Chateau Margaux

margaux_test_740 Morning light illuminates the classical Palladian facade of Chateau Margaux

 

Chateau Margaux: considered by many to be the most beautiful in all of Bordeaux, its classical Palladian façade sits squarely at the top of a lovely tree lined drive. When viewed in summer, the bleached ochre and warm white of its Doric stone columns are framed by lush green foliage. The second year cellars at Margaux are massive and resemble an underground cathedral, with an acoustic to match. The echoing sound of heavy oak barrels rolled around by aproned staff, audibly express the subterranean grandeur. This chateau more than any other spells Bordeaux to the outside world, it provides the ultimate symbol of integrity in fine wine making and the driven pursuit of perfection in a glass. A great wine making estate with a long history, of which the last thirty years, some might argue, have been its most illustrious.

 

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Corinne Mentzlelopoulos and Paul Pontallier
Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier

Under the ownership of Corinne Mentzelopoulos and astute direction of Paul Pontallier, Chateau Margaux has plotted a steady course across two decades, with a seemingly endless stream of fabulous vintages. As the determined proprietor readily acknowledges; for very nearly a quarter of a century fortune has been kind, though encountering few obstacles, it might safely be ventured that they have made their own luck. The uniformity in the rows of noble vines seem mirrored by the consistency and regularity found within the chais. Without undue reliance upon technology or artifice, the wines of Chateau Margaux contain the purest expression of a fine terroir. The combination of solid wine making skills, thoughtful conservatism, with an eye to the future and prudent use of modern advances, take this majestic First Growth from strength to strength. The critically acclaimed 2005 vintage provides ample proof that hard work and dedication can pay handsome dividends, a sentiment with which Corinne's late father would certainly have found favour. By applying this philosophy each and every day, Corinne Mentzelopoulos honours her late father's legacy and together with Paul Pontallier, carries forward his great and laudable vision. In so doing, she has turned his once distant dream of making the greatest wine in the world, into a wondrous reality.

 

 

The Patriarch

André Mentzelopoulos boarded his regular Paris-bound flight at London's Heathrow airport - it was 1977. Though flying between the two neighbouring capitals had never proved eventful, on this particular occasion, while losing an hour of Greenwich meantime, this extraordinarily successful Greek entrepreneur was gaining a new and exciting ambition. Once the wheels of the Air France 737 touched down at Charles de Gaulle, he was on his way to establishing a new wine dynasty and changing the life of his only daughter forever. Settling into a first class seat for the short flight home, he casually leafed through the pages of his Financial Times. Andre's sharp Grecian eyes scanned the familiar pink newsprint, absorbing details of the currency markets and busily checking the Dow Jones for news of his latest corporate acquisitions. His attention was momentarily drawn to a short article, the modest headline caused a glimmer of subconscious recognition and seemed to stir his emotions: ‘Chateau Margaux To Be Sold', a short sentence, which might excite interest in a wine connoisseur but surely not an adventurous tycoon from Patras ? A man, whose life had been filled with measured risk taking and travel across a string of continents, whose knowledge of wine merely extended to bland mediocrity. The name Margaux meant something to Andre Mentzelopoulos, it was an iconic symbol of greatness within a vinous world of which he knew little, it was a name that seemed to stimulate all of his business senses. According to his daughter, Mentzelopoulos possessed an intangible ‘sixth sense': the rare ability to make timely business decisions, which upon historical reflection, appear impossibly perceptive, this might be described as such a moment.

 

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Between the Plane trees
Born to Greek parents in 1915, André Mentzelopoulos was one of four children. His father Alexis, an illiterate peasant from Pelopennesia, was a man of great fortitude, borne out by the fact he once sailed a small steam powered boat across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, stoking the boiler with coal all the way. Unlike many Greek emigrants of his generation, he soon returned to his native shores to settle and raise a family. While lacking a formal education Alexis made sure the same fate did not befall his own offspring. As an entrepreneur running two family hotels, one in Athens and the second in Patras, Mentzelopoulos senior eventually went on to become Mayor of his village. He instilled within the young André an ambitious thirst for knowledge and adventure, in addition to their native Greek, all four siblings learned no less than three languages, André eventually speaking six - including Urdu.

 

Andre's sister, Aglaia (after Jupiter's daughter) moved to Burma where she married a Colonel in the British army. André soon joined her, embarking on a journey which led him far away from his beloved Greece. On the 11th December 1941 the Japanese invaded Burma forcing André to flee through China and on to colonial India. Mohammad Ali Jinnah initiated Indian partition in 1946 and the tenacious Greek adventurer settled in a newly formed Pakistan, where, his daughter Corinne explains, "he began to make his fortune, though as a child, never having listened very carefully, I am unclear as to exactly how he did this". He never had any desire to be an employee and displayed a strong entrepreneurial spirit, thus, when an opportunity arose in the cereal export business, he asked to work for a percentage of the profits rather than a salary. "When shipping corn from the north to Asia, the grain gained weight while in transit, a result of an increase in humidity and moisture, increasing my father's profits substantially. I never knew whether this was really true - but it is a nice story" says Corinne Mentzelopoulos.

 

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The eglise of St Michel - a tiny ecclesiastical jewel

 

During subsequent years André grew close to President Bhutto of Pakistan and became well integrated with the ruling elite; he enjoyed his life in the sub-continent and became fluent in Urdu, later he would spend time in the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan with his daughter Corinne, an area that includes the Khyber Pass. While on a Skiing holiday in Switzerland, André met the elegant Laura, she was French, originally from Toulouse and would soon become his wife. However she refused to relinquish her bourgeois life in Paris to live in distant Pakistan and this necessitated a move to the French capital in 1958, bringing about the possibility of fresh business opportunities. Having made his first fortune in the cereal business, André was offered a very good tip by the owner of the famous French emporium ‘Printemps', the advice was to buy the chain of grocery shops known as ‘Felix Potin'. Established in 1844, this string of 80 traditional stores ranged across metropolitan and provincial France, it was a wise acquisition that brought with it a large slice of prime Parisian real estate. Unlike his compatriots Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis, he felt ill at ease with the ‘traditional' Greek world of shipping and preferred to keep his feet placed soundly on terra firma - bricks and mortar made this businessman even more prosperous. In the early sixties Felix Potin became the first ‘distributeur moderne' with a range of own brand products, well ahead of other supermarket chains and contemporary rival Carrefour, by 1980 his grocery empire had multiplied to a staggering 1600 shops. Though speaking with a pronounced Greek accent, Mentzelopoulos prospered within the world of French commerce, he was admired for his business acumen and displayed a Midas touch with all endeavours. Strong willed, independent and fiercely ambitious, André followed his own instincts. Never indulging in frivolous activities or idle games he concentrated his mind on business, though the study of history was a lifelong passion. Perhaps the possibility of becoming part of a wine making heritage spanning over three centuries, was instrumental in the Mentzelopoulos decision to acquire one of only five First Growths. He could comprehend the status of Chateau Margaux - it stood for greatness and tradition, qualities a Greek of more than three score years would value.

 

Since 1949 the bordelais family of Ginestet had owned Chateau Margaux - nearly thirty years later they decided to part with this great wine estate, a result of cumulative financial difficulties and a poor market for Bordeaux during much of the nineteen seventies. The property was quite run down and the quality of wine no longer lived up to the high standards expected of a first growth. André Mentzelopoulos went to Bordeaux in 1977, accompanied by his 24 year old daughter Corinne, their first glimpse of the Bordeaux vineyards was from the window of a scheduled passenger aeroplane when approaching Merignac airport. As the potential new owner of a legendary chateau, one might only imagine the sensation he experienced driving north along the D2 toward Margaux, passing through acre upon acre of verdant green vines, the prospect of embarking on this new adventure must have been thrilling.

 

The road to recovery
André and his daughter lunched with the Ginestets in the dining room at Chateau Margaux: "it was dark and run down, a really sad place" she says. Recalling the conclusion of that first visit, Corinne Mentzelopoulos describes descending the main steps of the chateau onto the gravelled drive where her father shook hands with Pierre Ginestet and proclaimed "it's a deal", only the legal formalities and paperwork now separated the first Greek in the Medoc from taking his place in an elite club of only five members. A new era had begun and an exciting programme of major works would soon commence, rapidly transforming an aging monument to the vine into a reinvigorated wine making legend.

 

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The beautiful tree lined drive at Chateau Margaux

The purchase of Chateau Margaux worked well for André Mentzelopoulos, though he made an early decision never to sell its wine through the Felix Potin shops. It was real estate, something solid and tangible; he valued buildings and land, though Greek entrepreneurs are best known for a love of boats and the sea, André Mentzelopoulos felt more at home with ‘bricks and mortar'. On a return visit to the estate some weeks later, father and daughter explored the vineyard, as they walked down the famous tree lined drive to the chateau André commented upon the seemingly familiar architectural style - the famed portico and splendid stone pillars reminded him of his native Greece, Corinne says "he was clearly moved". He often said "of course I could be in St Moritz with a fleet of ships like Niarchos, but how would I gain the respect of my children - it would hardly be considered real work". Corinne explains "he enjoyed being in the Paris office, just where I am today and especially loved people" During these early years Corinne paid infrequent visits to Chateau Margaux and was never involved in the running of the estate.


Emile Peynaud
In 1977 Emile Peynaud the legendary oenologist and Bordeaux wine guru was engaged to consult for Chateau Margaux. Peynaud had enormous respect and admiration for André Mentzelopoulos, they shared a very warm professional relationship. It was the very first time a famous oenologist had been associated with a named chateau and its wines. In this 21st century of flying wine makers and advisors from Derenoncourt to Rolland, we think nothing of experts lending a helping hand, whilst being linked to the name of a well known property, rather like celebrity fashion designers. 1977 was the year it all began at Chateau Margaux, a brand new departure, something that changed the face of wine making forever and led to massive improvements across the vineyards of Bordeaux.. When working at the chateau he involved himself in everything, determining the date of picking, grape maturity, selection of new oak barrels and the re-introduction of the Margaux second wine, Pavillon Rouge. No detail was too small, no element trivial enough to disregard, he was a perfectionist and Chateau Margaux became his laboratory. At the beginning extensive replanting took place, though this eventually settled down to one or two hectares per year. Peynaud maintained his affiliation with Chateau Margaux until 1990, by which time he had helped transform ailing and pedestrian wines into something magical and emblematic for all who worship at the alter of great claret. In light of the massive works instigated by André Mentzelopoulos, it appears he was never seeking to make money from the estate. Corinne suggests "in those days there was no hint of a rapid return on investment". How could this Greek entrepreneur possibly have known what the future held... or perhaps that sixth sense was beginning to tell once more ? In December 1980 André Mentzelopoulos tragically died from a ruptured aneurysm: he was 65 years of age and yet to see his great chateau regain its rightful place in the Bordeaux firmament. It would now be up to his only surviving child to achieve this noble goal and in so doing complete the work her beloved father had started only three years before.

 

The First Growths
Only five chateaux comprise the most exclusive group of wine estates in the world, who can say which of these five gilded stars should wear the individual crown and claim the thrown atop the very apex of fine wine. Connoisseurship of the grape is so subjective and the vinous pendulum swings erratically from one vintage to the next, making wine appreciation endlessly fascinating. No two years in the vineyard are the same and no two vintages alike. Wine lovers seek consistency and regularity of style, something Chateau Margaux does exceptionally well.

 

Chateau Margaux
The restrained grandeur of Chateau Margaux sits gloriously within its gravelled enclave: viewed through a verdant green cadre in high summer and nakedly exposed in winter; gently reflecting the ochre and dappled grey of a Greek temple in the afternoon sun, not blousy or overblown, this square doll's house of a structure offers up a familiar architectural symbol that echoes cabernet greatness. Through the ages of Montaigne, Jefferson and Marx, iconic, symbolic and revered, the vinous world would be a lesser place without this beneficent monument to the noble vine. Grand cru in an 18th century room with a view: Louis Combes' neo-Palladian masterpiece rests four-square at the head of a long avenue of regular Plane trees, protected by a magnificent pair of mythical Sphinges.

 

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An imposing stone guardian
These imposing stone guardians gaze blankly from the foot of a massive cascade of steps leading to the famous portico - Chateau Margaux epitomizes all that is great in French wine making. What the rest of the wine world strives for, the French already have, it is something which cannot be arrived at over two or three decades. In 1855 all wine estates on the left bank of Bordeaux were classified, distancing and elevating the finest wines from the rest of the field, forming an exclusive clique of cru classé properties, ultimately creating what is now one of the world's major luxury brands. Though some classified chateaux have lethargically rested on their laurels for 150 years, as there was no subsequent re-classification, others developed and progressed to levels where massive investment and work in the vineyard yielded wines beyond compare.

 

The Vineyard
The vineyard at Chateau Margaux is situated within a much greater estate of 262 hectares (647 acres) - comprising some 80 hectares red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) and 12 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc that contribute to the white wine production.


The Wines
The Chateaux Margaux wines number three in total : Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux (average production 150,000 bottles), Pavillon Rouge (average production 200,000 bottles) and Pavillon Blanc (average production a little over 30,000 bottles).


The Property
A formal park surrounds the main chateau and its saffron tinted outbuildings, all designed by Louis Combes and completed in 1810. The property has a famously long drive connecting the main house to a small country lane that heads east to the mighty and turbid waters of the Gironde estuary, perhaps half a mile from the village of Margaux. Visually, little has changed for over two hundred years in the landscape surrounding Chateau Margaux, except of course, the increasing number of visitors attracted to this vine-clad peninsula known as the Medoc.

 

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One of three main courtyards at Chateau Margaux - this one is used by estate artisans
The estate of Chateau Margaux resembles a tiny stone hamlet or village with three large courtyards. One used for visitors and employees car parking, the second surrounded by workshops of estate artisans, including electricians, plumbers and those providing maintenance of vineyard machinery. From the third, the cellars and chais are accessed, along with the Margaux cooperage where hundreds of oak barrels are made throughout the year. The austerely handsome regisseur's house sits apart from the main cluster of buildings at the north-western corner of the vineyard. The area immediately adjacent to this is now being developed for extensive wine storage.

 

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The Regisseur's House

The chais and massive barrel cellars that lie beneath the distinguished terroir are but a few metres from the delightful church of St Michel, with a bell tower resembling an elegant salt and pepper shaker. This tiny ecclesiastical jewel stands before a massive congregation of Merlot vines and lends a spiritual air to the daily ritual of tending the gnarled progeny of Peynaud and Pontallier. Though a large estate with many workers, one senses the feeling of respect and great affection all employees have for chateau and owner. This relationship, though not unique in the Medoc, offers a clear and sound reason for the reverence afforded Bordeaux, this gallic empire of wine reigns supreme due to a complex formula of passion, duty and an understanding of

earth and elements.

The Terroir
Unique to the commune, Margaux's terroir is layered like a rich gateau: a combination of calcareous clay and soil, with a topping of coarse and fine gravels; it is the heart and soul of this truly great wine. For those who decry the theory of terroir let them taste the many great vintages of Chateau Margaux and remain unmoved by this Grand Vin's fluid embodiment of the soil on which the Margaux vines are planted. The recent 2005 vintage provides a sublime example of such eloquent expression, it gloriously demonstrates how to harness the singular characteristics this magnificent slice of terra firma has to offer. It is a wine like no other, one which soothes the palate and sings the virtues of working in harmony with the elemental forces shaping each and every vintage. How can such a wine stand head and shoulders above its peers, especially in such an astonishing vintage? The answer is terroir, with a little help from a team of people whose entire lives are dedicated to one noble cause - the pursuit of bottled perfection and a strong desire to honour this famous Chateau.

 

Corinne Mentzelopoulos

Corinne Mentzelopoulos has a strikingly attractive and individual personality: she is warm and gracious, with an excellent sense of humour, yet behind the feminine exterior one senses a steely, unswerving determination to do only what is best for Chateau Margaux. With a Greek father and French mother of Italian/ Spanish descent, her Mediterranean character is quite distinct. Perhaps the steel one detects in her make-up is born of the personal losses endured; most notably the tragic death of her young brother on the cusp of life aged 18. Rather than a Greek tragedy Corinne's adult life has been generally full of joy, blessed by great wealth from childhood she readily acknowledges her good fortune in having a ferociously successful father. Though born with a veritable silver spoon, she inherited André's determination and spirit, she could easily have sat back and lived a luxury lifestyle without meaning, but did not. Striving to live up to her father's expectations she excelled on all fronts. "I am a workaholic, if I simply travelled and did not pursue an active career, I would shoot myself. In my youth I wanted to have a PHD and adored all of my subjects including Greek, Latin and Philosophy"

 

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Hosiers in bright Margaux sunshine
Though academically well qualified with a B.A. in Latin and Ancient Greek, Mentzelopoulos realized this was a different world to that of her father. In order to "justify" her place and work comfortably within his company she went to business school and gained an MBA. By learning a range of skills including accounting, she familiarized herself with profit and loss. " My father was always speaking of the Dow Jones or currency deals...so I went back to school and while retaining an interest in literature and history, I learned how to read a balance sheet"

Education is clearly important to Corinne Mentzelopoulos "I am interested in too many things, I want to understand anything and everything. I tell my three children you have to do something, that you need a diploma in your back pocket" Once in possession of her own qualifications she began working life at HAVAS, the Parisian advertising and marketing agency. "I wanted to gain work experience outside of my father's world, so became head of publicity for a year and a half" She organized the advertising for three main clients and enjoyed it immensely. "It was great fun but very superficial" When she eventually went to work for Felix Potin, she says " I did not want to be next to my father so I worked in the Paris suburbs where the company storage facilities were. I regret this now as my father died at an early age and I wasn't near him when he passed away"

 

When purchasing Chateau Margaux André Mentzelopoulos' ignorance of fine wine worked to his advantage: knowing little of good years and bad years in the vineyard, he immediately noted three separate vintages of Chateau Margaux were included in the purchase price. The fact they comprised 1974, 75 and 76 did not act as a deterrent - this shrewd businessman saw a means of recouping some of his investment very quickly - so he promptly sold them on! Corinne explains; " people trusted him and so they bought his wines - though I have to be honest and say I haven't drunk very much of the 74 myself" When André passed away in 1980 a major programme of works was already under way; during the first five years of the Mentzelopoulos ownership, plans for a revolutionary new cellar were drawn up, hundreds of metres of ceramic drainage laid under the vineyards together with a heavy investment for the reintroduction of new oak.

 

Corinne was now in charge of Chateau Margaux, a complete neophyte without any knowledge of wine making, she relied heavily upon the estate manager Philippe Barré and the great Emile Peynaud. "Philippe was a very nice man, a very ‘real' man and an enormous help and support - he was terribly important to me. When my father died he realised he must double his efforts to work even harder on producing wonderful vintages - with his great help I learnt from scratch" Soon after André's passing journalists asked many questions about the property and its wines. Whenever there was a question Corinne did not understand she would call on Philippe Barré - "I would say to the journalist, there is an urgent phone call I must make, and hurried out of the room quickly phoning Philippe to ask what on earth is ?... back I came and continued the interview, appearing for all the world competent and knowledgeable"!

 

1982 - perfect timing
The new and impressive cellars at Chateau Margaux were constructed during the first two years of Corinne Mentzelopoulos' stewardship. Many of the great Medoc vineyards are situated on land reclaimed from the waters of the Gironde, thus, the water table is very high and any subterranean construction fraught with engineering difficulties. The design for the Margaux cellars was pioneering and brave, though since this architectural breakthrough in the early eighties, many vignerons have followed in the Mentzelopoulos footsteps. With the massive new cellars completed in time for the 1982 harvest, all was going according to plan. The 82 vintage was a turning point for modern day Bordeaux: after more than a decade of poor to mediocre vintages, growing conditions were almost ideal. This city of wine had suffered a prolonged drought in its fortunes and was now ready for the rains of prosperity to cascade across Aquitaine once more. Mentzelopoulos had invested heavily in every aspect of the Margaux estate and was perfectly poised to take full advantage of the Bordeaux boom of the nineteen eighties. The perceptive wisdom of André Mentzelopoulos now began to bear fruit, with this star vintage Margaux would embark on a prolonged rollercoaster ride to vinous success.

