In March of 2010, several Master of Wine students – myself included – were invited to visit several prestigious Chateaux in Bordeaux. We were each assigned a Chateau to cover, and I had the good fortune of being able to write about Chateau Prieure-Lichine.
A gorgeous bright blue sky greeted our arrival at Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, a Fourth Growth estate located in the Margaux appellation in the commune of Cantenac. Vivacious Ulrich Latrille (pictured above), Head of Communications, welcomed us and updated us about the winery before lunch. It was planted during the 16th century by a small community of Benediction monks. Today it ranks among the largest estates of Marguax and its vineyard spreads over the five villages of the appellation, ensuring wine depth and complexity thanks to its ownership under the Ballande group.
Yet as is the case with many Chateaux in Bordeaux, the estate had its ups and downs over the centuries, mostly as a result of the French Revolution and the way the Benedictine Priory was seized, divided, and sold. In 1952, Alexis Lichine, author of Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France and On the Wine Routes of France, found the dilapidated vineyards (11 hectares) for sale for $18,000 and bought it, changing the name from Chateau Prieuré-Cantenac to Chateau Prieuré-Lichine. He improved the property and acquired more land, with his son carrying on after his death in 1989. (He is buried in a little knoll in the middle of the vineyard).
Today the vineyards cover about 70 hectares throughout Margaux with 130 separate parcels of vines, with 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 1% Petite Verdot.
Chateau Prieuré-Lichine (Le Grand Vin (50% of all production)
Chateau de Clairefont, AOC Margaux (second wine)
Le Clocher du Prieuré, AOC Haut Médoc
Le Blanc du Chateau Prieuré -Lichine, AOC Bordeaux
Etienne Charrier is winemaker, with Stephane Derenoncourt is consulting winemaker since 1999. In the vineyard they have increased canopy size to increase the potential of sugar synthesis by the vine, and stopped using chemical herbicides with a goal to use more organic products if possible. They are also doing more leaf plucking and heightened trellises for better vine aeration and improved maturity of grapes. The challenge of the season was to preserve freshness of Merlot because of the high alcohol potential.
Berries are manually harvested with an extensive selection process. A first stage consists of a vibrating table, then a conveyor belt with four to five people sorting bunch by bunch, then de-stemming at a second belt with sorting berry by berry to get rid of the little pieces of stems. For the Grand Cru Classe wine, the winery now has an optical sorting system which employs a camera to analyze individual berries according to shape, size, color, and surface texture thus allowing the winery to retain only those berries considered perfect for making the wine.
Grapes are de-stemmed, with whole berry fermentation (grapes not crushed). The winery uses cement fermentation tanks for a slower, more even fermentation. Grapes have a cold soak maceration for 3 – 4 days, then 8 – 12 days alcoholic fermentation up to 28 Celsius. The Grand Vin spends 16 months on oak (45% new) and the rest one year old. The wine is aged on lees and racked only every seven months, making for two rackings in total. Maturation on lees makes for a silkier wine. The amount of micro-oxygenation depends on the year and character of the wine. Blending is done at the end of aging, instead of before which is typically the norm.
We enjoyed Chateau Prieuré-Lichine 2004 with lunch, with the wine revealing a dark robe with licorice, plum, and cherry on the nose and concentrated fruit and spice on the palate that could easily improve with aging for 15 – 20 years. We also enjoyed the Chateau Prieuré-Lichine 2001 with a beautiful deep color, and rich blackberry on the nose. On the palate, more concentrated black fruit and exceptional balance between fruit, tannins, acid, and oak.
The entire team at Chateau Prieuré-Lichine seemed very happy to receive us, with Ulrich Latrille going out of his way to present the story of the winery in the most exciting way possible, and realizing that as students we valued all the information he shared with us.