The wines of Château Margaux need no introduction. First Growth Bordeaux. One of the most famous brands in the world. Iconic and beyond mortal means, especially in the greatest vintages; 1953, 1961, 1982, 1989, 1996, 2000, 2009. So why is Paul Pontallier on the road to promotion? Do the wines not automatically sell themselves?
The answer is both yes, and no. Château Margaux annually produces 130,00o bottles of its Grand Vin. The 2009 is listed at nearly $1,800 in Ontario. They will sell through, if not this year, certainly eventually and inclusive of the calculated, incremental cost of inflation. The more pressing incendiary matter is a concern of distributive demand. Chinese and other south Asian markets have spent the better part of the last decade scooping up First Growths by the palette load. Mr. Pontallier clearly understands if you can’t see the forest for the trees, you risk losing touch with how you arrived here in the first place. Château Margaux needs to reconnect with North America.
Paul Pontallier is the Managing Director of Château Margaux. He joined the team of Corinne Mentzelopoulos in 1983. Along with Aurélien Valance, Senior VP Commercial Director, the most distinguished of Margaux houses came to Toronto’s The National Club at the facilitating invitation of wine agent Noble Estates on Thursday May 1, 2014. A 10:00 am start. Château Margaux for breakfast. “Probably the best time to taste wine,” quips Pontallier.
At the estate’s crux is the significance of territory. The wines are “not just a marketing ploy,” asseverates Pontallier, “they are based on the insistence of the terroir.” There exists a significant heterogeneity between the plots. “We try to protect them as much as possible. We can’t expand.” There is a sense of frustration in the director’s voice. “Château Margaux hasn’t changed since the late 17th century.”
Then there is savoir-faire. “Even three or 400 years isn’t a lot of experience. There is only one possibility, one harvest each year, for experimentation. But, the asset, the depth of experience is as important as the terroir.” Does the excellence of top Bordeaux require genius? No, contends Pontallier. He speaks of hard work, respect for history and the constant need to change, not just for its own sake, but to doubt what’s come before and to improve every gesture. Organic, though it won’t ever be noted on the label, is the end result of many years of research and development. “Our tradition in not a closed one. We are open to what science can bring us.”
On change? “How can we pretend that our tastes do not change. Language, accents, words, everything changes.” Though the accusation is of a response to market demand, the Margaux position is one that insists that it is about a natural evolution, not a response to consumer demand. Change is inevitable. “It would risk not reaching excellence. It would write off the wonderful experience we have inherited. We can adapt, we can play, within reason.”
On the 2013 (challenging) vintage from which weather during flowering affected the quantity. A wonderfully dry, hot summer gave way to damp and wet weather at the end of September. Perfect conditions were set up for rot (botrytis) to develop. Margaux rushed to pick five to six days earlier than usual. “In these conditions, the exceptionality of terroir was so important.” The conclusion? “Less complexity, less depth, less quality. In Bordeaux as a whole, the lesser terroirs were affected by the situation.” According to Pontallier the result of the mediocre conditions did not result in mediocre wines because of the technical progress achieved over the last 25-30 years.
Pontallier is a pragmatist, a funny thing to say considering the domain he oversees. “It’s not always the most impressive wines that are the most pleasurable to drink,” he admits. “Burgundy has a wonderful balance.” His thoughts on the primeur system? “It has always been efficient for some, or just a few wines. If you can find wines a few years later on the market at the same price, it doesn’t make sense.” Here are notes on the fives wines poured.
Pavillon Blanc Du Château Margaux 2011, Ac Bordeaux, France (374579, $142.40, WineAlign)
Extreme temperatures in June sent signals to convince the grapes to begin ripening in mid July. Though harvest would be the earliest since 1893, vintage imbalance was averted by cooler summer temperatures. A limited production, 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc with 300 years of experience in its blood. Once known as Vin Blanc de Sauvignon, the Pavillon earned its modern era moniker in 1920. From a single block that was abandoned near the turn of the century because it was sensitive to frost. Re-discovered and re-planted in the 1970’s and 80’s, the plot is a haven for aromatic protection and preservation. Today’s Pavillon is made from only one-third of the estate’s Sauvignon Blanc production, the rest secretly sold off in bulk. The ’11 saw eight months in barrel, 25 per cent new oak. Sparks with intense minerality and creamy corpulence contained within an acidity enclosure. Feigns early advancement though not near ready to burst and bust open, with the sense that terroir will trump variety. A slow release of ripe fruit will be measured in decades. Tremendous concentration, density and depth. Has Sauvignon Blanc ever ingratiated itself with such poise? Will begin to open in two to three years and ripple in waves for 20-25 more.
