Vertical Tasting of Chateau Pavie Macquin

Château Pavie Macquin is one of the most improved Saint-Emilion wines of the last 20 years.  Over that time frame, and especially since the turn of the new century, it has also become one of the most refined wines of Saint-Emilion.  This simple truth was recognized in September of 2006, when Pavie Macquin was promoted to the prestigious level of Premier Grand Cru Classé in the reclassification of Saint Emilion's chateaus.

Pavie Macquin's founder Albert Macquin (1852-1911) began buying up vineyard parcels in 1877, enabling him to establish the estate.  Macquin is actually most famous for another reason: he was the first to graft Bordeaux's vines over to American rootstocks, a practice viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism by chateau owners at the time.  However, Macquin, who had spent a year in Montpellier studying rootstocks, knew better, realizing that such a step was unavoidable in order to save Bordeaux's wine industry from the phylloxera scourge.  No less a Bordeaux expert than Henri Enjalbert wrote, ". . . for more than 30 years, Albert Macquin was the master of the transformation of the vineyards of Saint Emilion."

The current owners of the estate are his grandchildren, Benoit and Bruno Corre, along with Marie-Jacques Charpentier and her children.  Improvement in the wines began in 1986 when Maryse Barre--widely credited for her great energy, passion and determination--was called on board.  Quality has continued to rise under the leadership of charismatic Nicolas Thienpont (who is also responsible for the marvellous wines at, for example, Beausejour-Duffau-Lagarosse and Larcis-Ducasse), who started here in 1994 and officially took over at the beginning of 1995.  He has worked closely with winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt since his arrival, which followed a stint by Michel Rolland at the property).  Derenoncourt's first vintage was the 1990, not exactly a bad way to start off.  It is worth noting that prior to the arrival of this new team, and despite signs of improvement in the wines, there had been talk among Bordeaux insiders that the wine risked being declassified in the next Saint-Emilion reclassification.  Clearly, there are no such concerns anymore.

Pavie Macquin's vines are located just above the Côte de Pavie, not far from those of Pavie to the south), Troplong-Mondot to the east, and Trottevieille to the north.  It's a fairly complex terroir, but understanding it is essential to grasping Pavie Macquin's wines.  I have walked this vineyard numerous times in the last 20 years and and each time have discovered some new aspect to it.  For starters, there are about nine different soil types, and the color changes visibly as you descend from the top section (where soils run deeper and are more fertile and red in color) down the slope.  The soils, all clay-limestone in origin, are of different geological origins--especially the clays; their proximity to the chalk layer, especially on the slopes (where the chalk layer lies anywhere from 20 centimeters to 1.5 meters beneath the surface) greatly influences the wines made from each part of Pavie Macquin's vineyard.

According to Stéphane Derenoncourt, it's the varied soils that render Pavie Macquin's wine unique.  For instance, the northern portion of the vineyard is a very cold terroir and usually the last to be harvested (more often in October than in September).  In fact, the cabernet franc of the southern section is picked before the merlot of the northern part, something that is essentially unheard of in the region (merlot is an early-ripening grape that in Bordeaux's hotter summers may be picked at the end of August).  Nonetheless, the fruit from this northern section produces high-acid, low-pH wines with a wonderful aromatic character, exuding almost Burgundy-like fruit; these wines are naturally powerful because of the limestone (calcaire) clays.  Derenoncourt says only about one-third of Pavie Macquin's fruit comes from this section, but that it strongly marks the wine.

The southern sector of the vineyard (nearer to Pavie) features browner and lighter soils with somecalcaire, and cask samples from this location are more saline.  Derenoncourt sums it up:  "This is the real mystery of Pavie Macquin, which I'm not sure I can explain fully:  the strong clays provide an almost magical sucrosite in the wines that I haven't found in too many others from Saint-Emilion.  There's always plenty of flesh to stand up to the strong acidity, and an undeniable limestone signature on the finish."  Derenoncourt paused and then added:  "Of course, while this cool limestone quality is a huge bonus in hot years, it also makes tasting these wines young particularly difficult, and requires a lot of experience.  It's almost ungenerous to the greatness of Pavie Macquin's site to taste these wines when they're still young.  I'm not entirely sure everyone gets Pavie Macquin's potential greatness during the Primeurs, for example."

Depending on the vintage, a green harvest is carried out in two passages, to eliminate overcrowding and to regulate the yield and bunch maturity.  Leaf-thinning is also performed as necessary.  The wines are made following biodynamic principles--"but without exaggerating the mystical stuff," smiles Thienpont.  No prefermentation maceration is carried out, and extraction is usually bypigeage.  Half of the wine is fermented in open vats and vinification starts at 20°C, with roughly 20 days of cuvaison and temperatures never allowed above 30°C.  "With raw ingredients that are always very tannic," explains Derenoncourt, "I believe it's essential that the extraction process be aimed at achieving opulence rather than over-concentration.  And to bring Pavie Macquin's velvety nature to the fore, depending on the vintage or the tank in question, micro-oxygenation may also be used during post-fermentation maceration."

Extended macerations are a no-no for Thienpont as well, as he believes that Pavie Macquin gets too rustic when yields are especially low.  He aims for 40 hectoliters per hectare but frequently gets less.  "The fruit is naturally very powerful, and it needs a very careful vinification without extended maceration--except in 1996, when we needed more fat."

Today, the wines are almost always a blend of 80% merlot and 20% cabernet franc, with moderate variation by vintage.  The actual makeup of the estate's 14 hectares of vines is 84% Merlot and 16% cabernet franc.  There was once as much as 10% cabernet sauvignon planted here, but it was later reduced to 5% and finally ripped out in 2005.  Nicolas Thienpoint smiled at his memories while telling me:  "Listen, one year we waited until November 4th to pick our cabernet sauvignon, and the darn thing was still not perfectly ripe, so we didn't include it in the final blend.  And since it hadn't ripened even with all that time, we just uprooted it."  Given the stellar quality of the merlot and cabernet franc at Pavie Macquin, that's just as well.

The tasting took place at Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere in the presence of Stephane Derenoncourt last April.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata