Born-Again Bordeaux

After decades of underachievement, Margaux realizes its full potential.


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After decades of underachievement, Margaux realizes its full potential.

Margaux is one of the four great wine communes of Bordeaux's Haut-Médoc district. Margaux, along with Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien, are on Bordeaux's Left Bank—in other words, the area just west of the Gironde estuary. The wines of Margaux are among the best Cabernet-based wines in all of France, and, indeed, the world.

Margaux is the southernmost of the Haut-Médoc appellations, and arguably the most exciting. This is the place to come for sophisticated Bordeaux packed with elegantly perfumed Cabernet, supplemented with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wines are deceptively easy to drink young—that is, until you find Margaux that are 15 and 20 years old and still taste fresh. Prices have not kept pace with the vastly improved quality of many of Margaux's chateaus, often making wines from the commune great values.

From the mid-80s to the early 90s, the quality of wine coming out of Margaux was hit or miss. The problems were the usual ones: lack of investment, high yields in the vineyards, and not enough control in the cellars. At the time, wines from Margaux could not command the high prices of the wines from Pauillac or Saint-Julien to the north.

"The image of Margaux, in general, was suffering," says Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux. "A lot of people were told their wines were too delicate, too fine. Now, while fineness is the heart of Margaux, you can add strength to the wine without losing it. This is what has happened in Margaux." This change couldn't have happened in a less prepossessing place. Only a 30-minute drive from the center of Bordeaux, the village of Margaux is not much to look at. There's a bank, a post office, a small store, a couple of cafés, a restaurant and a hotel. There's one straggling main street, some apartment blocks, a train station and a typical French water tower. The town's population is only 1,387, yet it possesses one of the wine world's greatest names.

The Margaux Name Game

· The Classics

Château Giscours Château d'Issan Château Labegorce-Zédé
Château Margaux
Château Monbrison
Château Palmer
Château Siran
Château du Tertre

· Most Improved

Château d'Angludet
Château Brane Cantenac
Château Cantenac-Brown
Château Dauzac
Château Desmirail
Château Durfort-Vivens
Château Ferrière
Château Kirwan
Château Labegorce Margaux
Château Prieuré-Lichine
Château Rauzan-Ségla

· Ones to watch

Château La Gurgue
Château Lascombes
Château Paveil de Luze

· Best Values

Château La Bessane
Château Deyrem Valentin
Château Haut Breton Larigaudière
Château La Tour de Mons

· Second Wines from the Big-
Name Chateaus
Main chateau names are in parentheses.

Le Baron de Brane (Brane-Cantenac)
Brio du Château Cantenac-Brown (Cantenac-Brown)
Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux (Margaux)
Les Charmes de Kirwan (Kirwan)
Les Remparts de Ferrière (Ferrière)
Château de l'Amiral (Labegorce-Zédé)
Château Cordat (Monbrison)
Ségla (Rauzan-Ségla)

Then there are the wine chateaus—all 84 of them. By contrast to the relative meanness of the tiny houses in Margaux, many of these chateaus are grand, and designed to awe and impress. Constructed in the 19th century, they are confident expressions of wealth, gained from land, commerce and wars. Surrounding the chateaus are the vines—the only reason nonnatives would have to think about Margaux. There are 4,100 acres of them, spread among five communes: Labarde and Cantenac to the south of Margaux itself, Arsac to the west and Soussans to the north. Merlot is more prominent overall in Margaux than in Saint-Julien and Pauillac, but most of the classified-growth wines are still predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.

First among the classified growths is Château Margaux. The only estate in Bordeaux to lend its name to an appellation, Château Margaux dominates both by the size and splendor of its buildings, and by the fact that its wines are reference points for other Margaux estates. Under the ownership of the Mentzelopoulos family and the direction of Paul Pontallier, Château Margaux produces superlative wines. Its 2000 rated a perfect 100 points on release; the 2001 isn't far behind.

Pontallier knows exactly why Château Margaux is so special. "It's a simple formula," he explains. "You need, first of all, a privileged site, but then the management of the vineyard is a prerequisite. Once you have perfectly ripe grapes coming from a wonderful place, the rest is relatively easy." Careful grape selection, including thinning the crop before harvest, is also essential. Only the best parcels go into the finished "first" wine of the chateau, what in Bordeaux is called the grand vin. Much of the rest goes into a "second," lesser-quality, but still very good, wine. At Château Margaux, that wine is called Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux.

Every major Margaux chateau has a second wine. Pontallier says "every time we make a step foward in terms of quality, it means there is less grand vin. But over the long term—and in Margaux 'long-term' is measured in decades—strict selection is good." It's also good, he adds, for the quality of Pavillon Rouge.

Most of Château Margaux's vines are on gravel, but there are also vines planted on chalk subsoil. The best gravel parcels are on the same type of hills found at Latour and Lafite in Pauillac. They face the Gironde estuary, which is a good indication of a quality vineyard in the Médoc. That's because the gravel is deeper there, and frost is not a problem.

What is true for Château Margaux is also true for every winery in the Margaux appellation: The land comes first. "The soils of Margaux are very varied," says Gonzague Lurton, president of the Margaux winery association. "There is a series of gravel terraces rising from the river. The best is the terrace closest to the river. As you get further away, the subsoil gets sandier until you reach the sandy soil of the Landes forest to the west."

Gonzague Lurton is a member of the biggest landowning family in Margaux. He owns the classed-growth Château Durfort-Vivens. His brother, Henri, owns classed-growth Château Brane-Cantenac. Another brother, Denis, owns Château Desmirail, also a classed growth, while uncle André Lurton manages classed-growth Château Dauzac. The family also owns Château La Tour de Bessan, in Soussans. In fact, the Lurtons, by relation or marriage, are the largest vineyard and estate holders in all of Bordeaux.

