Sipping Splendour: Château Lagrange

25 May 2021
8 min read
Nestled in the heart of Bordeaux’s renowned Saint-Julien appellation, Château Lagrange combines scrupulous attention to detail with age-old traditions to produce a quartet of unique, elegant and powerful wines. FOUR sits down with winemaker Matthieu Bordes to find out more about the process behind creating their fine French vintages.
Can you tell us a bit about Château Lagrange and its history?

The first traces of our château date back to the Middle Ages. At that time the term ‘grange’ indicated a vast estate including a church, farm buildings and housing. Some of the property’s present-day plots, such as ‘l’hôpital’ and ‘la chapelle’, are daily reminders of this rich past.

In the eighteenth century, the Brane family from Bordeaux sealed the viticultural fate of the property and our star has been steadily rising since then. In 1795, Thomas Jefferson, then the United States Ambassador in France (and a great Bordeaux wine lover) visited Château Lagrange. He ranked Château Lagrange Third Classified Growth in his personal classification of Médoc wines. During the nineteenth century, the famous architect Louis Visconti added the Tuscan-style tower to the manor building, bringing a new elegance. The brighter façade thus became the emblem of Château Lagrange.

In 1842, Count Duchâtel, Home Secretary to King Louis Philippe, acquired the property. His passion was so great that he decided to abandon his political career to devote himself entirely to the task of bringing Château Lagrange into the limelight. The château became a popular place of stay for artists. Jules Breton, who resided at Château Lagrange in the autumn of 1862, was inspired to paint a magnificent harvest scene. In the vineyard, Château Lagrange pioneered techniques in both drainage of the vine slopes and powdery mildew prevention. These technical advances, along with the increasing value of the wines on the market, were rewarded on the occasion of the 1855 classification, confirming Château Lagrange as a Third Classified Growth.

This prosperous era came to a halt at the end of the nineteenth century when a period of consecutive crises set in. These were dark days indeed with economic and meteorological worries, epidemics of mildew and phylloxera hitting the vineyards, and conflicts evolving. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that the sun began to shine once again over the estate. In 1983, the family group Suntory acquired Château Lagrange under the presidency of Mr Keizo Saji. The management team of Mr Kenji Suzuta and Mr Marcel Ducasse undertook a spectacular restructuring project of both the vineyard and the buildings. Thanks to all these years of work, of human and technical investments, Château Lagrange has now regained the lustre of days gone by, along with the recognition of its peers, to become the château we see today: a château bathed in light.

What would you say the winery’s vision/goal is?

Nowadays, thanks to the energy of the Franco-Japanese duo, Rakusa Sakurai and I are continuing our quest for excellence. This unique double culture marries Japanese rigour and attention to detail with the traditions and authenticity of the Médoc.

Our wines are made in the respect of the harmony between man and nature. At Château Lagrange, we are very attentive to the ecological aspect of our work and aim to reduce our environmental impact to a minimum. The property encourages biodiversity around the vine plots, developing the auxiliary flora and fauna by planting hedges, introducing sheep to graze the fields and re-introducing beehives and bird boxes. Mowing is delayed to avoid interrupting the plants’ cycle and wildflowers are sown. Of course, no chemical herbicides are used on the Domaine. Since 2008, we have been farming 10 hectares according to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and also 20 hectares organically, without applying for official certification. We also take special care of the three hundred species of trees that have been introduced into the château’s gardens.

How did you get into the winemaking industry and what led you to Château Lagrange?

I fell in love with Saint-Julien wines a long time ago. I studied biology, oenology and engineering agriculture to get into winemaking in Bordeaux. I completed plenty of trainee periods in different prestigious appellations and chateaux in Bordeaux, starting in Saint-Estèphe before managing 3 estates in Graves, Pessac-Léognan and Médoc. In 2006 I had the opportunity to be hired at Lagrange.

Where does your passion for winemaking stem from and how do you remain inspired day-to-day to produce top quality wines?

Since I was 5 years old, I used to harvest grapes every year with my sister and cousins on our grandfather’s few acres. I worked in his small garage to press white grapes and do some punching down in barrels for red. We had a lot of fun and I remember the aromas during alcoholic fermentation, these are such good memories. Today our inspiration comes from the potential of our terroir. My team and I work hard to bring out the best expression of each plot’s character and reveal the finesse and elegance in each grape.

What makes a good wine in your eyes, and how do you ensure Château Lagrange upholds this?

Good wine is a wine that is respectful of its terroir and, of course, a wine with no defaults.

The terroir is the first key factor to producing amazing wines. Our deep gravelly soil is perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon because of its porousness and low water retention. The second key point is the date of picking: we sample grapes for 3 hours per day during the harvest period to select according to taste what plots we are going to pick (taste of skins, seeds, balance, tannins, aromas and flavours). The last aspect that makes our wines different is the level of selection we make during the blend, in order to select the best for the Grand Vin.

My team and I always taste the 110 samples blind to judge the quality of each plot or intra-plot 4 months after the harvest. We are thankful to the winery’s owner because every year he allows us to make the best wine, even if it is in small proportions. We never have pressure to increase the quantity of Lagrange. That is why we produce less Grand Vin (Château Lagrange) than Second Wine (Les Fiefs de Lagrange). We produce only 30-45% of Lagrange on average, which is also very helpful to improve the quality of Les Fiefs. This is a strong selection that you will find only in First Classified Growths or some super Second Growths.

