There’s a sense of mystery in the wine-growing region of the Médoc. For all the recognisable names, the column inches and the blockbuster claret, few are privy to the inner workings of these hallowed labels. Lafite, Latour, Mouton and Margaux, they are lifelong friends (with expensive taste) of our most palatable and hedonistic experiences, but their identity remains tightly corked.
Much like Swiss watches, Bordeaux wine has needed to change very little in the last hundred years in order to maintain its venerable status – and so it has continued to look inwardly, oblivious to the shifting planes of global culture and viticulture, doing the same thing (very well) that it has always done. Social media? Forget about it. Building a brand? Don’t be so vulgar. Educating would-be drinkers? Unnecessary. The world may have moved on but, like Bordeaux’s iconic Pont de Pierre bridge, this parcel of French turf remains firmly in the 19th century.
Perhaps not for much longer. Behind the scenes of some of the biggest names in French wine, change is quietly afoot as a new generation prepares to take over the running of the family business.
In April of this year, 31-year-old Saskia de Rothschild (an investigative journalist by trade) became the youngest person to lead a Premier Cru Bordeaux estate, in the shape of Château Lafite Rothschild.
As well as steering one of the grandest names in Bordeaux into the modern era, she’s also the first female chairwoman of the family’s global wine empire, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, and will be tasked with overseeing seven other wineries on three continents. No small undertaking, indeed.
How a millennial worldview like Saskia de Rothschild’s may prove to alter the course of Lafite remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that the time for change is now.
In 2017, Bordeaux saw its en primeur (new vintage) sales at the UK’s leading merchants halve to £45m, while the average sterling release price of the 2017 vintage dropped 11.8% from 2016, and volumes sold fell by 60% (according to a Liv-ex report).
Bordeaux’s share of the secondary market is also being steadily eaten away by other fine wine regions including Burgundy, which continues its massive rise in popularity – experiencing its best year for a decade in 2017, with the region’s market share now up from 1% to 12.3% by value since 2010.
Behind the scenes of the biggest names in French wine, change is quietly afoot as a new generation prepares to take over the family business
Rothschild will no doubt draw inspiration from one of the women who helped shape Bordeaux as it is today: Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the doyenne of Château Margaux.
Mentzelopoulos’ father, Greek retail tycoon André Mentzelopoulos, acquired the renowned château at a do-or-die moment in its storied history when he paid $16m for the estate in 1976. After years of neglect and poor investment, there were murmurings among the Bordelaise elite that the château’s terroir (its soil, the source of its superpowers) may have diminished, but Mentzelopoulos spent the next three years carefully restoring the vineyard, its beautiful mansion and bringing on board oenological consultant professor Émile Peynaud – regarded as the forefather of modern oenology – to return the site to its former glory.
This, however, is not André’s story, but Corinne’s. The former died suddenly in 1980 before he ever had a chance to taste the fruit of his labours – and so it was Corinne at just 27 years old in a male-dominated profession, the vultures circling, who stepped forward into the spotlight.
She hired a dynamic young winemaker in the form of Paul Pontallier, a man who would grow into one of the most popular figures in the industry, and set about completing her father’s work. By the time Monsieur Pontallier’s first vintage arrived in 1985, Margaux had once again drawn up a seat at the high table of fine wine; its stock has continued to rise ever since.
Sitting in the lounge of Château Margaux’s neo-Palladian style mansion, this brief history is recounted to me not from Corinne herself but by her daughter, Alexandra. At 32 years of age, the businesswoman is slowly taking a more prominent role in the leadership of the label.
“I remember Le Monde wanted to write a biography on her [Corinne’s] life and she said no, because she didn’t think there was enough to say.” And so it is Alexandra – quick-witted, eloquent and with an elegance clearly inherited from her mother – who must do the talking.
There’s certainly a lot to say. In a warped turn of fate, Alexandra’s ascent at the château mirrors the uncertainty of Corinne’s early reign: economic crises are one thing, but the question of how you plot the future of a staunchly traditional winemaker is another.
Tragically, after 33 years of dedication to Château Margaux, Pontallier’s life was cut short by cancer in the spring of 2016 at the age of 59. The cycles of death and renewal are often poetic, though – and so it goes that Pontallier’s young apprentice, Philippe Bascaules, has returned to the site of his winemaking education to take over his mentor’s position as managing director. He brings with him a wealth of experience gained overseeing Inglenook Winery in the Napa Valley, with forward-thinking ideas he’s keen to employ at Château Margaux.
