An Exploration of Time: Gruaud Larose 1831-2018


If I could repeat any wine tasting over my career, then, no offense, it’s not going to be a vertical of Blossom Hill’s White Zinfandel. No, I would set my flux capacitor to March 2010 and repeat the first of four annual verticals held at Gruaud Larose that transcended the idea of your common or garden tasting. These verticals were profound explorations in time. They proved how the vineyard is a strand uniting past and present; moreover, that great claret never really dies, rather its flame flickers less and less brightly until the faintest glimmer remains.

Gruaud Larose has starred in many lunches and soirées since the formative days of my career. Despite classification and historical pedigree, you could argue that its wines are currently underrated by cognoscenti, perhaps due to a period of inconsistency during the reorganization of its vineyard and overhauling of its cuverie. Now that this project has reached its final stage, the results can be tasted in a wine that harks back to former glories. As such, this is an opportune moment to delve into Gruaud Larose’s storied history, learn more about its current winemaker, its modus operandi and, of course, unleash an armada of tasting notes. Word of warning: this is a serious deep dive into an important Bordeaux estate, so pull up a comfy chair, pour yourself a glass and read on…

The directoire-style château at Gruaud Larose. The tower is located just behind and the cuverie opposite. The interior, furnished in the style of Louis XVI, seems barely changed over the decades.

Drums, Flags & Nuns: The Beginnings

Gruaud Larose is a family estate. Since its inception in 1725, there have been just four tenures: the Gruaud and Larose families, then the Balguerie and Sarget. In the 20th century, the third reign was by Cordier, and now, the current proprietors are under Jean Merlaut.

The first mention of Gruaud dates from the mid-18th century. Abraham Lawton records the 1742 vintage constituted 38 barrels sold for 350 livres per barrel, while tax office records sieur Gruaud, a bourgeois of Bordeaux. Its genesis dates from 1757 when chevalier Joseph Stanislas Gruaud began to amalgamate parcels of vine within the commune of Saint-Julien-de-Reignac, firstly de Sartaignac and du Merle, then Ténac, a plot inherited from his mother, Blanche. He also began cultivating fallow land to cater to burgeoning demand from European countries, part of Bordeaux’s rush to expand.

Apparently, Monsieur Gruaud was a bit of an eccentric chap. He would stand guard over his vines on top of the tower that flew the flag of whichever country he believed would be most appreciative of his wine, lighter wines the German flag, heavier wines the Union Jack, a clue to 18th-century oenophiles’ predilections. He banged a large drum to awake sleepy-eyed workers in the morning, which he would beat again at the end of the day to march them back to their dwellings. At that time, the Cru was not referred to as Gruaud Larose but Fonbedeau (or Fond-Bedeau, according to Bernard Ginestet) until the early 19th century. When Gruaud took his ‘dernier souffle’ on 6 September 1771, he had named the sole heir as Joseph Sébastien de Larose, president of the Bordeaux Court of Appeal, and, as custom dictates, he appended his name to the estate. Its first mention came ten years later. De Larose died in 1795 and bequeathed the estate to his three children: Philippe Marie, whose wife descended from the Pontet family, Blanche de Ruat and a nun, Marie-Catherine. The first two died soon after, leaving Marie-Catherine the only surviving heir. Since she had taken her religious vows, a legal imbroglio ensued between her and the offspring of Philippe and Blanche, which led to the estate being put up for auction on 21 December 1812.

Proprietor Jean Merlaut inside the furnished rooms of the château.

A Case of Binary Fission

By this time, Gruaud Larose had gained considerable renown. When Thomas Jefferson toured the region in May 1787, he placed La Rose in the third division of the second Crus alongside Léoville, Quirouan (Kirwan) and Durfort (Durfort-Vivens). In 1815, Lawton opined that the wines of Saint-Julien were superior to the rest of the Médoc and wrote: “The wine of Larose is the most substantial, yet fragrant and mellow of all the great wines of Saint-Julien.”  

