Producer profile: Chateau Montrose

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  • Wednesday 16 July 2014

Bought eight years ago by the billionaire Bouygues brothers, Montrose has been transformed at huge cost, and is set to be a showcase for green wineries everywhere. Jane Anson visits an estate that looks determined to dominate the next decade...

Montrose sign

The most romantic creation story in Bordeaux could arguably be that attached to St-Estèphe second growth Château Montrose. While most 1855 classified properties have a naming formula of ‘important former owner + name of nearby village or landmark’, the name ‘Montrose’ means pink hill and refers to the pink-purple bloom of heather that once covered the place where it stands.

Montrose started life as part of Calon Ségur’s garden, until Etienne Dumoulin, the owner in the early 19th century, noticed a gravel outcrop sloping down to the Garonne river that stood out for its dusky beauty. He marked it out as a separate property, building a château and planting vines. In 1824, Etienne’s son Théodore sold Calon, but kept Montrose. This turned out to have been a smart move, as only 30 years later Montrose beat Calon to second growth status at the Paris exhibition (Calon had to make do with third growth).

Martin and Olivier Bouygues, billionaire owners of the global Bouygues construction and communications group, are currently in charge, after buying Montrose in 2006. They are among the most influential and powerful owners in the 1855 rankings. They may hold only 21% of the shares in the construction company their father founded in 1952, but Forbes Magazine still estimated their worth in 2013 at $3.4bn (£2bn), making them the tenth-wealthiest individuals in France. They spent €140m (£116m) of that to secure Montrose, and the story behind the purchase gives a great insight into what it means to be number 10 on the French Forbes Rich List.

Montrose was a favourite wine of their father, and Martin had been buying it for his own cellar for several years. ‘My husband first drank Montrose in Santa Barbara in 1995, when friends we were staying with served a bottle of the 1990,’ says Melissa, his American wife and president of Montrose. He tasted it, loved it, called his wine merchant (Jean-François Moueix, whose company, Videlot, currently owns a small percentage of the estate) with a request to buy as many cases as possible, and vowed to buy the château itself, if it ever came on the market. When he heard 10 years later that it was up for sale, he flew immediately down to Bordeaux and signed.’

The brothers signalled their intention to make an impact on this St-Estèphe property by securing the services of ex-Haut-Brion director Jean-Bernard Delmas. Now retired from full-time management, Delmas still consults on winemaking, handing over day-to-day running to another former first growth director, Hervé Berland, who joined Montrose in 2012 after 35 years at Mouton Rothschild. Bearing in mind that there is a highly limited pool of these men in Bordeaux, you get an idea of how persuasive the Bouygues must be. There are no first growths in St-Estèphe (there are only two second growths, Montrose sharing the honours with Cos d’Estournel), but the arrival of Delmas and then Berland could not have been a clearer expression of their desire for Montrose to be judged in the same breath.

Figureheads sorted, the Bouygues turned to what they do best; lavishing (a reported) €20m (£17m) on refurbishing the château itself, and on renovations and new installations. These began in 2007, a year into their ownership, and are only now approaching completion (technical installations were finished by the 2013 harvest, but landscaping and other final details continued until the April en primeur tastings).

Even before this, however, changes to the style of the wine have been evident. Montrose has long been known for its ageing ability and its classic, slightly tight, austere style when young. This has been fleshed out, polished, and given every chance of success through geological terroir studies, smart vineyard practices and one of the most advanced, dazzling wineries in the region – with the results of all this work unveiled through a series of small lunches, rather than one lavish dinner.

The latter is no surprise; Melissa Bouygues is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is a master of that effortless Southern welcome, making for a powerful combination with the famously charming Berland (when he started working at the property, the main criticism I heard was that he was possibly ‘too nice, too well-mannered’ for the steely task of turning Montrose into a global brand).

A trip to the new cellars might convince any remaining doubters that this task is well in hand. Using a combination of local architect Bernard Mazières and historic monument specialist Yves Grémont to respect the 18th-century origins of the château, this has been almost certainly the biggest project in Bordeaux over the past decade – no mean feat among the forest of recent architectural works in this region.

Overseen by Bouygues Rénovation Privée, a specialist arm of Bouygues construction, Montrose has been rebuilt using 95% local workers, wherever possible from the Médoc itself. Pretty much the only non-Bordeaux company involved was Les Pierreux de l’Ile de France, specialists in marble and historic stone work that has done much of the marble detailing (a considerable amount has been designed to resemble Leonardo da Vinci’s Italian summer villa). All existing walls have been reinforced and doubled in width with insulation, and inside the cellars, every square inch has been either restored or rebuilt. Besides being a showcase for the wine, Montrose is a showcase for the green credentials of Bouygues construction; the château produces more energy than it consumes through the use of 3,000m2 of solar panels, geothermal energy, water and wind power and dozens of other green choices. A new 1,000m2 barrel cellar is 5m underground and benefits, as Berland points out, from the geographic position of Montrose. He says: ‘We are lucky to have plenty of natural ventilation from being so close to the river, so can ensure good movement of air and full aeration in the cellars.’

The result is that the estate’s carbon footprint has been halved – without losing those essential Forbes Rich List detailings, such as pipes, wires and cables hidden inside elegant Roman-villa-style pillars within the winery, an abundance of elegant arches inspired by those on Bordeaux’s Opera House, an interior decoration by the renowned Jacques Garcia, and a helicopter pad for two... all proof of the family’s intention, as author Jean- Charles Chapuzet says in his forthcoming book 1855 Bordeaux, Les Grands Crus Classés, to ensure that ‘the next decade belongs to Montrose’.

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