Monday, 28 October 2013

Château Margaux Looks East

20131028 Chateau Margaux main

“If you want to succeed in China,” quipped Thibault Pontallier, “you either need to have a dragonboat on your label, or you need to get personal.” As the Ambassador in Asia of Château Margaux, Thibault has been hard at work getting to know the region and its people. His father, respected Margaux winemaker Paul Pontallier, dispatched him to Hong Kong in 2010, marking the first time that Château Margaux has had a permanent representative abroad. The appointment was followed last year by the creation of a business development role in Shanghai. The move has paid off – Asia now represents the largest market for Château Margaux.

The strategy of Château Margaux is a curious blend of upholding tradition while at the same time staying ahead of developments in the wine industry. So while Margaux rightly boasts about its 500 year history, it is also leveraging on technology to reassure customers about the authenticity of their wine by incorporating a unique “bubble tag” on each bottle. Each bottle also has laser code etching and a secured capsule.

Like the phoenix, Margaux has risen from ashes time and again. In at least two occasions, the owners were forced to relinquish control of the property – once during the French Revolution and again during the Bordeaux economic crisis of 1973. Its modern history was written in 1977 when Greek businessman André Mentzelopoulos bought the property from the Ginestet family and set about restoring the château and its surrounding vineyards. The Bordelais like to talk about terroir, the subtle link between the vine and its physical environment, but without the nurturing hand of the Mentzelopoulos family, plus a sizeable infusion of cash, it is likely that Château Margaux would occupy a less lofty perch that that upon which it currently sits.
From that exalted position, the wines of Château Margaux are able to command prices of more than a thousand dollars a bottle. The five highest-priced recent vintages according to fine wine exchange Liv-ex are 2010, 2009, 2005, 2000 and 1996. However, a poor vintage is less of a disaster than it was in the past due to three key developments. Firstly, advances in winemaking technology and knowledge of the vine have enabled producers to overcome deficiencies due to the weather. Secondly, the introduction of second or even third labels has enabled the First Growths to be more selective about the fruit that goes into the grand vin. For example, the 2008 vintage of Château Margaux represented only 36% of the annual crop. Lastly, the best plots of land in Bordeaux are less affected by adverse weather. Hailstorms are practically unknown at Château Margaux, while frost damage is significantly mitigated due to the vineyards elevated location near the river.
Other than the grand vin of Château Margaux, the winery also produces two other wines – Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux and Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux. Despite the similarity of their names, the Pavillon Blanc is the winery’s premier white while the Pavillon Rouge is the second red wine made from grapes that did not make the cut for the grand vin. As such, the quality of the Pavillon Blanc is stunning, a refreshing white that is so rich and complex it is difficult to believe that it is made up only of Sauvignon Blanc. No NZ grapefruit and lime here; the wine displays citrus, cream and white peach characters with a zesty lemon sherbet finish. Thibault shares that Japan has cornered the market for this wine, adding that “For Asia, this wine is perfect.” Production is a mere 1,200 cases annually and although the grand vin takes the limelight, Thibault says that it is the Pavillon Blanc that is more challenging to make due to the comparative fragility of Sauvignon Blanc.
What is it that makes Château Margaux so special? According to Thibault, the wine is all about charm and perfume. In contrast to perhaps Lafite or Latour, Margaux is a little lighter, a wine that develops in the mouth. This does not equate to a lack of complexity or ageability however. In fact, the two grand vins that we tasted over lunch could not be distinguished by colour despite being separated by a decade. The 1998 was beginning to develop tertiary notes of lea leaves and sandy earth, yet the fruit was still very much at the fore. “Very few wines can combine such power with such softness,” says Thibault. Starting from the 2009 vintage, Château Margaux has produced a third wine, called Margaux du Château Margaux. In theory, this should further improve the quality of the Pavillon Rouge and grand vin. The wine will debut in a limited fashion at restaurants in France and the UK this year.
I ask Thibault if there are plans for him to become more involved in winemaking at Château Margaux. “I still love meeting people,” is his reply. “Wine in China is incredibly exciting. Four years ago, China was like the Wild West, but now there is serious wine appreciation. You can’t fool the Chinese palate, their long culinary tradition makes them able to tell the difference between what is good and what is great.” His stint in Asia has seen him engage extensively with members of the wine trade and hold countless dinners with fans of Château Margaux. He lists roasted goose as an ideal pairing with the grand vin, while hairy crab and Pavillon Blanc are a sublime match.
There is a concerted effort to protect the image of a wine as prestigious as Château Margaux. Thibault says that “My job is actually quite easy – to say no to most people and to sell it to the right restaurants and distributors, people who will store the wine and serve it at the right temperature.” While this may smack of elitism, considering the quality and reputation of the wine, a glass of Château Margaux is definitely not for the everyday.
Château Margaux is distributed in Singapore by Wine Culture.

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