The six bottles of wine unveiled by Dubai merchants Le Clos last autumn caught the eye of many oenophiles, not least for the fact that it was the first time in the history of the esteemed Château Margaux that Balthazars have been bottled. There were the 12 litres of wine inside each of course too: its 2009 vintage, aged for more than a century, and reputed to be one of Margaux’s best ever. Exclusivity drew some attention: only three of the six will actually be sold. But perhaps the most jaw-dropping factor of all was the price: each bottle retails at US$195,000, making it the world’s most expensive wine.
“Well, we thought that we had not just a great but an exceptional vintage, although this kind of bottle is not something we would have done 20 years ago; we were more traditional then, but feel bolder now,” says the company’s chief winemaker and managing director Paul Pontallier, a man who took his PhD in oenology in Bordeaux and, bar two years working with the French Peace Corp in Chile (“some good wines, although no great ones yet”), has been with Château Margaux all of his career. “While these bottles are something for the history books, of course, it’s also a way to promote Margaux. It’s quite an expensive bottle of wine, but I’m sure someone will buy one in the end.”
Anyone who does also gets flown to France for dinner with Pontallier and a tour of the Château Margaux operation. It may, he suggests, be a brief tour. Not only is Margaux comparatively little known outside wine-buff territory, but “we’re still very much a small, family-owned company in which pretty much everything is decided by literally a couple of people”, says Pontallier. “We’ve never had to have those big board meetings.”
Size, however, isn’t everything. “We have a pretty good reputation for making good wine and are considered among the best in Bordeaux, which is what is most important for us,” he explains. “We perhaps could and should do more so that people know about us. As with all things, wine is no exception to the fact that it’s becoming an ever-more brand-oriented world. The difference is that quality is still important in wine, which isn’t always the case for other branded goods. You can’t hide a bad wine behind a name. But if we’re not recognised as a great brand, we are recognised as a great wine and that still counts for a lot in the wine world.”
And, for all that it may be small, Château Margaux is among the most progressive winemakers in France too. The company is currently overhauling all of its cellars, which Pontallier describes as the biggest change for the company in 200 years. This is some statement, given what it has gone through in its time. Although established by the Lestonnac family in the 16th century (by 1771, bottles were appearing in the catalogues at Christie’s), over the coming centuries its ownership changed hands several times, thanks to a combination of the guillotine, diseased vines and bad business. André Mentzelopoulos rescued Margaux in 1977, with his daughter Corinne succeeding him in managing the property.
Since then, the estate has been admired as pioneering in its use of a dedicated in-house research and development (R&D) department that, Pontallier stresses, is free to conduct experiments in making wine. “[It is] without any pressure towards a certain direction at all; it’s free to question everything the wine world holds to be traditional. That allows us to have a science behind our decision-making. The fact is that wine companies tend to make changes because a certain way of thinking becomes trendy. We only want to make a change when it’s proven to be better.”
New moves ushered in as a consequence of R&D have included the use of carbonic gas to protect bottle caps, changes to how pressed wine is managed, even increasingly hi-tech tagging systems to protect against the growing problem of counterfeiting, predominantly in China (a back-handed compliment to the appeal of the Margaux name). Then there is the estate’s shift to an entirely organic means of production. Not that most people would know this. Far from making fashionable capital out of some potential ‘green-washing’, Château Margaux prefers not to mention this at all.
“Is being organic a sales benefit?” asks Pontallier, with the kind of laid-back, laissez-faire manner that gentlemen in the French wine business seem to pull off so effortlessly. “I can’t honestly say it’s improved the wines, you know. But we feel that adding chemicals to the vines might harm them in the long term; it seems to create more problems than it solves. Besides, if one day we need to revert to not being organic, we want the freedom to do so. It’s not like we’ve converted to some religion. We’re not very religious here.”