Oenophiles read it and weep. Our intrepid explorer NICK HAMMOND visits the legendary cellars of a mighty wine house – and finds it in the shape of its life…
YOU’D be within your rights to call me an utter, utter b*stard.
I’m in the dining room at Chateau Margaux. The air is rich with scent from the riot of lilies behind me. The table is set with an array of wonderful figurines; with fine cutlery, china and glassware.
High ceilings, swag, gilt and priceless paintings abound in a gaudy, but wonderfully French ambience.
I’ve just eaten one of the best meals of my life; washed it down with Champagne and Margaux 1983; and I’m about bop it on the head with a 1978 Chateau Y’Quem and a Cohiba Lanceros. As I say, you’d be within your rights to call me an utter, utter b*stard.
This house stands legendary among the giant winemakers. One of the four to be awarded Grand Cru status in 1855, it was bought by the Greek André Mentzelepoulos in 1976 and the vineyards – and the wine – have in recent years been painstakingly restored to their pre-eminent glory.
The fact that the ‘entry level’ Chateau Margaux grand vin is now likely to set you back £1,000 would indicate that the Mentzelepoulos famiy have achieved what they set out to do.
André’s daughter, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelepoulos, has taken the helm. She’s young, ambitious, determined to make her own mark – and is sitting on my left. To my right is Philippe Bascaules, Margaux General Manager and a man who can reel off tasting notes from vintages past as easily as the rest of us remember lyrics from formative childhood pop songs.
Earlier in the afternoon, I was treated to a tour of the remarkable new cellars, designed by English architect, Normal Foster. It’s a drizzly, grey-shrouded day in Bordeaux when my early flight lands and the short drive to Margaux highlights the mile after mile of spectral, spindly vines in their winter ‘death’. It looks as if a great fire has swept across the mighty vineyards of Bordeaux and left apparitions behind.
Thankfully, they’re merely sleeping, ready for another year of bounty when the sun reappears and Bordeaux bustles again. The buildings of Margaux are more Moorish than French to my mind; an unobtrusive mix of low, tiled agricultural buildings and the grander main house and surrounding former stables.
The cellars appear as just another one of those agricultural buildings until you step inside the state of the art facility. Then you realise what’s been created here. In one James Bondian underground enclave lies the family reserves; a breathtaking rifle barrel of a bat cave which stretches away the length of a football pitch. Each section is carefully stacked with another year’s harvest; an unimaginable store of some of the world’s finest wines. What’s more, this tunnel runs out below the very vineyard itself, popping up amid the vines via a hidden spiral staircase.
There are other gothic caverns, with immaculate barrels of grand vin, row after row. There is a high-tech lab and a beautiful tasting room overlooking the chateau gardens.
Once out of the mizzle, I taste vintages from 2005 and 2009 enjoy the chance to chat informally with Alex Petit-Mentzelepoulos in the main house library, surrounded by Greek rescue dogs and attended by a very cool, very helpful, very French butler.
Alex is warm, funny and dedicated to the true French lifestyle of eating, drinking, being with friends. She’s also, I suspect, strong-willed and determined to get her own way. Margaux on her watch will not be dull.
The next morning, I dine again with the family in the old, flagstoned kitchen. A fire blazes, reflecting in the orange glow of dozens of beautiful old copper pans. There’s even a Turbotiere on the wall – a massive off-square shaped pan for cooking whole turbot.
There’s ubiquitous coffee, pain aux chocolat, honey from local bees, jams and preserves made by the aforementioned butler and countless other treats of the table. The dogs hoover up the crumbs, the conversation never veers far from gastronomy. It’s a wonderful affirmation of life set against the monochrome chill outside.
A couple of days in Bordeaux is never enough, but is nevertheless a shot in the arm for a fatigued, epicurean Brit. Margaux, however, is the trip of a lifetime. Unforgettable.
Chateaux Margaux 33460, Margaux, France. T: +33 (0) 5 57 88 83 83. For more information, visit www.chateaux-margaux.com.
A single bottle of the new Grand Vin 2015 vintage can be purchased at approximately £1,000 per bottle through BI Fine Wine & Spirits Merchant www.biwine.com.
For more information about Bordeaux and to plan your trip, visit the official website, www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk.