Chateau Margaux is in the Bordeaux commune of Margaux on the left bank of the Gironde River. The wines made in Margaux are some of the most feminine in style of all Bordeaux wines. Among the wines of Margaux, the wines of Chateau Margaux are the best of all of those. From their perfumed nose to their lithe complexities, they are wines that reflect their terroir in a most elegant way.
The history of Chateau Margaux can be traced back at least to the twelfth century when it was known as “La Mothe de Margaux” from motte meaning a small rise in the land. Sometime during the 16th century, the first grape vines were planted under the direction of Pierre de Lastonnac. Within the next hundred years, Chateau Margaux expanded to cover 654 acres, approximately one-third of that with grape vines. In the 1700s, an estate manager named Berlon introduced many “new” improvements. Today, his ideas are common sense, but back then they were radical. Ideas such as not picking grapes when they were wet and vinifying the red and white grapes separately led to a much higher quality of wine. The result was evident as by 1771 the wines of Margaux were featured in the catalogues of Christie’s. Around that time, America’s first wine lover, Thomas Jefferson, rated Chateau Margaux as the top wine in Bordeaux. His meticulous records document an order he placed in 1784.
The Lord of Margaux Elie du Barry, was beheaded during the French revolution. All of his holdings, including Margaux, were sold off as national property. During these perilous times the property was not well maintained and was again sold. It was “re”-purchased by a descendant of Pierre Lastonnac. Perhaps worried about the safety of her own head, however, she quickly auctioned the property in 1801to the Marquis de la Colonilla, Bertrand Douat. Douat was from Basque Spain and it turned out, less interested in the wine than in his social position. He eschewed living in Bordeaux for a life in Paris. Still, it was under his stewardship that the mansion house featured on the front label of the bottle was built. Douat died in 1876 never having lived in the house or anywhere on the property.
Like the rest of Bordeaux, Phyloxera attacked the vines of Margaux in the later part of the 1800’s. Once it was discovered that French vines could be grafted onto American rootstock, Margaux recovered quickly having a bountiful harvest in 1893. Of course, the vines were still quite young and the quality was perhaps a bit lacking. Like the other Premier Cru’s, Margaux produced exceptional wines from time to time and very good wines in other vintages. Around this time, Margaux first began producing a second wine. They made it thru the two World Wars relatively unscathed.
In 1977 Andre Mentzelopoulos bought the winery for $16 million dollars. Mentzelopoulos was Greek, which created quite a stir, not only in France but in the entire wine world. The notion of a Greek in charge of one of France’s greatest wineries was difficult for many to accept. It turned out that the worries were groundless. Mentzelopoulos fell in love with Margaux and set about restoring its grandeur and to making the best wines possible. He installed better drainage in the vineyards and hired the famed oenologist Emile Peynaud to help in the winery. A second wine, Pavillon Rouge was introduced. Unfortunately Mentzelopoulos died in 1980 at only 65 years of age. His daughter Corrine took over as the head of Margaux.
In 1983 Paul Pontallier was hired and took over as the Director of the winery. Under the direction of Corrine and Pontallier, Margaux continued to invest in both the vineyards and the winery. In 2003, after some corporate restructuring, Corrine Mentzelopoulos took over full control of the winery.
Today, the entire estate covers 262 hectares. In all, 82 hectares are under vine. The red wines carry an AOC Margaux designation. The vineyards are planted with 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and 2% each of Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. Typically, they make 12,500 cases of the Grand Vin and 165,000 cases of the Pavillon Rouge. They also make a white wine called Pavillon Blanc du Chateaux Margaux which carries an AOC Bordeaux designation It is made from 30 acres of Sauvignon Blanc producing 2,800 cases.
Each fall, the grapes are harvested for the Grand Vin beginning with the Merlot and followed by the Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are fermented in oak vats and aged for 18 to 26 months in new French oak barrels (the white wines are aged up to six months). The wines are fined with egg whites and bottled in laser etched bottles to protect against counterfeiting. The bottles are released three or four years from vintage.
The Grand Vin of Chateau Margaux is an expensive wine. Over the last 30 years, it has arguably received fewer rave reviews from the critics than the other First Growths. I believe in part that is due to the feminine nature of the house style. The nose is more perfumed and is not the powerful blockbuster like Latour or Lafite. Neither is it the earthy complex wine of Haut Brion. But, don’t be misled as Chateau Margaux still gets consistently high scores. The wines of Chateau Margaux are ethereal and some of the best made anywhere. They strongly represent the best traits that particular vintages have to offer. For example in 2000, maybe the best Bordeaux vintage in the last fifty years (and yes, I believe it to be better than 1982), Margaux may have made the best wine of anyone. I had the privilege to try it in its youth and it is a wine of balance and purity that will last for 50 years. Unfortunately, the wine now sells for over $800 a bottle, more than I can afford to pay for a bottle of wine, no matter how good it may be. Other great vintages include 2005, 2003, 1995, 1990, 1983 and 1982. For those who really want to try a bottle, I would recommend the 1999 which can be found for around $300 a bottle. It is a wine that will mature a bit earlier but again was one of the best wines made in Bordeaux in that “lesser vintage”. I have had the 1999 twice and both times found it to be profound and delicious. I suspect it still has a few years to go before being fully mature and will last for a couple of decades after that.
The second wine, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux can also be quite expensive. In great vintages, it can cost $100 or more a bottle. I am not generally a fan of buying the second wines of the First Growths. I do not believe they give a “glimpse” of what a First Growth is like. Nor do I believe they represent good value. There are much better wines from Bordeaux for the same money.
Chateau Margaux has the distinction of making the most expensive bottle of wine. The truth is the bottle was never even sold. In 1989, and New York City wine merchant named William Sokolin had been consigned a bottle of 1787 Chateau Margaux. The bottle allegedly had Thomas Jefferson’s initials etched into it as purportedly the original owner. It now seems likely these bottles were counterfeits although that issue has never been fully resolved. In any event, back in 1989, Mr. Sokolin was selling the bottle for $500,000. The price was as much a publicity stunt as a genuine offer. Sokolin took the bottle to a dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. During the evening a waiter and Sokolin bumped into each other and the bottle broke. The insurance company paid $250,000 for the bottle making the 1787 Margaux the most expensive bottle every. See Bordeaux First Growths: Chateau Lafite, First Amongst First Growths for the most expensive bottle of wine actually sold.
So, what can you expect from a bottle of Chateau Margaux? It will have a beautiful purple color depending on age, it may have more ruby swirls. If very old, of course, it will begin to turn crimson and then orange. The nose is delightful. It is quite perfumed and by that I mean, it has a feminine quality to it; floral and spice and everything nice. Drinking a mature glass is a great experience. Not generally a blockbuster, more an exercise in elegance. The wine lingers on your palate. If you ever get the opportunity to try a bottle of the Grand Vin, do not pass it up. I would love to hear what you think.