by Stephen Brook
Instability can be the undoing of a wine estate. Changes in ownership-so frequent these days in Bordeaux-and changes in the winemaking and technical team can scuff the track record of a property, however well located. Of course terroir will speak out, but it still needs some friendly coaching.
Château Margaux has suffered from periods of instability and underinvestment just like most other top Bordeaux estates. But it is also fortunate that for the past quarter-century it has been run by one of the wine world’s more enduring professional partnerships. When Corrine Mentzelopoulos took responsibility for running Margaux in the early 1980s after the death of her father, she was, by her own admission, inexperienced. It probably took all the more courage, therefore, to appoint as the estate’s director in 1983 a young man called Paul Pontallier.
Pontallier certainly didn’t lack qualifications. He came equipped with a doctorate in enology and some winemaking experience in Chile. He was also a forthright and persuasive communicator. Although the front man for Margaux, he surrounded himself with highly qualified associates, and conducted many experiments with a view to making the wines even better.
The youthful owner (or to be precise, co-owner, since until 2003 the Italian Agnelli family had a majority of the shares) and the equally youthful director made an impressive double act, travelling the world to present the wines and conduct tutored tastings. There is no complacency at Margaux. However stellar the wines, they need to be promoted and tasted in the face of growing competition not only from Bordeaux but from the rest of the world.
Although I have the impression that Pontallier has yet to encounter a vintage he didn’t think excellent or just short of it, no one could claim that Margaux has allowed its standards to slip since he took over the reins. Bordeaux connoisseurs can argue endlessly about some dull patches at renowned estates such as Cheval Blanc and Mouton, but few can find much to fault at Margaux over the past 25 years.
There is nothing remarkable about the winemaking at Margaux. The main focus is on ensuring that by the time the harvest begins, the fruit is in perfect condition. Thereafter, convention rules, with no smoke and mirrors, no batteries of sorting tables, no prolonged cold soaks, no micro-oxygenation. The grand vin is aged entirely in new oak for around 18 months. Selection is strict, with much of the crop being consigned to the admirable second wine, Pavillon Rouge. Interestingly, in some recent vintages when the Merlot has been harvested at Napa levels of ripeness- around 15º-most of that wine has gone into Pavillon Rouge. The Margaux team don’t want overripeness, and everything is focused on maintaining the classic elegance of the wine. Château Margaux is indeed elegant, but it would be misleading to think of it as a feminine wine. Margaux, at its best, has finesse, but it also has muscle and backbone. That partly explains the excitement at the prospect of tasting a wine already 107 years old. The great vintages just keep on going, and the 1900 has an aweinspiring reputation.
This London tasting, organized by Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience, was remarkable not only because it concluded with such a legendary wine, but because it also featured the 1953, which the late Len Evans declared was the best Bordeaux of the vintage (though not everyone concurs). Unfortunately, the bottle of 1953 was shot: completely oxidized on the nose. When I took a hesitant sip, my neighbors winced, though they applauded my courage. The palate, as they instinctively knew, was as disagreeable as the nose.
In an age when the authenticity of legendary vintages is routinely, and quite rightly, questioned, it was reassuring to have at the tasting David Elswood from Christie’s wine department, who could vouch for the fact that this bottle of 1900 was fully traceable: it had come from the château’s cellars and been sold by Christie’s in 1996.
