Chateau Margaux under the microscope

It’s tempting to think of Bordeaux’s first-growth châteaux as being like stately, slow-moving galleons, moving seamlessly from one vintage to the next across a vast, calm ocean of time. Changes of direction seem unthinkable.

PontellierHowever, according to Paul Pontallier (right), technical director of Château Margaux, beneath that veneer of apparent immutability, small shifts in direction are a constant. In fact, if the evidence of the tasting organised by Yvon Mau and conducted in London on February 21st is anything to go by, change is almost an inevitability at Margaux.

‘Our culture is based on experimental science,’ said Pontallier. ‘If we stop doubting and start believing that we have no progress to make, that’s when we’ll see quality start to fall.’

The great and the good of the UK wine scene – journalists, sommeliers and merchants – had gathered at Trinity House, near the Tower of London, to hear Pontallier discuss the various experiments conducted in Margaux’s vineyards and winery over the course of the past decade. In fact, we weren’t just there to discuss the experiments, we were there to taste the results for ourselves.

Flight one

The tasting and discussion was focused around five flights of wines, which we tasted blind before discussing our impressions. The first of these flights consisted of a trio of 2010 wines made from parcels farmed by different methods. These plots are not Margaux’s best sites; rather the grapes harvested from these tend to end up in Pavillon Rouge.

We knew that one parcel had been farmed biodynamically, another organically and the third farmed according to conventional methods. The conventional plot had been sprayed with fungicide, while the biodynamic and organic plots had been treated with copper and sulphur. In addition, the biodynamic vines had been sprayed with a variety of tisanes, herbal teas.

margaux bottleThe wines were tasted blind before Pontallier revealed their identities.

Wine 1 (biodynamic) was deeper in colour than the other two. It showed dense, layered cherry and violet fruit, chalky tannins and brisk acidity. Alcohol 13.4%

Wine 2 (organic) had slightly less colour density and slightly leafy aromatics. The fruit was perfumed and earthy, the tannins grippy, the acidity crisp. Overall, the balance seemed slight better, the wine somewhat more elegant. Alcohol 13.6%.

Wine 3 (conventional) was deeply coloured. The fruit seemed somewhat less concentrated and shorter on the finish, although still pretty and perfumed, with definite notes of violets. The tannins were somewhat green and chewy, the finish a tad warm. Alcohol 13.8%.

When it came to expressing the tasters’ preferences, all three wines received at least a handful of votes, with wines 1 and 2 leading the pack. I was slightly torn between the vibrancy of wine 1 and the elegance of wine 2, over and above the tannic wine 3. Wine 2 was my choice by a nose, and was also, clearly, Pontallier’s: ‘I hope that in a couple of years we’ll be 100% organic for Château Margaux.’

Flight two

The next flight focused on the influence of stems in the red wine ferment on the finished wines. The inclusion of some stems – or even whole bunches – in the fermentation tank can have a profound effect on the aromatics and structure of a wine. While grapes like Pinot Noir are regularly vinified using stems (the proportion varying according to the winemaker’s choice and the nature of the vintage), at Margaux, any Cabernet Sauvignon has been routinely de-stemmed ‘back to the 18th century or before’.

In this particular instance, Pontallier had chosen to vinify three cuvées of grapes from one particular plot that sometimes makes it into the first wine. The vintage in question was the ripe, intense 2009. One wine had been treated as usual (ie, no destemming), while another included 1% whole stems and a third had 1% chopped-up stems. As per the previous flights (indeed, all flights), we were not told which wine was which until after we’d voted.

Wine 1 (whole stem). Purple-tinged. Aromatic black currant fruit and smoke on the nose. Bright, vibrant fruit up front, but missing a little in the mid-palate. Tannins slightly stalky and dry on the finish. Acidity seems a bit high.

Wine 2 (destemmed). Slightly more ruby-hued. Nose perhaps slightly more subdued in terms of fruit, with a stronger herbaceous element. More mouthfilling, more complete than wine 1. Tannins are chalky, not as dry as previous wine.

Wine 3 (chopped stems). Herbaceous character on nose and palate, with a bit more ripe, sweet fruit on the palate than the nose. Although the wine has some savoury complexity, there’s a bit of a hole on the mid-palate, and the tannins seem rather green and rustic on the finish. Lacks focus.

Most of the tasters expressed a preference for wine 2 (as did Pontallier), and that was my own preference too as it seemed more poised and somewhat less stemmy than the other two wines. ‘It’s important not to take our a prioris for granted, even though this was one experiment where things happened as we thought they would,’ said Pontallier.

