BORDEAUX – As a selection of wines comes to auction directly from the famed Château Margaux, Serena Sutcliffe celebrates the talents of owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos and the wines she produces.
Inheriting a great Bordeaux château that makes one of the world’s most admired wines is, above all, a huge responsibility. It might seem the dream of a lifetime, but it is also the work of a lifetime. Both the challenges and the rewards are great, demanding total commitment and, let it be said, a genuine dose of talent.
The mantle of Margaux fell to Corinne Mentzelopoulos at a young age, when her remarkable father died suddenly in 1980. Greek-born André Mentzelopoulos had bought Château Margaux from the Ginestets, an old Bordeaux family, in 1977 and immediately set about restoring both wine and château to optimum glory.
Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her daughter Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos at Château Margaux.
One of the charmed circle of First Growths, Margaux is also unique in its architecture and place in Bordeaux’s history, with its majestic 19th-century neoclassical mansion, the first port of call for visiting dignitaries who are suitably awed by the surroundings – and that is before they taste the wine.
The wines, of course, go back much further, to the 16th century, and there are references to them in the best English cellars by the first half of the 18th century. Now, bottles of Château Margaux are in collections from Europe to the United States, from Asia to Latin America, and all stops between. The renown and sheer excellence of the wines are a given, from the legendary 1900 to the superlative 2010. Corinne is now the custodian of this formidable liquid reputation and has managed Château Margaux with skill and perception.
Ultimately, wine is an agricultural product, at the receiving end of all the vicissitudes that the weather can present. It is against this background, added to the variability of the market, that a successful château owner must budget and plan. Achieving consistency is a great feat and Château Margaux has achieved this par excellence, at the same time aiming ever higher to satisfy the demands of increasingly discerning customers.
In 1983, a fabled vintage for Margaux, Corinne brought in a youthful Paul Pontallier as estate director, which has proved to be a brilliant working partnership. In the decades since, the wine has taken on power and breed, finesse and intensity, and each harvest produces its own fireworks. Enormous improvements have been made in vineyard and cellar, working on the base of extraordinary position and terroir, and selection for the “grand vin” has become ever more stringent. Cabernet Sauvignon has come to dominate the blends, while the inimitable scent of Margaux is retained and enhanced.
Château Margaux, however, never rests on its laurels. This summer, there was the unveiling of the new visionary winery designed by Sir Norman Foster, who studied the property closely so that the buildings themselves would “blend.” The gloriously long-lived wines of Margaux will now emerge from state-of-the-art premises and, it is planned, mere mortals will be able to visit and understand the myriad manoeuvres that go into producing mythical wine.
I remember first meeting André Mentzelopoulos soon after he bought Château Margaux. He had a special quality of observing and asking questions, an astute mind that was always searching for the right answer. Corinne has the same way of assessing comments and situations, which has given her a wise approach to the immensely complicated role of running a First Growth. She also has a superb sense of humour that puts everything into perspective. Perhaps it is the reviving summer holidays in Greece that supply the energy and inspiration.
Tasting at the château is always enlightening, with Pontallier’s technical honesty and input. Drinking at the château is another matter, involving hedonistic pleasure and, noblesse oblige, much note-taking. Last spring, after looking at the beautifully glossy, coffee and cassis 2014, we had lunch in the country kitchen, with the floral, grapefruity Pavillon Blanc 2011, the incredibly spicy and exotic Margaux 2003 and the stunning fresh opulence of the Margaux 1990.
The new Norman Foster-designed winery.
Watching the unfolding decades of the Mentzelopoulos era at Château Margaux has been fascinating and thought-provoking. The business acumen has been impressive, with Corinne’s understanding of the market and hard work in promoting her wine. She has presided at great events in New York, London and Hong Kong, where the combined effect of her charm and the impact of her wines works wonders. A great dinner at the château in 1995 for the international press ended with Margaux 1961 in magnum, which I think silenced everyone – not an everyday occurrence with journalists. And in the same year in Hong Kong there was a starry vertical tasting of Margaux that included the ultimate comparison, the 1982 and the 1983. I always just give it to the 1982, but I am never sure which vintage is Corinne’s favourite – obviously, a sign of her intelligence.
I am lucky enough to have visited Château Margaux on many occasions, and have often thought that a retrospective sale of these stupendous wines would showcase all that has been achieved over a long period of time. Never did I imagine that this sale would encompass over a century of their vintages, a prospect that is almost sobering. This sale is an homage to a legendary wine and the Mentzelopoulos family which has devoted itself to Château Margaux with rare insight and awareness that their magnificent property is part of the patrimony of France.
Serena Sutcliffe, MW is Honorary Chairman of Sotheby’s Wine and is one of the world’s leading authorities on wine.
Château Margaux 1900–2010 Direct From The Cellars: A Celebration of the Mentzelopoulos Era will be sold in New York on 17 October. Enquiries +1 212 606 7050.