Here is what is said about Ch Lafleur.
Robert Parker, America's leading wine critic: "one of the most distinctive, most exotic, and greatest wines – not only in Pomerol, but in the world."
Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, France's most famous wine authorities: "The wine amply deserves its high prices."
Michael Broadbent, doyen of British wine tasters: Not that much because the wine is so rare, although he did comment about the 1950, "Concentrated, certainly very impressive. But who wants to go to bed with a wrestler?"
Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, Britain's biggest fine wine trader: "The greatest wine I ever had was a magnum of Lafleur 1947 from John Avery's private cellar, even though it was served alongside the famous Cheval Blanc 1947."
Because only about 1,000 cases of Ch Lafleur are made each year, it is too rare and expensive for many wine lovers to have even tasted it, and although there is no shortage of demand, the story of the property itself is shrouded in obscurity. At a recent vertical tasting of Lafleur (£200 a ticket) organised by the Fine Wine Experience in London for instance, the Guinaudeau family who own and run it were not even mentioned.
Last April I deliberately took time out of the usual punishing primeur tasting schedule to try to visit this world-famous château. I was armed with the Pomerol map from The World Atlas of Wine and a colleague who was driving so there was no excuse not to find Lafleur on the tiny plateau of vineyards just east of the town of Libourne. We drove past the renovations at Ch Pétrus, its neighbour. We criss crossed the many little intersecting roads around it and its other neighbour Ch Lafleur Pétrus. We stopped to ask at the only house within sight that seemed to be inhabited but were met with blank stares at the name Ch Lafleur. Less than 100 metres away was a rundown farmhouse that had at least metaphorical if not actual ducks quacking around the yard that corresponded with Lafleur's supposed position on the map but could raise no-one there.
Later that day I managed to speak to Sylvie Guinaudeau and arrange a meeting on the Friday morning and yes, Lafleur was indeed that small, rundown farmhouse, inhabited today by their son Baptiste who is starting to work on the property. Sylvie and Jacques Guinaudeau who are now in charge of Lafleur live at Ch Grand Village in Mouillac on the far side of Fronsac but they came to Lafleur to show us the 11 acres of vines in front of the farmhouse and the tiny cellars below.
Although the property has been in Jacques Guinaudeau's family since it was founded in 1872, he has been directly involved only since 1985. For decades before that it was famously run by his reclusive aunts Marie and Thérèse Robin, sisters who slept in the same modest bedroom at Ch Le Gay, the other family holding, for almost 70 years. Admittedly in their youth Pomerol was regarded as a country bumpkin and it was only from the late 1960s that the appellation's wines began their dizzy ascent to the top of the saleroom price ladder. Nevertheless Mesdemoiselles Robin never really understood, much less approved of, Lafleur's newfound fame. According to Sylvie, their biggest adventure would be a bike ride in to Libourne. "Whereas Madame Loubat [the old owner of Ch Pétrus] was very open, Tantes Marie and Thérèse were very closed, and Lafleur remained in the shadow of Pétrus."
It was however the dominant wine merchant of Libourne, J P Moueix, which put both Pétrus and Lafleur on the map and made them sought after by wine collectors the world over. In fact the winemaking at Lafleur was overseen by the Moueix team, who still sell most of the wine, for some time until Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau were able to take sole charge on the decease of the surviving aunt, Marie, in 2001. They had already taken over the day-to-day running of the property but it has been only relatively recently that they have managed to establish ownership of all the individual parcels of Lafleur vines by buying out the other five members of Jacques' generation.
With the likes of François Pinault and other corporate hawks circling round this Pomerol jewel, it is something of a triumph that the Guinaudeaus have managed to keep it in independent, familial hands. To achieve this they had to sell off Le Gay (to another independent individual, the energetic Catherine Péré-Vergé who now also has wine interests in Argentina) for a reported £16.5 million.
It seemed clear that Lafleur was in safe hands as early as 1987 when the Guinaudeaus (Sylvie is every bit as involved as Jacques) decided that the wine was not good enough to be released under the Lafleur name and they created the Pensées de Lafleur second label which is used to this day for about 400 cases of earlier-maturing Pomerol, even in most good vintages. "I always sell off some wine in bulk," Jacques told me, "because I want Pensées to be a good wine too." This is an expensive decision for a property which, in a year like 1991, might produce a grand total of only eight barrels of wine. In 2003 too they produced only half as much wine as usual.
What I appreciate particularly about the Guinaudeaus is that, most unusually for Bordeaux, they have an almost Burgundian ethos of care and personal attention in the way they run the property. The family personally works the vineyards and seems to know practically every vine. We tasted in the very basic (but nowadays spotless) Lafleur cellar, Sylvie having brought glasses from Ch Grand Village, keeping the slightly dreamy, and heavily moustached, Jacques on track, ever-conscious of our crammed schedule. Lafleur's 2003 was one of very few impressive 2003s from the scorched Pomerol plateau – perhaps because within their 4.5 hectares are no fewer than five different soil types from which to make a selection.
I have been lucky enough to taste most of the Guinaudeau vintages, some of the wines made in the late 1970s and the early 1980s - and all too few of the legendary wines of the mid 20th century. The wines are indeed hugely concentrated and exotic but to my palate entirely in their own fashion, not in the current exaggerated and too often manipulated mode. This is terroir transmitted into bottle, the luscious opulence of the nose followed in general by a much stiffer – some say Médocain – structure on the palate. Lafleur has more complex flavours and demands much longer ageing than many Pomerols, perhaps partly because of its unusually high proportion of aromatic Cabernet Franc vines (50 per cent on the ground, typically 40 per cent in the finished wine) with the more usual luscious Merlot.
As we sped away from Lafleur towards the primeur tasting circus, my colleague asked whether I'd noticed how Jacques Guinaudeau physically handled each individual bottle of his wine (including a creditable Ch Grand Village 2003). "With remarkable tenderness", she said. There is all too little tenderness in Bordeaux today.
See the purple pages for tasting notes on individual vintages of Lafleur.