Despite incredible sweeping views of the New York skyline from the tasting room, located on the 60th floor of Manhattan in New York’s financial district, all eyes were firmly focused on the eight tasting glasses of Château Margaux wines.
Some of the 80-strong crowd for this special masterclass at Decanter’s inaugural New York Fine Wine Encounter had flown in to take part, and to say a personal hello to the host, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos.
Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for the eight Château Margaux wines in the masterclass
The wines were generously provided by Château Margaux to showcase all of the estate’s strengths. Attendees got to taste:
- iconic white wine Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux from the 2018 vintage;
- the relatively rare third wine, Margaux de Château Margaux, from 2015;
- the 2010 vintage of the estate’s second wine, Pavillon Rouge;
- five incredible vintages of the grand vin itself, Château Margaux 2004, 2009, 1995, 1989 and 1985.
Château Margaux: a brief history
This estate traces its roots back to the 12th century, when it was known as La Mothe de Margaux, and began to take shape as we know it today in the 16th century, so it’s no surprise to learn that there have been many owners.
First managed by a series of wealthy lords, Olive de Lestonnac bought the ‘Maison Noble’ of Lamothe Margaux in 1610. Her father, Pierre de Lestonnac, is credited with having planted the first vines at the property in the second half of the 16th century.
From there, it became one of the nascent elite wine producers of Bordeaux, on a path that would eventually lead to it being named a First Growth in the 1855 classification. The estate’s 1771 vintage was the first claret to appear in a Christie’s auction house catalogue.
Fast-forward to the 20th century, and the modern era began with a prescient purchase in the 1970s.
A fact few people may know is that Chateau Margaux was on sale for two years in the 1970s before it was purchased by Alexis’ grandfather, André Mentzelopoulos, in 1977.
According to oft-told family stories, he saw an ad that the estate was for sale in the Financial Times while travelling from the UK to France. ‘Because of the difficult financial situations at the time, nobody really wanted it,’ Alexis says.
‘He had the genius move to see the potential; he went to check it out for himself, immediately fell in love and bought it. Of course he also understood the great amount of investment that he would have to put in to really bring back Château Margaux to the top, to the place it was worthy of.’
Renovations in the vineyard and cellar quickly followed, as well as on the estate’s iconic chateau building itself, ‘which was entirely restored’.
Alexis says the 1978 vintage that was recognised as great at the time was due to both the beneficial climatic conditions of the year and the efficiency of his work. ‘In a very short amount of time he was really able to restore the quality of the wines and the reputation of the estate.’
André passed away in 1980, ‘way too early to witness the renaissance of Château Margaux’, and his daughter, Corinne, took over and still owns the estate today. It remains the only First Growth to be solely dedicated to one property.
The current generation now leads the way, with brother and sister duo at the helm; Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos came onboard in 2020 as deputy general manager, strategy and development, while Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos was appointed deputy managing director, communication and image, in 2016.
So what is it like being born into a First Growth family? ‘It’s a huge privilege’ Alexis says.
‘Very young as a child you get a sense of how extraordinary the place is. You’re too young to understand winemaking and the history, but the way people react around the wines and the estate, you realise that it’s something very special and you want to be a part of it.’
Château Margaux terroir
One of the most unique and interesting aspects is that Château Margaux is one of the few vineyards in Bordeaux to have remained relatively unchanged for centuries, retaining the same area under vine today as in 1700.
There are 82 hectares (ha) dedicated to red wine grape varieties, and 11ha for white. The remaining 169ha consists of gardens, forest, Château buildings and a lake.
This doesn’t mean, however, that things have stood still. Under the current family ownership, significant investment was put into the property in the 1980s.
More recently, a new winery was designed and opened in 2015, increasing the capacity for precision viticulture by adding more vats, to give better options for individual-site vinification and so further encourage expressions of both the vintage and the terroir.
Completed by Lord Norman Foster, it includes the ‘Foster Room’ for tasting and a wine library that houses the estate’s oldest bottle dating back to 1848 – not one that Alexis has tasted, yet.
