Margaux Focus 3: Château Margaux 


If I were obscenely wealthy and money no object, I would have poured Château Margaux at my wedding party for all 200 guests. Unfortunately, I am not obscenely wealthy, and money is an object. Consequently, at my reception upstairs at Leigh-on-Sea Sailing Club, wines were served according to my estimation of guests’ appreciation, which I admit does sound Machiavellian. Those wishing to get completely plastered on whatever was closest to hand and, trust me, there were serious casualties that night, glugged a delicious but in those days cheap-as-chips Viré-Clessé from the maestro, Jean-Marie Guffens. Those with appreciative palates sipped away a few bottles of Batailley. For the newlyweds, back at a hotel that made Fawlty Towers look like the Grand Hyatt, a bottle of 1955 Château Margaux awaited.

How did it taste?

I’ll tell you later.

This First Growth has always had a special place in my heart since I started visiting 25 years ago. Like every first-time visitor, I was entranced by the symmetry of its iconic treelined driveway that instinctively draws the eye toward its geometrically satisfying façade, peaking like a bashful child from behind trees. It’s one of the defining images of Bordeaux, and years later, it is no less mesmerizing. Soon, I became acquainted with Paul Pontallier and tasted Château Margaux as regularly as someone on limited means could afford. That said, it has been a long time since I published a standalone article on the First Growth. So in January, I spent a fruitful day with Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, son of proprietor Corinne Mentzelopoulos, estate director Philippe Bascaules and their team.

I wonder how many people have taken this photo over the years?


To those visiting and wanting to learn more about the history of Château Margaux, I advise turning up earlier than scheduled. Take a few minutes to stroll around their museum at reception, which is full of fascinating maps and architectural drawings detailing its origins. I always take a browse myself.

Margose or Margouze?

Clive Coates MW, writing in his Grands Vins tome, notes that the manor dates back to the Middle Ages. Here once stood a fortress, one of a series designed to protect the Gironde Estuary from marauders. Over the following centuries, various seigneurs presided over the land that was referred to as “La Mothe de Margaux,” which loosely translates as “the Margaux mound.” The estate coalesced between 1572 and 1582 via a flurry of acquisitions and exchanges by Pierre de Lestonnac so that by 1680, it had grown to some 265 hectares with around 70 hectares under vine. According to Coates, English aristocrats soon coveted its wine, which was labeled under various names, including Margouze, Margouse and Margot. A copy of the 1705 London Gazette marks the first reference in print, an auction that included 230 barrels of “Margose.” At that time, the owners were the d’Aulède family. Pierre-François d’Aulède became the Marquis of Margaux, one of the most powerful figures in the region alongside the Marquis de Ségur. Following his death, the estate passed between several families, such as the du Barrys and Fumel. The first mention under its present name was in a Christie's catalogue, which reads, “An excellent claret with a fine flavor, from the 1771 vintage.”

The wine became the favorite tipple of the political elite. Sir Robert Walpole, the first English Prime Minister, bought four casks every three months, though he apparently rarely settled his tab. In 1787, future US President Thomas Jefferson made his famous tour of Bordeaux and placed “Château Margau” (sic) at the head of his list of first growths. He namechecks its owner, the Marquis d’Agincourt and mentions that it fetched 2,400 livres per tonneau, indicating that it was already deemed one of the region’s finest wines. That said, he takes umbrage at its price and complains: “It cost me three livres a bottle. This is very dear.”

One of the courtyards in the sprawl of outbuildings at Château Margaux.

What would Jefferson make of today’s prices?

Margaux’s fortunes took a downturn when the Marquis fled the country during the French Revolution. His wife and father were guillotined. The estate was sequestered and leased to a gentleman named “Miqueau” who was indifferent to owning the estate. Under his watch, it deteriorated to the degree that by 1802, it resold for a paltry 62,500 Francs - one-fifth of the price of Lafite. Its new owner from the Basque region, Bertrand Douat, Marquis de la Colonilla, demolished the château building without even having set eyes upon it, commissioning Louis Combes to construct the present-day château completed in 1810. The building’s imposing façade and unorthodox neo-Palladian architecture soon gained it the sobriquet as the “Versailles of the Médoc.” He also oversaw the construction of numerous outbuildings to accommodate workers who could ill-afford the day’s travel between the city and back, fomenting a communal ambiance retained to this day.

However, Douat was an absentee owner and never inhabited Château Margaux before he passed away in 1816. In 1830, it was acquired by Alexandre Aguado, the first banker to enter the field of Bordeaux château proprietorship. Though initially ambivalent towards wine, he soon caught the bug and devoted himself to the estate. He was also the sponsor and friend of classical composer Gioachino Rossini, and though I could not unearth evidence of it, Rossini purportedly composed a piece named “Château Margaux.”

Margaux Under Pillet-Will and Ginestet

In 1855, Château Margaux was classified as a First Growth, and in 1879, it was acquired by Comte Pillet-Will for five million Francs. He introduced much-needed stability despite facing the pernicious evils of phylloxera and powdery mildew. Despite these twin evils, the 1893 vintage was so prodigious that picking had to be temporarily halted for six days as the vats were full to the brim, a fate that was to befall the 1983 vintage. At the turn of the century, Frédéric Pillet-Will was at the helm of the estate and, until his passing in 1911, replanted the vineyard with American rootstock to protect vines against the phylloxera scourge. The 1900 Château Margaux became regaled as one of the legendary fin de siècle vintages. I have never tasted the Grand Vin, though that year’s second label, then named “Deuxième Vin de Château Margaux,” was astonishing when poured blind several years ago. It was renamed Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux in 1908. Château bottling was introduced in 1924, contemporaneous with other First Growths.

Following the death of Pillet-Will, Château Margaux passed into the hands of his son-in-law, the Duc de la Trémoille. Though he had served as the local mayor and fought for the wine industry’s interest, his involvement waned. In 1920, ownership was transferred into a limited company, Société Viticole de Château Margaux. They appointed Marcellus Grangerou as cellarmaster, who steadied the ship in terms of ensuring that there was winemaking consistency.

Apologies for the grainy image, but I could not write this article without an old photo of the late Paul Pontallier from around 2010.

In 1935, Fernand Ginestet began acquiring shares, a move that was completed by his son Pierre in 1950. According to the official website, the family had to sell Clos Fourtet to free up liquidity and borrow money from the Mayor of Saigon, the city then part of French Indochina. It seems a tenuous link, but in fact, he was also the Ginestet’s importer in that distant part of the world. The sale permitted the owners to overhaul the winemaking. This was long overdue. The late Nicolas Faith wrote that when the Ginestets toured the winery, they discovered that all 18 wooden vats led to a single outlet, scotching the idea of a “careful assemblage.” The Ginestets immediately set about selling off inferior lots of wine. They also improved the vineyard via parcel exchanges with Rauzan-Ségla, partial acquisitions from Château Abel-Laurent (see below) and, as mentioned in my previous article, purchasing Durfort-Vivens in exchange for Lucien Lurton’s 40% share in the First Growth. Essentially, they were reconfiguring the vineyard so that it resembled its holdings of 1855.

The Ginestet family is often accused of permitting Château Margaux to stagnate during the Sixties and Seventies, overlooking the fact they rescued Château Margaux during the economic nadir of the Thirties and implemented improvements predicting its post-war surge in quality. However, one cannot ignore that in early-Sixties, Château Margaux drifted into the doldrums, quality blighted by successive poor seasons that coerced them into producing declassified multi-vintage blends - an anathema for any self-respecting First Growth. I would be intrigued to taste the 1964, 1965 and 1966 blends.

