Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

CHÂTEAU MARGAUX AND THE CITY OF BORDEAUX

August 2015. On my way to attend a banquet at Château Margaux, given “in honour of the international press”, I got to thinking about how to make the very best of the trip down to Bordeaux, over and above the pleasure afforded by the convivial gathering that awaited me – and several hundred others – at that renowned First Growth.

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After all, international travel is time-consuming, even if inside Europe, so you should extract as much as you can from each and every single trip. Every hour of our short life is precious; and every hour of boredom erodes the quality of that life. Just think: If getting to and from most European destinations takes up an aggregate of, say, 12 hours, it surely makes sense, if you don’t suffer tedium lightly, to extract at least 36 hours of pleasure at your ultimate destination so as to balance things up.

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In this case, it would take half a day to get there from where I live (southeast England) to Bordeaux and the same to get back. So why not enrich, bolster, and uplift the experience by staying on an extra night and devoting a dozen or so hours to exploring the beautiful city of Bordeaux?

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Seize the day!

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In fact I’ve “known” Bordeaux for over 40 years but, what with hectic programmes of tastings at châteaux in the Graves, the Médoc, Saint-Emilion, and Pomerol (and numerous vinous satellites) every time I was down there, I’d never really had time to have a careful look at the city itself, for its own sake. Over the decades I’d flitted through Bordeaux often enough, briefly glimpsing some splendid squares, allées, and boulevards, not to mention some of the noblest facades in Europe, but that was all. And, for somebody who loves architecture as I do, and who also relishes watching city-dwellers in their natural habitat, that was never enough.

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But first to Château Margaux.

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Madame Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, hosted the banquet, which was held under the aegis of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés en 1855, whose members are, of course, those 61 Châteaux classified in 1855 as between Fifth and First Growths in ascending order of greatness, plus the top growths of Sauternes.

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The classification was introduced at the request of Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte (possibly the greatest military strategist, together with Alexander the Great, the world has ever seen), who clearly had a little of his uncle’s wide-ranging intellect and (in social matters at least) enlightenment.

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The noble façade of Château Margaux, First Growth of the Médoc, its fine proportions an architectural echo of the wine's unique style.

The noble façade of Château Margaux, First Growth of the Médoc, its fine proportions an architectural echo of the wine’s unique style.

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On the whole, the classification has stood up extremely well over the intervening 160 years, even if it has to be acknowledged that some intrinsically great estates were underperforming at the time the classification was made, and would have been rated higher had they been in better form at that particular juncture (e.g. Pontet-Canet, Lynch Bages, Grand Puy Lacoste, and a few others).

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The 480 people present at Margaux included not only wine writers like myself but also a host of Château proprietors and their wives; oenologists and viticulturists; wine-makers from other regions; politicians; and numerous others. We were first shown around the winery (which not a few of us had, of course, visited a number of times in the past), and been given a look at the impressive new underground facility for the storage of older vintages. This singular installation, like a metro tunnel as if designed for the use of customers of the Ritz, is destined to be as packed as the Paris Metro in due time. But not, of course, packed with sentient beings; rather with many thousands of bottles of Château Margaux which, while never budging one inch, will silently travel through time, in the fourth dimension, into the distant future. Their ultimate destiny: the mouths of people who (we fervently hope) will have the taste to match their wealth.

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In due course we arrived on a roomy terrace overlooking a patch of lawn where we were served with champagne or, if we so chose, samples of nine First Growth Sauternes and eight of its Second Growths. I would have loved to have tasted all seventeen of the lot but, knowing that wholly dry reds were to follow, and that honey-sweet wines can change the palate instantly (dry after sweet is an uneasy combination) I didn’t trust my palate to be equal to the task.

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While we waited to be summoned to the interior of the Château itself for the dinner, I had a fruitful chat with Guy Tesseron, owner of Château Pontet Canet, who confessed that he generally preferred young wines to old ones. My riposte: Surely claret’s vocation is to live long, and don’t great wines actually grow younger as they age, becoming rounder, more luscious, and more vibrant? Then I bumped into Steven Spurrier, with whom I share a love of great old vintages of Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle. He told me that Jaboulet, after a decade or so in the wilderness (following the premature death of the house’s driving force, Gérard Jaboulet, and the subsequent sale of that great enterprise), was now making great progress, possibly even surpassing the old regime’s efforts. Then Stephen Brook, respected writer on Bordeaux wines (he’s against the whole en primeur tastings ethos, and I heartily agree with him) with whom I chatted for a few relaxed moments.

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And finally a refreshingly exuberant, instantly likeable American who, clearly uplifted by the ambience, the canapés, and the aperitifs, declared to me that he was determined to eat and drink EVERYTHING.

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Just before we trooped into the Château itself, I also bumped into John Kolasa, who has just retired as director of Château Rauzan Ségla, the great Margaux Second Growth. He mentioned my article “Pre-Phylloxera Puzzle – an 1870 Overture” (“Oenofile” 2013) in which I’d given my impressions of a tasting of 1870 Rauzan-Ségla, opened by friends in England. John said that he and his team had also tried a bottle of that same venerable vintage at the Château. “How did it compare with the bottle I tasted, as described in the article?” I asked. “Was it similarly dark, concentrated, and full of vitality?” Yes it was, he replied, adding that a bottle from the 1899 vintage was also very impressive.

