Bordeaux insiders have an expression, that the best vineyards of the Médoc are those with a clear view of the river. According to that criteria, the list is short—Montrose, Latour and Léoville Las Cases corner the market of prime terroir.
Proximity to the Gironde has a moderating influence on temperature, while also being the area with the deepest gravels.
"A vineyard is great because of its soil," said Pierre Graffeuille, 37, who works on both the technical and sales sides of Domaines Delon, which owns Léoville Las Cases. "And we have 12 great soils in the l'Enclos."
The famed l'Enclos straddles the border between Pauillac and St.-Julien and is shared by first-growth Latour and second-growth Léoville Las Cases. It's a proud vineyard, announced by a tall stone archway topped by a lounging lion that has become one of the region's iconic sights.
Inside that gate, Léoville Las Cases' portion totals 136 acres of vines which produce the grand vin as well as the second wine Le Petit Lion (debuted in 2007). The Clos du Marquis bottling is a from a standalone property, sourced from an entirely different vineyard base of 106 acres on the other side of the road, farther away from the river and without that compelling view.
"The soils in the Clos du Marquis vineyards are much more homogenous and with higher clay content," explained Graffeuille. "Inside l'Enclos, the gravel, clay and sand proportion changes throughout. And there is much more difference as you move east-west, rather than north-south, as the alluvial terraces left by the Gironde run parallel with the river."
As we stood at the bottom of the vineyard, the terrace closest to the river, Graffeuille pulled from the trunk of his car a six-foot-tall photo of a soil pit. Once propped up against a Merlot vine, it showed what this sandiest band looks like underneath the surface, with a myriad of golf ball-sized pebbles scattered amidst layers of fine, white dirt.
LLC's portion of l'Enclos is planted to 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 23 percent Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc. The vineyard averages 40 years of age and vines are replaced as needed (rather than by parcel) and everything is done by massale selection, rather than clones. In 2001, all the Petit Verdot was grafted over to Cabernet Sauvignon, following the trend in the Médoc of classified estates who are upping their Cabernet Sauvignon percentage.
"We grafted to keep the benefit of the older vines' root systems, as the Petit Verdot was healthy. Plus, by grafting, we don't lose production for as long a period as you would if you ripped out [the roots] and then let the soil lie fallow for a few years," said Graffeuille. "The shift is because the terroir and climate here is made for Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2013, the analytical ripeness of the wine was better than in 2004, for example. Obviously the perception is different in the wine. But even in the difficult years, we know we can ripen Cabernet Sauvignon fully."
We stopped at a number of different areas through the vineyard, ending where the Cabernet finds its home; a portion of gravel atop blue clay and another area of gravel and sand sit atop oxidized iron that gives the soil a rusty hue.
"This is the heart of the vineyard. It's the most regular-performing, no matter what the vintage is like," said Graffeuille, matter-of-factly.
Léoville Las Cases' grand vin has been one of the most compelling wines in Bordeaux for years, with a distinct aroma of cold fireplace, a core of intense blackberry and plum fruit flavors and an intense bolt of iron on the finish that keep it firmly grounded in its terroir. Its structure and balance make it one of the most long-lived wines of the Médoc, with top vintages easily lasting for 25 years or more.
In addition, seven of the last 10 vintages have earned classic ratings, as the wine typically performs on a first-growth level. Had the 1855 Classification been based on terroir rather than the prevailing price of the wine, Léoville Las Cases would certainly be one today.
And the view isn't bad either.