However, the market for Bordeaux wine had hit the doldrums; hence, only one bidder, Balguerie, Sarget & Cie, pulled out their loose change and paid a paltry 291,000 Francs. Running the estate proved problematic, so in 1845, it was decided to split the vineyards between the two families by drawing lots. It should be noted that the division pertained only to the vineyards and not the château or winery. However, the split was not their main worry. Sleepless nights were caused by the oïdium crisis that ravaged vines between 1852 and 1860, resulting in two out of five vintages being lost. Gruaud Larose’s average yields tumbled to just 10.5hL/ha, and it was not until the 1860s that sulfur began to be used to remedy the fungal contagion. Perversely, diminished supply fuelled an overheated market, not least in England. In 1855, Gruaud Larose was nominated as a Second Growth in the 1855 Classification in line with previous unofficial rankings.

A formal division of Gruaud Larose transpired in 1870 after several years of protracted negotiations since the buildings had been constructed for one family. They appointed architect Henri Duphot, who had designed Château Latour, to oversee additional buildings. The vineyard was farmed as a single estate, albeit one with two cuvées, each predesigned to be similar rather than competing for superiority. This was to safeguard the cachet attached to Gruaud Larose’s name. Henceforth, consumers could choose either Gruaud Larose Sarget or Gruaud Larose Bethmann. Each comprised 70-hectares that produced 78 and 79 barrels, labels the same albeit with an inked stamp denoting which half it came from.

Although phylloxera was the scourge that grabbed the headlines in the 1880s, the truth is that the specter of mildew was more devastating in terms of quality and quantity. Bordeaux Mixture, a.k.a. copper sulfate was a viable solution and began to be applied in 1885, although improvements were incremental. Gruaud Larose prevailed. Records show a modest 12% reduction in yield compared to the previous decade. Alas, the 1890s witnessed a market crash concurrent with Bordeaux’s reputation being sullied by widespread adulteration and fraud. Meanwhile, Gruaud Larose’s production increased, both parts of the divided estate averaging around 49hL/ha at the turn of the century, prompting prices to tumble to the extent that the wine fetched less than half as it did during the 1880s. Examining production figures, it is interesting to note that Sarget consistently produced more barrels than the Bethmann side, despite their identical size. Whatever the reason, higher volumes predicated the rise of abonnement, a system whereby merchants guaranteed to buy harvests for fixed prices five or ten years in advance, including Gruaud Larose. This initially worked in favor of château, but as prices increased, château began to lose out and endeavoured to extricate themselves from contracts. The Sarget part ended its abonnement in 1916 and could immediately take advantage of higher prices, whereas the Bethmann part could not leave until three years later. What is more significant in our story is that one of the merchants who bought part of the crop in the late 1910s was Cordier.

Technical director of Gruaud Larose, Virginie Sallette, is one of the few, but thankfully growing, number of women in charge of a Grand Cru Classé. Notice that their new vats have a clear stave so that they can directly observe the fermenting must inside.

The Cordier Era

On 2 October 1918, the Sarget part of Gruaud Larose was bought by Désiré Nicolas Cordier after the owner, Jonathan Auguste Sarget de Lafontaine, died and left his widow in debt. At that time, the 70-hectare vineyard was half under vine. However, the Cordier purchase included all the outbuildings, pasture, a hotel in Bordeaux, and a vineyard in Pessac, Château Lafontaine Haut-Brion (destined to vanish under spreading urbanization). Crucially, it also contained 941 bottles of older vintages back to 1815 that, a century later, allowed ruffians like myself to taste from this 19th-century trove. Obviously, the Cordier family was extremely wealthy. Désiré Cordier had built up a lucrative business in Toul in the Lorraine, winning what he dubbed the “contract of the century,” supplying the French army whose rations included a daily intake of wine. Fearing German invasion, Cordier moved his family to Bordeaux and began eyeing up distressed châteaux in Bordeaux that were legion. The following year, in 1919, he acquired Château Talbot, which he gave as personal property to his son, George Cordier. On 8 November 1935, he was able to acquire the other half of Gruaud (now known as ‘Gruaud Larose Faure’ and owned by a consortium of family members from the Faure and Flouch families). The price was 361,000 Francs, paid in cash.