Aside from 1966, subpar wines besmirched its reputation and led to a downward spiral of declining sales and lack of investment that impacted quality. Château Margaux’s travails were compounded by the tragic suicide of Pierre Ginestet, the eldest son due to inherit the estate. Discussing this matter with Lilian Barton-Sartorius, co-owner of Léoville Barton, she was adamant that the Ginestet family took an unfair amount of blame. During the oil crisis, merchants reneged on existing contracts, Ginestet being among the few that honored existing agreements. Taking this moral high ground drained their finances and made it virtually impossible to invest in their estate. They essentially took the hit themselves instead of letting distributors go under. Following the wretched 1972 and 1973 vintages, Château Margaux was put on the market. There it stayed. Now, it seems scarcely believable that this First Growth languished unsold and limped from vintage to vintage for months on end. Something had to change. Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos tells me how his grandfather, André, born to an illiterate hotel owner, became its savior.

Enter Margaux’s Saviour From Greece

“My grandfather was not what you would call an oenophile,” says Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos as we enjoy a simple lunch in the downstairs kitchen. “He owned a grocery chain, though he also owned Nicolas [the well-respected French wine retailer] and bought a lot of 1961 Château Margaux in magnum. The French President had declared that Château Margaux had to stay in French hands [the French government successfully blocked a sale to American liquor behemoth, ‘National Distillers’], but my father owned a French company called Félix Potin, and this enabled him to make the acquisition.”

The price was 72 million Francs, which seems like a bargain given what it must be worth today.

Pictured left to right: Aurélien Valance, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, Philippe Bascaules and Sébastien Vergne.

“He was considering buying either Château Margaux or a hotel in Switzerland,” Mentzelopoulos explains further. “Château Margaux had been on the market for two years, and at that time, there was just one lavatory in the entire estate! He called a friend to ask for his advice. [Presumably, about whether to acquire the estate and not the toilet situation.] My father liked the columns at Margaux as they reminded him of the Parthenon. He set about restoring the château, and he helped design the underground cellar. My mother, Corinne, was just 27 years old when she took over and followed her father’s lead. She sold Félix Potin but kept the château.”

The Eighties witnessed the renaissance of Château Margaux and an astonishing run of vintages that restored its status. Readers may remember me waxing lyrical about their wine from even the worst vintage, 1984. Underlying the success was not only the steady hand of its matriarch, the indefatigable Corinne Mentzelopoulos, but also her decision to follow the advice of Professor Émile Peynaud and appoint a 27-year-old agronomic engineer with a doctorate in oenology to run the estate.

Paul Pontallier

Paul Pontallier was born in Bordeaux. His parents were the owners of a Bordeaux Supérieur, Château La Loge Saint-Léger. After briefly considering a career as a doctor, Pontallier decided to pursue studies in wine, culminating in a doctorate in the effects of barrel aging on red wine. In September 1982, he commenced his tenure at Château Margaux (therefore, 1983 is considered the first vintage he is entirely responsible for). As I wrote, this was purportedly upon the recommendation of Peynaud. However, when I reread an article I penned 15 years ago, a Christies’ tasting attended by Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Pontallier, Peynaud initially gave him a frosty reception. “C’mon Paul,” Mentzelopoulos ribbed him at that tasting. “We can tell them that now.”

Whatever. Château Margaux was practically Pontallier’s only employer during his lifetime. He worked alongside Philippe Barré for several years before taking over completely in 1990. Following the one-two knockout successes of the haloed 1982 and 1983 vintages, Pontallier introduced much greater consistency thanks to investments in the winery and a more technical approach. He was one of the first people that I really got to know: debonair and charismatic, intelligent and candid, a true bon viveur. Apart from being a brilliant director and technical winemaker, Pontallier really set the template as Margaux’s ambassador. The theory amongst the trade was that if he stood on tiptoes praising the latest vintage at primeur, it wasn’t quite as good as he was saying, flat-footed, then it was magnificent.

In the Nineties, Pontallier was keen to maximize the use of Cabernet Sauvignon. From the aforementioned article that I penned for the original Wine-Journal, I quote him as saying: “If the Cabernet is so ripe, so pure then subject to the vintage, we will use the most we deem appropriate in the blend. Some Merlot that we produce on gravely soils tastes more like the Cabernet grown on clayey soils.” I had a few exchanges with Pontallier about this and averred that the Merlot still plays a crucial role in counterbalancing the Cabernet. I did not want to see Château Margaux become too much of a monocépage.

In 2003, following the passing of Giovanni Agnelli, Corinne Mentzelopoulos was able to buy out the controlling stake that had been owned by the family, owners of FIAT, since 1991. I always found her to be one of the most approachable proprietors, always impeccably dressed and accompanied by her beloved dog. (I think he was called Zorba…I’m sure she’ll let me know if I’m wrong.)

Pontallier was joined by estate director Philippe Bascaules in 2000 before Bascaules left to join Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook in 2011. Château Margaux remained one of my most eagerly-awaited visits, not only because of the wine but also to meet Pontallier again. During the 2016 primeur campaign lead-up, I was shocked to learn of Pontallier’s untimely sudden passing aged just 57. I hazard a guess that I’m not the only person who, several years later, is on the cusp of asking for “Paul” and still feels his presence. Bascaules returned from California to take over as managing director in 2017 and built a strong team around him, including Corinne Mentzelopoulos’s children, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos and Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, who began their roles at the estate in 2012 and 2020 respectively, Olivier Pinon, Aurélien Valance and current estate-director, Sébastien Vergne.

A small plot where they are experimenting with retractable netting.

The Vineyard

On a chilly February morning, I made a two-hour tour with the team, Philippe Bascaules, our unofficial tour leader. It is something that Pontallier and myself had always promised to undertake, and unfortunately, it was always “the next time.” So, it was something I felt had to be done…finally.

The vines currently cover 82 hectares planted at 10,000 vines per hectare. One curious, inexplicable, but positive aspect is that hail damage never affects the vines. It is also resistant to frost, explained by its proximity to the Gironde Estuary, though in 1983, they did install an anti-frost system to protect their white vines. Since 1986, they introduced crop thinning in order to enhance ripeness. “The vineyard has remained the same,” Bascaules tells me. “Some of the land is used for grazing 20 or 30 cows. Some of the parcels have now been subdivided, and part might go to Pavillon and another into the Grand Vin. There is one parcel called L’Enclos [Bascaules points to the remnants of a stone wall encircling some of the parcels.] Maybe before, it was enclosed entirely by a wall, but now it does not go all the way around.”

“Everything is pruned double-Guyot with two long canes rather than one long and one short cane. The oldest vines are around 72 years old. We are able to cultivate vines longer because, nowadays, there are better sanitary conditions due to climate change [drier summers]. We change 1.5% of the vines each year [to maintain a balance between old and young vines], and we lose 2% of vines annually to Esca. There are 30 people who work in the vineyard and around 200 workers when it comes to picking.”

The Château Margaux vat room.

“We leave the vineyard fallow for five years before replanting. For example, in one parcel, we will plant Cabernet Sauvignon on gravel, Cabernet Franc on limestone and Merlot on clay soils. [The oldest Merlot vines are located just in front of the church. Note that this differs from Palmer, whose Merlot vines are on gravel soils.] We are replanting rows with a different orientation than before, south-west to north-east, in order to combat global warming. People usually look at maximum temperature, but you have to examine temperatures throughout the day and recognize that the hottest period in the day is in the late afternoon [as the heat accumulates]. With this orientation, the direct sunlight is directed upon one side of the vine in the first part of the day and on the other side in the second. Some parcels use cover crops, and others are plowed.”

The Pavillon Blanc comes from an 11-hectare parcel, around 4km away, in the Soussans commune, planted with pure Sauvignon Blanc. Bascaules tells me that Émile Peynaud pushed the château to focus entirely on the variety. Ergo, there’s never been any Sémillon. In fact, the parcel was initially planted with red varieties but was prone to frost, hence the transferral to white. According to the estate, only one-third of the production is bottled, the remainder sold off in bulk, amounting to around 1,000 cases per annum.

Adjacent to the château towards the village is a small woodland area that is actually open to the public. You can just make out that the trees were planted in orderly rows. Bascaules mentions they are about to plant around 2,000 more trees on the meadowland to increase biodiversity. They also grow their own willow, which is used in the cooperage, and they are considering planting four hectares in the future.

It is fascinating to watch a craftsman hammer and bend together a new barrel. I could have sat and watched all day.


The new winery, designed by Lord Foster & Partners, was inaugurated in 2014. Pontallier gave me a private viewing just before its official opening, and I remember admiring its functionality, which was aesthetically less ostentatious compared to some of the region’s more outré designs. Planning restrictions mean the new buildings could not be conjoined with the old, so a glass corridor connects them.

“The winery is equipped with 24 wooden vats that are 150-hectoliter in size, plus we have 95 stainless-steel vats that range between 12 hectoliters, mainly used for settling, and 150 hectoliters,” Bascaules explains. “There are a lot of smaller vats. Personally, I am not convinced by concrete vats as the insulation is less efficient. Two years ago, the vats were equipped with density probes that can adapt pump-over according to temperature. They are filled using gravity, cranes and cuvons.”

We then move on to the barrel cellars.

“The first-year cellar was constructed in 1815, and it has a capacity for 900 barrels. The temperature is around 8° to 10° Celsius, which is good for tartaric precipitation, whereas the second-year cellar is around 15° Celsius. We use six main cooperages: Seguin Moreau, Taransaud, Nadalier, Demptos and Sylvan, plus our own cooperage that makes two barrels daily. [Château Margaux is one of three First Growth that manufactures its own barrels, the others Haut-Brion and Lafite-Rothschild. Here, they can make up to 600 barrels per year.] Blending is usually done in the February following the harvest. We use glass bungs and top-up twice a week. The white is matured in Saury and some Raymond. The wine undergoes six racking by candle, two and a half months until the first and then every four months. We don’t rack according to the lunar calendar.”

The barrel cellar.

“The second cellar was inaugurated in 1983. It was one of the first underground cellars in Margaux because there is a lot of high-level groundwater in this region. Therefore we needed pumps to get rid of this water and seal the walls. It was repainted a couple of years ago. The wines mature here from June until the following June and occasionally longer, through to December. We are completely flexible when it comes to the time of bottlings as the mise en bouteille has been done by ourselves since 2021.”

“Since 1980, the Pavillon Blanc was vinified in the outbuildings of a Cru Bourgeois [located between the château and the village] that was bought by Ginestet in the early 20th century, known as Abel Laurent. Since 2014, the white wine has been made in the main winery.  

The Wines

I cannot recollect my first encounter with Château Margaux, perhaps a blind tasting of the 1997 First Growths when nobody in the market wanted them. I was immediately bewitched. Then there was that bottle of 1955 Château Margaux that awaited our return from my nuptials.

How was it?

Slightly corked.

Fortunately, it was not an omen.

Perusing my notes, Château Margaux has cropped up less frequently than other First Growths. While I have conducted numerous verticals of the other four, I have never undertaken what might be considered a decades-spanning retrospective. On one visit, Paul Pontallier escorted me down to the library cellar, and I remember gawping at ancient, cobwebbed bottles. Bascaules informs me that the oldest bottle in their private cellar is an 1828 and that between 2,000 and 5,000 bottles are kept back each year to maintain their library. Up to 80% of the production is sold en primeur each year.

For this article, I raided my library of notes over the years and combined them with bottles that were kindly opened during my visit. The oldest that I have tasted, apart from the aforementioned 1900 Deuxième Vin du Château Margaux, is a 1909 that is already on the Vinous database, as I am sure all those desperately searching a 1909 will have found already. I have had a few memorable encounters with inter-war vintages. I admire the 1945 Château Margaux, most recently a sublime example poured at Medlar to celebrate the publication of my tome, even if it does not match the ethereal pinnacles of Mouton-Rothschild or Haut-Brion. Rather, in the post-war era, the 1947 Château Margaux is the vintage that made an indelible impression, first opened at Christmas bacchanal in my humble abode in West Norwood. Though the following decade boasts the splendid 1959, the Sixties is bereft of genuine standouts. Even the 1961 Château Margaux pales against the imperious Palmer, auguring a period when it would play second fiddle. Only the 1966 Château Margaux offers glimpses of former glories, and take it from first-hand experience, the early Seventies could be seen as a nadir.

