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Is Château Montrose a One-Hit Wonder?

A vertical tasting back to 1888 suggests the best is yet to come

James Suckling
Posted: November 29, 2005

Some wines make their reputation on one great vintage. Mouton-Rothschild made it on the 1945. Cheval-Blanc is known for its 1947 and Heitz Martha's Vineyard stakes its claim on the 1974. Like a band that makes its name on one song, there may be other good tunes, but that big hit stays in your mind.

Château Montrose, the well-known second-growth of Bordeaux's St.-Estèphe, is known primarily for its 1990. Some consider it a perfect wine; in my opinion, it's no 1945 Mouton, but it's outstanding all the same.

Recently, I attended a tasting of 37 vintages of Montrose back to 1888, one of the greatest pre-phylloxera vintages. It was held in Paris at three-star restaurant Taillevent, which also holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award. Southern California wine collector and physicist Bipin Desai organized the event. Most of the great vintages were tasted, including 1961, 1959, 1949, 1947, 1945, 1929, 1928, 1900, and so on.

But it was the relatively modern vintages that provoked the liveliest discussion among the wine collectors, merchants and wine critics in attendance. And they were the wines that impressed me the most. Over the past two decades, Montrose has been making its best reds ever.

Montrose is a large estate, with about 150 acres of vineyards, planted to 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Petit Verdot. About 15,000 cases are made in a top year, such as 2000. The Charmolue family has owned the château since the late 1890s, but it's the current head, Jean-Louis, who has made the most progress in the last decade or so.

In top vintages, the wines show textbook St.-Estèphe character, with subtle yet rich currant and berry aromas and flavors and spicy and light earthy undertones. It is a tannic and racy wine both in its youth as well as with age, as many of the older wines in the tasting illustrated. The wine normally needs about eight to 10 years of bottle age to show its true character.

We discussed the differences between the 1990 and the 1989. About half of the tasters preferred the 1990, but I definitely sided with those that preferred the '89. The 1989 is a cleaner, more classically styled Montrose. It shows fabulous aromas of roasted fruit, blackberry, tobacco, chocolate and toasted oak. It's full-bodied with silky tannins and a long, long finish, with the potential to improve for decades to come. I scored it 97 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale at the tasting.

The 1990 was fleshier and fatter, with even more layers of ripe tannins. Its mouthfeel was like velvet compared to the silky 1989. However, the one negative about this wine was its earthy, meaty, almost stinky undertone on the nose. Some might call it barnyard; others identified the presence of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast. But the character is there and nobody can deny it. In fact, the sommeliers who served the 1990 at the tasting said that they decanted it five hours before it was poured to "blow off" some of the funky aromas. It helped a lot but the wine was not 100 percent clean. I gave it 94 points, despite the smell.

Besides being the better wine, the 1989 is certainly the better deal. It sells for less than half the price of the 1990--about $150 at auction, compared with $325 for the younger vintage. I think it will rival the superb 1959, which was also poured at the tasting. I loved the 1959's soft, silky tannins and the wonderful mixture of mushroom and light earth aromas and flavors with a ripe berry and currant undertone. I scored it 95 points.

The other wine that really impressed me was the 2003. It had only been in bottle for a few weeks, but it could be a remake of the 1989 or 1959, or--Dare I say it?--a superclean 1990. I'll have a better take on this wine when I do my blind tasting of the 2003 Bordeaux vintage in bottle; look for my scores in the March issue.

Montrose may have made its name on one vintage, for better or for worse, but if the 2003 lives up to its promise, I still think the best is yet to come from this second-growth St.-Estèphe estate.