“It wasn’t because Paul passed away that we find ourselves in this position,” Alexandra says. “He was pushing the next generation to take on the mantle, he knew we were ready.”
It’s early days, but slowly the hallmarks of Alexandra’s youthful outlook are beginning to make their presence felt. We first meet in Marylebone at Clarette, a Château Margaux-funded wine bar that blends modern bistro cuisine with one of the finest Bordeaux wine lists in London. The project was Alexandra’s chance to cut her teeth in the wine sector, and has so far proven to be an assured first step albeit, in her view, a necessary one.
“It’s 38 years since my mother first took over Château Margaux – the wine world is really not the same anymore,” she says. “Back then, Bordeaux was very Bordeaux-centred, but the market is so different these days. Bordelaise people grew up, lived and worked in Bordeaux and didn’t speak any English. Now, we have to travel all over the world to connect to our customers.”
It’s 38 years since my mother took over Château Margaux – the wine world isn't the same anymore
It’s from this ethos of creating a more intimate connection with Margaux’s loyal fan base that Clarette was born. London, the luxury capital of Europe, if not the world, is the perfect starting place for any brand looking to build its audience, but it’s also an ideal proving ground for new ideas.
At 27 years old, Alexandra launched Château Margaux’s third wine, Margaux de Château Margaux. Château Margaux Premier Cru is, of course, a prized addition to any collection but, bottoming out at £550 per bottle, it’s a substantial investment. Margaux de Château Margaux, on the other hand, was designed to broaden the label’s appeal to younger generations who may be intimidated (or simply not have the capital) to plump for the marquee bottle. The third wine uses exactly the same vines as Margaux’s prestigious bottles, the difference being only the very best grapes from the very best plots go into the Premier Cru.
“We’re still highly selective about what goes in, but it is designed to be drunk young and fast rather than cellared for years,” Alexandra explains. “To learn about Château Margaux, you must now try the third wine.”
Clarette is the extension of this – and a branch that is likely to grow into its own global entity in time. First London, next Asia, perhaps with a layover in New York or Paris.
In Alexandra the future of the grand label certainly has a perfectly dichotomous figurehead. Studying in both Paris and London, she is metropolitan at heart (“If I stay at Château Margaux too long, I can’t bear it”), she’s currently listening to French rapper Maître Gims and regularly eats out in London’s newest restaurants with her mates. Occasionally, you have to remember you’re talking to the millionaire heiress of Margaux.
I put this to her and she shrugs: “You can still be a relaxed person and own Margaux.” Good point, well made. But, perhaps the more pressing concern is how do you articulate this sense of normality to the regular drinker. Surely the looming reputation of such a well-known winemaker is going to be a barrier to converting younger, newer fans into life-long Bordeaux addicts?
“I don’t think so. Drinking Château Margaux is approachable by comparison to some of the other big Bordeaux. It’s indicative of the winemakers and the family – it’s a humble wine, made by humble people, that over the years has taken on a life of its own.”
It’s funny: you’d be hard pressed to disagree. Driving down the path to the foot of Château Margaux is an intimidating experience – like stepping foot in the Royal Albert Hall or walking onto the first tee at St Andrew’s Old Course, some moments are daunting no matter who you are – but once you’ve navigated the 22 stone steps up to the mansion’s doors, you come to realise you’re just in somebody else’s home.
Sure, in Margaux’s case we’re talking about a centuries-old property filled with fine art, a library of dusty first editions, Napoleon-era furniture and serving staff (including some wearing actual French maid’s outfits in their natural habitat). But there are also three boisterous dogs, family photos and the usual accoutrements that comes along with a house that is lived in. It’s a home – it just happens to be on a prized vineyard.
Of course, any property listing would be remiss not to mention the newly installed cellar. Designed by Sir Norman Foster (“a very classy man who understood what Margaux was”), it is a gargantuan subterranean corridor of vintages that stretches more than 100m end to end and two storeys in height.
Its grey industrialist look may be more Bond than Bordeaux, but it holds an invaluable collection of wine that dates back to 1848. It’s colloquially termed ‘the wine library’, but that is rather an understatement: the brutalist charms disguise one of the most complete archives a single vineyard has ever collated.
