The famous British taster Neal Martin took advantage of his visit to the estate to delve into the history of Château Léoville Poyferré.
From 1936 to 2018, a superb retrospective of the estate to discover below ⬇️
The famous British taster Neal Martin took advantage of his visit to the estate to delve into the history of Château Léoville Poyferré.
CHÂTEAU LÉOVILLE POYFERRÉ
By Neal Martin, courtesy of Vinous Media
Last summer, during my extended stay in Bordeaux, when conducting verticals on a daily basis and accumulating a backlog that will take until the next century to write up (honestly, I’m trying), I dropped in at Léoville Poyferré to taste the last two decades of wines with proprietor Sara Lecompte Cuvelier and head winemaker Isabelle Davin. It was an insightful tasting that demonstrated the direction that the estate has followed in recent years. Léoville Poyferré, like most properties in Bordeaux, has endured its highs and lows over the years, but few would argue that it has really hit its stride over the last four decades.
Like many Bordeaux Left Bank estates, the site of Léoville Poyferré was once occupied by an ancient fort to protect France from marauders invading down the estuary. It was part of the maison noble of “La Rase” that adopted the name Montmoytié upon its acquisition by seigneur Moytié in 1610. The first vines were planted in 1638, and the reputation of its wines began to rise as early as the second half of the century, when much of the Médoc was still marshland.
At the beginning of the 18th century, two Moytié daughters were betrothed to members of powerful parliamentarian dynasties: Louise de Moytié marrying Jean-Pierre d’Abbadie in 1714 and Jeanne de Moytié the blushing bride to Blaise Antoine Alexandre de Gascq in 1722. The following year, their father Jean de Moytié, passed away, and the 120-hectare estate transferred into the hands of influential and ambitious owners. They renamed it Léoville. Classifications prior to 1855 ranked its wines amongst the first tier of Saint-Julien. Blaise Antoine Alexandre de Gascq died in 1753, upon which his widow continued to manage the vast estate, some 500 hectares including pastures and woodland. There were no direct heirs, and when Jeanne de Moytié died in 1766, the property passed to her sister’s four children: Anne-Jeanne, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Joseph and Bernard d’Abbadie.
Jean-Joseph d’Abbadie ran the estate up until 1794 alongside his nephew and niece, Pierre-Jean and Jeanne de Las Cases. Fleeing upon the French Revolution, one-quarter was sold off as a bien nationale to Lechevalier and the seigneur Monbalon, which ultimately begat Léoville-Barton, whilst the remainder carried on under the ownership of Bernard d’Abbadie and Jeanne de Las Cases. D’Abbadie died in 1805, whereupon Jeanne de Las Cases not only continued to oversee the estate but expanded holdings with the acquisition of Cadillon four years later. There are now four owners of the original Léoville estate (Las Cases, Chevalier, Monbalon and d’Abaddie) though most unofficial rankings during the first half of the 19th century referred to a single marque – Léoville. In 1830, Jeanne de Las Cases died. Her domaine was split between her two daughters, Jeanne-Marie Sophie, the wife of Baron Jean-Marie de Poyferré de Cére, and her younger sibling Rose Raymonde, married to Gabriel André de Bonneval. Existing records show that there was a cooperage, a butcher and cattle as well as vines, a winery with 10 wooden vats and around 220 barrels housed in one large and one smaller barrel cellar, a third dedicated to slightly older vintages, which included white wine, as was common in those days. In 1836, Jean-Marie de Poyferré de Cére bought out his sister-in-law’s share and appended his name to the wine. So Léoville Poyferré was born. His spouse passed away two years later, and thereafter, de Cère dedicated himself to taking the estate to the highest level, predicating its ranking not just as a Second Growth in 1855, but third within that tier.
When Jean-Marie de Poyferré de Cére died in 1858, his son Charles Simon inherited Léoville Poyferré.Unfortunately, Charles Simon de Poyferré de Cére had lost a fortune on Russian railways and his problems were compounded by oidium. On 28 March, 1866, he was forced to sell. The château was bought by Baron Émile d’Erlanger and a merchant, Armand Lalande for one million Francs. At this point the estate consisted of 55 hectares of which 35 were under vine. In 1873, Lalande purchased d’Erlanger’s share of the property. This decade saw the construction of many of Léoville Poyferré’s present buildings. On 3 June, 1890, Lalande also acquired a neighbouring estate, Moulin Riche. Records show that there were plantings of Petit Verdot, an uncommon grape variety at that time. Lalande died four years later and left the estate to his children, Armand and Mathilde Marie Emma Laure, who bought her brother’s share in 1895.
Mathilde Marie Emma Laure Lalande was married to Edouard Lawton of the renowned merchant family. By this time, the 70-hectare estate comprised of 60 hectares under vine. Between 1897 and 1907, there were a number of parcel exchanges with Léoville-Barton, Las Cases and Pichon-Longueville. However, the halcyon days were coming to an end as a succession of poor vintages and First World War led to deteriorating markets and a lack of investment. Like many Bordeaux properties after the war ended, Léoville Poyferré was seeking bidders.
In April 1920, the Cuvelier family bought Léoville Poyferré and Moulin Riche for 1,300,000 Francs. A stocktake of their 100 hectares divided between the two Saint-Julien estates included 52 hectares under vine, 26 hectares that were fallow or planted with alfalfa or other crops, 10 hectares of pasture and the remainder a mélange of woodland, buildings and gardens. (It was not their first property; Paul and Albert Cuvelier acquired Château Le Crock in 1903.) In 1923 and 1927, there were further exchanges in land with the Billa and Barton families respectively. During the Second World War, the family moved to Le Crock and much of their library stock was ransacked by occupying soldiers. Management of the estate was handed to Roger Delon, the uncle of Michel Delon at Léoville-LasCases. However, quality began to slide due to lack of investment and someone at the helm fully devoted to the estate. The vineyard composition had been around 50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc, not ideal for their terroir that deserves double that percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. This was not addressed until the vineyard was replanted from 1962.
Having overseen a remarkable 60 vintages, in 1978, Roger Delon announced that he wished to retire. At 85 years of age, he deserved to put his feet up. It was the opportune moment for a member of the Cuvelier family to take over the running of the estate. Enter 30-year-old Didier Cuvelier, the oldest son of Max Cuvelier. It was not his first vocation since he had trained as an accountant and with little first-hand experience, ideally there would have been a transitional period alongside Roger Delon. Unfortunately, Delon suffered a heart attack the following year, and Didier Cuvelier had to steer the ship. “I remember that we hired students from the university to pick the grapes,” Cuvelier told me several years ago, when I asked what he remembered of his first vintage. “The problem was that it was a late harvest that took three weeks. They all had to go back to their studies for the start of term, so we ended up finishing the vendange with hardly any pickers!”
Temperature-controlled steel vats were installed and vineyard husbandry improved the following year. After the cellar-master died in a car accident in 1982, François Dourthe took over, and throughout the Eighties, Léoville Poyferré began reclaiming its position as one of the Saint-Julien elite, in no small part thanks to an outstanding 1982 and under-estimated 1983, the first that enjoyed the sage advice of Professor Emile Peynaud. New vats were installed in 1984 and in 1990, when a new barrel cellar was constructed. In 1994, Michel Rolland began advising the property, a name accustomed more with the Right Bank at that stage. When I asked Didier Cuvelier about Rolland’s role back in 2009, he replied: “He informs us of the best date to harvest, then of course he is the master blender. He is superb at putting the blends together and advising about the vinification…” before admitting that he does not always follow his counsel.
Dourthe oversaw the wines until 2006 when he was replaced by current cellar-master, Didier Thomann.
