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Château Margaux | A Bordeaux First Growth of Timeless Prestige

Château Margaux

One of the oldest and most renowned wine estates in the world, producing one of the most sought-after and rare wines year after year, Château Margaux is a Bordeaux Classified First Growth with many superlatives linked to its prestigious title. With a legacy dating back over five centuries, the history of Château Margaux is indeed the history of Bordeaux itself, and the history of the Classified Growths that first put these wines on the map, as far back as the 18th century. A timeless elegance born from a blessed terroir coupled with many generations of ever-evolving savoir-faire… The wines of Château Margaux have always been and forever will remain a key reference to us and in the world of fine wines.

 

Five Centuries of History at Château Margaux

The chronicle of Château Margaux covers five long and dense centuries, making this world-famous Bordeaux estate one of the oldest in the world. In many ways, the history of Château Margaux is the history of Bordeaux itself. Back in the 12th century, this site on Bordeaux’s Left Bank was already called “La Mothe de Margaux” (or the Margaux mound), though it had not yet been planted with vines. Following English occupation between 1152 and 1453, Bordeaux wines became popular under the name “claret” in the English market. This increasing demand led landowners in the Medoc region of Bordeaux to abandon cereal growing and plant vines instead. At Château Margaux, it was Pierre de Lestonnac who, from 1572 to 1582 restructured the property and its vineyard. By the end of the XVII century, the Château Margaux estate expanded over 265 hectares, of which one third was planted with vines. As other Bordeaux Châteaux produced pale “clarets” for the English and Dutch markets, Château Margaux began to focus on quality.

At the beginning of the 18th century, a man by the name of Berlon was in charge of managing the Château Margaux estate. A true visionary of his time, Berlon was the first to vinify red and white grapes separately. He was also one of the first in Bordeaux to place emphasis on terroir and see the great effect of soil types on wines. This led owner Joseph de Fumel to later plant certain varieties only on the best plots of the property, where gravelly soils offered suitable drainage. Berlon also observed that grapes vinified at dawn would be diluted and covered with morning dew, and began to shift the vineyard work schedule to achieve better results. An early pioneer of modern vinification, Berlon was mostly to thank for transforming the wines of Margaux from the pale, watery “claret” popular in Bordeaux at the time to a darker, more concentrated and more complex wine with greater ageing potential.

Throughout the 18th century, the renown of Château Margaux grew, reaching foreign lands. The estate’s 1771 vintage was the first Bordeaux “claret” to be featured in a Christie’s catalogue in London. In 1794, across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson (then the United States Ambassador to France) placed an order for Margaux, recognizing it as being at the top of the hierarchy of Bordeaux’s First Growths. This “Golden Era” lasted until the French Revolution, after which the Château Margaux estate was sold as a national possession. While the family, represented by their last descendant Laure de Fumel, made great effort to buy it back, Château Margaux went up for auction in 1801.

 

Chateau Margaux
© Mathieu Mamontoff

 

The estate was acquired by Bertrand Douat, Marquis de la Colonilla, who in 1810 commissioned the construction of the magnificent Château we know and love today. The architect chosen for the job was Louis Combes, who chose a neo-palladian style, rare in France. Besides the Château, often nicknamed the “Versailles of the Medoc,” Architect Louis Combes also constructed a small city around it, a viticultural complex including a tradesmen’s yard, cellars, vat room and in-house cooperage. Unfortunately, Bertrand Douat died in 1816, without ever living in his Château. The first owner to live in this spectacular palace was Alexandre Aguado, a banker who acquired the estate in 1830.

One of the most important moments in the history of Château Margaux and the Bordeaux wine world of which it is such an integral part was the Second Universal Exhibition of 1855, organised by Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. A passionate supporter of French products in general and the prestigious Medoc wines in particular, Napoleon decided to present these great wines to the world. He chose a classification system of “Crus Classes” (Classified Growths). Among the four most prestigious “Premier Grand Cru Classes” (Classified First Growths) selected, Margaux was the only one to get a 20/20 rating. While Margaux at this time was already known locally and abroad as one of the most special wines from Bordeaux, this classification made it official. The 1855 classification remains today the official classification system for Bordeaux fine wines.