‘We’re now much more precise,’ he says, highlighting stricter grape selection at harvest (200 pickers make a first selection in the vines before fruit reaches the winery) and when it comes to deciding the final blend.
Teams have also grown at the estate over the years, with staff dedicated to research & development, logistics, commercialisation & sales, and more recently a department focused solely on sustainability.
Margaux is also one of the only Bordeaux estates to still produce a portion of its own barrels, around a quarter in total, from an on-site cooperage.
The estate still works with six other barrel makers to ‘have complexity’, but Alexis maintains the importance of keeping the barrel making tools and know-how, especially if there are ever accidents in the cellar. ‘A barrel of Château Margaux that leaks gets very expensive very quickly,’ he tells the masterclass audience in a humorous tone.
Château Margaux at a glance
Planted vineyard: 82 hectares (ha) red, 11ha white
Planted to red: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% split between Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Average age of 35 years.
Planted to white: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Average age of 40 years.
Second wine: Pavillon Rouge Established: 16th century
Owner: Corinne Mentzelopoulos, her daughter Alexandra and son Alexis (second and third generation); family in place since 1977.
General manager: Philippe Bascaules, arrived in 2017.
Technical director: Sébastien Verne.
Consultant: Eric Boissenot
Winemaking: Margaux is made in a mix of traditional oak casks and stainless steel vats, with space set aside for extensive research and development facilities – a micro-vinification area with vats that go down to 25 hectolitres. In the vineyards, organic farming has been in place since 2012, with a flock of sheep providing an alternative weeding method.
Wines in this tasting
White wine: Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux
Produced for more than 300 years and always made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc from a plot of around 12ha, but the wine first took this name in 1920 and has had the same label since then.
‘Our objective is to make a wine that is very concentrated and mature but at the same time elegant and fresh, to have acidity but also fatness,’ says Alexis.
Terroir, age of the vines and accurate picking dates all combine to create the final product, along with strict selection, says Alexis.
He revealed that only one third of the wine ends up as Pavillon Blanc, totalling around 1,000 cases. ‘We used to produce more so there may be a case for introducing a second white for the qualitative leftover white wine in the future,’ he hints.
Pavillon Blanc is such a singular style that combines minerality from the proximity to the river and acidity that gives the refreshing appeal, delicious when young but also has real ageing potential.
‘Sometimes we have the occasion to taste some older Pavillon Blancs from the ’80s,’ Alexis says. ‘Of course, there’s less acidity, less straightforwardness, but just the aromas and the texture of the wine becomes beautiful.’
He adds, ‘It’s often nice to finish a tasting with the Pavillon Blanc, to leave the room with the freshness and acidity in the mouth. But given the 1985 on the table today we’d rather that was the lasting impression.’
Third wine: Margaux du Château Margaux
The first vintage was 2009, before which the wine that was not used for the first or second wine was sold in bulk.
‘In 2009 we had an exceptional vintage where we made a strict selection to keep the best for the grand vin and Pavillon Rouge, and we really believed that the remaining wine was way too good to be sold as regular bulk wine,’ Alexis says.
It offers a more accessible way into the Château Margaux stable and is aimed at a younger drinker for earlier consumption.
‘We could have put more into the grand vin but we thought this was the better way to go,’ Alexis adds.
Margaux du Château Margaux is not sold via the en primeur system and instead is released onto the market when it’s ready to be drunk. The 2015 is the current vintage, being sold mostly via restaurants.
As an aside, Alexis adds that 2015 was an ‘exceptional vintage for Bordeaux but also an emotional vintage for the estate’.
It was the year where the label for the grand vin was changed for the first time. Alongside the new Lord Foster-designed cellar, 2015 marked the 200-year anniversary of the Château, originally designed by architect Louis Combes with work completed in 1815.
It was also the last vintage of Château Margaux’s late winemaker and general manager, Paul Pontallier, who passed away in 2016. ‘So, a lot of history for us’, he said.
Second wine: Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux
This wine has been in production since the 17th century, and adopted this name permanently in 1908. It’s not made from specific plots but always with the idea of ‘increasing the level of quality from the first wine’, Alexis says.
