VEL­VET GLOVE

Chateau Mar­gaux’s inces­sant push for qual­ity en­sures that its wines con­tinue to se­duce

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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’.

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top Thibault Pon­tal­lier; Chateau Mar­gaux’s pyra­mid set of 1990 Vin­tage

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