The end of the 19th century was not an easy time for the Bordeaux wine world. While Château Margaux had been impeccably maintained by its succession of managers, there was nothing to be done against the devastation of phylloxera, which ravaged the vineyards and put a temporary hold on winemaking altogether. Nevertheless, a solution was found and French varietals grafted onto resistant American rootstock. But these newly planted vines were too young to produce wines of the quality for which Château Margaux had become known. They were instead used to produce what would officially become the estate’s Second Wine, the Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, in 1908. In 1896, owner Count Pillet-Will hired Pierre Moreau to manage the property. Moreau began to bottle the wines of Château Margaux at the estate for the first time in 1924.

In 1950, Fernand Ginestet and his son Pierre acquired Château Margaux. While in the process of reorganizing the vineyard, Bordeaux was hit by the recession of the 1970’s. This event, coupled with three terrible vintages in a row 1972, 1973 and 1974 – forced the Ginestet family to sell the estate. In 1977, to the great surprise of the Bordeaux wine world, they sold it to none other than a Greek man by the name of Andre Mentzelopoulos.

In the five hundred year history of Château Margaux, no other owner has done as much as Andre Mentzelopoulos to elevate the Medoc estate to the place it enjoys today. A highly intelligent world-traveller who spoke six languages, Mentzelopoulos had already built a highly successful modern distribution enterprise. Having fallen in love with Château Margaux, whose magnificent columns reminded him of the architecture of his native Greece, he became proactive and invested heavily to improve the quality of the wine. Among the endless list of improvements made by Mentzelopoulos under the supervision of oenologist Emile Peynaud, some of the most important were putting in place the drainage and replanting the vineyard, reintroducing both the Pavillon Rouge and Pavillon Blanc Second Wines, introducing an ageing program in new oak barrels and drawing up plans for a large underground cellar. He also restored the Château as a historic monument and had it lavishly decorated. The spectacular 1978 vintage, immediately recognised as exceptional by critics around the world, stands as testimony to the brilliant legacy of Mr. Andre Mentzelopoulos, who passed away in 1980. His daughter Corinne Mentzelopoulos was ready to take the reins of the prestigious estate.

 

Chateau Margaux
© Mathieu Mamontoff

 

Already deeply involved with the family business and with the help of the team chosen by her father, Corinne Mentzelopoulos prepared the Château for what was up ahead, the international boom of Bordeaux classified first growths, starting in 1982. Never before had there been such a strong demand for these prestigious wines, highly sought after first by the Americans, then the British, Germans, and then the rest of the world. In 1983, she hired as winemaker Paul Pontallier  – at that time only 27 year old – and together the formidable duo lifted the already world-renowned estate to even loftier heights. In the early 1990’s, Corinne formed an association with the Agnelli family to further develop the family business and when the latter, after 10 years sold their shares in Château Margaux, she bought them. In 2003, she became sole shareholder of the estate.

Having led the historic Château Margaux into the 21st century, Corinne Mentzelopoulos continues to assume the challenges faced by the estate today, in collaboration with her daughter Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos. In an increasingly competitive climate, Château Margaux maintains its unique position as a First Growth classified in 1855 by Napoleon III himself. Technological advancements both in the vineyards and winery have allowed the estate to defend this position.

In 2015, famous architect Sir Norman Foster was commissioned by the Château to expand the historic complex by adding a state-of-the-art new winery. Inspired by the character of the original building, Foster set about designing a brand new wine-production facility, a Research & Development centre, 70-meter long underground vinoteque and tasting rooms. The 2015 vintage also saw a brand new label of the Château Margaux Grand Vin, whose bottle was dressed in black with a screen print in gold. This legendary new label was designed to pay homage to the late Margaux technical and managing director Paul Pontallier who passed away in March of 2015, making 2015 his last vintage. The label also displays the new winery, as a symbol of Château Margaux entering the modern age.

 

Out in the Vineyards of Château Margaux

Out of the 650 acres of land currently belonging to the Château Margaux estate, 215 acres are included in the AOC Margaux appellation. Around 202 acres of this area is planted to red vines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. An additional 30 acres are planted with Sauvignon Blanc vines.

As indicated by the early name for the site upon which Château Margaux resides today (“La Mothe de Margaux”), the terroir is characterised as a mound of gravel, a soil type that offers excellent water drainage and is thus ideally suited to the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, which represents the core of the signature blend. For almost five full centuries, Château Margaux has been a place for plot-by-plot winemaking, where a careful examination of each parcel – its microclimate, soil and exposure – has led the decision on what variety to plant there and how to vinify and age the wines produced from there.

