Château Margaux " A Glimpse Behind the Curtain with Paul Pontallier

Trinity House, London - 21st February 2012

Slurp was among a privileged few young ‘movers and shakers’ invited to an amazing event at London’s Trinity House in February 2012.  The occasion - without precedent for a Bordeaux First Growth château " involved Château Margaux’s Head Winemaker Paul Pontallier sharing the results of some of the incredible private winemaking experiments going on behind closed doors at Margaux.

Paul Pontallier " in charge of winemaking at Margaux since 1983 - explained that, contrary to the perception of top end Bordeaux producers being steeped in traditional and resistant to change, Margaux is a constant experimenter and researcher.  It established an R&D department ten years ago and now conducts a wide range of “experimental science” experiments at the château on a continuous basis. 

For those who believe that Bordeaux is a traditionalist bastion of resistance to new ideas Paul Pontallier is powerful antidote.  He stressed again and again through the session that his motto is to practice “doubt”, and never “belief”. 

So what are they up to behind that fabulous neo-classical façade at Margaux?  Well quite a lot, as it turned out!      

Experiment 1 " “Farming Methods " Does Organic or Biodynamic Matter?”

The first experiment was on the effects of different farming methods.  Experimentation at Margaux started five years ago with different vines in the same plot being farmed according to:  a) conventional, b) organic and c) biodynamic methods. 

Before we put the results put to the taste test, Paul explained that his long-term aim for Margaux was to get “closer and closer” to organic methods.  No pesticides or insecticides are used now on the estate.  The château does still feel “obliged” to spray against mildew and rot in some years though.  But Paul pondered whether even this was really necessary anymore, and speculated that in two or three years this might be abandoned " at least for the best plots.  As these are the best drained, they are least liable to rot and mildew anyway.

Paul expressed some good humoured scepticism about the biodynamic movement, asking whether it will be a passing trend or something permanent.  He gently mocked the “almost religious” approach of some winemakers on the issue.  But by this time the aromas rising from our glasses were making it harder and harder to focus on what he was saying!  Did the method of farming actually make any difference?

To help us see we tasted a flight of three Cabernet Sauvignons from three different sample vines from the same plot on the estate " farmed using the three different methods.  This plot is not one of Margaux’s absolute best (the grapes have only ever made it into Pavillon Rouge) but it was planted in the early 1980s and so has some maturity.  Small tank micro vinification was used to produce the samples, and the vintage was 2010.  All three wines bottled with the same amount of Sulphur.

What did we find?

We tasted all three wines blind and made notes accordingly.  My notes were as follows:

Wine 1 " Bio-dynamically Farmed (13.4% ABV) - Extremely pure and focused fruit "  impressive given lack of full vinification.  Certainly the purest fruit of the three, also the fullest wine in body.  Longest finish and the clear winner. 

Wine 2 " Organically Farmed (13.6% ABV) - Little more austere that wine 1.  More earthy, less richness, but a hint more spice.  Not much to choose between this and wine 1.  But my preference would be for the wine 1. 

Wine 3 " Conventionally Farmed (13.8% ABV) " Reasonable body but maybe losing a little more than the others at the finish?  Tasting washed out in comparison with 1 and 2.  Showing the weakest.  Greenish tinge.

A show of hands showed that the biodynamic wine was indeed preferred by the majority of tasters (though not all).  Paul explained that this result was consistent with Margaux’s own internal blind tasting and his own preference.  He even conceded that the conventionally farmed vines had been picked a “few days” later than the others due to their lack of ripeness.  Paul concluded experiment 1 by saying that Margaux would continue to experiment more actively with biodynamic methods following these initial encouraging results.

Experiment 2 " “Effect of Stems in Red Wine Fermentation”

This second experiment looked at the importance of de-stemming before fermentation.  Paul explained that in modern times Margaux had always fully de-stemmed and that this was “received wisdom” amongst top Bordeaux producers.  But is it really better to do so?  Practising ‘doubt’, not ‘belief’, we were about to find out! 

Three different wines were presented to us blind:  a) one made ‘conventionally’ with 100% de-stemming, b) one with 1% of stems added whole to the vat and c) one with 1% of chopped up stems added. 

The grapes for this experiment came from the 2009 vintage, and from one of one of Margaux’s better plots (which does usually make it into the Grand Vin).  So how did they show? 

Wine 1 - 1% Whole Stems Added " Palate showed a little lifeless and lacking in body.  Just dead and lacking personality. 

Wine 2 - 100% destemmed " More generous nose than 1 or 3.  Slightly purer.  More body, softer and longer.  More elegant and rounded than 1 or 3.  Guessing this one had the least stem contact.   

Wine 3 - 1% Stems and Cut Up " very similar to #1.  Little difference and same weaknesses.

Paul did speculate that the experiment could have been different if it had been conducted with Merlot.  But he agreed with the consensus that the addition of stems seemed not only to add greenness, but also to kill the vitality of the wine.   Having practising doubt, it was Paul’s belief  (and mine) that 100% de-stemming is not going away anytime soon at Margaux!

Experiment 3 " “Screw Caps versus Cork”  

Another topical debate was addressed in Experiment 3.  Again, it was very refreshing (surprising?) to hear Margaux’s openness to fresh thinking on closures.  Paul stressed yet again that Margaux was not afraid of change " if change was for the better.  He pointed out that the prevalence of corked bottles is now decreasing as the cork industry cleans up its act.  But as even one corked bottle is a disaster when consumers are paying upwards of £500 a bottle, and experimentation at Margaux (with Pavillon Rouge) on different closures has been going on for ten years. 

So next up were three blind samples of a non-classified 2003 parcel from the Margaux estate which had been aged in three different closures:  a) natural cork, b) semi-permeable screw cap and c) impermeable screw cap. 

My clear preference was for Wine 3, and the room agreed.  But which closure was it?  We were astonished to learn that wine 3 was actually the impermeable screw cap!  Paul admitted that this was also his preferred wine “right now”, and that this result was consistent with previous tastings.  He stressed that ten years was not long enough to be clear about the long term potential of aging in impermeable screw cap.  Paul said he was “fascinated” by this result and dispelled any further doubts in the room by saying that Margaux was absolutely “intellectually prepared” to make the change to screw cap (otherwise “why make the experiment?”).  He confided that Margaux is experimenting with aging fully vinified Pavillon Rouge and Margaux Grand Vin under screw cap " but refused to give any further details!   

Experiment 4 " “Blending Exercise”

The final flight of wines was not an experiment, as such, but rather an incredibly rare glimpse into the winemaking process at Margaux.  In this flight we tasted blind four different ‘wines’ without knowing anything about what we were drinking. 

Paul then revealed, magician like, that we that we had in fact just tasted four different vats of Château Margaux Grand Vin 2011. 

The four different wines were from three different parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon (vats 23, 19 and 20) and one of Petit Verdot (vat 54FA).  Tasting them separately left me in awe of the responsibility and complexity of Paul (and team’s) task in trying to compose not only one Grand Vin vintage each year, but also a very expensive second wine (Pavillon Rouge) also.

The three different vats of Cabernet were so different in character, reflecting the incredible complexity of terroir at Margaux (even between plots just a couple of hundred metres apart), from ground covered with pebbles to heavy soils.    The Petit Verdot vat was especially intriguing.   Paul explained that his philosophy was to sprinkle Petit Verdot “like a spice, like pepper in the blend”.  It should “never dominate”, but it has a sweetness of tannin that adds something special to the blend.

The End 

By the time we filed out of the grand, horse-shoe shaped room in which we had been encamped I doubt I was the only one who felt a new found respect both for the philosophy of Margaux in its relentless quest for improvement and perfection and for the awesomely difficult and challenging job of the modern winemaker making wine from hollowed terroir.  

Dr Jeremy Howard

February 2012