Hushed silence is not that uncommon when Bordeaux acolytes gather together around a few bottles of a first growth. Indeed, I sometimes feel I could hear a pin drop when tasting the very latest vintage at some estates, such is the reverence with which the wines are held. So imagine the level of anticipation that might surround a tasting of wines from one of these estates never even seen before and which will, in some cases perhaps, never be seen again. It is akin to admission to the inner sanctum at your favourite club, entry to the royal enclosure or inauguration in some secret society of uncertain existence. It is, in short, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And yet that was exactly the format of a recent tasting of wines from Château Margaux. The tasting, hosted by Paul Pontallier (technical director of Margaux) and Aurélien Valance (commercial manager), together with Richard Bampfield representing co-host Yvon Mau, gave the assembled audience an unheard-of opportunity to taste just a few of the wines from Margaux’s incredible ten-year research programme.
That a leading first growth such as Château Margaux should have such a research programme is not really news. Bordeaux is often written off by its critics as fusty and outdated, thanks in part to the very high pinstripes-and-braces quotient at any Bordeaux event, and in part to the popular caricature of the consumer as the retired, well-to-do country gent with an overbearing manner and a wardrobe full of plus-fours. But these views are outdated; not all who report on Bordeaux go attired in jacket and tie with silk handkerchief in the top pocket, and this description surely also applies to modern-day consumers. The demographic of the Bordeaux-drinking community has changed and today has a much broader and more international feel to it; the wines are now shipped across the globe, to the USA, South America and increasingly to the Far East.
In tandem with this broader base of consumers there have, of course, been other changes. Higher prices, a slicker style of fruit, higher alcohol levels, cleaner wines. Some are clearly for the better, and some are not! But there is no doubt – whatever your feelings about the style of wine coming out of Bordeaux today, that the absolute quality is as high as it has ever been. This achievement is the result of decades of hard work and investment, with notable developments at any estate of your choice likely to include the introduction of green harvesting, temperature control during fermentation, stainless steel vats, second wines and so on. Although requiring effort and financial commitment these victories have been fairly easy ones compared to what lays ahead for Bordeaux. As winemakers look for ever higher quality (to justify ever higher prices, perhaps) it will be necessary to make decisions more finely balanced than those made in the past. It is only through asking the right questions, formulating theories and testing them out – such as happens within the Margaux research programme – that the winemakers of Bordeaux (and for this programme, Margaux in particular) will know which decisions to take.