“Isn’t it absurd to walk out of Chateau Margaux thinking… “that was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen… but I’ve seen better?” This morning.”
After Chateau Latour, I head to a brasserie for a plat de jour in Pauillac: I’m killing time before I drive down to Margaux which is just south of St. Julien. These three: Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac stretch up the right hand side of the left back of the Gironde estuary for about 15 miles. These are the big boys of Bordeaux. All you can see are vines and massive castle after massive castle. The wines produced in these appellations are the household names of wine and the money involved is staggering. Not just for a bottle… but for the land. A hectare of vines here will cost you £1.5m upwards. For one hectare! Latour has 90. It was a good buy; you might say.
I am about to visit one of the most recognisable names of all. Chateau Margaux.
As I approach the turning into the Chateau’s long road, flanked by tall and foreboding trees, I pull up. Surely I’m not allowed to drive down there? There are barriers sticking up only just wide enough to fit a car through. A family of tourists have parked along the main road and are walking. I check the instructions on my last email. “Turn left and drive up the row of plain trees,. Follow the signs for “Parking – Voitures”. Up there it is then. I swerve in and out of those not fortunate enough to hold the golden ticket.
You drive up the long driveway flanked by the trees and the vines on the other side and you’ve the Chateau directly in front of you behind big, locked, ornate gates. This is where the current owner lives when she’s in Bordeaux. It’s not a bad holiday home. Its stunning.
The car park sign takes me into a walled courtyard and my visit begins.
Somebody is joining me on the tour. Perry is a former CFO for a few American start-ups and is looking to get into wine over in Sonoma, CA, USA. This is the first time he’s looked around a top French winery and his awe matches mine. They really are quite impressive and Margaux’s magnificence emulates that of Latour: though it is very different.
Having just been at Chateau Latour I was obviously going to draw comparisons and would inevitable favour one over the other. I did, and I was a little surprised by which one.
The castle behind the gates was built in 1812. The previous one was pulled down after somebody waved at it and said “not bloody grand enough” and wine has been documented as being grown here since the 15th century. Next to the chateau is the chai (where liquid gold is made). It is in the form of another courtyard with buildings on three sides and a walled entrance on the other. We don’t enter through this way. Oh no. We’re taking the new entrance.
Further away from the house, on the other side of the courtyard, is a new build extending from the eastern wing of the early 19th century complex, and was designed by, yes you guessed it, a Englishman. Norman Foster (formerly a knight and now Baron Foster of Thames Bank) and Partners were given the job of bringing Chateau Margaux into modern times. He was also charged with refurbishing the existing barrel room and installing a vinoteque and tasting room.
One of the most celebrated architects, his list of works include Millennium Bridge, McLaren Technology Centre (The F1 Team!), Wembley Stadium, a couple of Apple stores (Hangzhou and Istanbul) and Yacht Club de Monaco: all highly contemporary. And there is no getting away from it: Chateau Margaux’s new design in highly contemporary too. Too contemporary, some might think.
We walk into a room with stainless steel tanks. This is where they make the white wine. I’ve never seen one myself, a Margaux blanc – they produce very little – it is sauvignon blanc, named Pavillon Blanc and is very good (I’m told). I’ve still not seen one.
Our meander leads us past an agglomeration of winemaking apparatus. We head through a glass corridor and into the original chai (where the wine is made). Here we find a room lined with a mixture huge oak tanks and stainless steel ones on either side. This leads us into another. It’s the same. But only oak ones this time… Bordeaux does love a bit of oak. Massive barrels on either side of you destined to be filled with the must of 2017. “Must” maketh the wine. “Must” is unfermented grape juice longing to be fermented and to become Chateau Margaux Grand Vin 2017. From here we head out into the courtyard and into the cooperage.
The cooperage, where the cooper makes barrels out of new French oak from forests in central France, has been moved from the other side of the courtyard to be repositioned in its original place. It’s Chateau Margaux’s attempt at trying to bring it all back to how it once was. Which a lot of people are doing in wine now. But that seems strange here: they’ve done it with the cooperage but they’ve not done it with the wine and they’ve just added a very contemporary outbuilding and underground barrel room, tasting room and vinoteque all created by a man who’s notoriety comes from modern, ground-breaking architectural designs. Putting a cooperage back in its original setting does not sign off “back to 1815”, back to the good old days, all by itself.
