When you’ve been making wine for four centuries, change of habit is hard to come by. And without premier terroir, a grand cru is impossible to create. So, to understand a landscape that attributes to the fortunes of many, I planned a visit to Bordeaux, where the climate and soil provide exceptional conditions to grow grapes of greatness. This would not be the usual visit of a tourist, but one tailored to a wine aficionado such as myself, and one to which I visited two of the most renowned wineries of the world: Château Margaux and Château Lafite Rothschild.
The hour-long trek along winding roads and double-digit roundabouts led us past vineyard after vineyard to the point where my designated driver habitually rode off-pavement, jarring me from a meditation on the wonders of this French landscape. Driving through a land where visionaries re-invented vineyards from traditional cultural practices to commodity in the luxury market mesmerized my thoughts upon arrival to Château Margaux.
Since the 17th century, Château Margaux hasn’t changed its 650 acres, and like a drama unfolding before us, the larger-than-life doors open to the production facility where three reds and one white wine age in pristine French oak barrels. The main feature within this winery is its four-century-old label, “Château Margaux” premier cru, which has a production of 130,000 bottles each year. The Pavillon Rouge and Pavillon Blanc labels are included in the Château Margaux portfolio, with its newest label, Margaux du Château Margaux (since 2009) made in small production from third-select grapes. Unlike the yellowed premier cru label, best stored for 30-plus years in a proper cellar before tastes of leather, almond and tobacco dominate, this new brown label is drinkable from the time it’s bottled. But you can’t purchase it in a wine shop; Margaux du Château Margaux is only available at select restaurants in the U.S., U.K., France and Japan.
Château Margaux and Château Lafite Rothschild both favor quality over quantity, so when the 2013 vintage didn’t produce an abundance of quality grapes, you can understand why this was the smallest vintage in 30 years. The two wineries also utilize manual picking and sorting practices during harvest, keeping continuity with the past, yet utilizing what technology offers by way of temperature control in the production facility and in-house cooperage to create the perfect vessel for oak storage.
If you want to know which vintage was best, try the 2010 and 2014, which will be drinkable for a century or more. When opening the older vintages, one must decant for two or more hours because at first the nose is closed. Once aerated, the fruit is better expressed in combination with the slight wood of the barrel. On the palate, a Château Lafite Rothschild, produced with a royal blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, three percent cabernet franc, and two percent petit verdot, offers a texture both tight and dense before the heart of the wine shines through with a solid balance. Its dense finish is best described as tannins “almost light and airy.”
If the sublime taste of wines I am fortunate to sip have arrived as the result of a blend between tradition and innovation, then I am a true believer.
Charlene Peters is a luxury travel/wine/food/wellness writer living in the Napa Valley. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.