Monday 28 October 2013

Château Margaux Looks East

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“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.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The 9th Annual Champagne Tasting with the Institute of Masters of Wine

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Of all the wines in the world, champagne is undeniably the most recognisable. The word has even managed to enter mainstream consciousness as a proxy for living luxuriously, i.e. a champagne lifestyle. Fortunately, the 9th Annual Champagne Tasting organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) was not limited to millionaires, and non-members such as myself were able to attend. At a very reasonable ticket fee of US$60, it was a rare opportunity to taste some truly great champagne in one sitting. In fact, the IMW bills it as “the largest and most prestigious tasting of champagne in North America.”

As befits champagne, the tasting also featured some of the most beautifully designed bottles on the planet. Champagne is an industry built on attractive packaging, from the transparent, bulbous Ruinart Blanc de Blancs to the floral design of the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2004. Collaborations with fashion houses are de rigueur - Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Emilio Pucci are some of the names who have dressed various limited edition champagnes. The award for Best Dressed at the tasting went to the Piper-Heidsieck “Cuvée Rare” 2002, a classy, jet-black bottle with the label etched in gold filigree. On the other hand, the Taittinger Nocturne was perhaps a bit too avant-garde, with an ensemble that resembled a purple knockoff of Absolut Disco.

The tasting was held on the first floor of the Ferry Terminal Building in San Francisco, a setting that afforded a good view of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and plenty of natural light. Cheese and bread (supplied by Cowgirl Creamery downstairs) were on hand to cleanse the palate and stave off hunger while tasting. I was reminded of the old adage “buy on bread, sell on cheese”, a saying on how cheese makes wine seem more palatable and smooth. In the interest of judging the wines fairly, I stuck to plain bread when tasting – the downside of writing about wine!

Having obtained a list of the wines beforehand (fortune favours the prepared), it was clear that the top favourites would be in the vintage category, but as there was a Blanc de Blancs vintage category as well a tradeoff had to be made. Sadly by the time I made my way to the vintage champagne table several of the more popular wines had finished, including the Dom Pérignon 2004. As expected, the rosé and dosé (off-dry) champagne tables seemed less packed, reflecting the lesser interest in these two categories.

Although most of the famous houses of Champagne were present, the lineup also included a handful of lesser known producers such as Lamiable and Michel Loriot. Peter Koff MW, one of several Masters of Wine present at the tasting, stated that “There are some wines here that are quite highly rated but not that well-known.” The majority of the vintage champagnes were made from the top vineyards, or Grand Crus, of which there are only 17 compared to the next level of Premier Cru, of which there are currently 42. With over 80 wines on pour, the tasting was sure to have satisfied even the most die-hard lover of bubblies.

Tasting notes:


Charles Ellner Cuvée de Réserve NV – Lean and incisive with green apple and light pastry notes. Dry and light bodied with good persistence. 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir.

Charles Heidsieck Brut NV – A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay from around 60 crus. A high proportion of reserve wine lends depth and complexity. Generous and mouth-filling on the palate with a fine bead and notes of brioche and lemon. A very complete wine with a satisfying finish.

Eric Rodez Cuvée des Crayères NV – A blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from vineyards in Ambonnay. Slightly cheesy nose that blows off after a while. Good breadth and intensity on the palate with notes of lemon peel.

Gaston Chiquet NV Brut Tradition – Gaston Chiquet is a grower-producer based in Dizy, run by brothers Antoine and Nicolas Chiquet. The wine shows fruity lemon and biscuit notes, mid weight with a creamy mousse and a slightly saline finish. The blend is 40% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir.

G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge NV – The house signature of G.H. Mumm, in which 25%-30% of the blend is made up of reserve wines. Displays citrus notes and high acidity, light and rather fizzy.

Michel Loriot Cuvée Réserve Blanc de Noir NV – An unusual find, both in the blend and in the winemaking. Classical music is played during the fermentation process, with the idea that the vibrations “act on the wine’s structure and help it to express all its perfumes and aromas during its ageing”. A Blanc de Noir, but from Pinot Meunier rather than the more ageworthy Pinot Noir. A reticent nose with notes of lemon and chalk on the palate. Pretty austere.


Devaux Millésimé D 2005 – A lifted nose with notes of mint and eucalyptus. Quite unusual. Bright and mid-weight on the palate with lemony fruit. An equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1998 – A stupendous effort from the house, showing captivating aromas of honey, meal, lees and toast. Focused and intense on the palate, with baked citrus fruit and honeyed notes. Brilliant.

Lamiable Cuvée Les Meslaines Blanc de Noir 2007 – The youngest vintage champagne of the tasting comes from the Lamiable family based in the Grand Cru village of Tours sur Marne. The palate shows apple and honeyed notes, framed by fresh acidity and a firm structure. There is a lot of depth to this wine. 100% Pinot Noir.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2004 – Elegant and lively with honeysuckle, biscuit and floral notes. Medium+ length. The blend is 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier.

Piper-Heidsieck “Cuvée Rare” 2002 – An example of classy packaging. Broad, rich and dense with generous fruit and lip-smacking smoky, toasty flavours. A lengthy finish. Is it too early to start stocking up for Christmas?

Non-vintage Blanc de Blancs

G.H. Mumm “Mumm de Cramant” NV – Made from a single vineyard in the Cramant Grand Cru and bottled at a lower pressure than normal champagne. Shows good fruit definition with a slight toastiness overlaying citrus fruit and white flowers. An interesting and well-made wine.

Henriot Blanc de Blancs NV – An assemblage of Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs and village crus. Fine and elegant, displaying biscuit and citrus notes and a fresh finish.

Krug Grande Cuvée – The house prefers this wine to be called a “multi-vintage” rather than a “non-vintage”, hinting at its premier status. With a pedigree as rich as Krug, expectations are high, and the wine does not disappoint. Oat crackers, bread and toast dominate the nose, while the palate is a complex knit of citrus fruit, honey, toast and hints of hazelnut. A wine that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Special Club Millésime 2005 – Mostly from vineyards in Cramant, some of which are over 40 years old. A gentle and charming wine, approachable even at this early stage of its development, but showing real class and longevity.

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV – A rather light citric nose with elements of white flowers, honeysuckle and brioche. One of the lighter Blanc de Blancs tasted.

Vintage Blanc de Blancs

Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2005 – A blend of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Cramant and Chouilly; three Grand Crus from the Côte des Blancs. Forward nose of yeast and wet straw with pear and citrus notes, fine and balanced on the palate with a gentle and elegant mousse.

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 – The nose displays notes of yeast, cotton, wool and ground meal. Superb definition on the palate, pronounced notes of smoke and toast with well- rounded acidity and a long, compelling finish. The patience of maturing this wine for over 15 years in cool chalk cellars has paid off handsomely.

Demière-Ansiot Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2006 – Light intensity on the nose with rather coarse bubbles. Seems a touch too sweet.

Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 2006 – Still young and tightly knit, showing precise lemon and toasty flavours. Beautifully proportioned and balanced, with the lithe muscularity of an Olympic gymnast. The fruit comes from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2002 – A subdued nose but plenty of richness and power on the palate. Creamy with soft effervescence and notes of lemon peel and pastry. The wine was aged for 9 years before release.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004 – Fruit for this wine is sourced from the Côte des Blancs where Chardonnay reigns supreme. 5% of the wine was aged in new oak for 4 months. A rich, layered wine that is starting to show some evolution. Broad and mouth-filling with notes of smoke, toast, grilled nuts and citrus fruit. Excellent drinking now but shows incredible potential.


Ruinart Rosé NV – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. White peach and red fruit character. Fresh and subtle.

Veuve Clicquot Rosé 2004 – Tangerine and red berry notes with a suggestion of toast. Very refreshing and balanced with good fruit concentration and persistence. The blend consists of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

Dosé (off-dry)

A. Margaine Traditionelle Demi-Sec NV – Warm and rich with pear and sugar cane notes. Inviting and approachable.

Taittinger Nocturne NV – Despite the garish packaging, the wine is surprisingly quite charming, with notes of sweet Chinese pear and a long finish.