The 20 acres of manicured gardens are beautiful and the old manor house has a hint of regal air to it. But Château Le Thil does not drip with the Bordeaux-styled pomp and circumstance that comes from many moneyed estates in the Médoc. Instead, the cellar facility is just a simple building that could have been plucked out of the Rhône countryside, and the history here is much shorter.
"I don't have the money for a big fancy cellar," said owner and director Jean de Laitre, with a sense of apology. "Vineyards are expensive and everything went there first."
This is one of the new kids on the block, and the block has some big neighbors. Château Le Thil's 45 acres of vines are set right in the middle of a triangle formed by Châteaus Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Carbonnieux and Bouscaut, three prominent names in Pessac-Léognan. De Laitre took the plunge in 1990, deciding to plant some vines without any background in wine and no immediate family wine history to call upon. His brother, a wheat farmer from up north, came down to help with the planning and soil analysis, but eventually left the project, thinking it too expensive and, frankly, a bit crazy.
"Today, it's still expensive," said de Laitre, 50, who is tall and solidly built. "But I don't think it's that crazy anymore. And when you think of it, all the money went to the vineyards first, rather than a big fancy cellar. That's good—but I am sorry I don't have a big fancy cellar to show you," he added with a little laugh.
De Laitre planted his first 30 acres between 1990 and 1996, adding new parcels every few years and vinifying his first wine in 1992 (just 6,000 bottles). In 2002 he added a 15-acre block all at once, at a higher density than the initial plantings as he began to draw on both his own experience and the advice of his neighbors and colleagues. Château Le Thil's vineyards stand out amidst their neighbor's not for anything clearly visible in the rows themselves, but for what's buried underneath. They sit on a bump of argilo-calcaire soils (clay and limestone), rare in the gravel-dominated Pessac.
"This is really more of a Libournais soil," said de Laitre, referring to the Right Bank town that sits just off the flank of the famous Pomerol and St.-Emilion appellations. "And the soils dictate the varieties, which is why we are 70 percent Merlot and 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon here. We make a St.-Emilion wine in Pessac."
Also unique is the white, which relies on an unusally hefty 50 percent of Sémillon, with the rest Sauvignon Blanc. Both are vinified in a clean, modern style, with stainless steel tanks before aging in a modest proportion of new oak. Production of the red wines averages 7,500 cases, with about tow-thirds going to the grand vin; the white averages around 1,250 cases.
The well-respected Stéphane Derenoncourt has been conuslting here with de Laitre since the 2005 vintage, and de Laitre's own passion and growing knowledge have helped put him in touch with several other small, nascent properties looking for advice. He now helps to manage châteaus Vrai Canon Bouché, La Bienfaisance, St.-Paul, and St.-Pierre de Corbian as well.
There are no grands bâtiments at Château Le Thil, though its well-situated vineyards in Pessac-Léognan are producing some excellent values.
The Château Le Thil Pessac-Léognan Comte Clary 2007 has softened nicely, but still shows good weight for this light-bodied vintage, with a nice roasted wood note weaving through friendly plum fruit. The Château Le Thil Pessac-Léognan Comte Clary 2006 is tauter in feel, with more length to the racy red cherry and plum fruit framed by subtle toast. The 2008 red was an overachiever for the vintage, earning 91 points when I tasted it blind for last year's Bordeaux report (see the May 31, 2010, issue for that report and more on Château Le Thil) and the 2009 tasted this week in my blind tastings of the newest vintage shows the estate continues to produce a sleek, fruit-friendly, honestly-toasted wine that delivers great value, often retailing for less than $25 in the U.S. market.
The Château Le Thil Pessac-Léognan White Comte Clary 2010 is fresh and pure, with kaffir lime and peach notes and crunchy acidity, while the Château Le Thil Pessac-Léognan Comte Clary 2009 has started to round out already, with more peach, melon and fig notes (official reviews for both of these wines based on blind tastings will appear soon). The Château Le Thil Pessac-Léognan Comte Clary 2007 shows how well this wine can age; from the most recent benchmark vintage for Pessac whites, the '07 shows a broad and creamy texture, with a pure, fresh mix of kaffir lime, tangerine, white peach and mineral notes that all glide through the finish.
There is a little wine history buried deep in the de Laitre family tree—the family did have vineyards in the early part of the 20th century, but they were sold off in the 1950s to Château Carbonnieux. Jean de Laitre is using the opportunity afforded by having a clean slate to build something new, from the ground up.
Dave — Idaho — December 8, 2011 10:21am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 10, 2011 4:05am ET
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