I just got to visit Chateau Margaux on their first full day of the 2010 harvest. This is sort of a dream and it’s hard to believe that it really happened. It was an authentic and intimate glimpse into the belly of one of the world’s most prestigious estates, one of the four (five if you count Rothschild twice) premier grand cru estates in Bordeaux.
As you know O’Vineyards grows Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Cabardes region of France. So we’re always talking about the potential of these Bordeaux varietals in the Atlantic Corridor of the Languedoc. So it’s an exceptional opportunity to see how Chateau Margaux (arguably the most famous producer of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world) harvests and vinifies.
That first photo up top is a partial shot of one of their TWO cellars. They age the wine there for a full year (so that’s the 2009 being aged in the photo) and then they move it to the second year cellar. Now why am I talking about large wine cellars? Those aren’t unique by any means as large wine cellars exist around the world, but I think it’s a good place to start talking about Chateau Margaux. While it’s very well-recognized that this estate produces some of the world’s most desired wines (the 2009’s are hitting 1000 Euro / bottle), what a lot of people don’t realize is how many bottles they make of it. To produce that quality level on such a large scale is truly a wonder of the world.
Down south, we have some cult wines and some famous wines, but production tends to be very small. I’ll flatter myself through a brief comparison. I like to think my wine is very good, but I have to acknowledge that I could never scale it up to produce thousands of cases per year.
So how on earth do they scale up the production of this quality level? Well, they have two identical harvest lines bringing in pallets of small fruit cases full of hand-harvested grapes. The small crates full of grape bunches run up a short conveyor belt. A person empties the crates onto a sorting line where bunches that show any sign of rot are removed (although I spent a long time up there without seeing any which indicates a good harvest and/or a talented team of harvesters who only pick the good stuff).
The conveyor belt drops the grape bunches into a machine I don’t know the name of photographed here (but the front of it says “VINOCLEAN”). It is some sort of very fancy destemmer that takes the grapes off of their stems very nicely and bounces them down to another conveyor belt. One more machine that crushes the grapes very slightly before they are dropped into a stainless steel container.
This container is brought to the winery by futuristic pallet jacks with built in scales so they know how much tonnage goes into each tank. The stainless steel container is hoisted above by a winch and the grapes are carefully dropped into the tanks from above.
As the pallet jacks wisked past us, Marie from Chateau Margaux reached in and grabbed some 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon for us to taste. I get to taste before Parker now! ;D
And then there’s the whole process of fermentation where they are truly dedicated to maintaining the high reputation of their estate. Needless to say, I took a lot of notes and borrowed a couple of the less expensive ideas for O’Vineyards.
And then we had a really educational tasting of the 2009 and a few other wines followed by the most amazing meal in a very elegant dining room of the Chateau proper.
I will talk more about this visit when I’m not so busy with my own harvest, but I thought it would be fun to share this technical side of the Chateau Margaux harvest intake while my brain is still in harvest mode. It is rare to get such an unfettered glimpse into the process of a legendary wine estate. Thanks again to Paul Pontallier for his excellent welcome at Chateau Margaux. And also a huge thanks to Barry and Stuart for making this visit possible. What a fantastic experience!
Jancis just wrote a very cleverly titled article “11 into 33 does go” (you have to subscribe to read the whole thing). This is more than just a simple math question. It’s a reference to French department numbers. 11 is Aude (Languedoc) and 33 is Gironde (Bordeaux). And this article talks about the sad truth that nobody likes to discuss.
While tons of our region’s wine cooperatives flounder and go out of business, there are still some cooperatives and negociants with tankers pumping wine nearly 24/7. It makes you think that there’s a lot of hustle and bustle. But where is the wine going? And at what cost?
Well, a short inspection of the license plates reveals a lot. All the tankers filling up with Languedoc wine have license plates that read 33. Gironde. Bordeaux. It’s nearly impossible to prove what happens once the wine gets into the winery since the French classification system is almost 100% enforced by paper trail alone. But that’s where the wine is going. Or at least, that’s where the trucks came from.
I’m really happy to see a writer of Jancis’ level talking about this issue because it’s a real wine story. Not a lot of that in wine journalism today.