Some Thoughts from Château Margaux Managing Director Paul Pontalier
Paul Pontallier, Directeur Général of Château Margaux, along with Aurélien Valance senior VP Commercial Directeur and Georges Haushalter, Directeur Général of the Compagnie Médocaine des Grands Crus, represented in Ontario by Lifford Wine Agency, were in town in May for a presentation and tasting of Château Margaux. The wines, of course, were exceptional, but the conversation was even more interesting (well, at least as interesting). Following are some excerpts, taken on the fly with my poor shorthand typing skills, so my apologies in advance for any misrepresentation of words spoken.
On the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux:
The quantity has been decreasing steadily over the last decade, and total production is now down to about 800-900 in 2009 (micro quantities relative to most Bordeaux cru classé production). The reason for the decrease is purely qualitative, as the selection is stricter and stricter. The 2008 Pavillon Blanc, for example represents only 40% of the total crop of white grapes, and the 2009 just 32%. But the severe approach is paying off, at least in terms of quality if not financially, Pontallier believes. “The 2009 is possibly the best vintage of Pavillon Blanc ever, but it’s also frustrating to sell off the remaining wine that doesn’t make the selection at regular Bordeaux blanc prices.” This is especially true since Pavillon Blanc “requires 10 times more effort to achieve this quality than it does to make the red. It requires an almost berry-by-berry selection. Every single step is more complicated”, says Pontallier.
Confusion over the naming of Pavillon Blanc:
To anyone unfamiliar with Château Margaux but at least somewhat familiar with the usual wine-naming strategy in Bordeaux, “Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux” sounds like the second tier white of the property, as the Pavillon Rouge is the second red wine, or “deuxième vin”. But Pavillon Blanc was created in 1920, at a time when there really weren’t any second wines and no one had envisioned any problem of confusion. The wine was in fact called “Château Margaux Vin Blanc” in the 19th century. But today there are legal issues to consider before attempting to change the name back and eliminate confusion. Margaux is a château as well as an appellation, and the AOC is exclusively for red wine, so a “margaux Blanc” is currently impossible.
The plot where white grapes are grown has belonged to the château for centuries, and was at one point planted with red varieties and included in the Margaux Grand Vin blend. The particular parcel is frost-prone, and as a result was not initially replanted after the phylloxera crisis. It was therefore excluded from the Margaux appellation when it was officially demarcated in 1955. Since it could not be used for Château Margaux, the parcel was planted to semillon and sauvignon in 1973-1974 and another part in 1979-80. In the intervening years, half of the parcel was subsequently incorporated within the Margaux appellation, and Pontallier is considering the possibility of replanting one hectare with red varieties on an experimental basis. With modern viticultural techniques and more advanced frost protection mothods, he believes the parcel could produce excellent wine. After all, it was part of the blend in the 19th century.
Details on the Pavillon Blanc:
Pavillon Blanc has evolved into a 100% sauvignon blanc-based wine. Historically this has not been the case, though it was not a conscious decision to exclude Semillon. Pontallier prefers the results of sauvignon exclusively, even though in blind tastings he regularly mistakes his own wine for a classic sauvignon-semillon blend. Grapes are harvested quite late to lose the vegetal character. The 2008 doesn’t have the depth and complexity of 2006 and 2009 for example, but has great freshness and crispness. Across all of the wines, there is a distinct oyster shell-like minerality, alongside ripe citrus, pear, and mild stone fruit. The mains markets for Pavillon Blanc: #1 Japan, #2 Russia. It sells for about $400 retail.
On the 2009 Vintage for Red Bordeaux:
“Undoubtedly the best young reds in the Médoc ever tasted”, enthuses Pontallier, though he can’t necessarily compare it to the wines of a different generation. “The backbone, the genetics are the same, but our grandfathers looked different, wore different clothes. We have progressed tremendously in the last 20 years”. The dry weather arrived at precisely the right moment, around the 10-12th of July, when the growth of the vines needs to slow down. The near-total drought continued through to harvest and prevented growing cycles from starting again, yet there was just enough rain to prevent water stress.
“2009 combines qualities that I have never scene: power and concentration. Our 09 is the most powerful wine we have ever made, including the legendary 1961 and 1947. It’s comparable to 2005 in that sense, but the 2005 has a very different tannic structure. You can feel the tannins. In 2009, the tannins seem to have lost their astringency. There is so much concentration in the wine, but the tannins are barely noticeable. That makes it unique. 1990 was much less concentrated. Honestly, there has not been a single vintage since the 1930s in which I have found these qualities. Does that make it better? I don’t know. At this level it doesn’t really matter.”
On Oak Usage an the Fashion for Ever-more:
“200% new oak is insane. If your wine has no virtue, than you have to build it. You have to add something that the wine doesn’t have. We have to protect, preserve or enhance what we have been given. We should not manipulate but we have. We must be careful.”
On the Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux: not a second wine either
“Consider that Margaux is made from the best possible elements from the property. Everything is kept separately. We try to achieve the most perfect wine possible for each vintage. Then we are left with the rest. In the old days, it all went into Pavillon. But for the last decade we have had a 3rd wine. When we make Pavillon Rouge, we want to make a very good wine. In 2009, 23% of the crop ended up in the 3rd wine, even though we could have made it all into very good Pavillon. We no longer like to call it the second wine, since it is really a selection as well.”