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Once seated at the dinner table, I was pleased to find that my neighbours at table were the extremely amiable Denis Lurton, proprietor of Château Desmirail, the Margaux Third Growth, his charming fiancée, and a number of other lively-looking people, including the proprietor of Château Talbot. It transpired that no whites were to be served with the food, which had been prepared by the three-star chef Guy Savoy and his team. (While sipping champagne earlier, I actually saw him standing around outside, breathing in fresh air, with the absent, preoccupied look of a great tenor about to deliver an aria from “Tosca” in some vast opera house).

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The complete absence at table of any white wines reminded us, by implication, that reds can, in fact, go with an enormous range of dishes, not just all manner of meats but with fish too (a lovely red Burgundy with sole or turbot, for example, or a cool claret with grilled salmon).

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The particular reds served at our table were from the cellars of the proprietors who were seated with us. In our case, Châteaux Desmirail and Talbot. Guests at other tables were served with wines from whatever proprietors they were seated with.

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We began with an example of each of “our” two châteaux from the 2006 vintage. Though young, both were enjoyable and very well-made but would, of course, improve greatly given more time. Both were dark and vital and full of concentrated, if still undeveloped, fruit. Of the second duo, the 1989 Desmirail was typical of that vintage: full, fleshy, and absolutely mature; a hint of something smooth and caramelly on the nose suggested that the Merlot had been extremely ripe in that vintage. The 1996 Talbot that followed was very focused, and, in a very Médocain way, smelled not only of concentrated Cabernet/Merlot fruit, but also of sea breeze, of ozone – one of the salient traits of wines produced in that oceanic region.

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Then, as pièce de résistance on the red side, Château Margaux 1985. It was, of course, extremely refined and complex, and very, very distinguished. We all gasped in awe at the sheer majesty of that wonderful bouquet. It was, however, slightly lacking in volume on the night (great wines truly wax and wane over the years); however, other bottles of the same wine sampled on that night were utterly complete, I’ve been informed. In any event, we should not forget that, by claret standards, a top Margaux is still in infancy at a mere 31 years (the ’83 Margaux is still closed-up and even the ’78 still has a long way to go!).

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The futuristic cellars for the maturation of countless bottles of First Growth Château Margaux.

The futuristic cellars for the maturation of countless bottles of First Growth Château Margaux.

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The 1988 Yquem that accompanied the dessert was turning orangey and had low acidity, a sure sign of full maturity in Sauternes. It tasted of honey, apricot, and fig, and was clearly at its best.

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By tradition, dinners at great Bordeaux Châteaux are usually composed of seven to eight small courses, so conceived as to allow a big and fascinating range of wines, usually from venerable great vintages, to be shown off under the most favourable possible conditions. Such meals often conclude with lovely old bottles from the fifties or forties. This time things had been slimmed down, with the light, four-course menu comprising artichoke soup with summer truffles and a truffled brioche; guinea fowl with girolles and a caillette (cabbage leaf farci which, I think, incorporated some of the bird’s liver) with thick poultry jus; a trio of cheeses; and a vacherin of exotic fruits.

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Maîtres de Chais

An “assemblage” of maîtres de chai of the Médoc, on the steps of Château Margaux.

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The banquet ended at about midnight. A navette kindly laid on by our hosts transported a score of us back to central Bordeaux at around 24.30. Most of those aboard, who were accommodated close by, must have been in bed within minutes. My hotel, however, was about three km away and there was no taxi to be seen – only a long-queue of late-night revellers who also wanted taxis.

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I therefore resigned myself to the long walk back in total darkness, hoping I could remember the way. Then I was intrigued to descry a stationary taxi, in a shadowy part of the street leading to the quai, and with no lights on. To my surprise, I saw that somebody was sitting in the driver’s seat, a dark silhouette, but not apparently touting for customers!

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I had the cheek to knock on the window and ask if he was free. He stared hard at me for a moment, as is astounded at the thought that I could possibly imagine that an immobile taxi, complete with driver, might be available for hire. He was silent for half a minute. “Yes,” he suddenly replied, visibly changing in demeanour from negative to positive. His initial scowl turned into a smile of welcome. In moments we were speeding along the seemingly endless quays towards my hotel.

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“I suppose you’ve been to the Margaux dinner,” he said, as we sped along.How could he have possibly deduced that? Intuition or Sherlock-like deductive skills? Then I remembered that I was in dressed-up mode. Clearly, he’d spotted my dinner jacket and bow-tie and drawn the right conclusion. It turned out, in fact, that his father had been employed at Château Palmer, another top Margaux estate close to Chateau Margaux, over the last 30 or so years so he, the driver, knew all about the event. How extremely fortunate for this exhausted reveller that he was not only au fait but also willing to drive me back to the hotel!

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On arrival there I expected a heavy charge for the late-night trip. When, however, I hesitantly asked how much, he simply said, “Make it ten Euros”, gave me a comradely grin, and sped off into the night.

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*******

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Highlights from my “off-duty” sojourn in Bordeaux consisted of a lovely morning walk along the quays and into the centre of the city, in the process passing through a food market that featured all manner of comestibles (I was pleased to see that the fishmonger with the freshest seafood, and the butcher with the finest looking meats, also had the longest queues); an excellent dinner at Le Chapon Fin, a place notable not only for its fine cuisine but also for its eye-catching grotto; a look around a couple of art museums (a score or more Impressionist masterpieces I’d never seen before); and a stroll through the beautiful old town of Bordeaux..

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© Frank Ward 2015

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