 

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Paul Pontallier
If the year 1982 was significant for Bordeaux, 1983 was a particularly momentous year for Chateau Margaux. Estate manager Philippe Barré was rapidly approaching the age of retirement and a more youthful successor was sought to carry on the works initiated by André Mentzelopoulos, who that successor would be was difficult to imagine. The question posed a considerable conundrum for Mentzelopoulos, to run a wine estate, even a famous one like Chateau Margaux, was not an ambition held by many. We had yet to enter the modern era of chateaux branding, wine as an investment and deals worth millions. Even families with wine making in the blood steered their offspring well clear of a life in the vines, it was generally considered a route to penury and servitude within the French countryside. In the seventies and early eighties, few students attending agricultural college elected to pursue a career in viticulture, if they did, it was remarked upon by their tutors. How things have changed. The distinguished professor of oenology, Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon urged Corinne Mentzelopoulos to consider a vastly inexperienced student with whom he was acquainted, a young man of 27 who had only just completed his national service.

 

Paul Pontallier is a man suited to another age: erudite, sensitive and thoughtful, his intellectual world extends beyond that of making great wine: with an art historian wife, Beatrice, and four children ranging from 8 to 22 years of age, his contemplative and considered demeanour seems ill at ease with this brash modern world. Some might describe him as a displaced soul in search of an eighteenth century portal, where harpsichords play Bach and caged songbirds chirrup solitary accompaniment to great philosophical thought, indeed, he could well have found the cloistered life of an academic more amenable, yet he chose a middle path. That median line did not spell mediocrity, on the contrary, it offered this donnish personality a means of expressing himself to the full, while enriching the lives of those around him with a personal vision, encompassing intellectual ambition and the earthly practicality of an artisan who values simplicity and purity in all things. For the past 25 years Paul Pontallier has been running Chateau Margaux for Corinne Mentzelopoulos, together they have forged a peerless and complimentary partnership, uniting affectionate respect, with an ambitious and determined long-term aim of making superlative wine from unsurpassed terroir.

Chateau Margaux provides Paul Pontallier with intellectual space: room to be quiet and contemplate how great a wine might be, as if within a hallowed seat of learning. Surrounded by like-minded individuals, all striving to be the best, he shares his considerable knowledge and spreads the gospel of fine wine. A knowledge, which clearly extends beyond the practical exploration of simply making better wine, to the philosophical and cultural implications of being temporary custodians of a great vinous heritage and honouring the tradition of centuries. However rarefied and esoteric this classified world might be, Paul Pontallier provides the acceptable face of elitism. In this age of crass modernity, he makes the esoteric and exotic seem profoundly essential and a prerequisite for everyday life. A fine achievement and one made all the more impressive by his distinct lack of snobbishness. Pontallier's love of Chateau Margaux compels him to proselytise indiscriminately to all, disporting a boyish enthusiasm, which is both infectious and endearing. With a family viticultural tradition going back to the 16th century, some would say Paul Pontallier was destined for a life of wine: the family vineyards were in Sauternes (Chateau Raymond Lafon) and in the village of St André de Cubzac near Libourne, the area under vines totalled some 70-80 hectares. Pontallier says " I still own the main estate where my family have lived for the past four to five hundred years, though I do not grow vines there anymore" There are two Pontallier brothers, the elder sibling being a General practitioner as well as a vigneron. The boys were boarded from a very early age at Grand le Brun in the centre of Bordeaux. A strictly disciplined school, its tough regime was largely responsible for instilling a strong work ethic in the young Pontallier and though he did not enjoy being away from home, he gained an aptitude for self-sufficiency and duly prospered with his academic studies. "My world was music and literature, it was not simply wine, I was fascinated by great wines but it was not my whole world" At Bordeaux university he studied under Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, "I had admiration for him; at the time I was not involved with making wine but I was beginning to drink many good wines, it was then that I began to discover a world I had only ever imagined - I was totally immersed"


Though steeped in a winemaking heritage, Pontallier says it was never a ‘vocation', "it was a field which was known to me", though he makes clear there was no inevitability or pre-determined plan. Be that as it may, in 1976 Pontallier found himself at the top agricultural school in Paris as the only student studying viticulture and oenology among 150 of his peers. "I remember my professor saying ‘do you really want to go for this subject'? He was surprised because he thought I only wanted to drink and dance". Perhaps because Pontallier was so very familiar with the world of wine, he never really considered it a serious career choice. "you don't dream about things that are so familiar - my decision was purely practical" By 1981 he had his PHD and married his first wife in the autumn of that year. "My new wife and I went to Chile, I taught oenology and travelled, we had a wonderful time". Paul Pontallier eventually came back to France in the spring of 1983.

