Chateau Margaux may have its roots in vines planted in 16th century France, but at a lunchtime tasting in Hong Kong of its instantly acclaimed latest vintage the winery proclaimed a broad mission to maintain its relevance today – mindful, naturally, that Asia is a key market.
The Premier Cru producer – one of just five in Bordeaux to bear the classification – fielded a trio of youthful executives, all in their thirties: Thibault Pontallier, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos and Aurélien Valance, who together covered the bulk of the chateau’s philosophy and output.
With a family history at Château Margaux, Thibault Pontallier, its global brand ambassador, is the son of the late renowned winemaker and managing director of the estate, Paul Pontallier. The much heralded 2015 vintage, released at the end of last year, was Paul’s last. “It’s sad – the wine is very good, and it’s his final vintage; he did 34 all together,” Thibault reflects. “I grew up there and we worked together for eight years.
“Luckily Philippe Bascaules, who worked under Paul from 1990 to 2011, came back in March to be winemaker and general manager, so there’s a lot of continuity. My father believed in everyone at Château Margaux knowing by heart and respecting every parcel in the vineyard, the terroir, and knowing what the wine is about: that femininity, that softness.”
While the style of the wine may remain the same, under Bascaules there will be changes in the vinification process, which were initially set in motion by Pontallier senior before he passed away in 2016. The striking, clean-lined, Norman Foster-designed new production cellar was completed in 2015; heightened technology incorporated in the strong aesthetics aims to make some of the younger wines more approachable earlier – though their complexity, as ever, deepens with age while tannins soften.
Despite the expanded floor area of the Foster facility within the sprawling 262-hectare estate – the cellar contains 100 vats, compared to the 25 in place in the early 1980s – the volumes of the wines have not been ramped up. Four wines are produced here. The flagship Grand Vin, the Premier Cru, is a blend dominated by about 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot, with the remainder made up of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
The château’s second wine comes from many of the vines that have been used at some point for the Grand Vin; the red – Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux – is aged in French oak for only one month less than its more revered elder sibling. Make no mistake though, Pavillon Rouge may not have the depth of complexity but its nose and palate have telltale similarities and its ageing potential is noted by critics. Pavillon Blanc, 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, comes from a 12-hectare vineyard dedicated to the grape. In 2010 it was decided that only 30 percent or so of the Sauvignon Blanc harvest would be selected to make the cut for this wine, to keep quality as high as possible; the 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all very highly rated.
The third selection of wine, Margaux du Château Margaux, was introduced from the exceptional 2009 vintage onwards, instead of selling on fruit that did not make the cut for the first two tiers. Although introduced in 2013, at present it can only be enjoyed in restaurants in France, the UK, the US and Japan.
Like many established wine labels, Margaux finds itself now appealing to a broader customer spectrum – wine, after all, is increasingly the theme of more TV programmes, dedicated websites, blogs, online forums and apps, and has never been more deeply ingrained into “lifestyle pursuits”. Unsurprisingly, some of today’s visitors to the estate come see the architecture of the recently installed Foster facility.
“We have noticeably more women visiting now,” says Pontallier, “and we noticed more genuine international interest all the time.” And that includes mainland China, famous for its love of Bordeaux First Growths; where, surprisingly, demand for Margaux remains constant in spite of conspicuous public consumption now being frowned upon.
“Before, consumption was for a lot of gifts and banquets,” says Pontallier, who has been visiting the mainland regularly since 2010. “Before, we had 10 people buying 100 bottles [each], now it’s 100 people buying 10 bottles – it’s more clients who are more knowledgeable, not just celebrating or showing off, but because they’re falling in love with it. There’s more private consumption now – groups of people having dinner or people drinking at home.”
Asked if Margaux ever played up the First Growth factor for the China Market, Pontallier says, “When I arrived in China seven years ago, people mainly knew Château Lafite Rothschild; they didn’t know Margaux so much. So we decided to go personal – to do dinners to show people what we do and who we are. We have an allocation system with en primeur [the sales of vintage wine as futures, two to three years before bottles are released to the market], so we can control distribution from country to country – and we never pushed China too much.”
China and Hong Kong account for 10 to 20 per cent of the Grand Vin, depending on vintage forecasts. “Where mainland China has made more impact is with Pavillon Rouge, says Pontallier. “They fell in love with the second wine. That was smart; Japan and France had done that – countries that know wines want to try the cheaper wines, they don’t just want just the most expensive wines.” According to the winery’s research, Pavillon Rouge drinkers in China are on average in their mid-30s and drinking bottles immediately.
Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos, deputy managing director heading up branding and communications, is the third generation of her family to work within the winery: her mother is its owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos, whose father André bought the estate in 1976. One aspect she oversees is social-media strategy.
“Our Instagram has about 15,000 followers; it grew a lot in 2017,” she says. “Some of the most popular images we’ve posted are of the harvest and work around the winery – they want to see the human side of what we do. The dream is part of the appeal for them, not the technical side – you don’t need to know the technicality, the weather in that vintage – it’s important for the connoisseur, but you can also be casual about enjoying a bottle of Margaux and have a nice convivial moment.”
Embracing the lifestyle aspects around wine, in 2017 Petit-Mentzelopoulos opened Clarette, a wine bar and restaurant in London, where she is based. “I opened this to show people that you really can enjoy great wines in a casual place,” she explains. “It’s very easy going – the menu is French, with fusion elements.” Will she bring this concept to Asia? “Maybe,” is all she’ll say on this for now.
On Margaux’s natural winemaking, Aurélien Valance, deputy managing director overseeing the commercial side of the wine, says, “We’re trying to use a more organic approach. We achieved it quite well with the 2015; and 2017 was even better. But 2016 was one of the most difficult vintages for 50 years – mildew attacked the leaves and threatened the grapes. With challenges like this it’s sometimes better to do one chemical treatment than, say, 15 organic treatments that take time to work.”
During the 2008 vintage, Margaux experimented with biodynamic production – which employs a more intense set of rules than merely organic production, such as following celestial cycles – alongside its traditionally produced wine but, Valance says, “we didn’t find much advantage in the quality of the biodynamic wine. We can’t see much difference. If eventually there’s scientific proof that this helps the end result, we’ll go for it. We do use seaweed now instead of copper [commonly used in small quantities to support healthy vine growth], which is a good thing. And we’ll continue to try comparisons of non-chemical production to see how it effects the vineyard over time.”