Since ownership has always consisted of a board of family members, the estate has a sense of stability, avoiding any sudden takeover should one person decide to shell their shares. In 2018, Didier’s cousin Sara Lecompte Cuvelier took over as General Director and together with Isabelle Davin, their oenologist since 2000, it makes a refreshingly female-leaning team. There remain too few women in charge of major Bordeaux estates, though this is slowly being addressed with the likes of Saskia de Rothschild, Émeline Borie, Claire Lurton and Véronique Sanders (with whom Lecompte Cuvelier studied) now in prominent positions.
QUICK Q&A WITH SARA LECOMPTE CUVELIER
Neal Martin: Could you tell me your backstory? What did you do before working full-time at Léoville Poyferré?
Sara Lecompte Cuvelier: I used to work as a human resources manager, in the southeast of France, between Lyon and Annecy.
NM: What is your first memory of drinking Léoville Poyferré? Was it ever served at home?
SLC: I remember drinking quite often with my parents on Sundays, with red meat and French fries. I remember drinking the 1966 Léoville Poyferré, my sister’s birth-vintage.
NM: How does your previous career benefit your work leading one of Bordeaux’s most famous château?
SLC: Managing people is the most important and difficult aspect of my job. My previous career has helped me to get experience in resolving conflicts.
NM: Was it easy taking over from Didier Cuvelier after he had achieved so much? Is it important to continue his way of doing things, or to put your own stamp and apply your own ideas?
SLC: Didier has done an incredible work in the vineyard, in the buildings, in the technical tools and methods. The level of quality reached by the wines is high, and we keep the objective of always increasing the level, bringing more precision in the wines. So, I continue with the technical team the way Didier was doing things, but I develop new ideas in communication: new range of wines and new labels, social media, new website and videos. Didier gave Léoville-Poyferré its reputation. My role is take the wines to their highest level.
The vineyard has expanded since the arrival of Didier Cuvelier. When he took over in 1979, vines occupied 42 hectares. Subsequently, after an examination of the geology and soil types, parcels were replanted using 3309 rootstock for the gravelly plots mainly cultivated with Cabernet Sauvignon, 101-14 used for sandier soils where Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot tend to populate, the last reintroduced having petered out in recent years. Since that time, the estate has acquired an additional 32 hectares of conjoining holdings that comprise several blocks in the ambit of Saint-Julien village. Léoville Poyferré presently comprises 80 hectares of vines that consist of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Franc with an average vine age of 38 years, the oldest block planted in 1943.
I ask Sara Lecompte Cuvelier about the use of cover crops at the estate. “Cover crops cultivated during autumn and spring are barley and/or ‘vesce’ respectively. I’m not sure what this is in English. [I believe this is a leguminous plant we call ‘vetch’ that has nitrogen-fixing properties.] We have been doing this for three years now and developing our approach every year, rotating crops used as well as adapting the different soil types. This was extremely useful for soil stability for the 2021 vintage.”
“For the harvest, we use 120 pickers, mostly from a town called Valpaços in Portugal, as well as French and local teams. The technical team would say that we pick at ripeness, rather than late. We tend not to be scared to wait, although it has been noted over the last couple of years that we have started to pick the Merlots a little earlier than usual.”
The estate introduced optical sorting in 2011.
Many of the buildings were constructed during the Eighties under Didier Cuvelier’s direction. This included a new barrel cellar to house the 1,500 barriques, though unfortunately in its inaugural year of 1991, frost depleted the crop to 13hL/ha, so there was little wine to fill it. The winery was reconstructed in 1993 and 1994 and smaller stainless-steel tanks replaced the ancient enamel-lined steel vats in 1996. I asked Sara Lecompte Cuvelier the current configuration.
“We have 57 vats, ranging from 5 hectoliters to 225 hectoliters,” she tells me. These include double-lined tronconic vats that were installed in 2010. “A pre-fermentation cold maceration at 5°C is conducted for between six and eight days using what is called bio-protection. This technique has evolved over the last few years. [This involves adding micro-organisms before fermentation, using non-Saccharomyces yeast strains as an alternative to using sulphites to prevent spoilage]. It was sprayed on the crates at picking for the 2021 harvest. We increase the temperature to 20°C and inoculate with selected yeast, then the fermentation quickly reaches 29°C and we will maintain at that temperature until the end of the post fermentation maceration period, around 15 days after completion.”