 

Chateau Margaux
© Château Margaux

 

In the winter, the vines are pruned to achieve the ideal vigour, which varies from one variety and plot to the next. Green pruning and bud-thinning in the spring increases the exposure of the fruit to the sun and encourage ripening. The vines are planted at a very high density of 10,000 plants per hectare, with around 10,000 to 15,000 vines replanted per year. The crops are thinned at the beginning of August to encourage the full ripening and concentration of flavours in the remaining fruit. The vines are protected from powdery mildew with copper sulphate (the Bordeaux mixture), and from various insects and parasites only through organic solutions, without the use of insecticides. While the estate’s location near the river and at a high enough elevation helps most of the vineyards from frost, the Margaux team has installed an anti-frost system to protect the more sensitive white plots.

The harvest is carried out by a trained team of pickers, who pick Merlot first, followed by Cabernet Franc and finally Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The pickers carry out a rigorous first sorting on the vineyard, collecting the only very best grapes. The grapes are then sorted again by a special team before the grapes are destemmed at the winery.

 

In the Cellar of Château Margaux

At Château Margaux, the Research & Development team is constantly searching for ways to further improve the winemaking process. After several experiments, they have determined that the most advanced technology for temperature control can be applied to wood just as well as to stainless steel vats. The wooden vats offer several advantages as fermentation vessels, including their tapered shape, which results in a stronger contact between the must and skins. Temperature is nevertheless strictly monitored during the fermentation process in order to avoid the heat to rise enough to prematurely kill the yeast. After fermentation is complete, maceration continues until the wine is run off. This is followed by a spontaneous malolactic fermentation at temperatures maintained below 68°F.

 

Chateau Margaux
© Château Margaux

 

The wines of Château Margaux age for a period of 18 to 26 months in new French oak barrels in the estate’s two cellars, one constructed in the 19th century and the other in 1982. This time in barrel allows them achieve greater stability and the refinement of character that has become expected of the wines of Château Margaux. During 2 years spent maturing in barrel, the red wines typically undergo seven or eight rackings, on average. Around one third of the barrels used by Château Margaux are made by the estate’s in-house cooper, who assembles around 3 barrels per day. The work of the cooper emphasises the direct impact of man’s savoir-faire on the winemaking process, a concept at the very heart of the Château Margaux philosophy.

 

The Four Iconic Wines of Château Margaux

The flagship Grand Vin du Château Margaux is undeniably one of the greatest wines in the world (most sought-after by wines lovers around the world) and has been since the 17th century. This is a wine with centuries of legacy, born from the magnificent terroir of Margaux and raised by the savoir-faire of many generations. Made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in proportions depending on the vintage, the Château Margaux First Wine combines finesse and elegance with complexity and intensity, while maintaining beautiful length and a remarkable freshness. This wine is built to age over the decades, fully ready to tell the story of its vintage only after several years in bottle.

With its own legacy dating back to the 17th century, the Second Wine of Château Margaux, officially named Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux in 1908, is just as important part of the estate’s history as its Grand Vin. For the past few years, a third of the harvest has gone into the First Wine, one third into the Pavillon Rouge and the rest divided by the estate’s third and fourth wines. While not quite as complex and magical as its older brother, Pavillon Rouge offers a beautiful balance of power and softness on the palate. While ready to be opened a bit earlier than the First Wine, it will still age nicely beyond 3à or 40 years.

 

Chateau Margaux
© Mathieu Anglada

 

While produced and sold as far back as the 19th century, the estate’s white wine was officially named Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux in 1920 and has not changed its label since. This 100% Sauvignon Blanc is made from a very old 11-hectare vineyard. Fewer than 1,000 cases of this wine are produced each year, with a significant portion bottled in magnums. This white Margaux offers great finesse, complexity and richesse, as well as a remarkable length on the palate.

And finally, the Margaux by Château Margaux was created as a result of increasingly thorough selection in the vineyard. The exceptional quality of the 2009 vintage convinced the Margaux team to bottle what was not used for the estate’s First and Second Wines instead of selling it as bulk. This first vintage was aged in barrels and bottled after 15 months. The Château has continued to produce its Third Wine since then, albeit in very limited quantities.