With its splendid gravel hillcrest, Château Margaux presides over the 1885 Classified “crus” in the Medoc. Today, in a nutshell, the property’s challenge is to maintain this level of excellence… “And to go beyond!” states Aurélien Valance, Deputy General Manager for the past 15 years. “We are always looking to progress at Château Margaux because we always compare what we are doing with what more we could do.” With constant tweaks and a solid foundation, the work continues without the man who managed it so well; the previous General Manager, Paul Pontallier, who passed away prematurely last spring after 30 years of visionary effort. The team, which has been restructured by owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos, has taken over the helm to ensure his legacy continues.
In order to understand the desire at Margaux for constant improvement you need to bear in mind this growth’s past which has not always been glorious, contrary to the image we have of Bordeaux. Founded in the 16th Century, the domain enjoyed the early boom of Bordeaux wines; the London Gazette reported 230 barrels of “Margose” 1705 sold during the first auction of Bordeaux “Grands Crus.” And then came the property’s consecration with the 1855 Classification. A series of difficult periods befell the entire region: first cryptogamic diseases then the Phylloxera, the two world wars and, finally, the energy crisis which dampened demand for Bordeaux wines in the ‘70’s. That was the time when, under the leadership of new owner André Mentzelopoulos, Corinne’s father, the “cru” had to excel in terms of quality in order to reposition itself as a “Premier Cru.” A businessman of Greek origin, he bought Margaux in 1977. Designed by the Bordelais architect Louis Combes in 1815, the château with its ionic columns was modelled in part after the Parthenon. The style of the building reminded Mentzelopoulos of his native country. It was he who introduced drainage systems, replanted vines to recover the original 82 hectares, began the use of new oak barrels for ageing and brought in the best winemaker at the time, Emile Peynaud. The results were immediate with a remarkable 1978 vintage. No one could have forseen the sudden death of the owner two years later in 1980. Corinne Mentzelopoulos, who was in no way prepared for this challenge, decided to continue with the planned investments together with the team her father had assembled. Thanks to their work, Château Margaux continued to impose its individual style without trying to please. According to Aurélien Valance : “Château Margaux is characteristically poised, straight and fresh thanks to the 90% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, which also lends the wine its unique floral notes. Merlot is used sparingly in the blend, for example 2% in the 2016. The same goes for Cabernet Franc as the vines are still young, although the proportion used could increase progressively in years to come. Last but not least, the Petit Verdot at Margaux is superb although it never represents more than 2% of the final blend to prevent it from overpowering the wine.”
How does Château Margaux stand out among the “Premiers Crus” ? Because of the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend the wine has great ageing potential and and is capable of gaining amazing complexity with time. The wines of Margaux are delicious young thanks to velvety tannins as exemplified by the 2004 and even 2008 vintages, which are already drinking well. “The absence of tannins on the palate comes from a process of extraction that is as delicate as possible without punching down or racking, just moderate pumping over. We prefer to extract carefully and then add at least 10% of press wine into the blend – up to 17% in 2010. Vinification is in wooden vats for the larger plots and in stainless steel for the smaller ones to keep the contact with oak to a minimum thus moderating the wood’s tannic and aromatic impact.” At this level of excellence, the next step in producing a great wine is obvious; extreme selection. First there is Pavillon Rouge, one of the finest second wines in Bordeaux, conceived at the end of the 19th Century to make use of the fruit from the young vines planted after phylloxera. Production has been cut in half over the past few years to about 30% of the total harvest. As a result a third wine was created for the great 2009 vintage: Margaux du Château Margaux. “Launched in 2013 at a more affordable price, it means that younger generations can enter the world of Château Margaux,” explains the Deputy General Manager. This wine is enjoyable right from its first year in the bottle; delicious, spicy and chocolatey on a palate that is both rich and fresh at the same time. Only 3,000 cases are produced for the on-trade. “This wine too is subject to a selection process – about 15% of the harvest – as, since 2009, we have