Pavillon Rouge 2009, Ac Margaux, 2nd Wine Of Château Margaux, Bordeaux, France ($132.45, WineAlign)
From a wine that “used to be a tool,” comments Paul Pontallier to a “second wine” out of an incredible vintage “at least as good, or better than the four previous vintages of the first wine.” Them are fighting words and no sooner are they more truthfully spoken then over a swirling glass of the wine that has improved the most at Château Margaux. The Pavillon Rouge ’09 is indeed the best in modern times, in part due to immaculate selection and because it makes up just one-third of the total red grape production at Margaux. In the 1980’s it was the opposite but with a third wine now pushed to the European and Japanese restaurant market beginning in this vintage, Pavillon is now a grand brand, in a connected and assiduous way as never before. There are 100 lesser ’09 Bordeaux that fail to assimilate the wood and the crush of density, not to mention the tannin and Expressionist brushstroke. Pavillon manages a suppression of the admiral elements, including the scientific ones. The fruit is deeper, riper, with more brooding levels of pectin and anthocyanin. An earthy funk makes a late appearance on a finish of extended length to indicate where this Pavillon will range, forward 25-30 years and back to a 1989 type of history.
Pavillon Rouge 2004, Ac Margaux, 2nd Wine Of Château Margaux, Bordeaux, France ($119.50, WineAlign)
The Pavillon 2004 was and remains a “second wine,” insomuch that it predates the greatness of the modern Pavillon and because it finds itself sandwiched between two magnanimous harvests, 2003 and 2005. “We accept the fatalism of lesser vintages,” admits Mr. Pontallier, “selection is key to success.” The goal is to always make a good wine so it was necessary the Pavillon ’04 set out to benefit from “extreme” berry selection. Spent 18 months in 50 per cent new oak. Persistently young and overwhelmingly perfumed, in violet, tobacco and strawberry so ripe yet still must fight for aromatic airspace with dewy earth. Soft, velvety tannins envelop the Margaux notion of restraint and elegance. The ’04 has found success, despite the conditions, something that could not be said of the Château’s wines made 25-30 years ago. Drinking well now and will continue to do so for five to 10 more years.
The 1999 Château Margaux is a timeless wine. Tasted alongside the notorious 1989, its inhibitions are forced on display. Though repressed by the diluting effects of late September heavy rain, the 1999 may be subtle and modest, lack any discernible funk, but by no means is it soft. Wondrous aromatically like a hanging garden, with roses everywhere. “This is the perfume of Château Margaux,” notes Paul Pontallier. A difficult wine to describe. Its complexity, warmth and perfumed character define Margaux. Not as dense as the ’89, from grapes that benefitted from maturation conditions, from perfectly ripe if slightly diluted fruit. The proportions and shape (12.5 per cent alcohol by volume) are perfect and exacting but on a smaller scale. Smooth and resolved at a young 15 year-old, teenage age. The tenuous tranquility can be a point of deception. Beneath the lace there is body and hidden depth to give it 15 to 25 more years of growth. “Fall fall fall fall, into the walls. Jump jump out of time.” Though not the beast that is the ’89, this ’99 is a suffused bottle of remarkable concentration, of luxe, calme et volupté. A wine to help cure what ails.
Château Margaux 1989, Ac Bordeaux, France (176057, $1,645.00, WineAlign)
The 1989 Château Margaux wears the response to a mondo Bordeaux axiom on its sleeve. Are First Growth wines made for people who want darts of instant pleasure?” Twenty years earlier and now like the 2009, here is a quintessential and exemplary vintage, from day one of bud break to the last day of harvest. Its appraisal as anything but incredible is to assassinate it as if it were the Franz Ferdinand of Bordeaux. The examination 25 years later sees a mellow funk meet a peerless and sublime perfume. A wine cast in utmost density, complexity and length. It noses strength, warmth verging on heat but only for a fleeting moment, to gain attention. The iconic wine has reached the first major peak, up a ways from base camp. In this second phase of young adulthood it looks with conceit to the top of the mountain, seeing 25 to 50 more years on the climb. Mr. Pontallier regrets he won’t be around to taste this wine at full maturity. Moi aussi. The fruit lingers in its full, original state, from the moment it passes lips and for minutes onward. Violets trump roses. Château Margaux 1989 is from a vintage that offers the blessing of ethereal balance. Hear her sing, “Ich heisse Superfantastisch!”
Good to go!