Experiments at Chateau Margaux: fining, filtration, and closures

You might think that once a wine has gone through alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, and been matured for months in oak barriques, that the die was set. Not a bit of it: the continuing experiments at Chateau Margaux show that there is an effect from every stage of what I suppose you might call finishing procedures. “Once again it is impossible to deny the differences, which is somewhat frightening,” was Paul Pontallier’s comment at the end of the tasting.

Once simply part of the routine of producing red wine, fining has become somewhat of a controversial issue, and is now one of the most obvious differences between Old and New World. When I was discussing Cabernet Sauvignon with producers in the course of researching my book Claret and Cabs,  virtually every producer in Bordeaux told me they fine, and almost all producers in Napa Valley said they avoid fining just like filtration.

Fining was introduced as a procedure to lighten the wine, the traditional process being to add egg whites to the barrel. Albumin protein in the egg whites is positively charged, and so reacts with negatively charged tannins to precipitate them. The conventional argument is that this softens the wine by removing harsh tannins and also polishes it by taking out other components. Critics ask why the egg whites should act only on harsh tannins and take the view that desirable tannins and other components might equally well be affected. And, of course, over the past ten or twenty years, tannins have become much riper so you might well ask whether they still need to be removed. (Most producers who continue to find do use fewer egg whites now than they used to.)

Well, the answer at least in the context of Bordeaux, is absolutely clear: the 2004 Chateau Margaux fined with 6 eggs tasted like a completely different wine from the unfined example. Some people thought they could see a difference on the noses of the two wines, but personally I thought they were indistinguishable (and I am a bit hard put to see why volatile compounds might be removed by fining). But the unfined example had more evident tannic grip, less finesse, and came up just a little shorter on the finish. The fined sample simply gave a distinctly more polished impression, not just because of less tannin, but with a sense of being altogether better rounded. Chateau Margaux as you will find bottles in the shops, by the way, has been fined with 5 egg whites per barrel since 1996.

Filtration seemed to have less effect, as tested by comparing unfiltered Chateau Margaux 1995 with sterile-filtered wine. There was no detectable difference on the nose, and the balance on the palate seemed very similar. The main effect to my mind was that the sterile-filtered example seemed like a slightly older, more developed wine, with a touch of sous bois that was not evident on the unfiltered wine. Most participants preferred the second wine, but that depends somewhat on whether you prefer your wines younger or older. Paul Pontallier felt that the filtered wine had actually deteriorated a little due to a touch of oxidation. I can’t say that I would describe the filtered wine as eviscerated or having lost character as a result of filtration, but I suppose it might be the case that the filtration removed components that protect against oxidation.

The closure trial compared Pavillon Rouge 2002 sealed with natural corks with the same wine sealed under screwcaps. There had also been a trial with synthetic corks, but apparently the results were disastrous, and in relatively short order the wine was spoiled. “It’s a good decision to use screwcaps for white wines that will be drunk in the first six months,” says Paul Pontallier, “and with what I know now I would do the same, but our dilemma is that we want to make wine that will age.” The two wines were quite different: open, round, and fruity under cork, but reserved, backward, and showing more austerity under screwcap. Interestingly, the participants split more or less equally as to which style they preferred.

Chateau Margaux is just about to undertake the construction of a new experimental cellar that will allow them to undertake even more experiments. Among future projects are looking into the properties of individual clones of grape varieties and investigating the effects of different types of pressing. “To my astonishment, many people take the view that, if it is new, it must be better,” says Paul Pontallier, “I admire their optimism, but I feel the need to experiment first.”

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Experiments at Chateau Margaux: biodynamic, organic, and conventional viticulture

Far from the stuffy reputation for sticking to tradition, Chateau Margaux has one of the most active experimental programs in the world of wine. Paul Pontallier presented the results of some of these experiments in a seminar in New York this week. “I believe in doubt,” he says, explaining that he thinks viticulture and vinification should be based on knowledge gained from testing situations rather than on unsubstantiated beliefs.

The first experiment was a comparison between wines made in the 2012 and 2011 vintages from vines that had been cultivated conventionally, organically, and by biodynamics. This experiment started 5-6 years ago with a 2 ha plot—unfortunately not one of the best, says Paul—and is going to be extended to a slightly larger, more homogeneous, plot next year. The plot is divided into groups of rows that are cultivated with different methods, and every effort is made to stop treatments from spreading into the other rows. There’s more than one separate block of each type in order to minimize soil effects.

I have always been a skeptic about the effects of different types of viticulture. It seems obvious that organic viticulture is better for the environment than conventional treatments with herbicides and pesticides, but it does not seem axiomatic that it will necessarily produce fruit of better quality. Whether biodynamic treatments add anything to organic cultivation has always seemed rather doubtful to me. One problem is that no one has tested the effects in any sort of controlled way, and you might well argue that many of the well known organic or biodynamic wines are better than conventional wines simply because the producers are more skilled at what they do. So this was a very rare opportunity to see whether wines made under exactly the same conditions, but from grapes cultivated in different ways, show any differences.

The wines were tasted blind: all we knew was that the first three were from 2012 and the second three were from 2011. The immediate surprise was that in each group two wines were closely similar and the third was distinctly different. The two similar wines shared brighter fruits and acidity, more sense of aromatic uplift, more presence on the finish: in each flight the other wine had a slightly flatter profile with less finesse. My assumption that the last wine must be the result of conventional viticulture turned out to be correct. I had not expected such a striking demonstration of the advantages of organic viticulture,  but I feel the results were completely convincing.

The differences between organic and biodynamic examples were much narrower: in 2012 I had a slight preference for the organic wine, whereas in 2011 I had a very slight preference for the biodynamic wine. The differences were slight enough that I would not have argued if I had been told they were different bottles from the same lot.

Paul Pontallier says that to date they have found no objective differences in grapes or wines from the different treatments; and soil measurements this year suggested that if anything the conventional soils have more diversity. One of the most stunning aspects of the comparison, it seems to me, is that a clear difference should be evident between conventional and organic/biodynamic in only five years, given that it takes at least three years for a vineyard to be converted. Many producers whom I’ve asked about the effects of conversion say that the most significant difference appeared after something closer to a decade, so it will be fascinating to see whether these differences are sustained and broaden in the future.

The Improvement in Second Wines

When I investigated the second wines of Bordeaux in detail about five years ago for my book What Price Bordeaux?, I was not very impressed. The impression given by the chateaux was that the second wines provided an opportunity to experience their expertise in the form of wines that were ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, in the same general style, but of course at lower cost. Declassified from the grand vin, these wines would come from vines that in another year might have gone into the grand vin. But this did not entirely accord with reality. Only a minority of second wines were in fact principally derived by declassification (usually from vines that were considered too young to contribute to the grand vin); most had become separate products coming from vineyards that rarely contributed to the grand vin. And most second wines on the left bank had a much greater proportion of Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, certainly making them ready to drink sooner, but also much reducing the resemblance with the style of the grand vin. When I held some tastings specifically to compare second wines with other wines available at similar price points, the consensus of both professional and amateur tasters was that they preferred the other wines. Rather than representing special value because of economies of scale or expertise coming from the grand vin, the second wines seemed to have prices that were inflated by the reputation of the grand vin.

On a recent visit to Bordeaux, I gained an entirely different impression and it seemed generally that there had been a great improvement in the quality of second wines. Possibly a contributory factor was that many of the wines I tasted were from the recent excellent 2009 vintage, but beyond quality per se, it seemed that the second wines showed better representations of communal typicity and genuine resemblance with the styles of the grand vins. As I was tasting at chateaux, I did not have the opportunity to compare second wines with other wines at similar price points; perhaps they too have improved equally. One factor that may have contributed to an improvement in the relative quality of the second wines is that now they too are subject to selection; the rejected lots may go into a third wine or be sold off. “The second wine used to be a dumping ground – everything was put in it – but now it’s much more an independent brand, and there is selection for it,” says Bruno Eynard at Chateau Lagrange. John Kolasa at Chateau Rauzan Ségla sees it also as a spin-off from the recent swingeing increase in prices. “The improvement in second wines is due to the increase in pricing, which drove people away from the grand vins to the second wines.”

