Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

2004 Clarets Part II – The Médoc

October 2005


On arrival on the left bank I make a beeline for Château Margaux, First Growth of the Médoc and one of the world’s very greatest wines. Under the stewardship of Paul Pontallier, who came here in the early 1980s, the wine has gone from strength to strength and is now consistently great.


Of the 2004 he says : “It’s not just good, it’s great. It’s not very different from the ’96, in fact it’s denser than the ’96, and it’s one of our top vintages. Rich, balanced, fresh, pure. It’s much more typical of what we are, of what we stand for, than the ’03.


We harvested late in ’04 – the good weather in September was crucial. We started on 1st October. The ripest plots of Merlot were picked first, while Merlot on more clayey, late-ripening plots were tackled later. Picking of the Cabernet-Sauvignon didn’t start until 11th October and continued for over a week.”


The ’04 Château Margaux is made up of 78% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, and 4% Petit-Verdot. The quality of the Cabernet-Franc did not merit its inclusion in the grand vin.



Well-coloured, with a clean-cut aroma of berries and plums, this second wine is very well balanced if a shade less complex than the ’03. Medium-bodied, it has plenty of damson fruit, a fine, fat texture, and excellent ripe tannins. An archetypical Margaux, it is elegant, poised, and persistent. Of optimal concentration for its weight, it will drink best around 2009-17.


Sample of 2004 Château Margaux "Contained power coexists with a classic reticence". A wine that will last into the second half of the 21st century.


This has the depth and intensity of colour one expects of a First Growth and the pure, refined aroma is full of nuances. Contained power coexists with classic reticence, and there is a soaring quality to the mingled scent of autumn berries, purple rose, peony, cherry, and wild strawberry. It is a nose with Margaux – Château and Commune – stamped all over it.

The flavour is noble, intense, and exquisitely balanced, its concentrated fruit heightened by a gentle touch of cinnamon (from lightly-toasted oak). The tannins are of the most refined kind and impart a subtle graininess to the nuanced aftertaste. The wine expands in the glass, though without attaining the massive body of the ’03; it will though fill out in the bottle (just as the ’03 will slim down) and evolve beautifully, in stages, for 40-50 years.


Paul Pontallier feels that the ’04 Pavillon Blanc, which is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, may be the best ever. Due to the extreme ripeness of the grapes it doses fully 14.5° alcohol – an unheard of level.



A glowing yellow, this has a round, luscious nose of honey, melon, and Muscat grape. This delectably blossomy scent is soon reinforced by mirabelle and butterscotch. The flavour is more closed than the aroma, and there is a musky quality to the mineral aftertaste. Good acidity gives crispness and length. While delicious with next summer’s asparagus, it won’t really open up in less than three years or so and ought then to improve for a further 6-7. An impressive wine but more like a fine northern Rhône than a white Bordeaux.


I do find myself missing the vibrantly fresh, steely quality – with pronounced Sauvignon character – of the Pavillon Blanc of yesteryear.


Château Durfort-Vivens was classed as a Second Growth in 1855 but for decade after decade made wines that ranged from the mediocre to the unobjectionable. I tasted the wine regularly in the latter half of the 1980s and it was usually fruity but amorphous. It is now run by Gonzague Lurton, son of the reclusive Lucien, and quality has improved considerably.


Now the wine is concentrated, balanced, and shows personality. Wood is used in preference to steel for fermentation and the percentage of new oak casks is only 45%. The 30-hectare vineyard is planted with 70 % Cabernet-Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, and 7% Cabernet-Franc.

Classed growth wine maturing in oak barrels in the cellars of Château Durfort-Vivens.


2004 CHATEAU DURFORT VIVENS *** (65% C.-S., 5% C.-F., 30% M)

Noticeably viscous and very dark, this has a vital, lusciously fruity nose of black fruits and peony with a fine meld of Margaux subtlety (5 hectares are next to Chateau Margaux) and Cantenac fatness and flesh (two-thirds of the vines are Inside Cantenac).

