Bringing Margaux to Life (Part One)

Date: 15 March, 2022 / Author: Andrew James

There are 15 second growths in the 1855 Bordeaux classification and one-third of them come from Margaux. Wouldn’t it be fun to hold a Margaux party, and invite Durfort-Vivens, Brane-Cantenac, Rauzan-Ségla, Rauzan-Gassies and Lascombes – the five second growths – along with the first growth, Château Margaux? Six iconic wines historically linked by Napoleon III. If you were the party organizer, which vintages would you choose?

To show Margaux at its best, a horizontal tasting of an acclaimed vintage like 2010 might be the simplest approach, but the greater the year the more you pay. You could try matching the flavour profiles described in professional tasting notes with your own preferences, though these notes have a shelf life. After 10 or 15 years that liquorice aroma you love might have given way to forest floor, making the note redundant. Falling back on 100-point ratings is a common strategy, particularly if you find wine language an impenetrable mystery, though a 96 will only be better than an 87 if you and the professional critic have the same palate. Considering all of the possible complications, just this once, let’s forget about technical information, jargon and ratings and make our Margaux party selections in a unique way that everyone can understand…

In mid-January, I visited the winemakers of the top six classified Margaux châteaux and presented them with the following scenario:

Imagine your wines as people. Your château has been invited to an important dinner party. You don’t know any of the other guests, and you can send only one vintage to represent you. If the party was held tomorrow, which vintage would you choose? Remembering that your wine is a human being and not a wine, what kind of impression would it give to the other guests? What are its positive characteristics? And, if your preferred vintage had a previous engagement, what would be your second choice?

‘That’s an Oh là là question!’ laughed one winemaker. Another considered it straightforward at first but, when he continued to describe his preferred vintage as a wine, I stopped him. I don’t want to know how it tastes, I said. Tell me how it will act at the party. What kind of a person is it? ‘This is difficult,’ he finally admitted. ‘This is an Oh là là question!’ In the end, all six winemakers selected two vintages and brought them to life. You will find some standard wine language mixed into the descriptions, but after reading each one you should be able to conceive of the wines as 12 potential guests for a Margaux dinner party. They are presented in the order of my visits.

Château Durfort-Vivens 2004: the Renaissance man

‘I always say that Margaux is female, but my father is a very elegant, creative and clever man,’ says Gonzague Lurton, owner and winemaker at Durfort-Vivens. ‘You have to speak with him to discover him. Margaux is like that. It’s not something that just shows itself. You have to take time, speak with it, discover it. The 2004 is not a philosopher but someone able to speak about many subjects. He has an idea about what is important in terms of science, philosophy. It’s the kind of person you want to have a discussion with. But he has nothing to sell you.’

‘2014 was not a big vintage either. It’s a little less classic with elegance, culture and wit. It could say a funny story or a few words to make people happy. The 2004 is deeper, more interesting to get to know, but the 2014 could talk and make others comfortable. It’s not big but it’s appealing.’

Château Margaux 2004: the discreet listener

‘The wines of Château Margaux are quite discreet,’ offers technical director Philippe Bascaules. ‘2004 is not too young or too old. It would listen to others, then give slowly but increasingly. It’s very soft, perfumed. Sometimes to me a great wine is one that disappears in my body. It’s like drinking water. The balance of the wine is the same as my balance. The 2004 is a good mix of concentration and ripeness. It gives a classic message and if people like it, they like Château Margaux.’

‘The 2001 is a very natural wine, less concentrated than ’04’

Château Brane-Cantenac 2005: the perfumed sophisticate

‘The most important thing is the perfume, so it needs to be quite an old wine,’ suggests Henri Lurton, owner and winemaker at Brane-Cantenac. ‘Your brain is not able to distinguish the different things but you will remember the flowers, spices, different things in this perfume. It’s like a conversation that you want to never finish. It may not be so easy to talk with the 2005 at first. But you will know after some time that there is complexity and you will want to talk with this person because you learn more and more. It is a sophisticated person who deserves to be known.’

‘The 2009 is less classic but you still have freshness. It’s very aromatic and easy to understand. It’s more obvious.’

Château Rauzan-Ségla 2001: elegance personified

Nicholas Audebert, technical director at Rauzan-Ségla, takes a different tack: ‘Sometimes at a party you have the type of scene where everyone is whispering about the woman in the red dress. Of course, I saw her. Everyone did. But look at this woman, the 2001. She’s less impressive, but I hope that I am sitting next to her at the table because I am sure that she has something to say. She is provocative but not showing off. Everything is there: freshness, elegance, precision, vibrancy. Rauzan-Ségla is always this kind of style. It’s the type of person who you look at from one side and then the other, and there is always something more.’

‘The 2003 is the opposite style of vintage. It was extremely hot. But after 20 years when you taste these two wines side by side they are siblings. Though they have different characters, you see that they come from here. It’s not the vintage that is making the wine, it’s the property. It’s the same blood, education, intellectual construction.’

Château Rauzan-Gassies 1996: the ballerina

‘When the balance is perfect, you cannot see all the effort a ballerina needs to communicate grace. This wine is aged enough to have lots of perfume. It is not a demonstration of strength. It needs time to open, though the colour is still young and dark,’ says Rauzan-Gassies’ owner and winemaker Anne-Françoise Quié of the 1996: ‘You have incredible aromas of roses, wood and cinnamon that I call the smooth spices. It is intense but at the same time elegant.’

2009 is Anne-Françoise’s second choice: ‘It is a wise man who sits at the table and does not say a lot, but he has a natural aura. When you look at this wine and smell it, there is something exuberant but typical of Margaux. It is aristocratic and noble.’

Château Lascombes 2009: the bon vivant

For Dominique Befve, general manager at Lascombes, it depends on the other guests at the party. ‘Since I have worked at Lascombes, I think the best quality vintage was 2010. It’s very impressive but perhaps it would be too hard to drink because the tannins are very strong. If the other guests at the party were Americans who voted for Trump, I would send the 2010. If they were people who voted for Biden I would send the 2009, which is charming and adaptable. The ’09 is a bon vivant who enjoys life, eating, drinking. I’m sure that some people would say to me it’s too early to drink this wine too. As a person, it is too young and lacking experience. But I like young wines with good ripeness and big concentration. I am sure that in the Margaux appellation Lascombes is one of the more concentrated wines.’

‘The 2005 is more elegant and experienced. The best thing would be to send both to the party because some people would prefer ’09 and some ’05.’

Have you made your selections? My preferences are reflected in the picture that accompanies this article. For an infusion of youth, I opted for Durfort-Vivens’ second choice, the 2014, to keep Lascombes’ bon vivant company. As I listened to each of the winemakers describe their wines, I experienced a curious sensation. Rather than thinking of the properties of each wine, I imagined myself as a guest at the same dinner party seated next to Château Rauzan-Gassies’ ballerina or Château Brane-Cantenac’s perfumed sophisticate, having a conversation. If you were invited, who would you choose for a conversation partner?

Read Bringing Margaux to Life (Part Two) here.

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.

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