My tastings may also have been biased by the fact that they included some of what are always the very best second wines, those of the Premier Grand Cru Classés, which usually sell at prices around those of second growths. Although their second wines will be ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, I’m not sure there’s going to be so much difference as to justify the old description of second wines: certainly these at least are not for instant gratification. It remains true that most second wines still have more Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, but the reasons may have shifted a bit. Problems with Merlot becoming too ripe limited the amount that could be used in some grand vins in 2009 and 2010. An incidental consequence is that some second wines have higher alcohol levels than the grand vins, a real inverse of the traditional situation that the best wines came from the ripest grapes.

Are second wines good value? That’s the crux of the matter and I’m not sure I have a clear answer yet. When they did not seem to represent the style of the chateau, I felt that they could never be good value, no matter how much less in price than the grand vin, because they could not aspire to be the real thing. Now it seems that the quality and style are there; but lifted up by the huge increase in prices in 2009 and 2010, and the failure to reduce prices sufficiently in 2011, the wines seem expensive.

Tasting notes

Carruades de Lafite, 2011

Dark purple color. Fresh black fruits on nose with just a whiff of blackcurrants. Quite tight and constrained on the palate, showing elegant but tight fruits with firm tannins. At this moment it gives an impression of coming from somewhere between Pauillac and St. Julien, with the tautness of St. Julien but also the power of Pauillac. Slowly fruits of red and black cherries release in the glass. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. Very fine.   12.7% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2011

Dark purple color, almost inky. Sight impression of nuts as well as black fruits on the nose. Fruits are more rounded, deeper, concentrated than on the Carruades, in fact more Pauillac-ish. Tight and reserved with fine tannins evident on finish. A very fine, classic structure for aging.   12.7% 92 Drink 2017-2032.

Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, 2011

Rather stern, brooding, black impression on nose. Dense fruits on palate with slightly nutty aftertaste. Insofar as you can tell at this early stage, this is more approachable than the grand vin because the structure isn’t so apparent, but it is pretty dense for a second wine. The style is somewhat similar to the grand vin, but with less roundness.   13.0% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Margaux, 2011

Even sterner and more brooding than the Pavillon Rouge. Great fruit density hides the structure more than in the second wine, but then the austerity kicks in on the finish. Very dense and backward with the highest IPT (measure of tannins) ever recorded at Chateau Margaux. The vanillin or new oak is evident, but the nuttiness and perfume comes up the glass, suggesting a fragrant future.  92 Drink 2018-2030.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly, 2011

Fresh nose of youthful red berry fruits; the fresh, light, palate follows with a slight bite on the finish, perfectly pleasant, but – at least not at this stage – showing much character. It’s quite a fine, elegant, style, and slowly some more chocolaty notes emerge on the finish, suggesting that the wine may round out as it develops, but I have some question as to how far this vintage really reflects the style of the chateau.

Château Haut Bailly, 2011

There’s an impression of sweet, ripe, black fruits on the nose. It’s ripe and round on the palate with nice freshness, with a touch of chocolate coating from smooth, supple, tannins. Overall a light, elegant, impression with a faint suggestion of the classic cigar box, in fact a very characteristic Pessac. Not a great vintage, but certainly a good one that should show well for the mid term. The step up in quality from Le Parde is really obvious.   12.8%

La Croix de Beaucaillou, 2009

A darker color than the Lalande Borie (which is effectively regarded as the third wine), this shows more classic sternness to the nose, and a lot more weight and roundness on the palate. Now we turn to black fruits, showing as blackberries tinged with blackcurrants, and you can see something of the style of the grand vin – second wines are certainly coming on. There’s a good sense of refined structure on the mid palate with the fruits showing restrained elegance in a style characteristic of St. Julien.   13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2022.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou  2009

Not so much darker than Croix de Beaucaillou as more purple in hue. Restrained nose gives impression of tight black fruits. Lots of concentration here, with the deep, black, fruits matched by tight tannins, but closed at the moment. Typical of the top level of St. Julien vis à vis Pauillac, the restrained elegance shows a fine texture of taut tannins. promising long life in the classic style. Fruits are certainly full, but not overbearing; reports of excess exuberance were exaggerated.   13.6% 93 Drink 2016-2031.

