The seismic shifts taking place at Château Margaux

The launch of Château Margaux’s first limited edition bottle signals a seismic shift in the august winemaker’s philosophy. Alice Lascelles reports on the smart changes afoot as the vineyard sets its sights on the future. Portrait by Anne Leroy

Château Margaux’s owner and CEO Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her daughter Alexandra, deputy general manager, communication and image, at the grand entrance to the house
Château Margaux’s owner and CEO Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her daughter Alexandra, deputy general manager, communication and image, at the grand entrance to the house | Image: Anne Leroy

 You have to climb 22 steps to reach the front door of Château Margaux – an exertion that leaves you in no doubt about the exalted position this Bordeaux first growth enjoys in the ranks of fine wine today. But as Margaux’s owner and CEO Corinne Mentzelopoulos is quick to point out, there was a time in living memory when this estate was at a decidedly low ebb.

“Back in the early 1970s, Margaux was so run-down no one would touch it; the whole of Bordeaux at that time was in a major crisis,” she says, ruffling the hair of the Château’s black Lab Guinness. “By the time my father acquired it in 1977, Margaux had been on the market for two years.”

The Greek retail tycoon embarked on a complete overhaul of the Château and its vineyards, but he never got to taste the fruit of his labours: just three years later he died unexpectedly, leaving his 27-year-old daughter with no choice but to take the helm. “I had to learn everything from scratch; I didn’t know anything about how to run a Bordeaux estate – I was a Parisian!” says Corinne, rolling her eyes. “But when you’re young, you just go for it.”

A case of the 2015 vintage in its black 200th anniversary commemorative bottles
A case of the 2015 vintage in its black 200th anniversary commemorative bottles

Corinne’s great coup in those early days was the appointment of Paul Pontallier, a talented young winemaker who remained there for the next 33 years, until his life was cut short by cancer in the spring of 2016 when he was just 59. The loss of Paul – who was popular in the industry – sent shockwaves through the wine world, made yet more acute by the knowledge that he had, on the Château’s 200th anniversary, completed one of the vintages of his career: the 2015.

In Paul’s memory, Château Margaux has now released a special bottle celebrating that last vintage. Jet-black and gilded with images of the neo-Palladian château, intertwined with the Norman Foster cellars that were commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary, this is the first limited edition design ever released by Margaux, making it something of a big deal. Within a few weeks of the surprise announcement in November, the original case price of £4,260 for the 2015 en primeur more than doubled.

But with its intermingling of old and new, the design also consciously signals a change in Margaux’s outlook, says Corinne, a change that comes at a time when Bordeaux is seeing its share of the secondary market being steadily eaten away by competition from other fine wine regions, including Burgundy, which had its best year for a decade in 2017 (according to a Liv-ex report). “We want it to tell the world that we are now looking at new ways of doing things,” she says, “and that a younger generation is on the way.”

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The person who oversaw the bottle’s design was Corinne’s 32-year-old daughter Alexandra, the woman hotly tipped to succeed her mother in the running of the Château. Officially part of the family business since 2012, this raven-haired business-school graduate has been an increasingly visible face of Margaux in recent years, and as “deputy general manager, communication and image” is credited with introducing a more modern sensibility to Margaux’s marketing.

“Just because we are Château Margaux, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work to stay where we are,” says Alexandra over tea in the château’s drawing room. “There are a lot of brands who thought that, and it backfired on them. We need to evolve, and communicate, and explain why we think we are the best.”

With her sparkly trainers and chipped blue nail polish, Alexandra isn’t your average Bordeaux heiress. She fiddles with her iPhone, talks about bar hopping with girlfriends and grumbles about flying Ryanair just like any other thirtysomething. But there is no mistaking her seriousness when it comes to the job of preserving her grandfather’s legacy. “I can never rest because I know what happened in the 1970s,” she says, pulling on an anorak to show me around.