So here is a world famous Chateau whose mindset must surely be: try to show we are keeping with tradition and respecting what is here as much as possible, whilst also proclaiming “we are always moving forward, not stuck in the past, but ever-evolving”. Which I don’t like. I’m a traditionalist.
Which is why… wait for it… yep… I prefer Latour.
There is a comprehensive contrast in what the owner decided to do, when he too, felt his notorious Chateau Latour needed a spot of renovation. They too dug down – directly under the courtyard – and yes the vinoteque is all dark wood and mood lighting – but it seems that every decision they made was about keeping the look. Yes, the tanks are all brand new and have tanks remotely from a control room upstairs, and there’s an extremely impressive aluminium panel that tells the vigneron the exact temperature for each tank, how full it is, the temp of the room and it’s humidity – all changeable, all mod-con. But the room that holds them is of the same long-established style.
So Latour have, seemingly, tried to keep things as they always have been – whilst also understanding that there have been some fantastic breakthroughs in technology that can help improve, and remove some of the risks to, winemaking.
And this follows through with the wine and, most importantly, how the vines are worked. Whilst Chateau Margaux, and 96% of other vineyards make “conventional” (terrible word!), Chateau Latour and the other 4% are going back to how wine was made here hundreds of years ago. This was a time when pesticides didn’t exist, fertiliser wasn’t made in a lab and vines didn’t look like steroid injected body-builders protruding from barren, lifeless rows of brown soil.
I must quickly mention that Chateau Margaux have whole plots of vines that they use for testing. So they make organic and biodynamic wines to try them out and research with them. They don’t sell these, of course.
“Conventional” would suggest to me traditional – in wine it doesn’t – it means “normal, regular, typical”. And it is bloody typical: spraying vines with who-cares-what to demand, through chemicals, that it doesn’t get ill and that it gives you massive bulging ripe grapes from which you can make loadsa-money. Who cares what’s in it and and how you got there, you’ve got 70,000 bottles worth £4 each. Or more. Or much much much more.
Organic is harder. It’s riskier, it’s more time consuming and it’s likely to give a lesser yield. It’s how it’s been done since before 4000BC, it’s the techniques developed during the Roman Empire and is how the Benedictine monks worked when they brought vines up to France. That sounds “conventional” to me. You can’t spray whatever on it. You can spray tightly controlled doses of natural compounds, mixed into the water over the vineyard. The amount is calculated over five years: therefore if you have a good year with little disease on the vines, you spray only a tiny amount – having a bad year – spray it a little more. The amounts are strictly controlled and it must be natural – it’s just copper, effectively. This means that the vine looks more unkempt, the ground beneath it is not barren soil, but instead is teeming with wild flowers and insects of all varietals. This creates a lot more man-hours because you have to properly tend to the plants, creating the right canapé, ensuring breeze can pass through and dry the vine if it rains and generally tough, hands-on labouring. But you end up with a grape that has come off a vine that you’ve respected and is almost entirely unbleached. I know which wine I’d prefer.
Maybe I’m being an old man – it’s downhill from thirty – but I prefer a chateau to keep it’s history, and winemaking techniques, as close to what they’ve always been as possible.
The barrel room is incredibly impressive, as is the underground barrel room next to it. It stinks. I like the smell. It’s a musty damp. I’ve still not worked out why some smell more that others and others hardly at all. The second year barrel room – where they move the wines to continue ageing – leads into a small, minimalist tasting room with a glass wall at the end. Behind the glass: the vinoteque. All those old bottles of Margaux. Behind this wall… some of the most highly desired wines in the world. It is highly impressive. But it’s seems very flashy, very… footballers vinoteque. It’s like if Wayne Rooney bought a winery and paid a top architect to make it as impressive for his mates as possible. It looks great. But you wouldn’t think you were in a chateau whose beginnings and heritage harks back to 1815.
As we walk out, no longer accompanied by our guide, Perry asks me which I preferred, Margaux or Latour, and why. I explained the above and said I’d buy Latour all day long (if I could) but you’d never refuse a bottle of the big M now, would you?! We exchange numbers and I hope to catch up with him in LA next year.
Isn’t it absurd to walk out of Chateau Margaux thinking… “that was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen… but I’ve seen better?” This morning. Hahaha.
It was perhaps the most incredible day. Ever.