Chateau Margaux’s incessant push for quality ensures that its wines continue to seduce
Chateau Margaux’s push for quality ensures that its wines continue to seduce
The wines of Chateau Margaux have long been revered for its quality. As early as 1771, the wines of Margaux were already making their appearance in the catalogues of Christie’s. Notable collectors included the American ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson who was later to become president of the US. In 1989, a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1787 from Jefferson’s collection, and owned by wine merchant William Sokolin, was accidently knocked over by a waiter at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. Valued at US$500,000, insurers paid out US$225,000 to Sokolin.
The history of Margaux can be traced back to the 12th century when the estate was known to be occupied by a fortified castle. Through the ensuing centuries, the estate weathered much upheavals and changes in circumstance. During the French Revolution in 1789, the estate fell into disarray. Decades later in 1804, a new owner, the Marquis de la Colonilla, built the ‘chateau’ of the estate. So magnificent was the architecture that it earned Chateau Margaux the nickname ‘Versailles of the Medoc’. Then the famous
1855 Bordeaux Classification elevated the wines to Grand Cru status.
Chateau Margaux passed through many hands and suffered difficult years in the mid
1900s. A turning point came in 1976 when the French grocery and finance group Felix Potin, headed by Andre Mentzelopoulos, acquired Chateau Margaux. With the world recession behind him, the new owner set
about renewing the vineyards and the cellar with one quest—to bring Margaux back to its glory days. By the time Mentzelopoulos passed on in 1980, Margaux was again in the limelight—its great vintages of 1978 and 1979 were being heralded.
But Andre Mentzelopoulos’s work was not yet done, and his daughter Corrine continued to helm the estate while engaging the services of the late oenologist Paul Pontallier. He promptly set about to achieve the aspirations that Andre Mentzelopoulos had for the estate. Over time, Pontallier became the ‘ambassador’ for Chateau Margaux.
I recently met with Thibault Pontailler, spokesman for Chateau Margaux and son of the late Paul Pontailler. He tells us that his father pushed incessantly for quality. Firstly, Paul Pontailler divided the terroir into four types so that he could best segregate the plots, thereby defining terroir. In those days, terroir was seldom used to define the wines of Bordeaux—after all, Bordeaux was usually a blend of two or more varieties.
Over the years, the plots identified by him had increased to over 30 different ones, each segregated by vines of different ages and soils, and each producing grapes with unique tastes. With these ‘parcels’, the selection of quality could be even stricter.
The late Pontailler was ever modest. On record, he credits ‘terroir’ to include human talent: “People who worked hard to choose the various grape varietals and plant them in the ideal plots. Also the continuous work of fine-tuning the resulting wine.”
Thibault says that Chateau Margaux continues to push incessantly for quality with rigorous selection. “We continue to farm the same hectare of land as we did 500 years ago. In the 1980s, if threequarters of the vineyard was used for Grand Cru wine, today a mere 35 per cent of the vineyard provides material for the Grand Cru. Moving forward, we have also built a new cellar so that we can produce even more wine from different parcels.”
It is the finesse in Chateau Margaux that is its unique trait. Thibault shared another secret. “If we harvest Cabernet Sauvignon at 12 degrees potential alcohol and Merlot at 15 degrees potential alcohol, we can achieve a wine of 13 degrees alcohol—that is one per cent less alcohol compared to other Grand Crus.” Little wonder that Chateau Margaux always has a certain freshness from high acidity allied with aromatic perfume and silky tannins.
For the wine lover initiate to Chateau Margaux, do not mistake it for a weakling. Although its tannins are silky soft, there is a lot of power in the wine. Indeed, any wine cognoscenti will agree that Chateau Margaux is one of the most seductive and sophisticated of Bordeaux wines—essentially ‘the iron fist in a velvet glove’.
Top Chateau Margaux Opposite page, from top Thibault Pontallier; Chateau Margaux’s pyramid set of 1990 Vintage