By contrast the flavour is very closed up, almost austere, but the firm tannins give rigour to the weighty finish. The oak is very toasty – something they ought to tone down next vintage. The faintly cooked aftertaste is a bit clumsy but the wine is full of good things and should evolve steadily over the next 25 years at least.



The nose has an enticing Margaux floweriness, with lots of very fresh fruit (cherry, raspberry, peony). This lovely scent leads into a vibrantly fruity, fresh flavour that exhibits vigour and elegance. The tannins are disciplined and refined. Margaux breed is reinforced by Cantenac fleshiness and force. A seductive wine to revel in around 2010-25.


At Château Cantenac Brown I meet José Sanfins, a big athletic man with warm dark eyes, firm chin, and Roman nose. The Merlot was picked between 27 September and 4 October, he tells me, while the Cabernet-Franc (none of which went into the grand vin) was harvested in a single day, on 5 October. A further week went by before they started on the Cabernet-Sauvignon, which only then had arrived at full ripeness.

The second wine, Brio (“Just for pleasure,” comments M. Sanfins) makes a hedonistic mouthful of dense fruit and, while very much a claret, has roughly the structure and sève of a Gigondas. Both the ’04 and ’03 will drink well over the next few years. All the very best fruit goes, of course, into the definitive Château bottling:


2004 CHATEAU CANTENAC BROWN ***(*) (62% C.-S., 38% M.)

Opaque to the rim, this dark wine has a very dense aroma of blackberry jam, ripe fig, chocolate, and crème de myrtille. Graphite shows too, no doubt deriving from the toasty new oak (50%). The flavour is vast and weighty, and the long cherry and cinnamon finish ends on a chocolaty note. Though more like a Pauillac than a Margaux in structure, it all the same has good freshness. Drink around 2010-22.


The ’03 and ’00 are also attractive, both being full, fleshy, and dynamic. The latter is distinctly meaty on the finish (a hint of black pudding) and a bit jammy. It ought to develop faster than the other two.



The first written mention of the Giscours estate dates from 1330 but the château that stands there today had its cornerstone laid in 1847. A huge and imperious looking building, with vast outbuildings and park, it has a commanding presence. Like many other Margaux estates, it has performed very unevenly over the years but at its best the wine is superb. Today, the vinification is supervised by Jacques Boissenot, a modest genius who, in terms of finesse, subtlety, harmony, complexity, and typicity, achieves more impressive results than, for example, Michel Rolland, who Robert Parker describes as the world’s best oenologist.


The ’04 Giscours is being matured in 50% new oak barrels. It comprises 60% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. None of the Petit-Verdot or Cabernet-Franc, which account for 5% of the vines, was made use of in ’04.



A glowing near-black, this has a noble, strikingly mineral aroma of ripe autumn berries, pencil, and violet. Exhaling total ripeness and great purity it is, quite simply, a glorious nose. The flavour is full of authority, conjuring up blackberry, bilberry, and plum jam. There’s plenty of taut flesh on the palate, with no flab, and plummy acidity gives a seemingly endless finish. This satiny wine is so well-balanced that it will be accessible in youth but it really needs 8-9 years in bottle to show its true mettle. It will then go from strength to strength for another 15-20.


2004 CHATEAU DU TERTRE ***(*) (Under same ownership)

This is dark, too, its nose broad and grainy, with much lurking power and depth. Indeed, there’s so much substance that you instinctively swirl the glass a few extra times to coax forth more of the tremendous fruit. Damson, violet, raspberry, and bilberry present themselves in sequence. The flavour is close-meshed and very mineral. A complex, harmonious wine to enjoy around 2014-25.


Château Cantemerle lies outside the limits of Margaux and is defined as an Haut Médoc (the “Haut” part has no significance). The owners would rather it were classed as Macau-Ludon. “We’re very different from other Médoc wines,” says M. Dambrine. “Our soil is very light, small pebbles and gravel. There’s two-and-a-half metres of gravel and sand – white alluvial sand – and we have a lot of underground springs. That’s why we didn’t suffer in 2003.”


Production was big in ’04, around 60 hectolitres per hectare, but this was reduced by means of severe selection in the cellars. “We cut back in ’04” (many infant bunches were removed in early summer) “but the problem was, When to do it? You had to decide very quickly, which isn’t easy when you have 90 hectares! If you cut away bunches before the grapes turn colour it causes regeneration and you get more juice, not less.”



