POMEROL, France — The word Bordeaux connotes magnificent chateaus, aristocratic (or at least wealthy or corporate) landowners and wines that occasionally live up to their pretensions.
But in the vine-covered countryside surrounding this sleepy village, where the tiniest undulation of the land constitutes a hill, another side of Bordeaux is on display.
Here, the sort of corporate ownership, grandiose architecture and Hermès-wearing executives you might find in the Médoc — home to many of the most famous Bordeaux estates — is practically nonexistent.
Contrary to the common perception of Bordeaux, Pomerol is a land of small family estates run by vignerons, people who grow the grapes and make the wines. Even as the wines of Pomerol are celebrated in much of the world, and the best are among the most expensive on the planet, the region operates on an approachable, direct human scale that is rare in Bordeaux’s exalted precincts.
Back in the 20th century, Bordeaux was the gateway to the world of fine wine, a kind of academy for those who wanted to understand wine in all its manifestations. But over the last 25 years, Burgundy has replaced Bordeaux as a paradigm for how to think about wine, with its dirt-encrusted emphasis on small farmers and terroir. In contrast to Bordeaux’s current image as a luxury brand, Burgundy has become a symbol of authenticity, even as its prices have skyrocketed.
Yet here is Pomerol, the smallest of Bordeaux’s most prestigious appellations, which some may insensitively describe as Burgundian.
“These are not just family-owned estates, they are family-worked estates,” said Omri Ram, who for the last five years has been with the Guinaudeau family at Château Lafleur, one of four Pomerol estates I visited during a quick two-day tour in early February.
The four offered a cross-section of Pomerol wineries. Lafleur is the kind of small jewel that, along with renowned estates like Pétrus and Trotanoy, has given Pomerol a reputation for making some of the finest, most expensive and coveted wines in the world. At roughly $500 a bottle, Lafleur far surpasses my budget.
Another is a midsize estate I have long cherished, Château Bourgneuf, with wines that are classic Pomerol, though approachable, with bottles priced around $45. The third, Château Gombaude-Guillot is a pioneering biodynamic estate, commonplace nowadays in Burgundy, but still rare in Bordeaux. Its pure, delicious wines sell for around $75.
The last, Clos St.-André, is tiny even by Pomerol standards. The proprietor, Jean-Claude Desmarty, farms the 1.5-acre estate entirely by himself. His remarkably precise wines are around $80 a bottle. He makes roughly 2,400 a year.
“I wanted to know if I could manage it from A to Z and do everything all by myself,” said Mr. Desmarty, who attributed this desire to “a lack of humility,” though he said it in the most self-effacing way.
ON THE LEFT BANK, which encompasses the classic Bordeaux regions west of the Gironde estuary, cabernet sauvignon rules. But here in Pomerol, where the shorter growing season is more challenging for cabernet, merlot is the primary grape, abetted (though not always) by cabernet franc and very occasionally by cabernet sauvignon.
Merlot is superbly adapted to the region’s rich clay and gravel soils. It yields wines that are characteristically lush and round, but also nuanced and fine-grained, unlike merlots from anywhere else.
At Bourgneuf, the blend is about 90 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc, or bouchet, as it is often called here. I tasted from a barrel of 2017 merlot that was pure, minerally and structured. Sadly, severe spring frosts cost Bourgneuf 20 percent of its crop last year.
“We were lucky,” said Frédérique Vayron, whose family has made wine at Bourgneuf for eight generations. “Some lost 80 or even 100 percent.”
Since Ms. Vayron took charge of the winemaking in 2009, the Bourgneuf wines have become more focused and consistent. Recent vintages have been superb, elegant and tense, with aromas of violets and fine tannins. The 2014 vintage, in general, is one I love, classically structured with medium weight and precision, and the Bourgneuf is excellent. The ’15s and ’16s are a bit riper and rounder. While lovely, they will need longer aging for the baby fat to integrate.