What makes your area ideal for the growth of wine grapes and how does this give them their unique characteristics?

Saint-Julien is a small appellation with 920 hectares located on the left shore of the river Gironde, and close to the Atlantic Ocean on the west part. This unique situation is perfect for a temperate climate: not too hot during summer, not too cold in winter. We are located on the highest point of Saint-Julien, 24 meters above sea level and our soil is mainly composed of Guntzian gravels which means it’s warm, well-drained and porous – ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This terroir endows the wine with purity of fruit, freshness, finesse and elegance of tannins. Such complexity has given our wine a strong identity: when you taste it blind you can immediately recognize its origin.

What are some of the winery’s core production principles?

We keep to traditional methods in winegrowing and ageing that dates back centuries, and we complete them with our technicity and knowledge of today, which improve with every vintage. Another approach that has been maintained over the decades is to always show the greatest possible respect for the terroir and the environment. Our terroir is a heritage that we have to keep safe for the next generations.

Expressing the best of each terroir with this objective in mind, we re-organized the vinification cellar with one stainless steel vat adapted to each and every plot in the vineyard.

Are there any unique steps or techniques you use in the process that makes the wines superior?

We use all our know-how to make grapes our priority. Then with 102 vats for 103 plots, we can adapt the best vinification itinerary to extract what we want and transfer it to the wine. From maceration to fermentation, regular vat tastings guide all major decisions. Eric Boissenot, consultant oenologist and one of the property’s four oenologists, tastes the wines and chooses the exact blend to be prepared in the winter following the harvest. No detail is overlooked in the creation of our wines.

Tell us more about your wines? Tasting notes, grapes used, blend ratios?

Château Lagrange is a blend of several grape varieties. Mainly Cabernet sauvignon which is the backbone of our wine: it brings freshness, blackcurrant, liquorice, and powerful tannins. Merlot gives sweetness and approachability. Petit Verdot, doctor wine as we use to call it, gives spicy notes like pepper and provides a powerful and fleshy mid-palate. Over the last 15 years, we have drastically increased the Cabernet Sauvignon ratio in our blend – it represents more than 70% every year.

The priority at Château Lagrange is to make no compromise when it comes to quality. That is the reason why we always produce between 30% and 45% of Lagrange, with grapes coming from vines that are 45 years old on average. We always produce more Les Fiefs de Lagrange, our Second Wine, which is quite unique in Bordeaux.

What are some of the different wines’ best pairings?

We produce 5 different wines. Lagrange pairs best with red meat such as beef, duck and game. It is also wonderful with veal, lamb or poultry. For pairing with delicate fish, our dry white (Les Arums de Lagrange) is amazing.

What would you say really sets Château Lagrange’s wines apart from others?

Lagrange is a wine that is built for ageing. Our wine evolves very slowly and has probably one of the largest tasting windows in Bordeaux. The natural freshness that comes from our terroir transfers something unique to the wine that allows Château Lagrange to age for decades.

Tell us about some of the winery’s awards and/or greatest achievements?

During my studies, our professor explained to us that Château Lagrange was the iconic typical style of wine of Saint-Julien. I always keep this in mind and try to respect the terroir as much as I can. We have received many good ratings, but our greatest achievements are the blind tastings we organize at the château with our guests, tasting plenty of different iconic wines from the Bordeaux area. The results and the recognition that our wines are among the best is our greatest reward.

Can you tell us what interesting trends/themes are going on in the world of winemaking and how do these influence Château Lagrange?

With no hesitation, I am sure that maintaining biodiversity and producing wine with a lower environmental impact is the challenge for the future. Château Lagrange has been advancing for a long time with a true commitment to maintaining an environmentally friendly approach in our vineyard, driven by the desire to preserve it for future generations. Working in harmony with nature to protect the earth and its resources: that’s the objective. The property is striving to find solutions to today’s issues of climate change, aiming to make great wines whilst limiting its ecological impact. We will of course continue in this direction.

How do you hope your wines will impact people?

We hope that our wines do not only give pleasure to those who taste them, but above all, a true emotion. Because emotion is what makes memories.

What are your indispensable Château Lagrange favourites?

This may be the most difficult question because we are so involved every year, doing our best to create the best wine. I have several vintages that give me emotions, such as 1959, 1990, 2009, 2010, 2016, 2019. And of course, this is only a small selection, I could mention them all!

Can guests visit the winery and do tastings and/or cellar tours – any tips or recommendations?

Of course, it is a genuine pleasure for us to receive wine lovers and give them an unforgettable experience here on the estate.

The estate proposes a wide range of activities for the wine enthusiast adapted to all types of visitors. There are tours with tastings (classic or private visits with either a tasting of the different wines of the property, older vintages, blind tastings, or even cellar tastings directly from the barrel) and also educational workshops (beginners’ initiation to tasting, wine blending workshops or discovery of the estate’s different terroirs and grape varieties).

Since 2017 our in-house chef, Taïchi Sato, has been presenting his own style of French cuisine with a subtle Japanese twist, using ingredients sourced locally or from Lagrange’s permaculture vegetable garden. It is a truly unforgettable gastronomic experience!

What’s next for Château Lagrange?

Keeping to our philosophy and living in harmony with nature, doing our best from the vine to the bottle, continuing to improve the quality and sharing our passion with all wine lovers. Those are the guiding principles we will continue to try follow!


To find out more about Château Lagrange, visit their website and follow them on Instagram and Facebook.