2003 This showed a similar evolutionary stage in color to the 2000. The aromas were lush, with ample cherry fruit, yet there was no hint of baked or cooked fruit, and the nose had a welcome lift to it. However, the palate was dense and brawny, chewy and assertive; it didn’t lack acidity, but muscularity and density were the dominant impressions, and this didn’t seem to have the usual Margaux finesse. There was some heat on the finish, which, while far from short, lacked the length of the best vintages here. However, some other tasters admired the wine far more than I did. 16.5
2000 The nose showed the class of this superb 2000: voluptuous and fleshy, with blackcurrant and plum aromas, and some sweet oak and coffee to add to the luxuriousness. Just as importantly, it had precisely the attack and charm so lacking in 2003. It’s highly concentrated, tannic yet sleek, and seems perfectly poised, elegant and zesty, and exceptionally long. If there are doubts, at least in my mind, about the longevity of the 2003, there are none when it comes to the 2000. 19
1996 It has been apparent for some time that the 1996 Margaux is a great wine, but it is only just beginning to open up. The color showed scarcely any evolution, but the nose had developed a beautiful cedary tone but without any trace of herbaceousness; there was freshness and elegance and a rapier-like purity. The attack was extraordinarily silky and the palate was immensely concentrated; the acidity, as so often in this vintage, was pronounced but with no trace of astringency. It’s a leaner style than in 2000, without that wine’s opulence; but it’s lively, tightly structured, and very long. 18.5
1990 The color was quite evolved, with some brick notes on the rim. The nose was fresh, delicate, and leafy, with red fruits and cherries rather than the more expected blackcurrant, and a touch of smokiness; but there was no frailty here. Although very concentrated, it showed moderate weight, a sleek texture, firm tannins balancing fine acidity, and a greater youthfulness than was displayed in the colour or on the nose. Perhaps there was a slight lack of dimension and complexity and depth, but the wine showed no sign of flagging. It had fine rather than exceptional length. 18
1989 By a whisker, this was less evolved in color than the 1990. The nose was more voluptuous than on the 1990, with black fruits as well as cherries and a firm, oaky presence; yet it was poised and fragrant and in no way coarse or heavy-handed. On the palate the tannins were burly and slightly at war with the richness of fruit and the supple texture. Perhaps it didn’t have the finesse of the 1990, yet the length was exceptional. At present, the two vintages seem to be levelpegging. It will be fascinating to taste them side by side in, say, eight years’ time. 18
1986 Like the 1989, this showed little development in color. The vintage has always been a heavyweight in the Médoc with, in some cases, ferocious tannins. Ten years ago it was hard to derive much pleasure from 1986 Margaux, but time has softened those tannins. There were lush black-cherry aromas, with a touch of mint, and the oak was fully integrated. The palate was rich and bold, highly concentrated, spicy, and still assertive; it also showed little sign of age or development. It may not be a classic Château Margaux, but it’s a classic Médoc, with power and intensity. It is a wine that still has a long way to go and will benefit from further ageing. Indeed, a slight surliness and lack of elegance suggested it would be advisable to cellar the 1986 a while longer. 18.5
1983 It has become a commonplace that in Margaux 1983 has the edge on the celebrated 1982 vintage. Certainly, wines such as Margaux and Palmer are outstanding in 1983. Encounters in the 1990s with 1983 Margaux have not always justified its reputation, but recent tastings in the 2000s have all revealed a magnificent wine. This bottle proved no exception. The color was only lightly evolved; the nose was surprisingly reserved, with some aromas of coffee and smoke, the fruit itself a tad raisiny and subdued. But the texture was remarkable: sheer velvet. The palate was still tight and intense and extremely youthful, with ample spiciness and concentration, but not at the expense of elegance and persistence. On this showing, the wine is certainly drinking well, but it has years of life ahead of it. 19
1982 This should have been the perfect occasion to test whether the 1983 is indeed superior to the 1982, but, sadly, the 1982 was an imperfect bottle. The color was deep and healthy, but the nose showed a mushroomy character and a slight mustiness. The palate had breadth, concentrated, spiciness, and firm tannins, but it was immediately evident that this was not the 1982 at its best; there was a rawness and a subdued character to the fruit and a general lack of zest. Moreover, the finish was rather dry. (When previously tasted, in 1998, I found the wine superior to any bottle of 1983 that I had encountered by that time. That is not to say that were the two wines to be tasted side by side today, the same impression would be made.) 15
1943 Michael Broadbent considers 1943 the best of the wartime vintages. Even if the climatic conditions were not unfavorable, one must bear in mind that the vintage was produced under German occupation, with all the constraints that this implies. So expectations were not that high when this was poured. The color was a moderate brick-red, but the nose was still remarkably attractive: a touch mushroomy, even herbaceous, but elegant and far from faded, the only negative tone being a slight whiff of Elastoplast. The palate was less ambiguous: there was some richness, a silky texture, a winning combination of concentration and freshness, and lingering, sweet fruit. But there were also hints of dry tannins on the less than spectacular finish. An excellent wine, though clearly past its peak now. 17
1900 A brick-red color, to be sure, though neither especially faded nor ethereal. The nose certainly showed considerable age, with aromas of wet earth and mushrooms and café au lait; fruit was not to the fore, but what remained was nonetheless delightful and enticing. On the palate, it was everything one would hope for from a centenarian: the fruit was still sweet and intense, with an astonishing purity and raciness; there were no evident tannins and no trace of astringency-it was a model of harmoniousness, delicious, complete, and very long. With bottles of this age, luck always plays a major part. We got lucky. 19.5