To mark the 200th anniversary of the label, Foster was also commissioned to design the first new visible building on the estate since the mansion and cellars were completed 200 years ago. In addition to a large new winery for red and white wine production, the Nouveau Chai (as the building is called) includes a brand-new research and development centre where Bascaules and his crack team challenge themselves to perfect what many consider to be the pinnacle of Médoc and Bordeaux wine.
“At Château Margaux, we cannot afford to make a mistake, but we are certainly experimenting more and we can always be more precise. We’re preparing the vineyard for the next generation,” Bascaules says.
“The problem with a vineyard is that once you have an idea you can experiment, but then you have to wait 20 years. We’re trying a little bit of cabernet franc and sauvignon varietals, but we planted that in 2012 and we’re only just seeing the first crop.
“Elsewhere, our R&D has tried using screw caps; fining the wine using egg white to remove tannins; we’ve planted a plot of biodynamic wine, researched the effect of malolactic bacteria on a wine – it’s the marginal gains that I am after as a vigneron.”
For Bascaules, his tutelage under Pontallier has given him a great perspective on how to drive Margaux forward: “Paul was very sensitive to knowledge rather than belief – he always went with fact, rather than what we think we know. His work and mine is never finished, so we go on. It’s weird being here without Paul, I’m still getting used to it.”
In the glass-fronted tasting room of the new Norman Foster winery, it’s time to finally try the latest fruit of Château Margaux’s efforts. In Pontallier’s memory, the label has released a special-edition bottle celebrating the lastest vintage, 2015 – Pontallier’s final masterpiece, 30 years after his first.
Jet-black and gilded with images of the château, the bottle graphic is intertwined with a view of the Norman Foster cellars – past and present, tradition and evolution, unified.
Château Margaux is a wine of indiscernible brilliance – it dances on the palate and perfumes the air in a sprightly, elusive manner
But it’s the release of the bottle itself, rather than the detailing, that is so surprising. This is the first time Château Margaux has ever produced a limited-edition design – “and it may be the only time!” Alexandra cautions.
It’s news that isn’t lost on investors. Within weeks of the announcement in November, the original case price of £4,260 for the 2015 en primeur had more than doubled.
Bascaules pours from the new bottle and liquid ruby (here, more valuable than gold) tumbles into the glass. For those unaccustomed to Château Margaux, it is a wine of indiscernible brilliance – it dances on the palate and perfumes the air in a sprightly, elusive manner, never quite showing its full hand. Much like the château itself, its secrets and stories reveal themselves the more you get to know them, so I’ll let a man with experience talk you through it.
“The perfume comes from balance of flavour. So when we smell a wine we shouldn’t recognise one thing, it should be difficult to analyse because the components are all at the same level – and then you have something new,” Bascaules teaches me through closed eyes and a pirouetting glass in his fingers.
“Tannins have to be integrated – you can create density, the power of the wine, but it should never be aggressive. It should be charming. Some say it is less concentrated than Pauillac [the full-bodied wines found further along the Gironde river] but the concentration of tannins is softer.
“It’s the combination of the perfume, density and softness that creates the iconic Margaux. I want wine to have the texture of silk – gentle light, soft, but length and density. It’s very rare to have something that is very dense but so soft. It is unique to us.”
Those in the know are whispering in hushed tones about the 2015 vintage. Some believe it to be one of the best in a decade, others have gone as far to say that it is Pontallier’s greatest ever – and a fine note to bow out on. Those less sentimental might simply regard the damn-near perfect weather conditions (appreciably colder winter, a dry and sunny spring and summer, with light rains in August) and the small size of the grapes at harvest (thicker skins indicate a higher concentration of tannins, which is crucial for longevity and power in a wine) as positive indicators for the 15-20 year ageing process the vintage needs before arriving at optimal drinking conditions.
As Bascaules says: “Wine has to start a conversation: if it is one flavour then everyone will understand that flavour and stop talking about it. If we all taste something different then the wine remains the focus, it keeps us concentrated.”
One thing’s for certain: whether it’s the pursuit of a modern image or the final tweak to a centuries-old premier cru blend, Château Margaux has plenty left to say.
For more information, see chateau-margaux.com