Purity and Intensity: Wine Spectator’s 1992 Wine of the Year

After several decades of searching for a proper direction, Château Pichon Baron hit its stride under the auspices of insurance giant AXA and the guiding hand of Jean-Michel Cazes

Excerpted from the Dec. 31, 1992, issue

Château Pichon Baron has been a leading Left Bank estate for decades, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1989, under new ownership and a now-legendary manager, the winery (formerly known as Château Pichon-Longueville Baron) had a breakthrough vintage, and Wine Spectator named it Wine of the Year in 1992. Here’s what we wrote at the time, recognizing an ethic of excellence that still drives the estate under the current management and winemaking team, which includes managing director Christian Seely and technical director Jean-René Matignon.

Once upon a time, Pichon Baron ranked among the top second-growths, but in recent decades the château’s fortunes have slipped. Starting with the 1986 vintage, however, Pichon Baron got its act together. Not coincidentally, that was the first wine completed under the supervision of Jean-Michel Cazes. By the 1989 vintage, the château was hitting on all cylinders. Only three 1989 Bordeauxs surpass Pichon Baron, all first-growths that cost at least twice as much.

AXA, the French insurance giant, bought Pichon Baron in 1987 and asked Cazes to manage it. The château was the first major acquisition by AXA in Bordeaux, swiftly followed by stellar names such as Suduiraut and Cantenac-Brown. What AXA and Cazes have done at Pichon Baron must be seen to be believed. They reclaimed some of the estate’s fallow land, more than doubling the acreage under vine. They built a new computerized winery with a stunning neo-Greek façade and state-of-the-art equipment.

Despite the gleaming equipment, the winemaking style at Pichon Baron is traditional, even to the point of racking the wine under candlelight instead of pumping from barrel to barrel. The lavish care shows in the wine. This 1989 is breathtaking in its purity and intensity. It shows astonishing concentration of blackberry, cassis, dark chocolate and vanilla flavors, not to mention great tannin structure.

Winemaker Daniel Llose packs all that flavor into his wines with the help of equipment such as temperature-controlled fermentation tanks linked with a computer, nitrogen-blanketing pumping systems that keep air from oxidizing the wine as it travels from barrel to bottling tank and gravity-fed racking systems that minimize the use of pumps. With AXA’s deep pockets, Pichon Baron can afford to wait longer for the grapes to ripen, pick them faster and age the wines in a greater percentage of new oak barrels. But most of all, Pichon Baron is once again taking full advantage of one of Bordeaux’s prime locations. The vineyard abuts the vines of Pichon Lalande and Latour, not a bad pedigree. It contains more Cabernet Sauvignon than Lalande and almost as much as Latour, making for a muscular wine that rivals the first-growths at a fraction of their price.