The reunited Gruaud Larose covered some 137 hectares, of which 68 hectares were under vine. However, post-Depression economic malaise meant that expenditures had to be curtailed, and, in fact, Cordier pulled out around one-third of his vines during the 1930s. Cordier died on 28 October 1940, two years after the untimely passing of his son. Shares in the holding company were spread mainly between the Cordier and Lemaire families. However, a dispute between Désiré Cordier’s grandson Jean and Henri Lemaire led to Cordier running the company and its estates from 1949. Under Jean Cordier, the area under vine increased by around 10 hectares, so that by 1954, 56 out of 60 hectares of the vine were in production, comprising 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, just 7.4% Merlot and 6.5% Petit Verdot. The remainder was given over to Malbec and Cabernet Franc and complanté parcels.

After five decent-sized vintages in the 1950s, the 1956 winter saw temperatures plummet to -22°C, killing some vines and weakening survivors. Not until 1959 could Gruaud Larose achieve a modestly-sized crop, though nine hectares of vineyard had to be re-planted. The 1960s was a topsy-turvy decade in terms of growing seasons, although it finally put Gruaud Larose on a more even keel in terms of quantity if not yet quality and consistency. One titbit of information gleaned from Hubrecht Duijker’s The Great Wine Château of Bordeaux is that in 1965, one of the chais burnt down so that on top of contending with an awful growing season, they lost half the crop of 1964. By the early 1970s, the 74 hectares of vine produced around 40hL/ha. Higher yields were not necessarily due to excessive use of manure, even though the estate was home to 15 cows and heifers, but due to the caliber of rootstocks planted during Jean Cordier’s era.

The 1970s benefitted from both Cordier’s network of clients during stagnant economic years and the appointment of régisseur Georges Pauli in 1970. He was to become the estate’s technical director and oversee all of Cordier’s properties. (Our paths crossed at the end of his career and the beginning of mine, though my memories are vague.) Unfortunately, after Pauli’s maiden vintage, Bordeaux was beset by a series of rum-growing seasons. The first that current proprietor Jean Merlaut oversaw was the 1972. “It rained throughout the harvest,” he explained as the wine was opened (though I deduce he was talking about Château Dudon, which his family owned at that time). “The vineyard was so wet that a female harvest worker got stuck in the quagmire. It took two workers to carry her to the end of the row, and her boots were still stuck in the mud. The must was so riddled with rot that it was chocolate-colored. There was no temperature regulation, and the stainless steel tanks were simply wrapped in cloth. People asked me if the wine was red or Rosé.” Throughout the decade, Gruaud Larose produced yields that were higher than optimal. Pauli purportedly wished to de-select around one-third of the crop. However, Cordier maintained a focus on quantity, which was understandable in those straitened times. That did not preclude Pauli from furnishing Bordeaux lovers with one of the finest 1982 Saint-Julien wines and an under-rated 1981.

On 1 January 1985, Société La Henin, a banking group that owned Domaine Viticoles des Salins du Midi, bought a controlling stake in the Cordier négociant and their properties, with the exception of Château Talbot since that was now the personal estate of Jean Cordier. It was the end of an era. In the summer of 1993, Gruaud Larose was bought by the industrial group Alcatel-Alsthom for 310 million Francs. They were already owners of the Cru Bourgeois, Château Malescasse, and in 1996, they inaugurated newly constructed buildings at the château. It was a sure tenure. In June 1997, it was sold to the Taillan Group, led by current proprietor Jean Merlaut, for a reported $70 million.

I have met with Jean Merlaut several times over the years. He is a quietly-spoken, congenial man. Though we have encountered many times, I didn’t know him well, so I sent him questions via e-mail. Merlaut replied in great depth, enlightening me on his background and familial connections with other Bordeaux properties and philosophies.

The vat room at Gruaud Larose. One can appreciate the size of the vineyard when you tour the cuverie.