 

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The first encounter

After Professor Ribéreau-Gayon had recommended Pontallier, the first of two important interviews took place. "I had a good feeling when I travelled to Mentzelopoulos' Parisian offices on the Avenue Montaigne and soon after a second interview was arranged at Chateau Margaux. This was Corinne's first encounter with the young man who would soon become a staunch ally in her long campaign for excellence and integrity in wine making. Paul Pontallier was offered the position of Estate Director almost immediately and at the tender age of 27, was put in charge of one of the greatest chateaux in the world. It seems clear that he made a significant impression; though it was still a tremendous leap of faith on the part of Mentzelopoulos to entrust the continued execution of André's dream to one so young. The fearlessness of youth must have played a part: Corinne and Paul were of a similar age and had little cause for any self doubt; as stated, the wine world was then a very different place, a less pressured environment - this was all about to change.

 

The Pontallier wine making philosophy is complex and multilayered: though drawing heavily upon tradition and historical experience, it is neither hidebound or dogmatic, embracing technological advances together with accumulated experience gathered over many decades. Though conservative in much that he does and never frivolous with regard to his responsibilities, Pontallier is very open minded and cautiously welcomes innovation in the chais and vineyard. He is a determined man, though seldom loses his temper, with a twinkle in his eye, he adds "I might be more difficult than I think I am - but I am not tough and could be described as easy going. In my chosen profession I am a perfectionist - if things aren't going well I don't feel happy, but would never describe myself thus in other aspects of life" He shuns viticultural fashion and short- termism, " we don't aim to be trendy, one of the most important attributes is not to ‘panic', I have never felt inclined to tailor our wines to market trends. We must accept the fact we do not have the same agenda as the press - we have to think about the next generations, I want wines we might still be drinking in 30-40 years". He continues "why should we consider that our recent experience is more valuable than our forefathers? What went before in centuries past, informs our wine making today... it makes our wines better. This separates the Old world from the New: no matter how privileged the location with regard to terroir, the cumulative knowledge of past generations helps to make our wines great, it is obvious"

 

With financial independence, a major chateau can rise above fickle consumer demands - whereas a petit chateau might be compelled to worry about changes in wine drinking fashion or taste, thus, adjusting the Grand Vin simply to maintain the bottom line. It takes a cool head and a firm hand on the tiller to avoid the pitfalls of following the diktats of an individual guru's palate, no matter how influential they might be. Chateau Margaux cannot afford to ignore its great history, four hundred years is a very long time and provides a firm foundation for confidence in this modern age.

 

Maintaining a great tradition
When Paul Pontallier took up the reins at Chateau Margaux he was not alone, his predecessor Philippe Barré stayed on to aid the smooth transition, "he was a wonderful person, kind and generous - we became very close. As a result of our great friendship he carried on beyond his agreed retirement... Corinne was very happy about this". Pontallier's relationship with the great Emile Peynaud, though filled with mutual respect did not always achieve the same equilibrium. The wise and experienced Peynaud was more dogmatic and set in his ways, his knowledge of all things vinous was so impressive - it seemed logical to him that the ‘new comer' should prove himself, and perhaps when he did, the clash of professional egos was noticed. Pontallier's respect for Peynaud was immense, yet this did not inhibit the young man. The two oenologists worked well side by side, the outstanding 1983 vintage (Pontallier's first) provides ample testament to their excellent working relationship. "Peynaud was certainly responsible for the renaissance of Chateau Margaux, everything I learned here was under his guidance. I owe him my ‘know how' - it is difficult to analyse the Peynaud legacy because my debt to him is great. He did not try to create a ‘Peynaud wine' at the property, he was a truly competent oenologist, what he wanted to express was the terroir of the estate"


Though Emile Peynaud consulted for many chateaux, he never felt the need to stamp his identity on any given wine. He was a man of the old school, modest and dedicated. In those days the world's media had less power and reputations were not established overnight. Corinne Mentzelopoulos says, "his modesty and knowledge made him very special, he was the only person to have a combined career of successful researcher, viticulturist and consultant. As you a young man Peynaud would cycle from place to place with his wine samples, often from chateau to laboratory. In more recent times, even after a long and tiring day of consulting during the vendange he would pass by the chateau simply to taste for the sheer ‘gourmandise'. Chateau Margaux was Peynaud's biggest wine making achievement, it was an accomplishment that greatly enhanced his reputation and that of the chateau. He had the genius to take the right path and to convince our cellar master"! The tradition continues with Pontallier, often after a tasting, he will take home a half empty bottle to share with his wife Beatrice - "we simply finish the bottle between us because it is so wonderful"

 

Pontallier on Peynaud: "I regret not having been close to him, I never felt he was looking at other people and thinking he was the best - he was a good diplomat. When you read his books, you realize he was a master of the French language and though a bit stubborn, he was never arrogant".

