It has the potential to be magnificent, but has often disappointed. STEPHEN BROOK asks why the wines of Margaux have faltered and is delighted by their comeback

It has the potential to be magnificent, but has often disappointed. STEPHEN BROOK asks why the wines of Margaux have faltered and is delighted by their comeback

Devotees of Médoc wines cannot have failed to notice that those of Margaux, formerly lagging behind those of the region’s other appellations, have recently gained enormously in both quality and consistency.

Fifteen years ago, consistency and the quintessential character of great Margaux could only be expected from prestigious properties such as Château Margaux and Château Palmer, with occasional surprises from the others. Indeed, many of the crus bourgeois of Margaux regularly out-performed the appellation’s 21 classified growths, a scandalous indictment of the latter’s quality.

So what is great Margaux? Some call it ‘feminine’; I prefer the term ‘finesse’ to describe it. Great Margaux is not a light wine, but neither is it obviously powerful. Instead it should be a miraculous marriage between density (which implies concentration of flavour) and a seamless texture and elegance. Much of this elegance comes from extensive usage of Cabernet Sauvignon, used because the grapes ripen earlier in Margaux than further north, giving the Cabernet a greater chance of being picked mature.

André Lurton, best known for his clutch of properties in Pessac-Léognan and who grew up in a Margaux wine family in the 1930s, sums it up well: ‘Wines here were never about extract or power. They were all about finesse. That’s what we looked for and admired in a wine.’

Until recently, though, many wines were of a low standard. Yet no-one could plausibly maintain that the soils, and thus the potential, of Margaux are inferior to those of its northern neighbours in St-Julien or Pauillac. The five communes of Margaux contain exactly the same gravel mounds (known as croupes) as the other vilages. Admittedly, the subsoil is poorer in organic matter than elsewhere, meaning that the wines of Margaux could rarely attain the power of a Latour or indeed the grandeur of a Ducru-Beaucaillou. Instead a fine Margaux compensates for any loss of muscle with its purity and elegance. Moreover, a great Margaux can attain the same longevity as a great Pauillac, as ancient vintages of Château Margaux often demonstrate.

The appellation area of Margaux is much larger than that of its neighbours, and some have used this to excuse its often weak performance. St Julien can claim a greater homogeneity in that its estates are almost all classified growths, with few artisanal properties to drag down its good name. In Margaux, besides the classified growths, there are many crus bourgeois and simpler estates with few pretensions to outstanding quality.

Margaux’s problem has essentially been a human one. Some owners of the past – and a handful today – persist in poor practices such as machine harvesting, inadequate grape selection, and an adherence to the highest yields they could get away with. Such techniques allow the owners to charge modest prices for their wines, leading many customers (falsely) to believe that they are getting a bargain.

Nonetheless, the wines steadily improved throughout the 1990s. The breakthrough vintage was 1999 – this was an uneven year in the Médoc as a whole, but in Margaux almost everybody managed to make attractive, even delicious wine. It tasted good young, and remains just as succulent and charming today.

A major factor in the renaissance of Margaux has been a change of generations. Typical of this progress is the Lurton family. The patriarch Lucien Lurton owned numerous fine properties in Bordeaux, principally in Margaux. He chose to hand over the properties to his offspring, and almost overnight underperforming classed growths were put under the direction of men and women in their thirties. Henri Lurton took over Brane-Cantenac; his brother Denis, Desmirail; and Gonzague, Durfort-Vivens. Gonzague’s wife, Claire Villars (herself the offspring of the Merlaut family), runs the fast-improving classified growth Ferrière, as well as the excellent cru bourgeois La Gurgue.

INJECTION OF YOUTH

Other properties – such as Angludet, Issan, Deyrem-Valentin, Tour de Mons and Margaux itself – have also had similar injections of youth. Throughout Margaux a crop of younger proprietors and managers took up their posts in determined mood. Many of their properties had been badly neglected. As Gonzague Lurton explains: ‘Some Lurton properties, notably second-growth Durfort-Vivens and Desmirail, had been sold or leased to Châteaux Margaux and Palmer for many years before my father acquired them in the 1980s. Their production had been absorbed into that of larger properties, so their names vanished from public view. My mission at Durfort has been to restore the reputation of an estate that had been entirely forgotten.’