been producing a fourth wine that is sold in bulk and takes care of the remaining 20%.” In this way, the selection of grapes for the “Grand Vin” is more rigorous than ever: “Only about 35% of the harvest, even in great vintages such as 2005.” The result is a reduction by half in production over the last few vintages, by about 130,000 bottles. But the wines have never been of such high quality . The property has also invested in plot management, as Aurélien explains: “The breakdown we conducted at the beginning of the ‘80’s identified 25 plots. Today we have 70 which multiplies the number of first press wines – exactly 77 in 2016 – and the number of press wines to 200 in the same vintage. This means an infinite number of possibilities for blending! We had to build new cellars to accommodate this.” result is a new ultra-modern building designed by the British architect Norman Foster. The striking structure sits alongside the old cellars built exactly two centuries prior These older buildings are classified as historical monuments. Inaugurated at the end of 2015, Foster’s work also has a subterranean wine library to house treasures such as the legendary 1870 – the greatest pre-phylloxera vintage – and the 2000, such a mythical vintage that it was aged for a full 2 years in oak. A further requirement at Château Margaux: to remain an exclusively family-owned property. It has been so since 2003 when Corinne Mentzelopoulos bought up the shares of other shareholders. Sole proprietorship means that the teams can focus on their mission of excellence, as Aurélien points out: “Being family-owned is a strength for Château Margaux especially as the family is united and Corinne is very hands on.” Her daughter, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos, joined her in 2012. Today she holds the position of Deputy General Manager in charge of Château Margaux’s image. “We are lucky to be a family- owned business,” Alexandra stresses. “It means we can breathe soul into Château Margaux and it allows us to take decisions quickly and for the long-term without requiring immediate profitability. For example, when we replant a plot we are projecting 20-30 years into the future. This is the vision which we hold dear and which is behind our decision-making process at all times.”
Keeping it “in the family,” Corinne Mentzelopoulos nominated Philippe Bascaules, previously Château Margaux’s CEO from 1990- 2011, as Paul Pontallier’s successor. Bascaules returned to the property as General Manager. An agronomist by education, he came back from California where he had spent 5 years running Inglenook, Francis Ford Coppola’s winery. “His experience in Napa will be useful in helping Château Margaux to keep its fresh style in the face of global warming.” Aurélien points out. “Without exception, our wines don’t exceed 13 degrees of alcohol. Principally, thanks to the Cabernet Sauvignon on the gravel plateaus – our best plots –which enjoy a local breeze thanks to a microclimate. For example, 2003 is still extremely fresh today! The Merlot is more susceptible to warming. Fortunately, historically, it has only played a small part in the profile of the wine.” Completing the team, the previous Technical Director, Sébastien Vergne, a qualified oenologist, is now CEO. The great oenologist Eric Boissenot is still in charge of winemaking. The continuity in the team over the years is replicated in the vineyard; the land area of 262 hectares has not grown since the 1855 Classification, something rare among the Premiers Crus Classés of the Medoc.
For Château Margaux, progress means finally being able to demonstrate all-around expertise, in other terms, to excel in both white and red wines. Produced for over 300 years and officially under its name since 1920, Pavillon Blanc has established itself among the top white wines of Bordeaux for several years now. Only 10,000 bottles are produced annually. “We had to manage vigorous young vines with large yields. Today, the vineyard is older and since 2008 we have turned a corner in terms of quality with the advice of Denis Dubourdieu: harvesting earlier to increase freshness, complexity and ageing potential. We also conduct vinification in oak barrels, practice more rigorous selection (1/3 of the harvest), limit new oak (20%) and use larger barrels for ageing.”
With its integrated office for research and development, the team’s thirst for excellence is not about to be quenched any time soon “We are always testing micro-vinifications, about 6,000 experimental bottles which are regularly tasted blind together,” points out Aurélien Valance. The arrival of Philippe Bascaules will allow Château Margaux to continue the immense work of his brilliant predecessor in the very best conditions. Wine lovers all over the world should continue to look for great things from the château that gave the appellation of Margaux its name.