 

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Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier - a pefect match

 

A perfect match
Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier have maintained a near perfect working partnership for almost a quarter of a century, they are so well suited, a further twenty five years seems assured. Since their first encounter in 1983, they have retained a delightful and well-balanced understanding - their relationship sets the tone for the whole estate and its loyal workforce. The atmosphere of joyful professionalism separates this renowned chateau from many others in the Medoc and is exemplified by the mutual respect expressed so eloquently by the two individuals portrayed.

 

Corinne says of Paul: " he manages to help each vintage express this great terroir, he controls the flaws if there are any, but does not impose his own ‘stamp' on the wine. It requires a lot of modesty and skill to hold back - he respects the vintage and does not want to make a particular ‘style' of wine" Paul says of Corinne: "she is serious, a great professional and knows what she wants. Corinne understands what is important in life, loves her children and combines qualities that are seldom found together. I could not dream of working with anyone better - I consider our relationship yet another privilege of working at Chateau Margaux"

 

Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier are both agreed upon the most significant period for the evolution and development of modern wine making in Bordeaux. They feel the technological advances made in the late fifties and early sixties were pivotal: "understanding how to control secondary fermentation was like finally grasping why a car goes along on four wheels". In the years before Peynaud great wines were often made by a combination of good fortune and perfect conditions, "our predecessors developed the knowledge which enabled us to make fabulous wines from time to time. After Peynaud, they discovered how to control things if they go wrong - this was a fundamental improvement". The many changes that have taken place since this period, most notably during the nineteen nineties, were simply ‘window dressing' - amendments, adjustments or fine tuning, with the modern wine media and hype, so much detail is often overblown. The advances that took place in Bordeaux over forty years ago, influenced wine making across the world, and changed our understanding of viticulture and oenology forever.

 

The Future
To alleviate the burden of a company now too large for one person to run (with a 33% stake in Perrier, real estate empire and Ch. Margaux), Corinne Mentzelopoulos transferred equity in her beloved Chateau Margaux to IFINT, a holding company owned by the powerful Agnelli family based in Turin. Put simply; by executing an exchange of shares between the two organisations the Agnelli's acquired a 75% controlling interest in Chateau Margaux in 1993. When the Agnelli family elected to sell their stake in the famous First Growth by early 2003, Mentzelopoulos' administration and directorship of the chateau was never placed in doubt, as she always had a contractual ‘first option' to buy back the shares. Corinne Mentzelopoulos needed to make a swift decision: whether to buy the Agnelli shareholding outright, thus, regaining complete control, or risk losing out to another bidder. "We had a kind of family reunion - my second husband Hubert Leven said ‘you have to buy it', my daughters, Nathalie and Alexandra shared his view, ‘Mummy you are too involved in Chateau Margaux to even consider relinquishing it' - at the same time Corinne's nine year old son Alexis, touchingly took it upon himself to shatter his piggy-bank and generously donate the 16 Euros he had recently saved to help finance the deal. Mentzelopoulos says "I thought maybe I could do something else, but this is my work, my way of life and what I do on a daily basis from first thing in the morning until the end of every day - I work for Chateau Margaux"

 

Corinne Mentzelopoulos had been preparing herself for sometime: she had organized everything in the unlikely event of such an opportunity arising, "it was more subconscious than by real design - I was able to move fast without searching around for help" A meeting took place with Gianni Agnelli's senior advisor Gianluigi Gabetti. Soon after, there was a second rendez-vous when Gabetti asked her directly if she was ready to gather everything together for the purchase of Chateau Margaux. Looking straight at him, she responded with a definitive, unflinching "yes". It was the only time Mentzelopoulos had seen a flicker of astonishment in Gabetti's eyes, it was then a case of putting together the deal.

 

Corinne Mentzelopoulos had regained control, she is once again the sole owner and has cemented the future of this great estate, in so doing, has made safe her father's dream. For centuries Chateau Margaux has received many thousands of visitors, the busiest time in the modern era being the annual en primeur fortnight - a modern commercial tradition. The world's wine trade and press wish to taste the latest vintage, there is a tangible air of excitement and anticipation when Paul Pontallier reveals his embryonic treasures to the outside world - the culmination of twelve months hard work. At this time the chateau welcomes hundreds of wine professionals, it is vital to create a good impression and everything is meticulously prepared. This year, over a concentrated four day period, some fifteen hundred professionals and connoisseurs tasted. Rather like a movie premier, the press reviews are eagerly awaited, though for Pontallier, 2005 was something of a ‘foregone conclusion' so miraculous was the Grand Vin. Throughout the rest of the year visitors encompass tour groups and wine lovers in general, from time to time the chateau visitors book is signed by famous celebrities, ranging from sporting stars like Michael Jordan, to world leaders, most recently Chinese President Hu Jintao. All who share a passion for great wines, are warmly welcomed at Chateau Margaux, it is a special place full of kindness and good will.