Wine Score Price
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 2003 96 $180
Gorgeous aromas with very ripe fruit and spices with a slightly roasted fruit undertone. Full-bodied, with silky tannins that are firm now but will evolve into a truly excellent wine. Long and muscular yet refined. Tight now. The owner likes it better than his 1990 and 1989. Best after 2012. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 2002 92 $41
Very pretty aromas of blackberries, spices and milk chocolate. Medium- to full-bodied, with a solid core of fruit and a silky mouthfeel. Still tight but refined and long. Just as I remember. Best after 2008. 12,500 cases made. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 2000 96 $100
Aromas of mint, berry and licorice follow through to a full-bodied palate that is thick and rich yet refined and reserved. This is dense and well-structured, with loads of vanilla, berry and lightly roasted fruit. Powerful but still holding back. Compacted and dense. Should be fantastic. This is better than I remember. Best after 2010. 15,000 cases made. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1996 89 $66
Approaching ready, with a meat, berry and tobacco character and hints of roasted fruit. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a licorice and meat aftertaste. Not as exciting as I remember. Slightly disappointing and herbal. What happened to this wine? Best from 2006 through 2012. 17,600 cases made. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1990 94 $325
Dark in color with decadent aromas of ripe fruit, earth and amazing mint and spearmint undertones, yet there's also an underlying meaty funkiness. Full-bodied, with layers of very ripe fruit and velvety tannins. Massive and caressing. A big, powerful wine. Like velvet. Drink now. 22,000 cases made. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1989 97 $145
This is phenomenal and I continue to believe that it is superior to the 1990. Fabulous aromas of roasted fruit, blackberry, tobacco, chocolate and toasted oak. Full and velvety and very, very fresh. Powerful and fabulously structured. This will still age for years. 22,000 cases made. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1986 95 $91
Wonderful clean berry fruit with currant, light mint and mineral follow through to a full, firm palate with long, silky tannins and a mineral, berry and spice aftertaste. Lovely wine. Firm. This is squeaky clean and beautiful. Enjoyable now but better to wait a few years still. Best after 2007. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1985 90 $54
Starting to soften now with currant, fresh herb and light oak character. Full and round, with good fruit and a silky finish. Wonderful length and finesse. A wonderful wine now, but will go on for a long time. Drink now through 2015. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1982 96 $121
Intense aromas of kirsch, currant and spice follow through to a full-bodied palate, with round, velvety tannins and a long, long finish. This is complex, changing on the nose and palate. Layered and structured. Will still improve for many years to come. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1975 87 $66
I like the aromas of currant, berry and fresh herbs. Full-bodied, firm and chewy, with a slightly dry tannin structure, like many 1975s, but gorgeous fruit and clarity in this wine. Very good despite the hardness. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1970 87 $115
Currant and tobacco aromas with undertones of basil and sweet tobacco. Medium-bodied, with a delicate palate. Starting to dry out a bit, but a nice wine. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1964 86 $103
Lovely aromas of blackberry and mint with just a tint of fresh herbs. Medium-bodied, with light tannins and a tea and berry character. This is surprisingly good for a vintage that is normally a washout for the northern Médoc, with a few notable exceptions. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1961 90 $389
This shows lovely aromas of currant, fresh herbs and light mint, with just a hint of cedar. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins and a warm chocolate and meat character. Not a big wine but holding on nicely. This bottle is a little musty but blows off. Gets better in the glass. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1959 96 $652
Aromas of ceps and other mushrooms with light currants and berries. Medium- to full-bodied, with velvety tannins and a cedar and light tobacco aftertaste. Soft and silky. Lovely old wine to enjoy and reflect on. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1955 86 $245
This is a lovely surprise. The nose shows dried flowers, blackberry and grilled meat. Medium-bodied, with slightly raised, hard acidity and slightly green tannins. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1953 82 $379
This has a slightly volatile character with light nail polish and fruit character. Medium-bodied, with a rather hard finish. Turns mushroomy. Barely holding on. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1952 80 $70
Muddy and falling apart. Some fruit but drying out. But cleans up a bit with more air. Still dry and light. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1949 93 $446
You have to like the mineral, plum and cedar aromas that follow through to the full-bodied palate, with soft tannins and herb, tobacco and plum flavors. Long and silky. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1948 90 $207
Aromas of cumin and berries, with hints of fresh herbs like basil. Full and round, with velvety tannins and a long finish. Slightly acidic, but shows very, very well. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1947 91 $474
Aromas of dried fruit with hints of tomato and currant. Medium-bodied, with fine tannins and a good freshness. A bit hard, due to volatile acidity, but it grows on you. Warm and racy for such an old wine. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1945 94 $375
This shows extremely fresh aromas of currants, berries and flowers. Medium-bodied, with dried strawberry and currant flavors. Shows wonderful hints of Indian spices. Most 1945s are more aggressively tannic, but this bottle is seductive and caressing. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1937 79 $277
This is falling apart now. Some tea and berry but tired. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1934 95 $173
This is really, really excellent with loads of fruit and black olive character. Complex, with minerals and blackberry. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins and a long, long finish. Fabulously long. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1929 85 $371
This is slightly maderized, with a cedar and dried fruit character and hints of lemon and orange. Medium-bodied, with slightly firm acidity and tannins but I like it. Aggressive. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1928 96 $664
This is really fabulous with aromas of currant, raspberry, light licorice and dried herbs. Full and silky, with a caressing texture. Long and exciting. 1928 is a wonderful vintage. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1926 90 $427
A surprise, with mint, berry and currant aromas and just a hint of dried flowers. Medium- to full-bodied, with wonderfully silky, refined tannins. Long, long and gorgeous. This is a forgotten wine, but it shouldn't be. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1921 96 $990
This is ultraripe with sweet tobacco, plum and mint and verging on pruny. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a powerful, layered mouthfeel. Long, long finish. This is amazingly fresh yet decadent and aged. Wild wine. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1920 85 $547
Holding on with some interesting citrus and prune character. Medium-bodied palate with hints of dried lemons. Surprisingly good. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1918 88 $368
Wonderful aromas of ripe fruit, tobacco and hints of roasted fruit. Medium-bodied, with light meat and delicate currants. Turns floral and citric. Very good indeed. Tealike aftertaste. Impressive. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1916 89 $193
Some decent fruit, with a plum and berry character and a mushroom undertone. Medium-bodied, with ripe fruit character and a fresh finish. Holding on very well indeed. Funky, but I like it. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1911 87 $252
Aromas and flavors of orange peel and plums, with hints of cedar. Medium-bodied, with high acidity and a slightly sharp finish. Some mushroom character but holding on. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1906 78 $357
Rather acidic with some lemon and orange peel character. Dried flowers. Medium-bodied, tart finish. Barely holding on. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1900 78 $764
Aromas of tar, lemon and dried fruits with hints of berries. Medium-bodied, with a tart, acidic edge. Hard to get excited about. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1898 77 $185
Light amber in color with a brown edge. Orange peel and leather with hints of citrus. Not much joy there any more. Mummified. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1893 91 $708
A cloudy amber color with a green edge. It shows sweet lemon and tea character, with a sweet basil undertone. Medium-bodied, with layers of silky fruit and a honey and tea aftertaste. Still holding on. Fascinating old wine. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1890 85 $0
Darker in color than the others in this group. This shows mint, leather and cooked fruit. Still shows Montrose character. Medium-bodied, with some citric, tangy character. Holding on. Dries out a bit due to the volatile acidity. Drink now. -- J.S.
CHÂTEAU MONTROSE St.-Estèphe 1888 86 $681
Reminds me of old Burgundy, with a warm orange and plum character, with leather and lemon peel. Light amber in color. Medium-bodied, with a silky texture and a long, flavorful finish. Fascinating. Makes you think of a forgotten time. This falls apart in the glass, however. Drink now. -- J.S.

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