For the family (who are mentioned repeatedly in our conversation, their involvement and influence is much more than monetary), any new wines must be a new Cru. Literally meaning a “growth”, the term doesn’t translate particularly well, but it’s a wine that should be “from viticulture, terroir, ideology”, Ram says. The inspiration is Burgundy rather than Bordeaux, comparing to Amoureuses or Malconsorts, a site that offers a distinct expression, year in, year out. “A special cuvée that costs 300 bucks – no, thank you,” he laughs.
It hasn’t always been the approach at Ch. Lafleur – or more accurately, the “Société Civile du Ch. Lafleur" (the name that encompasses all the Guinaudeau estates). Les Pensées was originally conceived as a second wine, used to ensure the consistency and top quality of the Grand Vin, primarily made with fruit from young vines. But that all shifted in 2000, when they decided to separate out a diagonal 0.7-hectare valley, a strip of clay within the otherwise gravel-dominated Lafleur vineyard.
The concept was – and is – to take the same core DNA of Lafleur, their old-vine material – and translate it through the lens of different terroirs. Les Pensées was their first step towards this, but in the early 2000s the Guinaudeau family started thinking about another expression of Lafleur – one on limestone. Little did they know that it would take almost 20 years for this idea to come to fruition.
And so they started looking for a limestone site. But Pomerol is the only place on the Right Bank with absolutely no limestone, and a plot on Saint-Emilion’s plateau (the obvious choice for prime limestone terroir) was a pipedream. In the unlikely scenario that a plot came up for sale, the price would be astronomical (the buyer would, in Ram’s words, need to have “big, big, big, big pockets”, his eyes visibly boggling at the idea). And while Ch. Lafleur might be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Pétrus, Lafite and Margaux, it remains a small, family-run affair. With Saint-Emilion ruled out, the family turned closer to home.
A distant but direct ancestor of the Guinaudeau family established Ch. Grand Village in 1650, and Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau reclaimed the Fronsac estate in 1980. Five years later they took charge of Ch. Lafleur, marking the start of this illustrious property’s renaissance. While their reputation has been built on the Pomerol estate, Fronsac has always been home. In fact, Jacques and Sylvie still live at Grand Village today, while their children– and current custodians of the family business –Baptiste and Julie also live on the outskirts of the village.
Although Fronsac might be considered lowly today, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its wines commanded higher prices than those of either Saint-Emilion or Pomerol. The Médoc reigned supreme, with its affluence, proximity to the city of Bordeaux and access to transport via the Gironde – but Fronsac, bordered on one side by the Dordogne River and on the other by one of its subsidiaries, Isle, was not far behind. As nearby Libourne developed, this only helped Fronsac and its wines grow in importance.
Back then, Ram explains: “You couldn’t cheat. If you didn’t have a great terroir, you wouldn’t be able to make great wine in nine out of 10 years.” Of course, the region fell from grace – and even today you can stumble across abandoned vineyards, no longer bringing in enough income for someone to bother to farm them. But the best wines speak for themselves – Ram and the Lafleur team have tasted bottles back through the 20th century and there are undoubtedly “great, great things” – even up until the 1980s, proving the potential of the region.
That history, combined with the familial ties and a dream of reviving Fronsac’s reputation of yore, made the region the obvious choice.
There were two elements key to creating a new Cru for the Guinaudeau family: firstly, the right site, but secondly having massal selections of their old vines. Lafleur has long championed its particular plantings of Bouchet (a historic name for Cabernet Franc) and Merlot that pre-date clonal selection.
They started a nursery for their heritage clones at Ch. Grand Village – taking cuttings of their most interesting old vines, grafting them onto American rootstocks and then repeating the process. The challenge was cultivating enough vine material for a new site. As this project got underway, the family continued their search for the perfect vineyards – but also decided they needed to test the theory, and see if their vines’ DNA would translate on limestone.
And so G Acte was born – a “beta testing” programme for what would become Les Perrières. They picked limestone-dominant plots at Ch. Grand Village for an experimental series, starting with the 2009 vintage – Acte 1. By Acte 6, 7 and 8 (the 2014, ’15 and ’16 vintages), Ram tells me, they knew that they were onto something special.
At the same time, the team continued to search for the right site. Originally they looked to Burgundy for their inspiration, where the illustrious Grands Crus sit neither at the top or bottom of the hill – but in Fronsac the mid-slope only proffered overly rich, fertile soils dominated by clay. Each site they explored brought new disappointment – until they decided to forget about Burgundy. The best wines in Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and even the Médoc all come from a plateau – so they changed tack and started hunting for a site perched up high.
Talking to the region’s older vignerons, they discovered the plateau of Meyney – beneath which lies a warren of quarries, the source of the limestone that was used to build much of Libourne, and the châteaux across the Right Bank. The first soil-pit they dug offered instant promise – with a meagre 20cm or so of topsoil before you were scraping at the mother rock.
Almost a decade after their search had begun, in 2011, they bought the first vineyards – Les Canards and Les Poulains – just seven kilometres from Grand Village, then another parcel the following year. When Ram arrived at the estate in September 2013, he spent his first day working on one of those nascent vineyards. The work required was extensive. These sites had been conventionally farmed, planted with clones selected for quantity rather than quality, so they needed total rehabilitation. They uprooted the vines and rotated various cover crops (herbs, flowers, cereals) to revive the soils over four years – totally reconstituting them, returning organic matter and also, importantly, re-stabilising the soil structure.
The whole process took four or five years for each plot, with the first of their new plantings only going in in 2016 (Les Canards). The focus was, at first, on Bouchet from Lafleur, with 20 different selections. In 2017, they planted Les Poulains, with around 25 Bouchet selections, then in 2018 they planted three more clay-rich parcels with Merlot, partly with their own heritage selections, as well as some carefully selected clones that passed muster.
In 2018, they harvested their first crop from 3.5 hectares of vines. The quality of the Bouchet from these “extreme limestone” soils was so distinct that – even when blended with Merlot parcels that had previously been used for G Acte – they bottled it under the new Cru’s name, Les Perrières.
Tasting it in a line-up alongside previous vintages of G Acte, the difference is as extreme as the soils. Later vintages of the experimental series offer a red-fruited crunch, vibrancy and transparency, but the 2018 Perrières shows an instant shift. There’s a step up in purity, precision, concentration and complexity, with a wilder, swarthier fruit character, yet it’s the mineral salinity that shines through, and is echoed in the 2019. These are serious wines that have a clear sense of place.
The 2020 vintage is the first that came exclusively from Perrières vineyards, with none of the G Acte parcels (these are now all being used for Grand Village). As they initially had more Bouchet plantings on these sites, the blend has shifted over time – with the 2020 having 70% Bouchet, 60% in 2021 and a return in 2022 to the 50/50 mix that is the norm for Lafleur and Pensées. While the aim isn’t always to have this varietal mix, the vineyards are planted so that Merlot and Bouchet can be equal – but the blend will be decided on taste.
Bouchet might be Lafleur’s trademark, but the Merlot is an essential component in Ram’s view. Alone, Bouchet is too linear, vertical, intellectual and even borderline austere. Merlot complements this, ensuring it not just makes you think, but leaves you reaching for another glass. “The greatest wines are not just for the mind, but for the heart and stomach too,” Ram says.
It’s still early days for Les Perrières – the soon-to-be-released 2022 will be only its fifth vintage. These vines are still babies by almost any standard, let alone those of Ch. Lafleur. Yet its potential – and path – is already clear. Ram anticipates it will take them around 20 years to get the wine to where they really want it to be, sitting as a true equal to Ch. Lafleur, but he’s confident that it’s just a matter of time.
It's amazing to see the work that has gone into this one wine – both on paper and in the glass. This isn’t just marketing, but a creed for the Société Civile du Ch. Lafleur – and one that it’s hard not to believe in.
Your cheat sheet to the Lafleur stable: the Société Civile de Ch. Lafleur unpacked
Ch. Lafleur – the property’s most famous wine, seen as the Grand Vin, an expression of the Lafleur DNA on gravel
Les Pensées – now an expression of the Lafleur DNA on clay. Up to and including the 1999 vintage, this was Ch. Lafleur’s second wine, made with fruit mainly from younger vines. From the 2000 vintage, the fruit comes exclusively from a diagonal strip of clay in the Lafleur vineyards, and is a different Cru. (It was labelled as Les Pensées de Lafleur prior to 2018, when the “de Lafleur” was officially dropped.)
Les Perrières – an expression of the Lafleur DNA on limestone, sourced from vineyards in Fronsac. The 2018 and 2019 vintages include some parcels at Ch. Grand Village, however from 2020 the fruit is sourced exclusively from separate sites in Fronsac, on extreme limestone soils on the plateau de Meyney.
Les Champs Libres – an expression of pure Sauvignon Blanc on limestone soils, from specific parcels in Fronsac. The first commercial release was the 2013 vintage.
Ch. Grand Village – a red and white are made under the Fronsac estate’s name, which is also the family home (Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau still live there today).
G Acte – made from 2009 to the 2017 vintages inclusive, an experimental series testing the concept of Lafleur on limestone while trying to find the right sites for Les Perrières, made using fruit from limestone-dominant parcels at Ch. Grand Village. The releases are numbered, with 2009 Acte 1 and so on.