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A Margaux Tasting - All in the Name of Research

by Doug Rumsam (MD of BI Asia Pacific)

When you have been making first-class wine for over four centuries, you are duty-bound to pay respect to the heritage that went before you, the passion and legacy of the men who toiled in the cellars and vineyards and above all, the terroir itself. This was the resounding message from Paul Pontallier, Directeur Generale of Chateau Margaux, at their recent tasting on the 12th of June. With its great heritage in mind, progress requires a firm emphasis on the long-term, not whimsical flights of fancy - in fact no decisions will be reached before 25-30 years of research and careful testing.

Their incredible new chai, designed by Lord Foster, reflects an ethos of transparency and it was with that in mind, that the great and good of the Hong Kong wine trade gathered for an incredible insight into the evolution of Margaux’s little known R&D department. Developments in modern winemaking technology and practices have given the chateau many choices and they wanted to share with us their assessment of these choices, the impact they have on the wine and see our reaction when tasting the wines together.

The first aspect of their research concerned 3 different techniques in the vineyard:

  • Conventional- employing traditional pesticides and insecticides to control unwanted pests
  • Organic– removal of pests like red spider and the irritating little worm that burrows into the grape without the use of the above chemicals
  • Biodynamic– again without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounts for astrological influences and lunar cycles amongst other things…it’s a tricky one!

The last two years of the Grand Vin have been completely organic and this has taken 25 years of toil. Clearly this is the direction they wish to head towards, but despite their skepticism they have also singled out a plot for biodynamic treatment and have been studying its results over the last 6 years. In order to compare the 3 methods we were served the wines blind – each from a separate plot dedicated to this research – from the 2013 vintage.

The majority of the room shared my opinion that the organic wine came out on top. The fruit was a little plummier, less astringent and offered a little more on the finish. The least favourite was the conventional method which I found vegetal and astringent and I had little problem with the biodynamic I have to say.

The second flight concerned filtration trials. Margaux fines their wines using traditional egg-white methods, which removes most unwanted particles, but it does not use filtration. Here we were comparing a 2011 Pavillon Rouge filtered and non-filtered.

I enjoyed the freshness and aromatics on the filtered wine a little more, but felt the non-filtered was a little broader and softer. Tough call this one and the room was equally split. Inconclusive.

The two final flights concerned closure trials.

The first tasting was a Generic 2003 Red sealed with natural cork, airtight cap and then permeable cap (Stelvin 102 and 302). On this occasion, the natural cork was my choice, with an edge over the other two in terms of elegance, mouthfeel and finish. The permeable screwcap started very slowly, but by the time it came out of the blocks it was also a front-runner and many in the room gave that the nod. The airtight screwcap was a little shorter on the finish but was soft and surprisingly overt.

The last of our experimental tastings was a 2004 Generic White, with the same closures as flight 3.

Initially, I found the non-permeable screwcap had dried the fruit a little and was a touch flat, but after 5 mins in the glass, it picked up. The permeable cap was a little metallic on the nose, but had a fine energy and a nice tight structure. The natural cork was buttery, fresh and open, but I found it a little ‘flouncy’. I went for the permaeable capsule, though it was a close call, between that and the natural cork.

The room was split and frankly this was pretty inconclusive too.

To round things off, we were treated to a glorious glass of 2012 Pavillon Blanc. 2012 is a great vintage and it shows; intense and typically pure. Quite an explosive entry and has the acidity and structure to last - this really will go on and on...a beauty.

Lastly the big gun – 2009 Margaux! The nose is still so expressive, young but far from dumb. Rich, seductive layered fruit. So clean and fresh and the scale is off the charts. Incredible that it manages to retain that Margaux poise and elegance given the weight of all the components. The finish really draws them all together...has to be close to perfection, but let’s judge in 20 years.

It was a privilege to be extended this insight into the thought processes and intimate workings behind the scenes at Chateau Margaux. Clearly testing the wines when young is still tricky, but as the wines age, so I suspect the results drawn will be increasingly conclusive. I look forward to tracking their developments and having recently tried the 96,00, 05 and 09 side by side, it’s hard to see how much further they can progress…what a run of wines!

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