“I think… we’re now more precise.”
According to manager Vincent Bache-Gabrielsen, that’s the secret behind the revitalization of Saint-Estèphe’s Château Lilian Ladouys.
If Bache-Gabrielsen’s name feels familiar, it’s because he also manages Château Pédesclaux, the Pauillac property that the Lorenzetti family purchased just one year after picking up Lilian Ladouys, and which their team also revitalized. If you’re sensing a theme here, don’t congratulate yourself, because, bluntly stated, the theme is pretty friggin’ obvious. And – spoiler alert! – the results are basically the same: an ailing Bordeaux producer weaned off of life support, and now celebrated as doing the rarest of all Bordeaux wine tricks: over-delivering for its price point (you can find their main red for well under $40/bottle).
Backtracking for a bit of history: the Château Lilian Ladouys property dats back to the 1560s, and was revitalized once before in the late 1980s. Like skinny ties and jams shorts, that `80s endeavor was ill-fated, as Ladouys found few buyers for its at-the-time much-elevated prices. Periods of what Bache-Gabrielsen called “irregular quality” followed, until the Lorenzettis saw potential in Ladouys’ Saint-Estèphe terroir and decided to buy it, with the understanding that to turn things around “we have to work!”
While 2009 saw immediate improvements that Bache-Gabrielsen termed “interesting,” it wasn’t until the soils began to really improve in 2010 that the team felt that Ladouys was turning the corner. They’ve since been engaged in the selling an acquisition of various plots in the region, replanting to maximize proper rootstock usage, and favoring gravelly soils over limestone in an effort to significantly up the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend. About 2/3 of their property has since been exchanged in some form or another, and as of 2018 they now have about 80 hectares of vineyards from which to draw, with half of it devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon (the rest being Merlot, Petit Verdot, and a tiny portion of Cabernet Franc), and 80% of it on gravelly soils.
“It’s really different from Pauillac,” Bache-Gabrielsen told me during a live video tasting, “the subsoil is the same, but you have more clay here, and the limestone is much deeper in Pauillac.” This suits their new house style, which is focused on taming extraction and emphasizing aging potential. “We tend to make epicurean wines,” he explained, ” approachable young but that can age well. We try to balance the power of Saint-Estèphe with freshness….”
Lilian Ladouys’ “second wine” is a 55/45 Cab/merlot split that serves as a calling-card introduction to their new style. Tart black cherry, currant, and cassis fruits abound, and,yes, it’s approachable, earthy, and fresh,but also noticeably powerful and well-structured. It sees only 20% new oak, in part to emphasize the fruit, but also I suspect to avoid adding any other tannin into the mix. There’s a balance of vibrancy and depth that serves as the Garamond Classico SC, watermarked, Patrick Bateman’s business card of what to expect in their main red. Speaking of which…
With 62% Merlot, 32% Cab Sauv, and 6% PV, there’s aromatic complexity that stands out in this balanced, powerful, chewy, and fresh blend. Black olives, dark plums, cassis, violets, herbal spices, dried rose petals, and deeeeeeeep dark fruits. This vintage saw the utilization of 400L barrels, to “soften the aging” as Bache-Gabrielsen put it. “The idea is to find the right level of aromatic ripeness and freshness, to avoid rusticity.” Mission accomplished.
A nearly identical blend to the 2016, “the tannins were a bit hard,” Bache-Gabrielsen noted about the vintage, “but late rain allowed them to evolve in a good way.” Less concentrated than its younger siblings, and with spicier, redder fruits, there’s fine elegance here. The palate is plummy and finishes with a sense of structure, earthiness, and finesse. Bache-Gabrielsen summed it up for the both of us when he mused “I love the balance on the 2015…,” almost trailing off in a bit of a daydream.
Here, we’ve got 56% Merlot, 40% CS, and 2% each of Cab Franc and PV from an “‘Indian Summer’ vintage” as Bache-Gabrielsen described it (lots of hot, sunny days, but also lots of cool nights). Dark spices, green herbal notes, mint, dark red fruits, powerful and juicy cassis and redcurrant flavors. there’s breadth, freshness, funk, and grip here. It’s smoothing out now, though still needs steak to tame the tannins if you’re drinking it any time soon.
A sinewy, chewy, complex mix of 55% Cab and 45% Merlot, the vintage was less sunny than 2014 and later ripening, with the fruit coming in “at the limit” as Bache-Gabrielsen described it. Black cherry, licorice, cassis, graphite, dried spices, black olives, and green herbs all mingle on the nose, which is classic Bordeaux. The concentration, balance, power, freshness, and deliciousness are all ramped up in fantastic ways, and the structure is integrated and substantial enough that they wine still feels young. I’m a bit stunned that this kind of quality can be had for $35-ish (especially with the words Saint-Estèphe on the label).
The Wayback machine journey ends for our tasting here, at the third vintage for the current Lilian Ladouys team, and the first to be made after their “first big rearrangement of the plots.” 60% Cab, 40% Merlot, and 100% juicy, this feels like the most internationally-styled of the modern Lilian Ladouys releases. Spicy plums, currants, black cherry, black olives, minerals, tons of herbs, smoke, and some game meat all kick things off, backed up by a palate that’s still grippy, and fairly fresh. What it lacks in the finesse and precision of later vintages it makes up for in power, and delicious, juicy fruitiness.