Merlaut (And Other Varieties)

Firstly, I asked about his life before Gruaud Larose. Merlaut’s father, Jacques, trained as a lawyer but lacked the patience to wait until his fifties to earn a decent income, so he established an insurance company. Mobilized as a reservist when the Second World War broke out, he rapidly ascended the ranks to become the equivalent of lieutenant colonel. Like many, after the war, he found himself seeking a vocation, so he helped his uncle, Bernard Taillan, a wine broker, canvassing bottlers around Paris, where he was based. He went on to start a winery in Oran, in the south of France, selling wines to various supermarkets and together with Roget Piquet, he established the company Chantovent, working with regional co-operatives. Upon returning to Bordeaux, he acquired Château Dudon, attracted more by the maison than the paltry three hectares of vine.

“At that time, the Médoc was in a poor state, and everything was for sale,” Merlaut writes. “I remember a conversation my father had with his friend, Henri Forner. They wanted to buy a vineyard in the south [of France]. My father advised them to buy Château de Camensac, as it would inevitably increase in value. In order to convince them, he said that he would take a 25% stake in the château. This was his first wine investment [Dudon aside]. A few years later, one of his friends, Raymond Berthault, founder of Euromarché, asked my father to look after his properties, which introduced him to Chasse Spleen and Brillette. Berthault found Chasse Spleen too large to run, and Taillan ended up acquiring the estate with friends, placing his sister Bernadette in charge of its running. They subsequently bought Château La Gurgue and Haut-Bages-Libéral.”

Jean Merlaut realized that he needed to expand Dudon, and it now encompasses 100 hectares, while Bordeaux acquaintances requesting recommendations encouraged him to start his own négociant business. Pre-empting the Internet, Merlaut was among the first to create a proto 4,000-page ‘website’ using Minitel and began consulting for other properties. He was asked to direct Château du Rayne-Vigneau and waited 48 hours before agreeing since he knew little about Sauternes. “Sauternes taught me the importance of the viticulture at a time when the spotlight was more upon work in the cellar,” Merlaut continues. “I had a chance to buy Château Ferrière in Margaux that had been rented to Lascombes. It was only in 1992 that I was able to recover this property. In 1993, tragedy struck our family when my sister and her husband died in a mountain accident. My nieces were very young, and so I dropped my consultancy work.”

How did Merlaut come to purchase Gruaud Larose? He explains how the Saint-Julien was for sale at a significant price. It had fascinated him whenever he drove up to Pauillac. He tells me that he sometimes left the D2 simply for the pleasure of admiring the soils at Gruaud Larose. Eventually, a banker offered to send him the particulars of the sale, and upon opening it one weekend, Merlaut was surprised to find that the sale included considerable stock. This resulted in an accumulation of back vintages, and then, during the Alcatel era, marketing had never really been their forte. This compounded the lack of sales.

“I remember, on one Monday morning, I called my father and told him that I wanted to buy Gruaud Larose. His response was that I was crazy, although, after my explanation, he said that I was not stupid. The second telephone call was to [French bank] Société Génerale, and although their reception was initially rather lukewarm, after half an hour, they said that they would back me. Then, I called the estate agent that was in charge of the sale. He asked if I wanted to make a counteroffer, and I said ‘No’. Then, he asked if I wanted to visit the château, and I said, ‘No thanks.’ The commitment [of my family] was important. Claire [Villars-Lurton], who is my goddaughter, rejuvenated Ferrière, and I am proud of what she has done. My brother Denis took a 43% stake in Bernard Taillan, and I have just over half of the shares, the remainder is held by other family members.”  

“I was fully aware of the problems inherent within Gruaud Larose. At the beginning of the 20th century, frost episodes were frequent. To limit the risk, the [previous] owners planted Cabernet in colder areas so that it would bud later, and Merlot planted in warm areas. Yet in the Médoc, it is the fully-ripe Cabernets that make the greatest wines. There were also some poor rootstocks and Malbecs that have some poor results for Gruaud Larose.”

Merlaut cites the father of Michel Delon at Léoville Las-Cases for initiating the move to Cabernets sited on the best parcels. 

