Karl Lagerfeld provoked both boos and cheers for his rustic sketch of Chateau Rauzan-Segla on the 2009 label of the Bordeaux estate, celebrating its 350th anniversary. The wine inside, though, is no dashed-off impression.
Deep and ripe, it shows just how much this second growth in the Margaux appellation has jumped in quality since the estate’s purchase in 1994 by haute couture house Chanel Inc., where Lagerfeld is chief designer.
At a recent Wine Media Guild lunch at New York’s Felidia restaurant, eight vintages of Rauzan-Segla were paired with eight from third-growth Chateau d’Issan, another rising Margaux star. Both properties’ wines are still a bit under the radar -- labels whose prices haven’t caught up with their growing buzz.
I’ve always been a fan of the seductive, perfumed aromas and silky, velvety texture that are hallmarks of the best wines from Margaux. They exude finesse and elegance rather than power -- what many Frenchmen persist in describing as “feminine.”
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, many chateaux made an awful lot of green, lean, and joyless wines. Some still do. Yet the appellation, home to 80 chateaux, including 21 ranked in the famous 1855 classification, always had great potential. Witness first-growth Chateau Margaux and third-growth Chateau Palmer, whose 2009s cost $1,300 and $350.
At the walkaround tasting before the lunch, the sophisticated, precise 2005 Rauzan-Segla ($140), with notes of mint and blackcurrants, is textbook perfect, quite different from the more opulent and tannic 2009 ($100), which is packed with explosive, velvety fruit.
The less-powerful 2005 d’Issan, for $90, is rich and very elegant. The $65 2009, tasted later, is plush and silky, its dense fruit blanketing the tannin.
The surprises? The pure, seamless, earth and cherry 2006 d’Issan ($75) and well-priced pretty, floral 2004 ($65). Rauzan-Segla’s fragrant, spicy, cassis-toned 2008 ($75) is almost gulpable.
Getting on this fast track doesn’t come cheap. Chateau d’Issan always looked the part. Surrounded by a moat, the storybook walled chateau with grey stone towers and climbing roses is one of the most picturesque in Bordeaux.
Owned by the Cruse family since 1945, its wines were largely ho-hum in 1998 when 29-year-old Emmanuel Cruse took over.
“We spent more than $20 million renovating the vineyards and cellar,” says Cruse. Plots were replanted, a new barrel cellar and vat house added. After hailstorms twice wiped out 80 percent of the grapes, he spent $300,000 on sonic cannons that generate shockwaves to disrupt the formation of hailstones. A second label, Blason d’Issan (a bargain at around $30), was introduced to insure that only the cream of the crop went into the 8,000 cases of grand vin.
Chanel’s owners, the Wertheimer brothers, were smarting from losing out on the purchase of first growth Chateau Latour to billionaire Francois Pinault when they settled on restoring Rauzan-Segla back to its glory days. (In the mid-19th century, it was considered just below Mouton-Rothschild in quality.) They poached Latour manager John Kolasa to oversee the revival.
“The chateau was a mess,” says Kolasa, who invested in 9 miles of new drainage channels. “The workers were harvesting by machine and dumping all the wine together.”
Kolasa is passionately focused on what sets Bordeaux apart. “Making wines that age is the magic of Bordeaux,” he says. “You can go down to your cellar and find a 50-year-old wine that’s fantastic to drink.”
In today’s instant-gratification world fewer people want to wait that long to pull the cork. Instead, the rush has been on to buy top Bordeaux for investment. Neither of these labels has investment-grade status, yet.
“The first growths, like Lafite, haven’t created a market for drinkers, only for speculators,” Kolasa says.
Well, yes, but Rauzan-Segla too came under attack last summer for raising the price of its 2010 40 percent over the 2009. “It’s a ludicrous price,” Laurent Ehrmann, head of negociant Barriere Freres, told me. “We refused our allocation.”
Rather than jump-start d’Issan’s reputation with aggressive price hikes, Cruse aims to ignite interest in a younger generation. “We’ll be out of the market if we don’t persuade them to be interested in Bordeaux,” he says. As the head of trade organization Commanderie de Bontemps, he pushed to include U.S. and Asian teams in the organization’s annual tasting competition for business school wine clubs.
That afternoon I trolled the tables at Bordeaux’s annual Union des Grands Crus tasting in a big, echoey space at the Marriott Marquis hotel. Among the 105 Bordelais chateau owners hawking their wines from the great 2009 vintage, which arrives on retail shelves next month, are 16 from Margaux.
Rauzan-Segla and d’Issan remain my standouts but my tastebuds were also seduced by the 2009 from another improving property, Chateau Giscours ($70).
“The 2009s from Margaux are opulent and sexy, the girls you want to date,” said Giscours’ Alexander Van Beek.
They certainly make a good impression on me.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)