“We use two pneumatic Vaslin presses with two press levels. Depending on the growing season, the vin de presse usually accounts for 8% to 12% of the final blend. We source from 15 different cooperages with traditional racking.” One important aspect of the vinification is that malolactic fermentation is undertaken in barrel instead of tank. There are two schools of thought about where to do the malo, some renowned winemakers arguing that malo in barrel denudes wine of terroir expression, its typicité. Most, but not all of my favourite Bordeaux wines, complete their malo in tank before being racked into barrel, notwithstanding that it is far less time consuming. You don’t have to check each and every barrel to see how the malo is going – just see how the tank is ticking over. That said, I feel malo in barrel can lend wine a sumptuousness, a velvety mouthfeel that suits Léoville Poyferré and distinguishes it from Léoville Barton and Las Cases. As such, its nearest Saint-Julien compatriot stylistically might be Ducru-Beaucaillou. It is always surprising how many major estates use remote bottling lines, though Léoville Poyferré installed their own in 2015.
To my mind, Léoville Poyferré has a distinct style. It tends to be richer and more lavish on the nose, certainly when compared to Léoville-Barton. The palate has a modern sheen: pliant tannins encasing layers of ripe black fruit, one of the most precocious Saint-Julien wines, perhaps “modern” in style. Frankly, it is always quite easy to spot in blind tastings. This is partly because of the slightly higher percentage of Merlot compared to its peers, but underlying this is its terroir that lends a sense of sophistication and class. It might be too opulent for some Bordeaux purists, yet underpinning every vintage is a sense of balance, and there are few vintages where you could accuse the wine of being overdone or ostentatious. It is a seductive wine that many cannot resist drinking in its youth, yet over time the new oak is subsumed and that baby fat ebbs away to reveal a wonderful Saint-Julien that can last two or three decades, often more.
The vertical at the château broached the previous two decades. What struck me was the consistency of recent vintages where I feel Léoville Poyferré has really taken flight, challenging the First Growths in some vintages. The trio of 2014, 2015 and 2016 really took the estate to another level and that has been followed by impressive showings in the most recent growing seasons. Given market prices, the 2014 Léoville Poyferré is one that I would keep a beady eye on. The 2009 and 2010 Léoville Poyferré are both extraordinary wines, the former reaching its zenith whilst the latter will benefit from continued cellaring. They are extravagant, yet avoid the sense of being overbearing or showing off for the sake of it. Watch out for the 2008 too, over-shadowed by the succeeding vintages yet complex and blessed with melted tannins that render it more approachable. Predictably, the 2005 Léoville Poyferré is silky smooth with ample weight and density, a wine that blossoms with aeration and whereas some 2005s can feel a little heavy and less finessed than their modern-day counterparts, this oozes class and harmony.
In this report I have included some older, challenging off-vintages that Didier Cuvelier pulled out when he conducted a vertical back in 2009. For sure, the wine was less consistent in those days, as improvements were being made and do not always yield immediate results. Following the tasting, Lecompte Cuvelier poured a 1990 Léoville Poyferré blind that displayed just a little VA, yet has a rustic charm, whereas the 1983 Léoville Poyferré was utterly sublime when I bought a bottle and served it for a birthday dinner. Prior to this, to be honest, you are on dicey ground. A 1971 Léoville Poyferré, admittedly from a challenging year on the Left Bank, was dry and raw and few ancient vintages apart from the 1961 have really made an impression, the result of a château that at the time needed a bit more TLC.
Under the direction of Sara Lecompte Cuvelier, Léoville Poyferré is certainly the best it has ever been. There is a sense of forward momentum as the page turned upon a century of family-ownership in 2020. It has a distinctive personality that adds diversity to Saint-Julien as an appellation. Perhaps I should show my appreciation with a bit of graffiti, perhaps “LP Rules” over the Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux? On the other hand, maybe Banksy has got there first and already stenciled his own review.”