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Anson: If Steve Jobs had made wine…

The late Apple co-founder might have found a kindred spirit in a Bordeaux garage, writes Jane Anson in her latest column.

Its soft honeyed stone used to be hidden behind a thick bank of trees as you drove into Margaux village north of Bordeaux.

Today, Château Marojallia stands out like a siren sounding the arrival to this monied, upscale hamlet. Its graveled courtyard discreetly welcomes visitors, with neat rows of vines looking like every other established member of the Margaux family.

A garage wine revolution

Hard to remember that 17 years ago this place was the centre of a revolution; one that started in 1999, when the property exchanged hands from a 74-year old retired vigneron called Roger Rex to Philippe Porcheron, a man who had made his money in construction and was already owner of Château Bouqueyran in Moulis.

The property, next to Chateau Durfort Vivens, opposite Château Margaux, had been once owned by Bernard Ginestet – former owner of Chateau Margaux and longtime mayor of the village.

It came with no winery but with two hectares of 60-year old vines that were being rented out.

Porcheron took those back, rented out a small space in the nearby village of Arsac for the production facilities and brought in as winemaker a star name who was making all kind of waves back in 1999; Thunevin.

Not, it turned out, Jean-Luc Thunevin, but his oenologist wife Muriel. Both were stars of the garagiste movement that was in full swing at the close of the last century.

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The garage wine crew

Among the more celebrated garage wines (named because that’s where these wines were being made, like vinous versions of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs over in Los Altos) was Thunevin’s Valandraud that launched back in 1991 with 2.5ha of vines. In 1996 both Stephan Von Niepperg’s La Mondotte (4.3ha) and Jonathan Maltus’  Le Dôme (1.72ha) came along.

La Gomerie, Barde-Haut, Pavie Macquin, Gracia, Grand Murailles and Tertre Roteboeuf were counted among the same group, and everywhere on the Right Bank ambitious winemakers were dropping fruit, extending hang time, boosting new oak, extracting hard and securing their spot on the bandwagon.

On the Left Bank, Bernard Magrez launched a few micro cuvées in the garage wine spirit such as La Serenité, and Jean Guyon split Haut Condissas off from his Chateau Rollan de By to fly the flag on the other side of the river.

And then there was Marojallia. The winery space in Arsac was called a garage for the expectant press, yields were dropped to under 20 hectoliters per hectare, under half the usual crop for Margaux, and new oak was lavishly rolled out. Even more provocatively, the first vintage was priced more highly than Chateau Margaux, its direct neighbour and an 1855 First Growth. The name Marojallia was Latin for Margaux. The impudence. Jancis Robinson described it as, ‘a firebomb lobbed into the salons of traditional Bordeaux’.

Fashion moves on

Things look a little different today. The garagiste wines have had their moment. Fashions have moved on. Robert Parker has sold his Wine Advocate and retired from the Bordeaux game. Of the star consultants most associated with garage wines, Alain Reynaud and Michel Rolland have both sold off their family estates and Hubert de Boüard has handed over the running of Château Angélus to his daughter.

Bernard Magrez, who has a sixth sense when it comes to grasping which way the wind is blowing, has lowered new oak across his estates and is selling off his properties that don’t come attached to an official classification system. Hard not to feel that a page has been turned.

Château Margaux is probably quietly embarrassed at how upset it got back in 1999, when rumours tell us that it refused allocations to any merchants that took on its rival.

And yet head to the Marojallia website and you see it still describes itself as ‘Margaux’s first garage wine’. Which is why I was so fascinated to visit the property a few weeks ago and see just exactly what is going on.

‘We are still focusing on making the best wine we can. We have more than doubled our hectares of vines, and moved from 6,000 to 15,000 bottles,’ manager and cellar master Sebastien Valette tells me.

‘But sales haven’t always been easy. At first we sold almost entirely in America, then Russia, and are now trying to be more evenly spread across markets. Political events such as the Gulf War affected us strongly as a new brand without established distribution.’

The Thunevins only consulted here until 2003, when they handed over to Médoc-expert Christophe Coupez. They still distribute Marojallia but no longer exclusively, and today several merchants are enlisted to sell at what are today far more reasonable and stable prices that are well below those of Chateau Margaux (between one fifth of the final consumer price in most recent vintages).

‘We’re not technically a garage wine anymore,’ says Valette, ‘because our winery and cellar are here at the chateau in Margaux, but we are still boutique in spirit and focused on delivering our own exceptional style of wine.’

Certainly some things haven’t changed. The wine is still 100% new oak. They still push maturity, specifically looking for the gourmet quality of Cabernet Sauvignon by leaving it on the vines longer than most of their neighbours (‘when our Gonzague Lurton at Durfort Vivens is packing up his harvesting equipment, that is usually just when I am starting’ says Valette).

It means this is not always the most typical of Margaux wines, but it’s refreshing to see that Marojallia is still holding on to at least part of its original firebrand manifesto…

Wines to try

Clos Marjolaine, Margaux 2012

Second wine from younger vines up to 30 years of age. Good concentration and a gourmet nose, this is 15€ ex-chateau, great value. Velvety tannins, creamy edge, a lovely wine. Easy to drink, seriously rich and supple, on the sexy side of Margaux. 13%abv. 88 points /100

Chateau Marojallia, Margaux 2009

This is a big wine, once again we have these very silky tannins, rich chocolate, gourmet black fruits from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% merlot, around 3.8ph, 14.5%abv (both figures indicate full ripeness in a warm year). Not massively persistent for such a big year to be honest, but delivers plenty of impact. 91

Chateau Marojallia, Margaux 2010

75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% merlot. Slightly higher acidity/lower ph than 2009 and more successful for it. This is tighter, darker, black fruits, black pepper, Corsican blood oranges on the nose, a beautiful fragrance that really opens up in the glass, the tannins are velvety on the attack and give grip that lasts through the palate. Aerian, elegant with the clearest Margaux typicity. 95

Chateau Marojallia, Margaux 1999

So, how has this firebomb held up? Bearing in mind that I tried the Chateau Margaux 1999 a few months ago and it was still decidedly young, this is definitely displaying tertiary aromatics. The intensity that comes from cropping the fruit at 20hl/h is still clear, and overall this is dense, rich with plenty of life ahead. A touch dry on the finish, this majors on exotic damson and fig fruit and frankly has lashings of enjoyment to offer. 91

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