The past decade has seen a dramatic turnaround for the famed appellation of Margaux. FIONA MORRISON MW finds elegance restored
Margaux is arguably the most famous name in the wine world. People name their daughters after it; fanatics collect any bottle produced under its name; and it’s one of the first ports of call for any visitor to Bordeaux. The wines, with their beguiling elegance, hide depths of tannin and complexity that make them some of the longest lived. Yet behind the fame, Margaux’s winemakers have had to work to solve some serious quality problems, fight off plans for a new road bisecting their vineyards, and re-establish this appellation to its rightful former glory. Every wine region needs a standard bearer, an ambassador, and the appellation of Margaux is fortunate that its most famous château is not only also called Margaux but has, for the past 20 years, been producing extraordinary wines. Margaux for years stood alone as the great château of the appellation. It’s thanks to the openness and talent of its wine director, Paul Pontallier, who also lives in the region, that other estates have seen the same improvements come within their grasp. Like many estates in the appellation, Château Margaux’s 250ha (hectares) are scattered all over the place, the result of purchases and swaps with most of the top neighbouring estates over the years. There are 30ha of precious deep gravel – perfect Cabernet soil sloping from the famous D2 route des châteaux down to the estuary. Coming out of the village of Margaux, on the left hand bend, there is a wonderful parcel of vines on the right. Its pale
pebbles worn smooth eons ago by the retreating glaciers sum up the magic of Margaux and the appellation.
Alas, not all the appellation is like this and even Château Margaux’s substantial estate includes large tracts of sandy gravel or fertile loam near the estuary. The top estates use these rich soils for their second wine, or even declassified red Bordeaux. But there are still several estates using this heavy, moisture-soaked clay to produce appellation Margaux wines. It has taken Pontallier more than a decade to understand which parcels produce which styles of wine and how they fit together in the blend that eventually becomes the grand vin. ‘Dealing with the inconsistencies of the soil and how it copes with the climate was the biggest challenge,’ Pontallier says. The heterogeneity of the soils in the appellation has been the crucial quality point for the past decade. When Château d’Arsac, which straddles the appellations of the Haut-Médoc and Margaux, asked for more of its vineyards to be included in the Margaux appellation it sparked a law case that threatened to see vast tracts of sandy, alluvial soil added to the famous commune. Horrified, the wine syndicate, led by Gonzague Lurton, decided to act fast. He began the first in-depth study ofthe appellation’s soils. The new vineyard designation came into force last year. It
has ruffled feathers and there is the usualslew of pending lawsuits (Bordeaux does not accept changes to the old order lying down) but at least a quality blueprint has been laid for the future. Home improvements So if Château Margaux has got it right, why are so many others still performing under par? Pontallier is cautious: ‘There is an unfortunate coincidence in Margaux that many châteaux were run carelessly by people not up to the job. In the past, Margaux was trendier than other appellations so people tended to rest on their laurels.’ A new generation of family winemakers have grown up aware of these criticisms,
however unjustified they might feel them to be. Lurton at Dufort-Vivens, Emmanuel Cruse at d’Issan and Jan Schÿler at Kirwan have persuaded their families to make the investments necessary to upgrade their famous properties. What started as isolated cases has now become an across-the-board turnaround, as evidenced by improvement at traditionally underperforming estates such as Rauzan-Gassies, now run by siblings Anne-Françoise and Jean-Philippe Quié, and Château Malescot St-Exupéry, run by Jean-Luc Zuger. Nor are the improvements limited to family-owned properties. The injection of capital Rauzan-Ségla, Prieuré-Lichine, Giscours and du Tertre has been of paramount importance. Alexander Van Beek, the young director at the latter two properties has been given carte blanche by his Dutch boss Eric Albada-Jelgersma. ‘His ambition is to make one of the 10 best wines of the Médoc’, he states, ‘and I’ve been given all the means necessary to do so.’ This includes co-planting 30,000
vines at Giscours, replanting most of du Tertre, completing renovating its cellars,
and hiring ex-Latour technical director Frédéric Ardouin as winemaker.