On Alcohol levels:
There is growing concern, or at least discussion in the trade regarding upwardly spiraling alcohol levels in Bordeaux, so we question Pontallier. The reality points to Margaux’s search for elegance and finesse over sheer alcoholic power. “Alcohol Levels? In 2009, Margaux is 13.2%, Pavillon Rouge is 13.5%, and our 3rd wine is 14%. We are not looking for overipeness or alcohol in our Grand Vin. Our clay soil yields wines with higher alcohol, these are usually the parcels that end up in the 3rd wine or possibly Pavillon. But our top gravelly soils yield grapes with 1-2% lower alcohol, and they are usually the best.”
The Problem with Bordeaux en Primeur:
Each year around the end of March, buyers and critics from all over the world descend on Bordeaux to taste their way through the previous year’s wines. Reviews will be published and buying strategies determined. The system is far from ideal, however, according to Pontallier. “The blends are made in January and are done by February, so that the wines can be tasted in March. Parcels are not usually tasted blind. When we have doubts, we’ll taste blind, we do both, but we find it doesn’t help really. The problem is that late March or early April is too soon to taste the wines, to properly evaluate them. Especially in great vintages, the wines take time to open. Late April early or May would be better. But we would not necessarily change the timing of the blend”.
On the differences between North American critics’ and European critics’ scores:
2009 was rather unique in that the main critics on both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous in their praise of the vintage in general and seemed to agree on the top wines. This is in contrast to some previous vintages in which the wines were more polarizing, most famously perhaps the on-line spat between British writer Jancis Robinson and American Robert Parker over one particular St. Emilion. Parker praised its power and concentration while Robinson decried it’s new world-like ripeness and alcohol and exaggerated use of oak. Pontallier: “I welcome the differences in scoring, when people disagree it’s a great thing. I would be very disturbed should all the critics agree. That would mean that all the great wines are so simple that everyone can agree.”
On The Evolution of Château Margaux:
“Wines have gained in purity from where they were before. Since 1995, all the vintages have been good. There has not been a single bad wine since 1994. Bordeaux wines have gained in concentration and are much softer. We make wines now that are not only easier to drink when young, but will also age even better because of the concentration and greater abundance of tannins, though ripe tannins.”
On the Changing Marketplace:
One of the biggest changes that Pontallier has noted has been the increasing connection with the market, with the consumers of his wines. “25 years ago we were disconnected from the market. Today we want to know who drinks, for what reason, and at what price it’s sold. We need that information. If someone is willing to pay that much for our wine, it has to be perfect. We will do everything it takes to make perfect wines. In 1982, only 2/3 of our crop when into the first wine. People thought we were crazy. In 2009, only ¼ of the harvest went to the first wine.”
On Bordeaux Pricing:
There is a tendency in the trade and amongst consumers to accuse the top Bordelais château of excessive greed in their pricing strategies. The reality, however, is far more complicated then simple price hikes at the cellar door to take advantage of a market desperate for top name Bordeaux. Bordeaux pricing is certainly the most convoluted and complicated in the world of wine, stemming from the unique distribution system set up by the Place de Bordeaux. “La Place” is a virtual marketplace established by dozens of merchants who have been trading the top château wines for a couple of centuries in some instances.
Historically, château owners occupied themselves with making fine wine and left the selling and distribution responsibilities to independent négociants. These negociants make arrangements with château to purchase a certain number of cases (or barrels in the past, before the days of mise en bouteille au château), which they will then turn around and offer to their clients around the world. Buyers/importers in national and foreign markets take their position on each wine, and in turn offer it to their customers (distributors, retail shops, restaurants, etc.) In some cases, a wine may pass through at least 4 hands from château to drinker before it is finally consumed: Château-negociant-importer-distributor-retail shop/restaurant-end consumer. Add to this the additional complication that the wine is sold as a “future” i.e. you put your money down up to 2 years before you’ll actually receive possession of the wine, and there is multiple opportunity for speculation and price “corrections” along the way. What an end consumer will in fact pay for a bottle is not always directly related to the price at which a château releases a wine to the world. Says Pontallier: “With certain vintages, if we decide to set prices below the market, then we know that down the supply chain the price will be increased to meet demand. It’s a free market, not in our hands, and often not in our pockets. The market will always correct the pricing miscalculations of the chateau.”
Who can afford premier grand cru classé Bordeaux these days? There’s none in my cellar. Even Pontallier understands the unfortunate reality, given their spectacular prices, that most of the top Bordeaux wines end up in the hand of collectors, speculators, businessmen with more money than sense or taste, or are just traded like pork bellies or crude oil or any other commodity. Rarely do they end up in the glasses of people who passionately love great wine. “We regret that our wines are out of the hands of the people who really appreciate them. We have mixed feelings. We are extremely happy to set those high prices. Higher profits allow us to work in the way that before we could only dream of, and the wines are better as a result. But on the other hand, most of those who have an appreciation and a culture of wine can’t afford to buy them.” Too bad indeed.
John Szabo, MS
George Restaurant, Toronto, May 2010
Filed under: Featured Articles, John Szabo, Château Margaux, Paul Pontalier, Bordeaux