The generational transition is continuing at Gombaude-Guillot, where Olivier Techer, who trained as a cook and as a mixed martial artist, is taking over from his parents, Claire Laval and Dominique Techer. In the cellar, he is experimenting with amphorae (for aging) and has added barrels from Austria to the more typical French ones. But he has resolutely continued his mother’s biodynamic regimen in the vineyard.
Ms. Laval, an agronomist, took over the estate from her father. In 1992, she began to work organically.
“We were alone in Pomerol — 180 farmers, and we were alone,” she recalled. “Now, people are more receptive.”
Olivier Techer and his young family now live on the estate. At lunch, along with a superb tripe-and-calf’s-foot stew — the sort of classic French meal you never see in French restaurants in America, or even in France, for that matter — we tasted the Gombaude-Guillot wines and some of Mr. Techer’s side projects, like Pom ‘n’ Roll, a delicious, unpretentiously drinkable Pomerol that does not require much aging.
It’s something to uncork while waiting for the Gombaude-Guillot wines, which do take some time to mature. A 2012 was tannic and structured, with earthy, mineral flavors just beginning to emerge. The tannins in a 2008 were just starting to soften.
At Lafleur, where Jacques and Sylvie Guinaudeau took charge in 1985, the 11-acre vineyard has 11 different types of soil. The Guinaudeaus, along with their son, Baptiste; his wife, Julie; and now Mr. Ram, are engaged in a long-term project to precisely match the soil, grapes and viticulture, not merely for each parcel but seemingly for each vine.
“The vineyard looks flat, but even tiny differences in altitude can be meaningful,” Mr. Ram said. “It’s a garden, you can do amazing things.”
Mr. Ram was a sommelier in Israel when he decided he wanted to plunge more deeply into winemaking. He studied oenology and viticulture at Montpellier in southern France, began an internship at Lafleur, and never left. Like everybody else at Lafleur, Mr. Ram does not do one specific job, but a little bit of everything.
One of the most unusual characteristics of Lafleur is the high percentage of cabernet franc in the vineyard, more than 50 percent, a proportion that is often reflected in the wine. A 2009, the only Lafleur I tasted, was perfumed with flowers, citrus and a smoky, almost sandalwood scent. It was fresh, harmonious and refined, with great finesse. It will keep for a long time.
AT TINY CLOS ST.-ANDRÉ, Mr. Desmarty lives with his wife and daughter in a house surrounded by his vines. He makes the wine in an adjacent building about the size of a large closet.
“There is no distinction between the place I work and the place I live,” he said.
His great-grandmother, a World War I widow, planted the vineyard as part of a mixed subsistence farm, and over the years the vines were rented out to others, until Mr. Desmarty decided he wanted to farm it himself. His first vintage was 2004.
“Her goal was to survive,” he said. “Mine was to make wine for me and my friends.”
The vineyard is 70 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet franc and, unusually, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, which Mr. Desmarty said helps with freshness and acidity in dry vintages.
I love the Clos St.-André wines, which are focused and linear, with flavors and nuances emerging one after the other. I am especially smitten with the beautifully balanced, exquisite 2014. The 2013, an extremely difficult vintage in Bordeaux, is lean but ready to drink now, as the surrounding vintages age.
“It’s not my best, it’s not my worst,” Mr. Desmarty said, though he is proud of the wines he makes in difficult years. “I don’t care about vintages like 2009 and 2015,” he said. “Even the worst winemaker could make good wine in those vintages. My work is more important in years like 2013.”
Merlot is often thought not to age well, but good Pomerol can last for years, especially classic Right Bank vintages, in which the grapes have good acidity and are not too ripe. At Bourgneuf, I drank a 1975 that was magnificent, complex and still fresh, seemingly younger than a 1990 and a 2000, much warmer vintages.
Inevitably, some changes will come to Pomerol. Larger estates, some outside Pomerol, are on the lookout to snap up smaller holdings, while I have heard of new plantings of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot in response to climate change. But the family estates, like Bourgneuf, are still intact.
“We hope it will stay like this for a long time,” Ms. Vayron said.
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