“When I arrived in 1997, I set myself a 30-year-goal of reconfiguring the vineyard. We're getting there! The replanted parcels are starting to become part of the Grand Vin and confirm that the strategy is correct. [Readers will find blends for wines within tasting notes from the 1983 vintage onwards. As recent as the 2008 vintage, the blend included 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to 83% for the 2022, the highest ever.] Georges Pauli was directing the estate, and he stayed with us for around ten years to manage our new priorities. We started by investing in people. You cannot always be behind every snip of the secateurs, and so vineyard workers must work with conviction. We have put in place a quality approach with a system of self-evaluation, a small revolution in the Médoc so that instead of us making observations, they put demands on themselves that we would never dare ask for.”

I was interested to read Merlaut’s perspectives on the evolving role of women in Bordeaux. He explains the Médoc dynamics, acknowledging past challenges while also highlighting the unique skills that women bring to various aspects of winemaking, including pruning, tasting and other tasks.

I ask Merlaut what has changed at Gruaud Larose over the last 20 years. “I am tempted to answer everything,” he replies before moving on to the topic of the large metal watchtower erected in the vineyard. I remember climbing it with Merlaut shortly after it was built, affording an outstanding panorama across the Médoc. Some of his neighbors were less pleased about its construction. “I have had several buildings classified as historical monuments, which are now protected. We developed oeno-tourism. Visitors like to climb the [original] tower built by the abbot Gruaud. Standards for receiving the public were not the same 300 years ago, and it was impossible to change them. My first idea was to create a terrace on the roof of the castle, but the architect advised me not to touch the château building and, instead, do something modern next to it. Wishing to keep the tower as a symbol of Gruaud, we opted for metal and avoided making a pastiche of the 18th century. It has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. It is not moving.”

Outside of the wine arena, Merlaut served as mayor for 32 years, loves pottering about the garden, and, like his niece Claire Villars-Lurton, he is a fine swimmer. Indeed, water is a theme in Merlaut’s life beyond sustaining vines. He is passionate about water management, and as president of the water union for 20 years, he quartered chlorine levels and reduced water wastage by half. Perhaps most notably, together with Hervé Maudet, he bought Source des Abatilles, which is now seen in practically all Bordeaux restaurants and those further afield.

Here is a more technical examination of the winery, which gives an idea of the size required to vinify a large vineyard. Here we can see the rows of wooden vats ranging from 90hL to 130hL, top right, that lie adjacent to the cement vats, between 50hL and 206hL in size. There are also smaller vats, some 24hL, in order to conduct micro-vinifications.

Vineyard and Vinification

Virginie Sallette is the current technical director at Gruaud Larose. I first met her when she was in charge of the winemaking at another Saint-Julien estate, Ducru-Beaucaillou. Always amiable and down-to-earth, she seems a perfect fit for Gruaud Larose.

“The vineyard has not changed since the 1855 Classification,” she explains. “Of 82 hectares that can potentially be cultivated under vine, 77 hectares are in production, and 5 hectares are fallow. The second wine, Le Sarget, comes from specific parcels, secondary terroirs, for example, lower, less propitious croupes, younger vines and those vines that don’t make the grade, complanté vines, those with withered bunches etc. The croupe is Günzian gravels from the Quaternary Period over a clay-limestone bedrock.”

I asked Sallette whether their slightly inland location represents an advantage or disadvantage. She replied that Gruaud Larose still lies within the influence of the Gironde estuary and in proximity to marshes that also act as a thermal buffer. 

The composition of varieties in the vineyard is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, though historically, there was less Cabernet Sauvignon. There is an ongoing massale selection program for the Cabernet Sauvignon that will be used to propagate future plantings in order to control plant material and enhance biodiversity. “We maintain cover crops in the vineyard and have adapted practices in order to retain them between vine rows or fallow land,” Sallette continues. “Integrated grass cover protects the soil against erosion and activates the microbiological life of the soil through the degradation of the organic matter. The property currently has 3.5km of hedges or 3,500 plants of 27 different species. We also practice sensible mowing [of inter-row cover crops]. Plots are maintained using Eco grazing, and we have a shepherd living on the property. We conduct a gentle pruning and testing of the bridging and arching canes.” Asked whether she has noticed any changes in the fruit, she replies that it is rather clear that recent vintages have shown greater clarity and purity.

