Whenever a first growth Bordeaux chateau is ready to share some behind-the-scene secrets, there’s no way I’d miss out.
I joined an eager-tongued group of New York journalists and sommeliers at Corkbuzz Wine Studio a week ago to sample results from Chateau Margaux’s research program. There were several surprises.
“Bordeaux has a reputation for stuffy tradition, but we’re not stick-in-the-mud,” says the grand estate’s managing director Paul Pontallier. Slim and elegant in a hand-tailored suit and pink tie, he bounces slightly on the balls of his feet, typically a sign he’s feeling expansive.
It turns out Margaux has been a hotbed of experiments for more than a decade, even underwriting a dedicated two-person research and development team, all in the name of trying to make the best wine possible.
The chateau’s wine is often thought of as the “beautiful” first growth, with fragrant aromas of violets and a seductive silky texture. Recent vintages go for more than $1,000 a bottle, and at those prices, you’d better do whatever it takes to stay on top of the competition.
As a group, Bordeaux’s first growths, including Chateau Lafite and Mouton, jointly sponsor research on technical issues, and each chateau also pursues its own studies. Margaux seems keenest to let outsiders in on what it has learned.
Pontallier describes himself as a scientist who tests new viticultural and wine making ideas thoroughly before embracing them. “I believe in doubt,” he says, more than once.
He gives us five blind taste tests to demonstrate the most fascinating experiments, starting with a comparison of wines made from grapes cultivated conventionally (with ordinary chemical sprays), organically, and using biodynamics. (The latter uber-organic method, increasingly in vogue in Burgundy and the Loire Valley, includes treating vines with herbal teas and picking in sync with phases of the moon.)
In 2008, Pontallier separated a two-hectare (4.9-acre) test parcel of 35-year-old cabernet sauvignon vines into plots, and the chateau’s team began farming them with the three methods. The grapes are harvested and vinified separately in exactly the same way.
It seems obvious that organic and biodynamic viticulture do good things for the environment. But do the wines actually taste better? In front of me are three unlabeled wines from 2011 and three from 2012.
I find the wines in each flight quite different. Two in each vintage have more intensity, purity of fruit, depth, and brightness -- these turn out to be the organic and biodynamic ones. Among the 2012s, I prefer the organic, but the biodynamic is my clear favorite of the 2011s. The results are more complicated than I thought they’d be.
Pontallier admits, “The one I prefer is not always consistent.” He’s been at Chateau Margaux since 1983 and is pushing the estate towards organic viticulture. The vineyards have been insecticide and pesticide-free for more than a decade. In 2012, he planned to be 100 percent organic, but sprayed chemicals once to combat mildew.
“It was a difficult year,” he says, with a Gallic shrug. “And I couldn’t risk losing the crop.”
After all, he’s not the owner, and a Bordeaux first growth is big business: in a top vintage, the retail value of the chateau’s 130,000 bottles of grand vin Chateau Margaux would be around $150 million.
So far Pontallier is less convinced about the virtues of biodynamics. “But if the facts prove the method is better, I’ll do it even if I don’t understand it,” he says.
Margaux looks pretty cautious compared to fifth growth Chateau Pontet-Canet, certified biodynamic since the 2010 vintage, and producing brilliant wines. Chateau Latour, another great first growth, plans to be completely biodynamic in several years.
Since 2002, Margaux has also been experimenting with different types of closures. “We knew very quickly that plastic corks were a disaster,” says Pontallier. So we compare only two versions of 2002 Pavillion Rouge ($150), the estate’s second wine, one sealed with a cork, another with an impermeable screw-cap.
Again, the wines are quite different. The one under cork is more open, fragrant, and with its smoother texture, more pleasant to drink; the one with a screw cap is fresher, younger-tasting, more structured.
But Chateau Margaux won’t be switching from corks anytime soon. They need to know how the wines will develop over 50 years.
Sampling the elements of the 2012 vintage -- merlot, cabernet, petit verdot, press wine -- before the final blending is another treat. They’ve never been shown outside the chateau before.
The dark, intense petit verdot, one of Bordeaux’s oldest varieties and rarely tasted on its own, is a surprise. “I think of it like pepper in a dish,” says Pontallier. “One or two percent in the blend makes the other flavors show better.”
Construction starts this spring on a new cellar designed by architect Norman Foster. At its center will be a 1,600-square-meter space for yet more experiments.
For those interested in another kind of Margaux research project, Paulson Rare Wine is hosting a major retrospective of 40 vintages of Chateau Margaux at Hotel Kronenschlosschen in Eltville, Germany, in April. You’ll need to uncork 2,000 euros.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on television.