The Lurton properties are good examples of the way Margaux has pulled up its quality. Bought by their father, Lucien Lurton, both Durfort-Vivens and Brane-Cantenac were underperformers when the sons took over from Lucien in 1992. Now they are really earning their classified status. Tasting back over old vintages of Brane-Cantenac with Henri Lurton, I was struck by how before the mid-1990s the wines were soft and flat. But from 1996 onwards, the wines have structure as well as dark, brooding fruit.

I found the same distinction at a vertical tasting of nearby Château Cantenac-Brown. Purchased by an insurance company in 1987, it is now part of the AXA Millésimes company, which also owns Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac and Quinta do Noval in Portugal. The chateau, which looks like an English country house, was built in the 19th century by John Brown, the son of an English wine shipper.

"The renaissance of Cantenac-Brown really started in 1995," explained AXA Millésimes Director Christian Seely, over a vertical tasting of the wines. "The wine used to be muscular, but it is now much more mainstream Margaux—more perfumed, and with more fruit." Again, I agree: From the 1996 vintage onwards, the wines are complete with ripe fruit and tannins and the Margaux elegance. There are many other chateaus in Margaux, even at classified-growth levels, that are only now realizing their full potential. Château Rauzan-Ségla, another of the 21 classified growths in Margaux, was purchased by Chanel in 1994 and has only now come to justify its classified status.

With the right land, says Rauzan-Ségla director John Kolasa, you can make great wines: "I don't believe in the overripeness of fruit," he declares. "But I can preserve freshness and still make wines with great intensity and richness."

And so the list of improved properties goes on: Château Dauzac, Château Prieuré-Lichine and Château Ferrière are all classified growths that are performing well. And if you are looking for the really serious values in Margaux, go to many of the 25 crus bourgeois in the appellation. Château La Gurgue, Château d'Angludet, Château Labegorce Margaux are all worth seeeking out, and most cost only $40 a bottle.

At Château Kirwan, the Schÿler family has achieved a similar turnround with the help of consultant Michel Rolland. It is Rolland's first venture in the Médoc. I've watched this chateau since the early 1990s, and at a vertical tasting at the chateau in 1998, the change was immediate and very apparent. Jean-Henri Schÿler of Kirwan, who is one of the rare chateau proprietors to live in the Médoc (most live in the city of Bordeaux) has a good recollection of the change both at Kirwan and in Margaux. "There was certainly a problem with Margaux," he says. Once upon a time, "the name became almost pejorative." He believes this dates back to the creation of the Margaux appellation in the 1950s. "It was much later than Pauillac and Saint-Julien, and it was to do with politics. The appellation was made too big, because it had to include two villages, Soussans and Arsac, which lay outside the central communes of Margaux, Labarde and Cantenac, and which at the time were not making very good wines."

Today, though, the change in the quality of wines from the less famous properties in both Soussans and Arsac is just as dramatic as the change at the top of the Margaux hierarchy. And it's in these two outlying villages that the very best values are found.

"Because Margaux in general has a newfound cachet," explains Gonzague Lurton, "even the smaller chateaus can afford to invest in the quality of their wine." In tastings of the 2001 vintage, there were a number of standouts from Soussans and Arsac (see the report in the Buying Guide, page 67). Worth mentioning are crus bourgeois Château Paveil de Luze, Château La Bessane, Château Deyrem Valentin, Château Haut Breton Larigaudière and Château La Tour de Mons. Prices for wines like these should be around $30 or $40. And, of course, there is Château Monbrison, which remains a star of Arsac.

Yet in the end, the focus of the Margaux appellation is on the Margaux and Cantenac plateaus. Maybe "plateau" is too grand a word for land that only stands about 60 feet above sea level, but this is where the gravel is deepest and where the big names all have their vineyards. The most famous area is that just before you arrive in the village of Margaux, going north. On the left is Rauzan-Ségla and in the distance lies the high point where Brane-Cantenac and Cantenac-Brown are found. And to the right there are the adjoining vineyards of Château Margaux and Château Palmer.

Palmer is one of the handful of Margaux estates that has performed consistently well for decades, certainly since the early 1960s (the 1961 is legendary). Its success is unusual in Margaux, because nearly half of the vineyard is planted to Merlot—47 percent compared with the appellation average of 33 percent. It is the Merlot that gives Palmer its opulence. But in its aromatics, it is still recognizable as a Margaux.

Thomas Duroux became the director of Palmer in July 2004. He is Bordelais by birth, but his last job was as winemaker at Ornellaia in Tuscany; he has also worked in California. His perspective is one of a relative outsider, yet he, too, notices the changes that have happened here. "The quality of Margaux has improved so much. In the past 10 years, a lot of winemakers around the world have been able to produce great wines," Duroux explains. "The easiest way to produce great wine is to concentrate it. But today we are going back to balance and we have that naturally in Margaux."

"It means, to me," he continues, "that Margaux is the appellation of the future."

"Of all the appellations I work with, Margaux has the most exciting sense of rejuvenation," says Seely. "This is an appellation on the rise."


Practical tips for buying Margaux

Most of the wines from Margaux are available through retailers. The current vintage is generally 2001, but 2002s from some properties are now coming to market; 2001 is the better vintage.

Older vintages will be available in restaurants. However, it is also possible to buy Margaux wines as infants, or en primeur, in the spring following the harvest. The wine is still in barrel, but importers, distributors and retailers will taste them in Bordeaux and produce en primeur offers. You pay up front. The advantage of buying en primeur (often referred to as "futures" in the States) is that the wines are as inexpensive as they will ever be. Normally, depending on the quality of the vintage, they will increase in value after their release. — R.V.

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