In terms of biodynamics, they are basically testing out the techniques in the vineyard, though it is a long-term process. “It is not possible to switch to biodynamics without full support from employees,” Merlaut opines. “Just like vines, humans must adapt to organic [viticulture], and we cannot make the transition without preparation. I am convinced that plants have memories, and like humans, they develop according to the environment in which they live. Like vines, we humans have the capacity to adapt. However, the transition must be gradual.” Sallette echoes this sentiment and emphasizes how nothing is done by rote in terms of vineyard husbandry, and essentially, what they have rediscovered is adaptability. Currently, there are 20 vineyard workers.

I asked Jean Merlaut about the future in terms of viticulture and how he sees it. “We want to fight against land compaction. I have great hope for the robots which are starting to appear on the market. I put two at Château Dudon. We’re going back to light weeding of the soil. Soon the robots will be able to spray at night using machines that span the row and possibly reduce the use of sulfur and copper. Climate change will require a rethinking of our practices, and it is up to us to adapt.”

The harvest is decided by tasting berries alongside a couple of analyses, separating out any withered bunches. Since its introduction in 2018, they have used optical sorting alongside double manual sorting, making three in total before bunches enter vats. 

The alcoholic fermentation is undertaken at temperatures that are not too high, and extraction is adapted to the potential of each vat according to the team, which tastes vats twice daily. New oak vats were installed seven years ago, the last fitted three years ago. The vin de presse is selected depending on quality and variety; recent vintages use slightly more, 13-15% instead of 10-11%. During the barrel fermentation, several cooperages are used, all French oak from forests in the center of the country. They are given a light toasting, and the wine is racked four times yearly, depending on its evolution. Although Gruaud Larose does not have their own permanent bottling line, they constructed an area that is dedicated for use by their bottling company, and someone from their own team is present to check quality.

Currently, this is the oldest bottle of Bordeaux or any unfortified wine that I have tasted.

The Wines

Historic vintages of Gruaud Larose do not receive due respect amongst cognoscenti insofar as they are rarely uttered in the same sentence as more illustrious estates like Ducru-Beaucaillou or its fellow Second Growths. That can be attributed to inconsistent performances in the 1990s and 2000s, a period when others were modernizing and moving forward. Gruaud Larose did not keep up with the pace of progress and had the aforementioned issues to address in the vineyard. That does not alter the fact that back vintages are a veritable treasure trove and provide a more accurate potential benchmark.

“Gruaud Larose has always had the means to do a decent job,” Jean Merlaut tells me, “almost all the old vintages are of good quality.” I once asked him how he would describe the style of the wine, and he replied: “It is the most Burgundian wine in Saint-Julien. It is more finessed with a lot of freshness.”

The verticals I mentioned in my opening paragraph took place between 2010 and 2013, the first themed along vintages ending in zero. Boasting one of the most well-stocked cellars in Bordeaux, Gruaud offers unique opportunities to taste pre-phylloxera bottles never moved from the château. I was one of the very few to attend all four sessions, and the resulting articles entitled Incisions in Time were a wellspring of information for The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide. Anxious that I had lost these articles, I rummaged through my hard drive and, after fretful searching, located my original jottings. These have been re-edited and expanded with background information pertaining to that wine: analytical details gleaned from subsequent laboratory tests conducted by the late Jacques Boissenot, quantities produced, price on release and market reaction at the time. These form the bulk of the most ancient notes. Suffice it to say that you are unlikely to see such a well-attended gathering of 19th-century wines from a single property in one space. Contemporary Gruaud Larose is represented by a vertical tasting conducted with Nicolas Sinoquet in early 2023 and numerous ad hoc bottles opened at various private dinners, the last in February 2024. Altogether, these notes amount to 70 vintages spanning 187 years, the equivalent of seven British monarchs and 24 Presidents of the United States. Consider that although this panoply of wines comes from different periods of history, they emanate from the same château (albeit one divided for several decades) with common approaches. The world might have changed unrecognizably between the oldest and youngest vintages, but essentially, they articulate the same piece of land through time.