The Château’s Norman Foster-designed cellars
The Château’s Norman Foster-designed cellars

When she’s not travelling for Margaux, Alexandra can be found back in London, running her Marylebone wine bar Clarette. “I was so fed up of going to such boring places just to have a decent bottle of wine,” says Alexandra, who’s lived in Notting Hill since 2010. “I felt there was a gap in the market for something more easy-going, where you could have good wine, good food and good service, but in a very relaxed atmosphere.”

With its blue and pink velvet upholstery, upbeat playlist and sunny first-floor dining room, Clarette is the antithesis of the gloomy wine club. It serves esoteric grower champagnes, fine burgundy and plenty of ex-cellar Margaux (at a very competitive mark-up), but it’s the kind of place where you could go for coffee and sliders too. And Alexandra has managed to snare some great sommeliers – on a recent visit I was pleased to see Caroline Fridolfsson, formerly of St James’s wine club 67 Pall Mall.

In all her endeavours, Alexandra’s ally has been the man she describes as “like a cousin to me”, Paul Pontallier’s 31-year-old son Thibault. A Margaux ambassador since his mid-20s, Thibault recently returned from eight years living in east Asia, where he gained first-hand experience of a fine wine market that’s increasingly setting the agenda. “In China we’re now seeing the emergence of a clientele that’s incredibly young. Sometimes I’m the oldest one at the dinner table these days,” he says. “The gender split is also much more equal. In China dinners are typically 50/50 men and women, whereas in England it’s still more like 80/20.”

Foster on a site visit for the project
Foster on a site visit for the project | Image: Nigel Young

All the horror stories about Chinese people tipping Coke into their Margaux are completely out of date, he says. “These children might not have grown up with their parents drinking wine, but there is so much education going on now. People love drinking and learning about it – they are fascinated. It’s very impressive what China is doing for fine wine.”

With a business degree and stints working at the UN and for Nicolas Sarkozy’s publicity machine on his CV, Thibault is a smart cookie who clearly relishes the challenge of selling to this new type of clientele. “If they have an apartment in Hong Kong or New York, or they’re travelling a lot, they often don’t have the space or the expertise or perhaps the inclination to cellar wine like people used to. More and more, we’re seeing customers wanting to buy wine when it’s ready to drink – even if that means paying a premium for it. And that’s creating a lot more business in the middle for bars, wine clubs and merchants who will store your wine, manage your cellar, source particular vintages or deliver in the hour. It’s no longer enough for a château just to sell the wine. We need to make sure that we’re working with the kinds of companies that can offer that level of service right the way through – they’re the ones that should be getting our allocations.” London is still top of the tree for wine services, he says, but Hong Kong is catching up fast. He singles out Berry Bros & Rudd, BI (Bordeaux Index) and Justerini & Brooks as particularly worthy of mention.

The new generation’s reluctance to buy wine in the traditional way, combined with some toxic boom and bust around the hyped 2009 and 2010 vintages, has been partly to blame for what some regard as dwindling interest in en primeur, the annual rite whereby Bordeaux wines are sold as “wine futures”, 18 to 24 months before they’re bottled. In 2012, Margaux’s fellow first growth Château Latour abandoned en primeur entirely, a move that caused much controversy, but Margaux remains in the game, for now at least. “I am very happy that Latour should do that, because we can watch and see the results,” says Corinne. “It is an experiment, as we say, en nature.”

Deputy general manager Aurélien Valance, managing director Philippe Bascaules and estate manager Sébastien Vergne in the building
Deputy general manager Aurélien Valance, managing director Philippe Bascaules and estate manager Sébastien Vergne in the building | Image: Anne Leroy

Like many Bordeaux estates, though, Margaux is holding back more wine than it used to, with a view to releasing it at a later date – “about 20 per cent of each vintage”, according to Thibault. Despite working closely with Paul, neither Thibault nor Alexandra ever felt the call to become winemakers themselves. Instead, the man who has stepped into Paul’s shoes is Philippe Bascaules, a protégé of his who spent more than 20 years working at Margaux before being poached in 2011 to head up Inglenook, Francis Ford Coppola’s estate in the Napa Valley.