Because of the selection process, some plots that were previously producing grapes for the grand vin are now part of the Pavillon Rouge make-up.
‘So, in some ways,’ Alexis said, ‘we have a Château Margaux that is on another level compared to what we had 20 or 30 years ago, and we really have a Pavillon Rouge that is at the same level or very close to the Château Margaux we had 20 or 30 years ago.’
He concedes that it doesn’t have the same character, but the aromas and the combination of concentration and power with elegance and freshness are similar. ‘It’s a wine that can open up and be drunk usually earlier but at the same time has ageing potential,’ said Alexis.
There is no recipe for the blend at Château Margaux; all the grapes grown have the potential to go into the grand vin and as such will all be vinified with that in mind. Final blends are decided via several tasting sessions looking for quality of mouthfeel.
‘Nothing is decided before the harvest and there is no set plan,’ said Alexis, but he concluded that ‘Cabernet Sauvignon is at the heart of what we do, planted to 75% in the vineyards’, adding, ‘at the proper level of maturity these grapes provide the ultimate expression of terroir and elegance’.
There is an ageing difference, versus the grand vin, with the Pavillon Rouge aged in 60% new oak for 20 months.
Bordeaux’s 2010 vintage is considered one of the greats overall. Alexis said the vintage expresses itself very well, a bit like 2015 and 2009. ‘Dry but a bit [of a] cooler vintage, so it has more freshness and acidity. It needs more time to open up but has elegance and precision in terms of aromas and texture.’
Château Margaux: the grand vin
At Château Margaux, the first wine usually represents about one third of the crop. It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend with Merlot (between 5% and 10%), Petit Verdot (about 2%), and Cabernet Franc (about 2%). Ageing takes place in 100% new oak for 20 to 22 months. ‘[Because] our wines have the capacity to digest it, it’s beneficial,’ Alexis says.
Alexis on Château Margaux 2009:
An exceptional vintage, said Alexis, and one that ‘Paul Pontallier said couldn’t be better – that was until 2010 arrived’.
The season was dry but relatively warm with some plots that had hydric stress. The subsequent wine has deep concentration, a bit like 2005, but great freshness and texture that Alexis likens to the 1990 vintage. He says 2009 is currently more charming and open than 2010, but the latter might take the lead in future.
‘A wine that we love and one that is only at the beginning,’ he says of the Château Margaux 2009. ‘It’s giving so much pleasure now but will gain so much more complexity and depth in the years to come. That’s the magic of the wines that we do. We don’t only make wine to age, we make wine that can get better in time.’
This was also the first vintage that used gravity technology to fill the vats after harvest.
Alexis said the winemaking team don’t try to make a specific style and a lot of elements are decided at fermentation. ‘We don’t want to extract too much, we want the terroir to express itself, always to have an elegance which comes from being careful with extraction in the cellar.
‘Then we have the blending – we’re just looking to make the best wine possible, the one that brings the most pleasure based on what the terroir has offered that year.’
If there was a grand vin signature, Alexis said it would be the perfumed elements that come from Château Margaux and the softness of the tannins.
‘We hear sometimes that Château Margaux has less tannins than some of the other First Growths but that’s not true at all, the difference is how incorporated they are.’
Château Margaux 2004
Alexis says Margaux 2004 ‘really represents perfectly the style of Château Margaux’. So much so that he jokingly told the crowd, ‘If you don’t like the 2004, I’m wondering how you’re going to like any vintages of Château Margaux.’
There was no excess in temperatures or rain throughout the year. It’s a wine of extreme concentration but also a wine that was drinkable very early in its life – ‘a very young adult’, Alexis says.
The only problem with 2004 is that it comes after 2003 and before 2005, which were both remarkable vintages in their own right, he says.
The 2005 is considered to be a more prestigious vintage, but it takes longer to open up, he says. In various recent blind tastings between 2004 and 2005, Alexis says the preference is unanimously for 2004 simply because it is more charming and pleasurable [at its current stage]. The 2005 is so powerful, while the 2004 is more charming and brings pleasure, he says.
Château Margaux 1995
Alexis describes 1995 as a great vintage with heat, drought and important hydric stress in the summer – although a lot of plots suffered, especially the younger vines.
There was some rain during the harvest, more than in 2004, but the rain was useful in helping the grapes reach optimal maturity and adding some freshness, he says. It also taught the team to be a little less scared of rain during or just before harvest, he adds.
The wine has bigger shoulders compared to 2004, with a more impressive tannic structure that needed a lot of time to open up, he says. ‘Five or 10 years ago, this wine wouldn’t have given as much pleasure as it did today.’
To compare with other 1990s vintages, Alexis says the biggest vintages are 1991 – almost as good as 1990, 1995 and 1996, which he says are ‘delicious’, and 1997 ‘which is considered to be a less prestigious vintage but at Margaux it’s lovely’ and the ‘elegant’ 1999.
Château Margaux 1989
This was a vintage where the team saw a lot of heat and drought. ‘If you look at the climatic conditions of the year it was optimal from A-Z,’ Alexis says.
There was ‘not one drop of water during the harvest’, he says. ‘Extremely concentrated, [it’s] a wine that took a long time to open, a bit austere at first.’
He adds, ‘We harvested the reds early in 1989, [and] the first parcels around the 10 September, which is extremely rare for Château Margaux – so rare in fact that the only vintage which could compare for a similar date was in 1893.
‘We love the 1989 and like to share it at tasting, but it still has so many years in front of it. If you have some ’89 in your cellar don’t be in a hurry to open them all,’ he tells the audience.
Château Margaux 1985
Being the same vintage as Alexandra’s birthday, Alexis revealed they ‘don’t have many 1985s left’, and the wines we have are ‘closely guarded’ – giving masterclass guests an extra special treat.
‘It’s a wine I don’t get to taste a lot but one that I’m very happy to share here. Every time I’ve tasted it, I’ve never been disappointed by it. It is less concentrated than 1989, it has more finesse and is more discrete in a way. So smooth and one that was ready to drink almost straight away. It shows that we can make wines at Margaux that can age even if they weren’t from super powerful vintages.’
He adds, ‘In 1985 we weren’t as selective as we are today, or as precise or careful, and yet we have this wine that is so wonderful.’
A fitting lasting impression from such an excellent masterclass.
The future for Margaux
Alongside the tasting, a fascinating discovery at the masterclass was the amount of trials and experiments going on at Château Margaux.
Looking to the future and in relation to global warming, Alexis said the estate team is planting a little bit more Cabernet Franc and just starting to see some plots of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc planted 20 years ago entering the blend of Pavillon Rouge.
The estate is also planting a few rows each of Carménère and Malbec.
Alexis said the team is keen to see how these grapes ‘react to the terroir’, although he said ‘you won’t see Carménère in the grand vin before a very long time, it just may be part of the solution’.
There are also many other projects. The estate’s R&D team takes centre stage here and has been working on different rootstocks and biodynamic trials in the vineyards, as well as different vinification and ageing techniques in the winery – and even different corks when it comes to bottling.
‘We are proud of our history and our know-how but we always want to question ourselves and never rest on our laurels,’ says Alexis. ‘We want to improve and perfect what can be done.’
He says there are almost 10,000 bottles of experimental wines currently sitting in the Chateau Margaux cellars.
However, he says, ‘If we decide to change something, it won’t be for marketing or following the fashion, we’ll do it because we’re 100% sure of the results and because of the experiments behind us.’
He adds, ‘The objective is to balance our traditional know-how with modern day technology. For the first wine 20-30 years ago we produced approximately 200,000-250,000 bottles, whereas now it’s between 100,000 and 120,000.
‘When you think of the amazing vintages like 1982, 75% of the harvest in those days went into the grand vin, [and] all the rest in Pavillon Rouge. So imagine what the wines we’re producing today will be like in 30 or 40 years, the great vintages, with such a high level of selection – they will be on another level. All we have to do is be patient.’