There are too many wines in this report to detail individually, and in this respect, I hope that the tasting notes tell you what you need. Readers should note that bottles from the period when the estate was divided were mostly labeled simply as “Gruaud Larose” and did not give an indication of which part they came from.

Back To The Oldest Bordeaux (That I Have Tasted)

In this article, you will find the oldest unfortified wine I have ever tasted. The 1831 Gruaud Larose was certainly no fossilized wine. Amazingly, it was perfectly drinkable and offered a sensory pleasure. For certain, one has to roll back time to imagine how it must have drunk in its prime, but one can only speculate when it reached its drinking plateau… 19th or 20th centuries? The best pre-phylloxera vintages were the fabulous 1842 Gruaud Larose that was born in what was considered a poor growing season. Likewise, the 1852 Gruaud Larose had survived hail and August rain to create a bizarre wine that patently contains unnaturally high levels of residual sugar, evidence of stuck fermentation, though it had not resulted in a secondary fermentation in bottle. It might be traduced as some kind of Frankenstein claret, yet it was undeniably pleasurable in an unorthodox way.

Eighteen-seventy witnessed a long, hot summer that yielded bountiful over-ripe grapes that André Simon was convinced would begat long-lasting wines. At Gruaud-Larose, picking started on September 10, and the fruit would be vinified in their recently constructed winery. Examining the library of ancient vintages, I noticed an original 19th-century tariff list that showed the 1870 Grand Vin sold for eight Francs per bottle directly from the château. Next to it was listed the 1870 Vin for 4.50 Francs, which implies that they were already de-selecting fruit. Or could the “Vin” refer to the Faure bottling? In P. Morton Shand’s A Book of French Wines (1928), the author writes: “As at Château Lafite, the 1921 vintage at Faure, was sold as Saint Julien vin ordinaire,” and I do remember former director David Launay suggesting that Sarget was the dominant “half” of the estate. Incidentally, none of the later vintages from the 1870s listed a “Vin” next to the Grand Vin, although I could find them from the 1860s.

The 1870 Gruaud Larose was a revelatory wine for this writer. It was the first to prove the longevity not just of this estate but of Bordeaux wine, moreover, the ethereal heights achievable. My first encounter was back in 2007, at Linden Wilkie’s epic vertical in London, a dazzling line-up that included the 1870, 1928 and 1945, all exceptional. But it was the 1870 that held its audience spellbound, one of the first times that I unhesitatingly awarded a perfect score. Three years later, I tasted it again at the inaugural vertical at the estate. This time, it was in magnum, so expectations were naturally high. As the saying goes, "There are only great bottles, not wines," and it paled against the bottle opened in London. That’s something to bear in mind when perusing my notes regarding the oldest bottles, and for this reason, where informative, I separate tasting notes instead of amalgamating them.

The 1881 Gruaud Larose seems to have benefitted from later summer warmth, reminiscent of a Burgundy Chambertin, though other examples from this decade seem handicapped not so much by the spread of phylloxera and remedial re-planting, instead, the far more damaging rampant spread of mildew. Matters seem to improve over the following decade, leading to a superb 1900 Gruaud Larose that gives further evidence that this was a truly awesome fin de siècle vintage, albeit one that ironically was difficult for merchants to sell after the plenitude of 1899 and a general lack of appreciation for quality, perchance many skeptical that you could have two consecutive bona fide great vintages à la 1928 and 1929. Of course, now we get “Vintages of the Century” every other year.

The interwar period is one that is poorly represented in this report. This is partly because some tasting notes, such as the exceptional 1928, already exist in the Vinous database. (As an aside, I am certain that in the mists of time, I drank the 1934, though I cannot find a tasting note.) I include a couple of wartime vintages, though not the 1945 Gruaud Larose, as that has already been nested on the database after it was opened at the Lafaurie-Peyraguey vertical in December 2018. “I think 1945 is my favorite Gruaud Larose,” Merlaut told me. “I only tasted it twice. Surprising for its youth, it has the richness of fruit, depth and density, velvety notes with a long finish full of freshness.”

