Following a recent blog post in which I appealed for ideas of places / activities our readers might like to hear about, etc., we had only one reply, and that was a suggestion of covering Château Margaux (thanks, Vince). This was not a journey to which we were averse, as we do enjoy our red wine. Research soon revealed that Château Margaux is not “open to the public” per se. One must formally request an invitation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I contacted them and asked if we might visit. To my delight, we were offered the opportunity to do so last week.
We set off from Les Terraces on a deliciously bright, crisp (frosty) morning and drove westwards, around the north of Bordeaux. The Medoc region which, as a gross generalisation, covers the west of the peninsula upon which Bordeaux sits is, frankly, singularly unattractive. It is as flat and featureless as the Fens of England. If my recollection of history is even vaguely accurate, a hefty percentage of the land area is the result of aggressive land reclamation a few hundred years ago. Landowners imported Dutch expertise to drain the marshland and create land viable for agriculture. Red wine fans around the world have much for which to be grateful, as the resulting terroir has produced fabulous wines (and wealth) for several generations.
Margaux (the Château) sits on the edge of a village of the same name. Which came first, I know not. Our delightful host / guide, Emilie, met us in the slick guest reception area, which is filled with architect’s scale models of the majority of the estate’s buildings, lovely photographs, and Sir Norman Foster’s sketches (on Hotel Cipriani, Venice, notepaper) for the newest of the Château’s buildings. Emilie gave us a thumbnail history of the Château from the middle-ages onwards before taking us on to tour the vinification room and cellars. My apologies in advance for the inadequate photos.
Emilie told us a little of the science that goes into developing new lines for the label. Apparently such projects can be 40 years in the making. Clearly, making first-class wine is not an undertaking for the short-sighted or the faint-hearted. We then moved onto another section of the building, in which the wine is left to talk quietly to itself, fermenting and developing tannins and colour for 3 weeks. Château Margaux prides itself on the “femininity” of their tannins. This apparently results from a very gentle maceration process whereby small volumes of grape juice are turned through the skins and pips of the fruit just by pumping it from the bottom to the top of each vat. This, we were told, produces softer tannins than forcing the juice through the skins as one would press coffee in a cafetiere.
The vats in this chamber are HUGE. You could easily recycle one into a hot-tub!
We passed next into what was possibly my favourite part of the tour – the cooperage. I must confess that my bird-brain has forgotten the statistics of how many barrels are made in-house versus how many are required annually, but the figures of 200 and 600 ring a bell. Forgive me if I err. The barrels are made of 4 different woods:
- The staves and end panels are from oak trees of no less than 100 years of age.
- The braces and pins that hold the end panels in place are made of pine.
- The top and bottom of each barrel is banded with chestnut. Chestnut is more vulnerable than oak to the depredations of termites and other pests, so any damage can be spotted in these sacrificial strips before the barrel is damage, and the wine can be decanted (not normally a problem in concrete-floored cellars, but Margaux is a stickler for tradition).
- The chestnut strips are whipped with willow bindings.
I’ll have to work out how to get the video I took in here…. bear with me!
The wine, now in oak barrels, sit in another cool, dark storage area to continue the ageing process for 18 – 24 months for the red wines, and 6 – 7 months for the white wine produced by the Château.
And then, passing briefly through the new barrel store, our tour was nearly over.
The final stage of the tour was a tasting. Don’t get too excited – understandably, “proper” tastings of Château Margaux’ output are reserved for accredited wine professionals only. However, we were invited to sample the Pavilion Rouge 2004. We enjoyed it. It was as soft and round as Emilie had led us to expect. With only 25% merlot, it is drier, and less fruity than the Bergerac wines. The rest, I am afraid, I shall have to leave to your imagination, as I don’t want my leg pulled for all sorts of hyperbole and accusations of pretension. You will simply have to sample it yourself.
Please note that the opportunity to tour Château Margaux is by invitation only, and that tours are not possible between the beginning of the harvest (nominally early August) and the end of the vendage (end of October).