The Wines of Margaux

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One thinks first of “Chateau Margaux,” of course, the first growth that is so famous that it is possible to lose sight of the fact that Margaux is also a communal name. In fact, there are twenty-one classified growths in the Margaux communes, more than in any other area of the Medoc, and four more than in Pauillac. They vary in quality and in style of wine, but if there were a general similarity, it is probably elegance, and a somewhat lighter style. That may be due to the thinner quality of the soils here, or to the playing out of the heat retaining pebbles that dot the soils of neighboring St. Julien.

Chateau Margaux, since its acquisition by the Mentzelopoulos family, has produced wines of uniformly superb quality, several times winning the consensus declaration as Bordeaux’s Wine of the Vintage. Such a year was their 1990, which I introduced at the annual Bordeaux Vintage Dinner held in Washington D.C. It is so good that it has become unaffordable, like the equally distinguished 1989 Chateau Haut Brion which I introduced at the previous year’s Vintage Dinner. For those who can afford it, a vertical tasting (a tasting of wines of different years from the same estate) of Chateau Margaux vintages over the past several decades is a revelation. Like family portraits, the vintages resemble each other closely, with shades of elegance, depth, and that famous hint of violets.

The Palladian mansion that adorns Chateau Margaux (and its wine label) has been carefully restored by the Mentzelopoulos family. Another achievement was their building in 1982 a needed new wine aging facility underground, in fact under the water table! Special hydraulic equipment (with a duplicate backup system) have also been installed, in a stunning improvement over the limitations of nature. I must confess a special attachment to Chateau Margaux, for my farewell to diplomatic Bordeaux was held here, at a Consular Corps luncheon. The local wine was served.

Along the riverbank side of route D2 looking across at Chateau Margaux is the third growth Chateau Palmer, an exceptionally well made wine that sometimes disputes the title of finest Margaux wine with its illustrious neighbor. But Chateau Palmer is well worth getting to know on its own merits, and in years when Chateau Margaux is priced beyond your purse, the probability is very high that Chateau Palmer will also have made a superb wine.

Farther inland, we find the twin estates of Chateau Rausan-Segla and Rausan-Gassies. In the days before its division, Rausan was said to be Thomas Jefferson’s preferred wine for daily consumption. Indeed, after Chateau Mouton Rothschild, the Rausans led the 1855 second growth list. These estates are now improved, but it is said that each may be missing something that the original wine possessed in terms of taste and development. So test the theory. Buy a bottle of each, same vintage, and let us know the results of your tasting!

Chateau Lascombes, once owned by Alexis Lichine, is again making wine more suggestive of its second growth status. At its best it is a delicious wine in the flavorful Margaux style. I am very fond of Chateau Brane Cantenac. Traditionally a distinctive wine (fans of the Masterpiece Theater television series Upstairs, Downstairs may recall that this is the only wine mentioned by name in the Bellamy family’s cellars), the good news is that this excellent estate has revived and is also making fine wines.

Chateau d’Issan produces a deep wine, less readily accessible to the tastebuds, probably because of the very high proportion of the more austere cabernet sauvignon grapes used in the blending of the wine. I remember once mentioning to my hostess at a dinner party there that I had often wondered whether grapes used for wine production were also good to eat, or whether they were hybrids not well suited as fruit. Mme. Emmanuel Cruse responded by presenting me with a basket of cabernet sauvignon grapes from a field in Chateau d’Issan then awaiting harvest. They were, by far, the most delicious red grapes that I have ever tasted.

If you go to the May Music Festival in Bordeaux, you may have the opportunity to attend a concert at Chateau d’Issan. Buy some of the wine, keep it, and serve it to your knowledgeable friends. I’ll bet they place it as a fine Pauillac or perhaps a St. Estephe, rather than a Margaux.

I regret that Chateau Prieure-Lichine is no longer owned by the Lichine family. Alexis Lichine was an innovator who did much to introduce quality wines to the American market. He was also a fine host, and his war stories were worth hearing. Once, he told me, when he was on the staff of General Eisenhower, there was a visit by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Meeting Lichine, then a very young man, at the luncheon, Churchill started pontificating about wine in general. Thinking to divert the two leaders, the young Lichine continued the conversation and said a few words, and then at Churchill’s urging a number more, about wine. When he concluded, the Prime Minister turned to Eisenhower and commented that the two of them should concentrate on something they really understood, like smashing Hitler. This young man Lichine was the wine authority!

Now we are close to Bordeaux, You pass two further classified Haut Medoc estates along the way, Chateau Cantemerle and Chateau La Lagune. Both are well tended. Chateau La Lagune has a higher reputation than does its neighbor, whose name was penned in as almost an afterthought at the end of the fifth growth list in the 1855 classification. You will therefore be all the more pleased when you taste and discover the delicious and reasonably priced Chateau Cantemerle, and discover a classified growth that is still a comparative bargain. That doesn’t happen every day in today’s era of inflated wine prices.

For more on Bill Shepard see his biography.

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