Carruades de Lafite, 2009

Slightly nutty nose yet with some savory undertones. Round, elegant, soft, yet there is that underlying sense of the power of Pauillac. Although the tannins are supple, the wine is very restrained; the Cabernet seems more dominant than its proportion of 50%. The palate softens a little in the glass but the nose remains muted. The tannins need to resolve to release the elegance of the fruits. Even as a second wine, this is not for instant gratification, but needs time.   13.6% 90 Drink 2016-2031.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2009

Restrained nose with faintly nutty tones of blackcurrants. Softer and rounder, yet more concentrated, than Carruades. Tight grained tannins create a very fine texture, but show as dry on the finish. That hallmark core of elegance, of precision to the fruits, runs through the wine.  Even after only a few months, the initial exuberance has calmed down. “The wine has had good evolution, the exuberance we had at the beginning is no longer there; at the en primeur I was not sure we were in Bordeaux, now we are coming back into Bordeaux,” says Director Charles Chevalier. It’s that smooth roundness on the palate and the long velvety finish that tells us this is Lafite, that quality of seamless layers of flavor is already beginning to show.   13.6% 94 Drink 2018-2038.

Les Forts de Latour, 2009

The nose offers spicy sensations with cinnamon at the forefront. Fruits on the palate are intensely black, with blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums at the forefront. The underlying structure is tight, with firm tannins leaving a bite on the finish – but it’s a sense of grip rather than bitterness. The great fruit is partly hidden by the density of the tight supporting structure. This is going to need some time, but it should age for a very long time.   13.6% 92 Drink 2017-2029.

Château Latour, 2009

I asked M. Engerer, the Gérant at Latour, when he thought this wine would be ready to start drinking. “Well it depends on your taste,” he said, “if you are new and young to wine, perhaps five years, but we might prefer to wait longer.” Personally I think it would be infanticide before a decade is up. The intensity is indicated by the inky appearance. The nose is quite restrained. The palate is more subtle than the Forts de Latour in that its components are less obvious, principally because of the balance of fruits and structure. There’s great fruit density, but it’s held back by the structure; on the other hand, the structure is less obtrusive than in the Forts de Latour because of the fruit density. The main impression here is of the reserve of the wine, of a sense of power holding back, so massively constructed that it will take a decade to come around. This will no doubt become a classic like great Latours of the past.   13.7% 94 Drink 2022-2040.

Château Beychevelle, 2009

More fruit evident than the Amiral, but still with classic mineral freshness of St. Julien. More generous on the palate, but also more evident depth and supporting structure. Very much in the character of St. Julien, elegant rather than powerful, with supple tannins giving a furry finish with chocolate overtones. Oak is evident in the soft impression of vanillin and nuts on the finish. Fine, but will be finer yet when the planned increase in Cabernet Sauvignon occurs.   13.85% 89 Drink 2015-2025.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2009

Typical Cabernet impression of fresh black fruits, following through to a light, elegant, palate, but with chocolate undertones. The Amiral is lighter than the Beychevelle but also a little more austere (perhaps because it has 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Beychevelle’s 48%). The light underlying structure is a  good balance to the fruits, with unusually classic representation for a second wine. This should age nicely for the mid term; drink over the next decade.   13.6% 87 Drink 2013-2022.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2005

Touch of garnet at rim shows start of development. Black fruit impressions have hints of spices. Very nicely balanced, developing well in the elegant style of St. Julien. Given the softness on the palate you would not think this was three quarters Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a nicely defined structure. This gives a slightly fresher impression than the grand vin, almost you might say a tighter impression on the palate, because the fruits are not so well rounded.   13.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

Château Beychevelle, 2005

Rather restrained on the nose. First palate impression is of furry, chocolaty, tannins coating soft fruits – softer than the Amiral – and then the structure kicks in on the finish and you see the underlying strength of the wine for aging. Beautifully balanced, elegant, black fruits have lost the initial fat, but not yet started into middle development. The quality of the grand vin shows in a roundness that’s not on the Amiral.   13.0% Beychevelle 90 Drink now-2027.