André Mentzelopoulos’ impact was instant. That is partly because any improvement contrasted with such a low base. Nevertheless, the intrinsic quality of the 1978 Château Margaux gave notice that change was afoot, and its stock rapidly rose, delivering the knockout 1982 and 1983 that left no one in doubt this First Growth had the bit between its teeth. Funnily enough, I found a quote from Paul Pontallier that proves how skeptical even the most respected winemakers were towards the inchoate 1983 vintage. “I remember I had just joined Margaux, and I was meeting Jean-Paul Gardère then at Château Latour in early September 1982,” Pontallier told me after a tasting of that year’s wine. “He said to me: ‘Well, young man, for your first vintage, you are not very lucky because we will not make a great wine.’”

The decade is bejeweled with astonishing wines as Pontallier’s talent and ongoing investments took it to ever higher levels. Almost a dozen bottles of the 1985 Château Margaux have been consistently corpulent and sublime, perhaps the most sensual and seductive of that era. While the 1986 Château Margaux took longer to come around, it’s now beginning to fire on all cylinders and suggests that it will repay those with patience. Both the 1986 and 1988 Château Margaux were tasted together, and the latter should not be ignored. It’s less austere than its fellow Firsts and imbued with more flesh around its bones on the finish, battling it out with Lafite for supremacy. The 1989 Château Margaux was opened at the property during my visit, a vintage that, strangely, I had not encountered for over a decade. Perusing older notes, I am tepid in my reaction, and to be honest, despite perfect provenance, I was not moved by this example. It’s a bit leathery on the nose but missing the complexity one expects. Larger formats might offer more, but it’s a rare misstep from this era, and it is eclipsed by the magnificent 1990 that has always come out with guns blazing, a wine that just relishes the warm summer that year, whereas the preceding vintage seemed subjugated by it.

It’s strange but encounters with vintages hailing from the Nineties are few and far between. I include here a note for a 1999 Château Margaux in magnum, opened at Trinity restaurant in Clapham, that came directly from the estate. This is a lovely vintage that is unfairly overshadowed by the 2000 and also the 2001, more sumptuous and sensual than you would presuppose, beautifully balanced with an endearing sense of fullness. Likewise, the 2004 Château Margaux is another supposed challenging vintage where Pontallier casts his magic wand. For more recent vintages, I advise searching the Vinous database. I have tasted most here and there in recent years, not least as part of 10-Year-On horizontals. I also tasted two recent vintages at the property. Both the 2005 Château Margaux and 2010 Château Margaux are deeply impressive wines, yet both deserve further time in bottle.

Final Thoughts

Château Margaux may have a long and illustrious history. Still, in recent decades, it might be anointed the “Comeback King” thanks to the vision of the Mentzelopoulos family, particularly Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her wingmen, Paul Pontallier and now Philippe Bascaules. Its wine is an exemplar of the appellation that bears its name: floral, often violet-tinged aromatics, purity of fruit, sensual tannins and silky texture. It’s not a typically flamboyant wine, and it occasionally allows its neighbor, Palmer, to provide the vintage showstopper, perhaps due to its Merlot being situated on gravel rather than clayey soil. Château Margaux doesn’t do ostentation or flamboyance; that’s not its style. Its key is consistency over the last three decades, steadfast in quality, a wine that can be deceivingly seductive in its youth but tends to close up before manifesting complex secondary aromas and flavors. I concur with the late Michael Broadbent, who, holding court up in Christie's boardroom, extolled the virtues of Château Margaux’s perfume and finesse.

Who knows. If I ever remarry and win the lottery, I will pour the 1983 Château Margaux to all my guests and still reach the levels of bacchanalia witnessed that night. And why not?

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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