 

Over the past two and a half decades, Chateau Margaux has left its mark on Mentzelopoulos and Pontallier, they have shared the joy and elation of great vintages and jointly shouldered the burden of responsibility. There will have been disappointments and occasional frustrations. Over such a considerable period of time, like many businesses, even those steeped in history and tradition, there are darker moments and times when things do not always go according to plan - especially when working with nature and the elements. Throughout, these two great ambassadors for fine wine have remained committed, they have been staunchly supported by a team of professionals, from the legendary Professor Emile Peynaud and Philippe Barré in the 1980's to the present work force. Today, Estate Manager Philippe Bascaules, Cellar Master Philippe Berrier and comptroller Olivier Pinon play key roles in maintaining Chateau Margaux's superlatively high standards, they are ably assisted by a loyal group of colleagues who respect their employer and the values she holds dear.


When not occupied with Chateau Margaux, Corinne Mentzelopoulos has many interests: first and foremost she is mother to two daughters and a son, Nathalie 24, Alexandra 20 and Alexis aged 13. She adores skiing and spends a good deal of time in Chamonix with her family. "We love being in the glaciers and when I am not in the mountains I might be water skiing or wind surfing...I have a home in Greece on the Gulf of Corinth" Literature has been a life long passion, something she shares with Paul Pontallier. She reads little contemporary work in French, "I stop at Jean-Paul Sartre, but I do read a great deal in English and I enjoy visiting Amazon on the web. I simply adore books and surround myself with them" Her musical tastes are eclectic to say the least, ranging from Beethoven and Saint Saens to Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Greek traditional music...she also enjoys rap.

Her greatest joy would be to know her father was pleased and the chateau passed on in good order to the next generation. "Having the privilege of running such a great estate brings me happiness - it still gives me a thrill when people enjoy our wines, at the same time I know I am not responsible, it has been here for centuries and you have to be humble"

 

Since arriving at Chateau Margaux in 1983 Paul Pontallier has made a great impression on the world of fine wine, it would be no exaggeration to say he commands respect and admiration from all quarters. His maiden vintage was majestic and stands as an amazing achievement. It belies the inexperience of youth and demonstrates a profound understanding of subtlety and pure expression. Twenty three years later his understated approach to wine making is exemplary; undoubtedly a champion of humility in all things vinous, he comprehends the value of terroir better than most. So often in modern wine making, one sees the ominous shadow of ego cast across the assemblage of potentially great wines. Paul Pontallier recognizes the danger of imprinting a personal winemaker's style upon any given wine - least of all Margaux. Like a great Maestro, he reads the ‘score' carefully and identifies how to bring out the best in each section of his orchestra. He sets a fine example for all who aspire to the creation of great and noble wines, by providing a visionary framework, he permits each vintage to sing harmoniously and fulfil its potential. It is a rare gift and combines intellectual ability with craftsmanship and restraint. With truly great wine there is an extra ethereal dimension, something intangible and beyond description, though not for some - Paul Pontallier can eloquently define his thoughts and in so doing, convey to all who are prepared listen, just why he loves this world of wine and respects the heritage of which he is part. Speaking of Chateau Margaux he says "It has not changed my life, it has changed my personality, you cannot remain the same when you are confronted with greatness on a daily basis - your perspective changes. Though I don't feel I am running a ‘church' here at Chateau Margaux, I do feel I have a tremendous responsibility to all those lovers of great wine"

The future looks safe and assured for Chateau Margaux: the 2005 vintage has been acclaimed by all, it is a wine of exceptional quality even by the lofty standards of this famed First Growth. Very nearly 30 years since André Mentzelopoulos first crossed Louis Combes' stone threshold, ultimately thrusting his only daughter into the vinous limelight and a life of viticultural excellence, he would be content and proud to know what a splendid and dignified job both she and Estate Director Paul Pontallier have done.


Corinne Mentzelopoulos' achievements and her singular dedication to maintaining his ambition, while upholding the standards and integrity associated with this legendary growth have been acknowledged and praised by many. We live in a modern world often lacking grace and charm, where the cut and thrust of business dominates our culture, a world of instant gratification. Chateau Margaux rises above it all and provides an aspirational symbol for those who value common courtesy and attach importance to gentle conversation and shared passions. Not simply because of its beauty or the greatness of its wine, but the two special people who preside over its fortunes: Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier provide ample proof that great success can be compatible with old world values.

 

As we stand together beneath the stone portico of Chateau Margaux, the late afternoon sun casts long shadows. Zorba, Corinne's gangling Beagle puppy and latest addition to the family, is in a playful mood. Paul Pontallier says he must go and prepare yet one more tasting of the 2005 for an important American visitor soon to arrive. Tirelessly he skips down the vast stone steps, past the watchful gaze of the magnificent and seemingly omnipresent stone sphinxes. As if stepping through a mythical landscape he strides across the gravel heading towards the heavy wooden door leading to the first year cellars beyond. As he does so Zorba lollops uninvited close on his heels. Amused, Corinne and I stand watching from inside the hallway of the chateau. Between the glazing bars, for a fleeting moment we glimpse the slight figure beneath the shaded trees... and then he is gone. Rather like entering ‘The Secret Garden', the wine maker is reunited with his wine and contentment reigns supreme. Observing such obvious passion and devotion, we comprehend how wine transcends all else, offering the perfect metaphor for life itself and a clear definition of what makes Chateau Margaux unique.


web_sphinx_tiny copyright The World of Fine Wine 2006 - volume 13



 

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