Vertical Tasting of Chateau Lynch-Bages

Arguably the best known and most popular of all the Fifth Growths of Bordeaux, Chateau Lynch-Bages is generally viewed as better than its ranking in the 1855 classification would indicate.  It has also long offered an excellent price/quality ratio, representing a very good red Bordeaux buy in many vintages.

Built in the 1820s, Lynch-Bages is situated in the hamlet of Bages just south of the small town of Pauillac.  Like many Bordeaux estates, it owes part of its fortunes to nationalities other than French.  The oldest known proprietors of the Domaine de Bages (or "Batges," as it was also sometimes written) were the Déjean family of Pauillac, the best known member of which was Jean Déjean, royal notary in Pauillac in 1632.  The domain was already important and well known in the 17th century, and was owned by successive generations of the Déjean family.  It was eventually sold to the Drouillard family in 1728.

The estate became Lynch-Bages only when an Irish family entered the picture.  John Lynch, an Irish officer from Galway, moved to Bordeaux in 1691 after the battle of Boyne and married Guillemette Constant, a native of Bordeaux, in 1709.  They had two sons and a daughter, and the oldest son, Thomas-Michel Lynch, born in 1710, married Elizabeth Drouillard in 1743; her father, Pierre Drouillard, owned Domaine de Bages. The Lynch family came to be an important one in Bordeaux circles, with Michael Lynch and Jean-Baptiste Lynch serving as mayors of the city at different times.  The latter was also owner of Château Dauzac, where he died in 1835 (after having sold Lynch-Bages to a Swiss négociant, Mr. Jurine, in 1824).  Like many other Bordeaux properties, the estate's history is marked by various owners (it appears that after the sale in 1824, the property was temporarily also identified as Jurine à Bages), until it eventually was bought by the Cazes family in 1939, the members of which own it to this day.
Without doubt, it is thanks to Jean-Charles Cazes, who managed the property from 1934 until his death in 1966 (and who already owned Château Les Ormes de Pez in Saint-Estèphe), son André and grandson Jean-Michel, that modern-day Lynch-Bages has come to be.  After having fallen on hard times due to the world wars and the general recession of the 1970s (much like most other estates of Bordeaux), major much-needed investments were made in the 1980s and 90s.  The wine has been taken to a higher level largely due to the hard work and dedication of Jean-Michel Cazes, who has only recently turned over the estate to his son, Jean-Charles Cazes, who is now the general director of the Domaines Jean-Michel Cazes.  "It's an honor for me to have this opportunity," Jean-Charles told me.  But this is my home, and we will always be faithful both to Pauillac and to Lynch-Bages.  So our wines will always be structured and full-bodied, much as are all those from Pauillac, but they will also always be more opulent, rich and accessible than most other wines from Pauillac, especially when young."
Cazes also told me that he felt the big change in Lynch-Bages is really evident with the vintages of the 80s, "because by the end of the '70s we had moved away from wooden vats to steel.  Stainless steel has allowed us to work with better temperature control and in cleaner conditions.  Starting in the mid-'70s, my father embarked on a major renovation of the cellar that finally ended in 1989.  And since my grandfather had already begun investing in the vineyards earlier, by the time the 1980s rolled around Lynch-Bages was producing better wines than ever before."

Nicolas Labenne, technical director of Lynch-Bages and Ormes de Pez (and who was previously at Calon-Ségur from 1994 to 2005), added  "Few people know that Lynch-Bages, thanks to the work and foresight of Daniel Llose, now the general technical director of the Domaines Jean-Michel Cazes, was one of the first in Bordeaux to use the technique of délestage ("rack-and-return") at the beginning of the '80s.  Our underground stainless steel cuves enabled the estate to perform délestage by gravity, permitting a more effective pumping-over."  The innovative approach at the estate didn't stop there.  Lynch-Bages began to green harvest in the '90s and to do severe tries in the vineyards for the first time in 1991.  Though these practices are common nowadays, Lynch-Bages was one of the first Bordeaux estates to do green harvesting and strict selection of the best fruit aggressively and regularly.

For all the changes that took place in the vineyard and the cellar, the final assemblage of the grand vin has not changed much. "We have recently planted some new petit verdot vines," Labenne told me, "but we have also gotten rid of the old ones we were less happy with."  The varietal vineyard make-up is roughly 73% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot, 10% cabernet franc and 2% petit verdot."

The wines of Lynch-Bages show neither the brute power of Latour or Pichon-Baron nor the elegant refinement of Lafite, though they do share some of Mouton's opulence.  They are rather ample, fruity wines offering early approachability--though they can age reasonably well--and they have a typically velvety, fleshy mouthfeel.  Though depth and complexity haven't always accompanied every vintage of Lynch-Bages I have ever tasted, I have always been fascinated by the wines' textural creaminess.  Part of the Lynch-Bages trademark fleshiness is the result of rather late harvests, something started by Jean-Charles's great-grandfather, also named Jean-Charles.  "We also try to extract as much as possible, to get a rich texture and lots of fruit," said the younger Jean-Charles.  "Risking late harvests can be tricky, but we have made some great wines here over the decades, like the 1953, the 1955 and the 1959.  So we wish to continue along those lines."  Of course, taking risks for thorough ripeness doesn't always pay off, and in 1964 Lynch-Bages got caught, like many other estates, with grapes still on the vines when torrential rains hit.

As I tasted and evaluated the wines of Lynch-Bages, the importance of the overhaul of the chai and the vineyards mentioned by Cazes and Labenne became obvious:  there is a dividing line neatly separating the Lynch-Bages wines prior to 1980 (with a few notable exceptions, of course, such as the excellent '59) and those produced since then, which are generally better.  Whereas good years such as 1975 and 1978 are disappointing at Lynch-Bages, things really turned around here with the 1981 vintage.  Interestingly, wine lovers should find that it's fairly easy, with a little experience, to correctly guess, even when tasting blind, the vintages of Lynch-Bages from the '90s and the '00s, while it is very difficult to do so with the wines of the '80s and earlier, a sign that the winemaking at the estate has become more precise over time.

This vertical tasting was conducted in June of 2011 at the estate, and the wines were tasted blind. Jean-Charles Cazes, Nicolas Labenne and Daniel Llose, who has been with the estate since 1976, were on hand and helped me with the historical detail and technical data necessary for this article, although detailed technical numbers were not available for the older vintages.  (I should also point out that the total acidity levels provided in my notes are expressed in terms of tartaric acidity.)  A thank-you also to Marina Cazes, who graciously took the time to answer my e-mails devoted to new questions and fact-checking.  The wines described in this report were uncorked but not decanted two hours ahead of the tasting.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata