A very well-done shot of Château Chasse-Spleen, one of the leading Haut-Médoc estates. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.
The Haut-Médoc, basically the area in the Médoc that does not fall into one of the Fab Four wine villages (Pauillac, Margaux, St-Julien and St-Estèphe), is another mainstay of Bordeaux wine. In general, this is more of an area for values than absolute quality and luxury. Some of the wine is expensive, but more can be found for less than equally good wine from the four famed villages.
The Haut-Médoc AOC also contains AOCs Moulis-en-Médoc and Listrac-Médoc. Neither have any classified wines, but some of their estates have risen to levels of price and pedigree that makes them worthy of 4er cru or higher. Haut-Médoc AOC itself only has a few classified châteaux.
A bottle of Château Cantemerle.
This photo is in the public domain.
The Haut-Médoc, just as described in the Médoc page itself, was drained in the 1700s by Dutch settlers to France. In the beginning, there was a great quality differential between the best Haut-Médoc wines and the worst. Over the next two hundred years, the government instituted a system of classification that would greatly assist wine consumers. Although the 1855 classification was a bit unfair due to the fact that it ranked wines solely based on price, several of the Haut-Médoc's wines received places on the list.
Quality was generally (although not exclusively) found to be higher in the particularly optimal regions of St-Estèphe, Margaux, Pauillac, and St-Julien. So, these areas were split off and made their own AOCs in 1936. Haut-Médoc was also given status in that year. Two years later, Moulis-en-Médoc (nowadays simply called Moulis) was broken off into its own AOC. Listrac (officially Listrac-Médoc) was given its status in 1957.
Climate and Viticulture
Just like the rest of the Médoc, gravel is common in the Haut-Médoc and as a result the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is prominent. However, large reserves of clay and other soil types are also interspersed through the region, making Cabernet less consistent than in the four village communes. As a result, Haut-Médoc wines have the potential to show some different flavors.
The climate of the Haut-Médoc is oceanic, but it generally varies slightly from place to place. Obviously, the Haut-Médoc is large enough to span most of the Médoc, so there can be noticeable differences between the northern and southern parts of the appellation.
Standards are not so high, and winemaking procedures not so traditional in Haut-Médoc, as in the four major villages. So blends are not nearly so uniform as in the particular village, where producers that do not conform are considered "renegades." Except for Malbec and Carménère, all the Bordeaux red grapes are planted in varying proportions here.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: While Cabernet is not quite as crucial to the Haut-Médoc in general as it is to villages like Pauillac, there are few regions in the Haut-Médoc where Cabernet would do poorly, and in the majority of the area it thrives. The areas where the fullest wines are produced from Cabernet are the regions where heavy gravel banks lie, and less powerful Cabernet is made from clay-based soils.
- Merlot: Traditionally, Merlot is used in the Haut-Médoc to soften Cabernet Sauvignon and to provide a more supple nature to the blend. Smoothness is often not required in Haut-Médoc wines, so some use little, but there are also those that use a majority of Merlot. Everything relates to the preference of the winemakers and the unique terroir of the vineyard.
- Cabernet Franc: Most châteaux in Haut-Médoc use at least some Cabernet Franc, and the typical percentage is somewhere in between 5 and 10. In most cases, the Cabernet Franc lightens up the wine while nevertheless giving it structure.
- Petit Verdot: Petit Verdot is used to give the blends structure in a few of the Haut-Médoc châteaux. Nevertheless, the part it plays is not particularly important in most houses. La Lagune has plantings of about 10%.
There are no first growths or second growths from Haut-Médoc. There is only one third growth, which is generally considered the best Haut-Médoc.
A La Lagune from the famed
1961 vintage. Photo by BerndB
on Wikipedia. License: Creative
Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
- Château La Lagune: Though competition is rising, this remains the best Haut-Médoc in most years. Gravel banks at this château optimize the Cabernet, making it the dominant grape in the blend. But the estate's plantings also include 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Issues with this estate's ownership need to be watched, but barring anything unexpected, La Lagune is the flagship Haut-Médoc wine and at $45-$70 usually an excellent buy.
There is also only one 4er cru from Haut-Médoc.
- Château Latour Carnet: This wine is probably harder to find than a 4er cru should be, but when available it provides an excellent bargain. While not classified as highly as La Lagune, it produces wine of a similar pedigree and for less money too ($40 is about par). Flavors are nontraditional, but the wine is clearly well-made.
There are three fifth growths.
- Château Belgrave: There's a lot of Merlot in this blend, often 40% or more. Nevertheless, it is often full-bodied and rich, showcasing unusual Médoc flavors that are especially earthy and spicy. The wine's prices are quite reasonable—they only hit $40 in the 2005 vintage.
- Château Camensac: An understated wine that offers good value, but should be aged for best results.
- Château Cantemerle: Added as a 5er cru a year after the classification, in 1856, Cantemerle has consistently proven that it is worthy of that status, if not something more. The estate has a long history in wine, going back even before the Middle Ages, but is kept up-to-date by its corporate owner. Rich but understated wines, these can be excellent bargains when under $30.
A small selection of former crus bourgeois and other estates that are nonclassified are worth description.
- Château Bernadotte: An extremely reasonably priced wine that deviates from typical flavors to show a slightly more light-bodied style. Tannins are ample but soft, and a bouquet of flavors provides the wine's main structure. Not everyone likes this atypical style, but those who do will be happy to get this wine for its price of $20-$30.
- Château Charmail: This unusual wine uses more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon, and as such provides untraditional flavors. Critics are divided on the style, but for those who like more fruit-forward Bordeaux it's hard to go wrong for about $25.
- Château Lanessan: Unlike the previous two wines in this description, Lanessan tries hard to stick to the original idea of a Bordeaux blend. Elegance and power come hand in hand when this wine is successful. Considered a "poor man's Pauillac," Lanessan can cost $20 or less, an outstanding bargain.
- Château Sociando-Mallet: This classic Bordeaux wine really should have ended up in some sort of classification. With the best land outside the villages, it is a highly successful imitation of the wines of Pauillac. In the best years, Sociando-Mallet can eclipse some of the 4er and even 3er crus from that appellation. Flavors are elegant but notably concentrated. The wines can last for 20+ years. At around $50, the wine is expensive for Haut-Médoc, but by the standards of its peers in Pauillac, a good bargain.
Poujeaux is arguably the best estate in Moulis.
Photo by Tomas Eriksson.
License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
Haut-Médoc has numerous subregions. The commonly cited ones of Pauillac, Margaux, St-Julien and St-Estèphe are the most famous, and have a separate AOC status. Two other village AOCs that are not nearly as popular, but definitely deserving of coverage, are listed below.
- Listrac-Médoc: More obscure than Moulis, this appellation is generally just referred to as Listrac. It was granted AOC in 1957; since then, it has developed a pedigree for soft but never flouncy wines that rely less on power and more on elegance. Flavors are sometimes cited as earthy. Prices are reasonable, and quality is generally fairly high, so wines from this appellation are at the very least a solid buy. Château Clarke, one of the less successful Rothschild investments, is among the best wines. These offerings are rarely priced over $25 and at best can be great value.
- Moulis-en-Médoc: Casually known as Moulis, this appellation was made AOC in 1938 and has always been noted for reasonably priced Bordeaux blends that at best can be quite similar to those from the more famous appellations. Chasse-Spleen is one estate where ratings are high and consistent with few bad vintages. At $25 this wine is not at all overpriced for what it is. Château Maucaillou makes slightly less expensive, more easily available wine, and it has a slightly better pedigree, but they promise a more fruit-forward although concentrated style. In this region, the wines of Château Poujeaux are really the classicist's delight. Although not entirely full-bodied, they display enough concentration and richness--as well as dozens of latent layers of flavor--to make them the ideal poor man's Margaux. This château's prices of between $20 and $30 are the best one could hope for in the Médoc, and even objectively a good value.
Vineyards in the Haut-Médoc. This photo is in the public domain.