This seductive wine smells of black fruits, peony, violet, and truffle and one is struck by its exceptional freshness and roundness. The flavour fills the mouth with ripe, viscous fruit and the gently (but firmly) tannic finish shows good minerality. A wine that you can safely keep for a quarter- century, it is surely one of the best Cantemerles ever.


Château Rauzan Ségla was rated as one of Bordeaux’s most illustrious estates when classed as a Second Growth in 1855. It was run for much of the 20th century by the house of Eschenaueur, and most vintages during their rule were inexcusably poor, given the Château’s lofty status. Things began to perk up in the mid-1980s (the ’86 is superb) but the real transformation began in 1995, when the Chanel group took over, putting the resolute John Kolasa in charge.



This is as lustrous as it is dark – always a good sign. Excellence is confirmed by a vital, satiny aroma of black fruits, fig, tobacco, and truffle. In a very Margaux way, it exhibits what might be called disciplined opulence. There’s great subtlety too. In the mouth, the core flavours include damson jam, liquorice, prunes, morel mushroom, and chocolate. Tannins of the ripest kind give definition and support to the sustained aftertaste, which expands the whole time. A splendid Rauzan Ségla to enjoy in an “open” youthful phase, 8-9 years on; in a sumptuous stage of burgeoning maturity over the next 15; and at full, classic maturity – when all its virtues are at a peak – around 2028-40.

(My description of a vertical tasting of Rauzan Ségla under the Chanel regime – 2004 back to 1994 – will appear in OenoFile in the near future.)


Château Palmer is a Third Growth but most observers agree that it should be at least a Second. In vintages like ’59 and ’61 it equals any First Growth. I once attended a vertical tasting of Palmer that featured some dozen vintages covering three decades back to 1959. What struck me forcibly was that each successive wine was three times’ more intense than the preceding: the very good ’66 was more impressive than the ’70, the great ’61 put the majestic ’66 into the shade, and the unbelievable ’59 seemed twice the wine of the unforgettable ’61). If the already exceptional ’04 conforms to this pattern it is going to be sublime in a few decades’ time!


2004 CHATEAU PALMER ****(*) (55% C.-S., 40% M., 4% C.-F., 1% P.-V.)

Lustrous in appearance, Palmer’s full, brooding scent of black fruits and violet signals that the wine will be smooth, aristocratic, and profound. It carries great weight and authority.


The flavour shows this to be the case, being velvety, dense, and harmonious. Each element complements the others; each forms an integral part of the whole. Ripe tannins give a structure that is both firm and springy and there’s great underlying subtlety. As the wine is constantly developing, one takes a new sip every few moments. Each brings more fatness, concentration, and definition. The aftertaste – on which liquorice now shows – is as buoyant as it is taut.


10 years are needed to bring resolution; it will then improve for another 15-20 at least. A great Palmer.


So too is:

1996 CHATEAU PALMER ****(*)

Just as dark, with hardly any sign of ageing, the ’96 has a noble, many-facetted aroma of slow-maturing claret, with a meld of vertiginous depth and classic restraint. Red and black fruits mingle with spicy floral notes to give a composite aroma of great magnitude. As with the ’04, the nose continues to expand, soon including truffle too. The same traits show on the palate, and the long, nuanced aftertaste is so delectable it’s an effort to spit it out! At only 9 years (nothing for a great claret) the wine is delectable now. And those who own a case or two ought to enjoy a bottle while it is “open”. But its greatest qualities will not emerge much before 2020. Meanwhile, it could close up at any time.


Palmer’s second wine, Alter Ego, is a great success in ’04 and a must for those who seek Palmer-type distinction at a modest price. Suave and enticing on the nose, fresh and polished on the palate, it will be wonderful to drink around 2010-18 (and doubtless before).



© Frank Ward 2005

Continued : 2004 Clarets Part III : Saint Julien

2004 Clarets Part IV

2004 Clarets Part V

Back to : 2004 Clarets Part I

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