The Fifties is a decade that has passed me by. I distinctly remember that all three bottles of the 1953 opened at the property, yes three, exhibited TCA, which prompts me to wonder whether there was a bad batch when it was recorked at the château. The Sixties is a strong decade for the estate despite write-off years like 1963 and 1965. This is partly because of higher percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blends. The 1961 Gruaud Larose is not included here because, like the 1945, my most recent note is sitting pretty in the database, but several bottles, my most recent in December 2019, confirm this as an irrepressible wine, a forerunner to the 1982. Between those vintages, the estate endured a challenging period, partly due to inclement seasons and partly because of the reasons outlined by Jean Merlaut. To wit, Cordier pursued quality over quantity and did not really invest in the winery. That said, do not overlook the 1981 Gruaud Larose, which was pretty and elegant when a bottle was opened over lunch at the estate in 2018. The 1982 Gruaud Larose remains one of my favorite Saint-Julien’s, stylistically equidistant between Léoville Las-Cases and Poyferré. A bottle in October 2023 was so deep, voluptuous and sensual. The 1986 Gruaud Larose takes the silver medal in that decade, perhaps unfairly shaded by the 1982, but a testament to the efforts of George Pauli.

The Nineties were more troubled years for Gruaud Larose for reasons explained by Jean Merlaut. I have encountered thoroughly enjoyable bottles of the 1989 and 1990 while others seem faulty, including the former bought especially for this article. Underlying the estate’s maladies was the mispositioning of Cabernet Sauvignon in cooler, later-ripening parcels and, as often found, Brettanomyces parts of the winery. As Gruaud Larose moved into the 21st century, despite the change in ownership, the ineluctable fact is that improvements take time to be translated into the wine, not least re-planted vines that require at least 20 years to reach maturity.

But improvements are making their mark, the 2009 and 2010 Gruaud Larose auguring a brighter future, both superior to any vintage since the mid-eighties. We should ignore 2013, when hardly anyone made wine of note. Indeed, I remember visiting the château on a particularly miserable, drizzly, cool summer day, standing atop the tower with the somewhat despondent winemaking team. Conditions were so inclement that nobody dared to suggest the vintage could be salvaged. There is certainly more consistency beginning to appear as well as cleaner wine, displaying more delineation and less incidence of Brettanomyces. A large part of the reason why its wines are ascendent must be down to Virginie Sallette, whose talent was obvious when she made the wines at Ducru-Beaucaillou. To my mind, the most recent vintages are finally recapturing the magic that was evident in so many vintages of the past, notably 2014, 2016, 2020 and perhaps most of all, the nascent 2022.

CEO Nicolas Sinoquet, together with Jean Merlaut, in February 2023 at the estate.

Final Thoughts

This article was a journey back in time, and in doing so, one should pause and reflect upon all those who contributed to its wines throughout the decades, a subject that I touched upon in my recent piece on Clos des Lambrays. Yet Gruaud Larose is an estate that looks forward to a new chapter opening. I ask Jean Merlaut what lies ahead.

“Unfortunately, I will not be able to make a new 30-year plan,” he replies. “That will be ensured by CEO Nicolas Sinoquet, technical director Virginie Sallette and Jules Dazey, our vineyard manager.”

That Gruaud Larose possesses great terroir is not in question. However, you will always need people and talent to turn grapes into wine. It doesn’t happen by itself. This is the team tasked with pushing Gruaud Larose forward to achieve the potential that the last two decades of investment made possible. Will today’s wines last a century or more like the 1870? Well, I certainly won’t be around to find out. Such feats of longevity are not wine’s raison d’être, inconsequential to all but the handful that experience them. Even so, there is something profound reflecting upon the oldest bottles of wine that I have tasted. I think of them as satellites launched long before I was born, transmitting faint signals back from the edge of the known solar system, their distance measured in time. I guess that message is simply: I’m still here.

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