After years of complacency, JAMES LAWTHER finds that an interjection of youth and enthusiasm has given Margaux the shot in the arm it needed.

After years of complacency, JAMES LAWTHER finds that an interjection of youth and enthusiasm has given Margaux the shot in the arm it needed.

Margaux. The name has a certain magic and charm, evoking the taste of Bordeaux at its subtle, elegant and refined best. The truth of the matter is more complex though, with wines of varying character and style and, barring the odd exception, until the mid-1990s of questionable quality. The diversity looks set to remain as winemaking techniques continue to distort the Margaux ‘ideal’, but standards are nevertheless improving as a new generation of producers strives to make better wines.

Over the years, the Margaux reputation has been both a strength and a weakness. Historically, the area was at the forefront of the Médoc’s viticultural development. Its proximity to the city of Bordeaux attracted investment from the powerful, moneyed noblesse de robe class and by the early 18th century techniques such as artificial drainage, trellising on wires and fining with egg whites had already been embraced. The market value of the wines continued to climb and was underlined by the 1855 classification which listed 21 of the 61 crus classés from the Margaux region, including a first growth, Château Margaux, and five second growths.

On the down side, it took years of dispute – until 1955, in fact – to finally establish the appellation Margaux. Essentially, the commune of Margaux wanted the name to itself, but as the châteaux owned land in other communes these, too, demanded inclusion. Eventually, the boundaries were drawn up to include land in the five communes of Arsac, Labarde, Cantenac, Margaux and Soussans, making Margaux the most extensive of the Médoc’s communal appellations. This apart, complacency has been Margaux’s greatest enemy, with too many producers resting on their laurels, protected by the prominence of Château Margaux, while others moved ahead.

As to the specificity of Margaux, this comes down to the terroir or, more precisely, the mounds of graves glaciers characteristic of the five communes, especially Cantenac and Margaux. These are the poorest soils in the Médoc, with low clay content and scant fertility, and they are suitable for little else but the vine, in particular Cabernet Sauvignon. They assist in the production of wines of a more delicate weight and texture with a present but fine tannic structure.

This distinguishing feature, however, can be altered by winemaking techniques and by the fact that not all Margaux’s soils are deep gravel. Limestone, sand and clay can also be found and need to be adapted to accordingly with, for instance, the use of Merlot. As most châteaux own parcels of land in various communes and experience various soil structures, the puzzle is complicated.

Expert attention

What then of modern-day Margaux and the changes being wrought? On the collective front, the Syndicat Viticole de Margaux, under president Gonzague Lurton, owner of second growth Château Durfort-Vivens, has put in motion a number of plans for the general improvement of the appellation. A geological survey has been undertaken to investigate soil structures throughout the delimited zone and the results have been made available to producers. A geologist is also on hand to advise on drainage – this is an ongoing problem in Margaux as the land is low (the highest point is only 27 metres above sea level) and the water table high.

Returning to the contested delimitations of the appellation, the syndicat has also made overtures to the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine to have the boundaries redefined. The proposals of a committee of experts are due this year and, if they follow the recommendations made by the syndicat, this could see land in the southern part of Arsac, considered atypical to Margaux, dropped from the appellation, and a corner of Cantenac, presently outside the delimited zone, included.

In terms of the buying and selling of properties, there have been a few significant changes. The acquisition of second growth Château Rauzan-Ségla by Chanel made the news in 1994 and resulted in massive investment. Dutch businessman Eric Albada Jelgersma bought the right to make and market the wine at Château Giscours in 1995 and the entire estate of Château du Tertre in 1997, while the Groupe Ballande acquired Château Prieuré-Lichine from Sacha Lichine in 1999. All three purchases look like providing the necessary capital and ideas to enhance the quality of the wines.

The situation at third growth Giscours is complicated as Eric Albada only acquired the right to make and market the wine, while the Tari family still own ‘the walls’ and most of the vineyard. Add to this the scandal about the replacement of a vat of the second label, La Sirène de Giscours, with that of a Haut-Médoc, for which he had little expertise, and Eric Albada’s introduction to the Bordeaux wine trade has been somewhat tumultuous.

However, a new management team which includes commercial director Théodore Mostermans and technical director Jacques Pelissié, the latter with 15 years experience at Cos d’Estournel, has since brought greater stability and progress has been made. A study of the different parcels of vines has been undertaken, plants have been replaced, the process of selection has been tightened, yields have been lowered and equipment and barrels have been replaced. The results have been instantaneous, with the 1998 and 1999 being the finest wines produced at Giscours for a number of years.

Eric Albada did not make the same mistake with fifth growth Château du Tertre and bought the 50-hectare estate in its entirety. The same management team runs the property, but this time the investment has been visibly greater.

A new vinification cellar with brand new, gravity-fed, temperature-controlled oak vats is close to completion. A new barrel cellar has been built and the old ones renovated, while the percentage of new oak barrels has been lifted to 50%. In the vineyard, the trellising has been raised for a better leaf canopy, green harvesting introduced to lower yields, and the density of new plantings increased to 8,500 vines per hectare. As at Giscours, the wines of this little known cru show great improvement, with a rich, full-bodied 1998 and a vigorous 1999.

The interest at Château Prieuré-Lichine has been the Ballande Groupe’s choice of consultant oenologist-winemaker. Stéphane Derenoncourt made his name on the Right Bank, notably in association with Stéphan de Neipperg at Château Canon-la-Gaffèliere and La Mondotte.

Derenoncourt’s first priority has been the study of the 70ha vineyard – with 125 parcels dotted around the five communes, this is no mean task. The consequence of this survey has been a grading of the parcels with the better being ‘groomed’ for the grand vin. Yields have been reduced and improvements are steadily being made to pruning techniques, canopy management and the working of the soil. In both vineyard and cellars, the emphasis is being placed on the fruit.

New Techniques

Winemaking techniques honed on the Right Bank that have come into operation include microbullage or the introduction of homeopathic doses of oxygen during the maceration to combat reduction, fix colour and soften tannin. Malolactic fermentation takes place in barrel and the wine is aged on lees with little or no racking but the injection of oxygen to provide extra flesh and a better integration of the oak. The 1999 is the first vintage produced under this new regime and it shows a ripe, aromatic, dark fruit character, succulent weight, silky texture and firm finish.

Up the road in the village of Margaux, similar techniques are also being applied at third growth Château Malescot Saint-Exupéry, where Michel Rolland acts as consultant. Again, a young, new team of Jean-Luc Zuger, member of the owning family, and cellar master Gilles Pouget, formerly at Château de Fieuzal, are making this a working possibility. In the 2000 vintage they also used a reverse osmosis concentrator to good effect, so progress is clear but the wines stay true to the Margaux character.

The arrival of investors, winemakers and consultants from outside the region looks to be providing the extra drive and inspiration that has been lacking in Margaux. ‘It’s beneficial to have a continuing debate on wine, and new people means new blood, new ideas, more capital and a renewal of competition,’ says Lurton.

One project that secretly has everybody’s interest is the ‘garage’ Margaux being produced and marketed by the husband and wife team of Jean-Luc Thunevin and Muriel Andraud of Château de Valandraud fame.

The 1999 is the first vintage of Marojallia and was produced using the same methods applied at their property in Saint-Emilion. Yields at the 2.5ha vineyard were cut to 20 hectolitres per hectare, the grapes were picked very ripe and a severe selection was imposed with the introduction of a second wine, Clos Margalaine. The wine was vinified with a daily pump-over and pigeage followed by a three-week maceration and then aged in a traditional manner in new oak barrels for upwards of 24 months. This first vintage is a surprising blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot and, if a Margaux, it is one with plenty of muscle. The colour is deep, the nose ripe and spicy with an overlay of chocolatey oak, and the palate powerfully tannic but with a clean, fresh finish.

Quality, however, doesn’t have to be linked to minimalist yields and can be achieved in a more conventional manner.

The Thienpont family bought cru bourgeois Château Labégorce-Zédé in 1979 and since then Luc Thienpont has worked hard in the vineyards there. The new plantings have all been drained, the canopy improved for better phenolic maturity, leaf plucking introduced to aerate and thus reduce the threat of botrytis, and green harvesting adopted in the better parcels to reduce yields to around 40 hectolitres per hectare.

’Today we can see the results,’ says Thienpont. ‘The maturity of the Cabernet Sauvignon is better than 15 years ago, and better grapes mean a better wine.’

Other conscientious estates such as third growth Château Kirwan are redoubling efforts in the vineyards, which is also where the key to success lies for those which are yet to make their mark, such as Château Lascombes. Vineyard management, technical innovation, ‘garage’ wines, a new generation and greater investment – at long last there is a sense that the ball is rolling in Margaux. Here’s hoping the momentum lasts.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW