In 1989 a bottle of Château Margaux 1787 owned by New Yorker William Sokolin was valued at – wait for it – £519,750. It had been discovered behind the wall of a Paris cellar two years earlier and is thought to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson, a huge fan of Bordeaux. Mr Sokolin was a wine merchant who may have overvalued his prize possession. Apparently he was rather impulsive. No one could test this theory though as the bottle soon met an untimely end.
While attending a black-tie Bordeaux dinner at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel he realised the owners of Château Margaux were actually there. He raced home, grabbed the bottle and raced back. Eager to show it around he carried it across the room and accidentally knocked it off some furniture, puncturing two holes from which red wine began to flow vigorously. Mr Sokolin went numb. He raced home again, forgetting his wife in the process, and froze what remained of the liquid; described by People magazine’s Alan Richman at the time as a “chocolate-brown goo” which gave off a smell “not unlike that of stewed prunes”.
Even if a 200-year-old Bordeaux was drinkable you wouldn’t have to rely on it to see how special Château Margaux’s wine is. On site are 230 acres planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc. With an average annual production of 385,000 bottles it is considered among the finest available.
The estate dates back to the 12th century when it was the site of a fortified castle. In the 16th century the Lestonnac family arrived, expanding the property and clearing a majority of the existing grain fields to plant vines. Over the years their wine transformed from a lacklustre pale liquid to the iconic dark drink people rave about today. This was thanks to revolutionary techniques of wine-making instigated by the estate manager Berlon. One idea was to overcome the problem of dilution by never harvesting in the early hours of the morning – this avoided taking in dew-covered grapes. By the 18th century Château Margaux’s reputation was sealed.
Dark times were ahead though. The French Revolution kicked off in 1789 and heads began to roll. Unfortunately for Château Margaux one of them was the head of the estate’s owner Elie du Barry. The land was then sold at auction to a Mr Miqueau who basically let everything fall apart. Even when it was rescued by Laure de Fumel – a descendant of the Lestonnacs – she herself auctioned it off again in 1801. What happened next influenced the estate’s future in an intriguing way. It was bought by a man of considerable wealth called Bertrand Douat. He paid little attention to the vineyard but was responsible for turning the manor house into the iconic chateau depicted on every bottle to this day. He died in 1816 before he could sample its delights for himself.
Though looked after by subsequent owners there was nothing anyone could do to stop the sudden spread of soil diseases in the late 19th century. First there was fungus and mildew, before an insect from the U.S. called phylloxera completely devastated the Médoc region. What luck then that Château Margaux’s first harvest after this dark period was so successful. In fact they ended up with so much wine there were too few vats to contain it. They were back on track. Surviving into the 20th century under the careful management of Pierre Moreau it were as if no such disaster had ever taken place.
By the 1950s Château Margaux was owned by the Ginestet family. They were still in charge when recession struck in the 1970s. After 3 years of disastrous harvests between 1972 and 1974 the family were forced to sell the estate as their only negotiable asset. It says something about Château Margaux’s reputation that it has faced demise so many times yet always been saved. André Mentzelopoulos – a Greek and then-head of the distribution company Félix Potin – bought the estate in 1977. The chateau reminded him of his homeland. He took a chance on Château Margaux at a time when the effects of recession were still palpable; when both owners and investors were averse to taking risks. For those who admired the estate’s history but felt the quality of its wine had long since peaked Mentzelopoulos’ reign proved to be a wonderful gift. Both the 1978 and 1979 vintages were said to be exceptional.
André Mentzelopoulos died in 1980.
Though short his time at Château Margaux proved to be very influential. His daughter Corinne took over, surrounded by a team chosen originally by himself, and together they took advantage of the renewed worldwide interest in Bordeaux wines. Today Corinne is the soul shareholder. Bourdeaux wines continue to be phenomenally successful and despite stiff competition Château Margaux remains a firm favourite. Recently the website LivEx asked over 400 international wine industry professionals what their favourite vintage wines of 2015 were. Overall Château Margaux came out on top. 2015 was also the year when the corporation Sotheby’s held an auction in New York dedicated solely to their produce. A bottle of the renowned Château Margaux 1900 sold for $61,250, beating its estimated value six times over.
Thankfully it hasn’t been broken. Yet.