As president of the Syndicat of Margaux, Gonzague Lurton has been a major force for change and has continued some of the innovations introduced by his predecessor, Jean-Henri Schÿler.

EYE OPENING TASTINGS

Schÿler was owner of Château Kirwan until he passed control to his children. His daughter Nathalie says he urged everybody to lower yields and introduced private tastings among the proprietors. ‘These tastings were real eye-openers,’ she says. ‘The comparison encouraged those whose wines were mediocre to improve their quality. Everyone soon realised there was no longer a place for wines that were harsh, vegetal and acidic.’

’I remember the harvests at Kirwan when I was a child,’ she says. ‘Our pickers came up from Spain on the train, and began as soon as they reached Kirwan, whether the grapes were ready or not. The bad or unripe grapes were picked alongside the ripe ones, and plots with mixed varieties which ripened unevenly were harvested together.’

Kirwan shocked its neighbours in 1993 by appointing renowned Right Bank consultant, Michel Rolland. He introduced the monitoring of individual parcels to ensure each was picked at exactly the right moment. Today such practice is commonplace, but, says Schÿler, even in the early 1990s, detailed knowledge of one’s property and soil types was rare.

DOWN TO THE ROOTS

Schÿler walked me through the Kirwan vineyards to point out another problem that has only recently been addressed. ‘The vineyards of Margaux have thick bands of clay beneath some parts of gravelly soil, and these can block the descent of roots. Tractors often cut the roots, which lie near the surface, compounding the problem. And the clay can encourage the formation of underground pools of water.’ Proper drainage can solve the problem but it’s a major investment. Fortunately, says Schÿler, the Syndicat has been of great help in organising drainage projects.

Brane-Cantrenac and Rauzan-Ségla have also invested in new drainage. Rauzan’s manager John Kolasa laid 14km of new piping to take care of the problem. ‘The difference it has made,’ he explains, ‘is that some parcels that never made wine of sufficient quality to go into the grand vin are now among the best plots.’

Some changes in Margaux have been more controversial. In the mid-1990s, both Giscours and du Tertre came under Dutch control, but with beneficial consequences. In 1999, Château Prieuré-Lichine was sold to the Ballande group, which hired Stéphane Derenoncourt as winemaker. Derenoncourt had made his name in St Emilion, where he made such renowned wines as Canon La Gaffelière and La Mondotte. He was also an enthusiast of micro-oxygenation, which introduces controlled quantities of oxygen into tanks or barrels – this diminishes harsh tannins and reduce the need for frequent rackings.

RIGHT BANK INFLUENCES

In the late 1990s micro-oxygenation was used primarily in St-Emilion and Pomerol. Derenoncourt introduced it to Prieuré-Lichine. Even less traditional was his insistence on stirring the lees in the barrels for a few months after malolactic fermentation. The resulting wines are rich and lush, but are they Margaux?

One can ask the same question of Lascombes. The underperforming second growth was bought by a US investment group, Colony Capital, in 2001, after which there was a clear change in the style. The 1999 is pleasant but dilute; the 2001 rich, chocolatey and tannic.

Colony had hired Right Bankers Michel Rolland and Dr Alain Raynaud to revamp the wines. The new team halved yields (which had been far too high under the old regime), introduced such techniques as lenghty maceration at cold temperatures before fermentation and rolling the barrels to stir up the lees (but without micro-oxygenation). They also overhauled the vineyards, which badly needed doing.

Yet to my taste, both Prieuré-Lichine and Lascombes lack typicity. Their combination of rich fruit, massive concentration and powerful tannins will please those who like their wines big and brawny. I am less convinced that they are great Margaux.

2002, it is already clear, is a superb Margaux vintage. The Cabernet ripened fully, meaning the best wines have a purity of fruit that needs no tricks in the cellars to enhance its structure.

At the best crus bourgeois such as Monbrison, the wines have deftness, finesse and charm, and density and grandeur increases at the best of the classified growths. Margaux is fully back on form, and Château Margaux itself in 2002 is sublimely elegant.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter

Written by STEPHEN BROOK