Flight three

margaux bottle
Margaux has been experimenting with alternative closures in 2002, including a brief trial with synthetic corks that Pontallier described as ‘disastrous’ due to premature oxidation.

The three reds in this flight, all from the 2003 vintage, were sealed and aged under different closures: traditional cork, impermeable screwcap and partially permeable screwcap. Each was bottled with the same amount of SO2, suggesting that differences in the way they aged would be due to the closures.

Wine 1 (permeable screwcap). Lacks freshness on nose and palate, and there’s a very evolved, leathery quality to it. The tannins are round and supple, and there’s more than a hint of an oxidised character to the wine.

Wine 2 (cork). Slightly more youthful in appearance than the other two, and less immediate fruit on the nose. Tannins taut and somewhat chalky, with brighter acidity than the other two wines. More primary fruit than I expected, in addition to developing, meaty notes. A touch of herbaceousness. I’ll admit that I initially thought this one was the one sealed with the impermeable screwcap as it seemed more youthful than the other two wines.

Wine 3 (impermeable screwcap). Developed character and muted fruit. Seems like the more evolved of the wines, although there was also a reductive character that pointed towards a lack of oxygen during the maturation of the wine. Hints of herbaceousness.

While I wasn’t entirely convinced about any of the wines, if I had to express a preference it would have been for wine 2, due to its freshness. The majority expressed a preference for wine 3, despite its reductive character and muted fruit. Pontallier, too, said he favoured wine 3. ‘We all know about the problems with cork. Although the situation has definitely improved over the past 10 years, it is unacceptable that we should work so hard to produce a great wine that can be ruined by something out of our control,’ he said, before saying that a moveo screwcap for the second and third wine has not been ruled out. ‘If we have proof that it works better, I don’t see how we could resist.’

Flight four

A similar flight of whites with various closures, from the 2004 vintage of Sauvignon Blanc that would otherwise have gone into the Pavillon Blanc.

Wine 1 (cork). The wine I tasted still had a herbaceous streak and a lemon curd character on the palate, along with some honey and beeswax. The palate was rounder and more textural and oaky than the nose suggested. Zesty and bright, it was the least developed wine of the flight. (The other bottle, according to the comments expressed by tasters, was far more oxidised and tired.)

Wine 2 (permeable screwcap). Quite waxy and developed on the nose, with hints of citrus fruit. Some bright acidity to lift things on the midpalate, but the finish seemed tired and heavy.

Wine 3 (impermeable screwcap). Reductive, struck match aromas. Lacking a bit of fruit on the palate and, despite reductive notes on nose, an overall impression of oxidation. Still showing enough acidity to create a structural backbone, although the finish faded somewhat.

I was among the vast majority of tasters, Pontallier included, who preferred wine 1. I thought that it showed both freshness and complexity. It is worth noting that some of the tasters had been poured an extremely oxidative version of wine 1, underlining the variable nature of cork as a closure. Some might even go as far as to say that such variation makes a de facto case for finding an alternative closure, but given the preference expressed for the ‘good’ bottle of wine 1, it’s far from a watertight case.

Flight five

The final flight consisted of three Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2011 vintage and originating from individual plots that are usually included in the grand vin itself, while the fourth was a Petit Verdot from the same year that usually ends up in Pavillon Rouge (but in this instance has been deemed of sufficient quality to go into the premier bottling).

As Pontallier explained, the Cabernets Sauvignons all came from vines of around 50 years old. ‘The only real difference between them,’ he explained, ‘is terroir.’

Wine 1 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Vat 23) comes from a patch of gravel just out of sight of the Gironde. A pretty, floral wine with pronounced violet aromas. Delicate and perfumed, with supple, chalky tannins and incisive acidity. Pure and bright on the finish.

Wine 2 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Vat 19) comes from a gravel croupe facing the river. Tighter and more concentrated than wine 1. Less aromatic, but powerful and intense, with great complexity and minerality. Firm tannins.

Wine 3 (Cabernet Sauvignon Vat 20) comes from vines located near the cellars and planted on clay and chalk. Fleshy and fruity, perhaps lacking the finesse of the previous wines, but with plenty of raw energy. Dense and dark.

Wine 4 (Petit Verdot, 54FA). Pontallier has been experimenting with Petit Verdot since the start of his career at Château Margaux, and this cuvée is derived from 16-year-old vines propagated by massal selection. Graphite, meat and spice on the nose and palate. The oak is pronounced, as are the tannins, although they are ripe. The overall impression is of a dense, dark, impenetrable wine, although it will soften and yield more of its fruit as it ages. Currently, that fruit only reveals itself on the rich finish.