Appointed as Margaux’s managing director just over a year ago, Bascaules temporarily continues to serve as a consultant for Inglenook, currently returning four times a year (“but Margaux remains my priority”). “What was great about Paul was how humble he was,” says Bascaules. “He was always doubting, always questioning everything, always pushing us to do more experiments.”

Aided by deputy general manager Aurélien Valance and estate manager Sébastien Vergne (both 38), Bascaules has been analysing Château Margaux’s terroir, a unique patchwork of clay, gravel and limestone in the Médoc. By vinifying these 94 hectares in ever-smaller plots, he hopes to arrive at a more detailed understanding of the vineyards responsible for producing Château Margaux’s signature, sensual perfume.

Thibault Pontallier, Château Margaux ambassador and son of the late winemaker, in the vineyard
Thibault Pontallier, Château Margaux ambassador and son of the late winemaker, in the vineyard | Image: Francois Poincet

“For me, what’s important to a good perfume is good balance,” says Bascaules, “because if you allow just one flavour to dominate, it will not be so elegant, so mysterious. You want to think, ‘I like what I smell, but I don’t know what it is’. And so you want to smell it again. If that balance is there, I might recognise one thing, but you might recognise something else, and then we can start chatting about the wine. That for me is very important to the definition of a great wine.”

Standing in the sunlit Foster winery, we taste barrel samples of the 2016, which is being heralded as another outstanding vintage. “The 2015 is very opulent, very impressive by the body, with its concentration of tannins, but the ’16 has more length, more elegance and possibly more of that perfume at this stage,” says Bascaules. “It will be another 10 years before we can really compare the two. But it’s already clear they are not in the same mould.”

The estate’s first wine, Grand Vin du Château Margaux, remains the pinnacle, but elsewhere the portfolio has seen some significant changes in the past decade, including the introduction of a third wine, Margaux du Château Margaux, in 2012, and the refinement of Margaux’s second wine Pavillon Rouge (which now features a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot ratio very similar to the Château Margaux of 20 years ago, for a fraction of the price). The estate’s white wine Pavillon Blanc has also had a facelift. Now limited to just 10,000 bottles a year and made with much more stringent fruit selection, it’s supremely fresh and elegant.

Barrels laid down in the first-year cellar
Barrels laid down in the first-year cellar | Image: Anne Leroy

“There is so much change going on in Bordeaux right now,” says Corinne. “Everyone’s been investing, building new cellars, modernising the equipment, getting stricter on [grape] selection and launching second wines. And we’ve all been travelling like crazy.” The Bordelais have been putting in more facetime abroad, and under Mayor Alain Juppé the city has made a bid to be more welcoming too, with the introduction of a high-speed line to Paris, the futuristic Cité du Vin (a museum that pays tribute, most diplomatically, to wine from all over the world) and the expected opening of new four-star hotels later this year.

And more new blood is on the way. In November, Château Lafite chairman Eric de Rothschild named his 30-year-old daughter Saskia as his successor in the role. She will be the second woman, after Corinne, to head up one of Bordeaux’s five first growth estates. “I’m so pleased about Saskia,” says Alexandra. “She’s very nice and very smart. We get along really well.”

Sitting down to lunch with Corinne and her team in Margaux’s convivial “copper kitchen”, it’s easy to forget that one is dining at one of the world’s most illustrious châteaux. A lot of teasing and laughter goes on. But as we head back up to the drawing room, the sight of a huddle of tourists at the Margaux gates, iPhones held aloft, reminds me that this family, for all its informality, is never really off duty. “You should see what it’s like in the summer,” says Corinne, ushering me away from the window. “That’s why I felt I had to bring my children up in Paris, rather than here. It wouldn’t be fair to put them through that.”

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These days, Alexandra commutes from London and Corinne runs the business from her HQ in Paris. But it’s clear that they are deeply attached to the place. “I won’t ever stop working here – I love it too much,” says Corinne. “But in the end we have to remember we are all at the service of Margaux and not the other way round. We are a team. And now it’s time for transmission to the next generation.”

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