Giscours and Rauzan-Ségla which have undertaken drainage work, water filtration and parcel selection have seen the rewards. When consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt (see p82), was brought in to help improve Prieuré-Lichine, his first challenge in the Médoc, he couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘Margaux was at least 10 years behind the Right Bank,’ he claims. ‘Here, there is such a hierarchy between cellar master and vineyard manager, between owner and director, that many details get overlooked for generations.’ Methods I took for granted, such as parcel selection, grape selection at harvest and green harvesting, have only started to be adopted.’ He was also staggered by the diversity of the vineyard. The estate covers 70ha, with 120 parcels over five communes. ‘My first job was to analyse these parcels and identify which could be used for the grand vin. I found 46ha.’ Derenoncourt is just one of the Right Bank consultants brought into Margaux. When Michel Rolland first began consulting at Kirwan, his 1993 vintage caused a stir with its opulence and juicy fruit – completely different from previous wines and one of the highlights of a fairly average year. Though no longer at Kirwan, Rolland now consults for many of the classified growths in Margaux including Lascombes, Malescot St-Exupéry and Giscours, and his attention to parcel selection, lower yields and peak ripeness has paid off at many estates. An advantage of consultants, says Lurton, ‘is that they have raised the bar – they are making people pay more attention to their winemaking.’ When Jean-Luc Thunevin of Valandraud dared to buy into the region, the old guard stiffened. Many thought he would change the character of Margaux wines forever, introducing dark, inky alcoholic monsters to please modern palates. HisMarojallia wine, produced partly on Bernard Ginestet’s old garden, is one of the appellation’s best new-wave wines, yet it holds onto a freshness and an elegance not found in his Right Bank wines. And in the past few years, tastes have swung back from over-extracted, teeth-sticking tannins to a style more suited to Margaux. Lurton’s wife Claire Villars points out
the challenges of Margaux, where she makes Ferrière and La Gurgue. ‘There is
much more irregularity between vintages,’ she says. ‘The lack of clay in the soil means we have less tannin in the grapes and the wines can appear thinner.’ For
Villars the most important solution has been vinifying Ferrière in newly built concrete vats, each adapted to individual parcels. ‘I have learnt a lot here: the key is to take a light touch and not worry too much about concentration or extraction.’ For Villars, the intensity and freshness of Margaux provides the fascination: ‘Margaux wines have more character, more life and more vitality’ she adds. Emmanuel Cruse echoes the same desire to emphasise Margaux’s legendary finesse. ‘I aim to make elegant wines, not monsters.’ Since he has taken over d’Issan, he has implemented vineyard work, green harvests and stricter grape selections which have limited yields and restored natural elegance. Once his family saw the improvements in the vineyard, Cruse then got the money to invest in better vats to ferment his parcels separately.
A decade ago, Margaux was distinctly second division, limping behind Pauillac, St-Julien and St-Estèphe. Today Château Margaux is in the fore-rank of Bordeaux’s first growths, and most of the appellation’s second growths are reclaiming their rightful places in the 1855 classification. The goal has been to bring consistency to its wines, whether classified growths, cru bourgeois
or artisan. Having safely steered through the vineyard classification and seen off the threat of the bypass cutting a swathe through its vines, Margaux seems ready to take advantage of its tremendous potential. For many winemakers, the challenge of producing something delicate, fine and authentic to the model of great Bordeaux is irresistible. Until recently, few have had the tools or resources to take up this challenge. Hampered by the legacy of the 1855 classification, where more Margaux châteaux were elevated to grand cru than
in Pauillac, St-Julien or St-Estèphe, it has taken courage and financial sacrifice to abandon the shallow, sandy parcels that lowered the quality of many estates, and make wines worthy of their classification. Margaux wines are compelling. From their first sniff, one realises that there is something essentially Bordeaux in the glass – wines that don’t grab you by the throat but glides over your palate with a seductive charm. It would be a pity if this charm was lost in the quest for modern, improved winemaking, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. The most promising estates are ironing out the inconsistencies from one vintage to the next, the vineyards have been drained, replanted (or co-planted) and re-trellised and the wines are riper, fuller and sweeter. Most cellars are now taking advantage ofprecise parcel selection, and abandoning their large fermentation vats for smaller ones tailored to the realities of the vineyard. The talent, enthusiasm and ambition in Margaux is unmatched in any other Bordeaux appellation. The knowledge learnt from soil studies and vineyard classification has been put to good use, and encouraged a surge for quality across this large, diverse appellation after a difficult transition period. Margaux has once again found its lustre.
Morrison’s Margaux:five of the best:
Several Margaux châteaux have led the drive for better quality and consistency:
The sexiest: Palmer Indisputably Margaux’s super-second (though actually a 3rd growth, Palmer is back on top. Since taking over in 2004, Thomas Duroux (ex-Ornellaia) has refined the wine, cut yields, and gone for greater ripeness and concentration. The one to watch: Rauzan-Gassies A wine I loved to hate, especially when compared to its sleek neighbour Rauzan-Ségla. But for two years, it has impressed at en primeur and the reason must be that the next generation, Anne-Françoise and Jean-Philippe Quié, have taken over from their father. The best value: d’Issan With its chequered past, this is a realsleeping beauty of an estate with its castle and moat. Emmanuel Cruse has woken the château from its slumber and is producing lovely, fragrant wines. The most exciting: du Tertre Who’d have thought this sort of quality was capable in this western part of Margaux? Beautifully restored, intelligently managed by Alexander
Van Beek and impeccably made. The natural one: Durfort-Vivens Gonzague Lurton has had his hands full as president of the Margaux Wine Syndicat. Somehow he has had time to improve the wines at his own château, introducing precise selection and new small wooden and cement vats while remaining a non-interventionist.
Written by Fiona Morrison