Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Bordeaux first-growth Château Margaux, is quick to put her prestigious role into perspective. "I often say that we are not creators; we are not winemakers," she said Saturday afternoon at the closing seminar of the New York Wine Experience. "We are at the service of Margaux, which is much bigger than us."
Humble words for someone so accomplished. Mentzelopoulos took over the historic estate in the appellation of the same name when she was just 27 years old, following her father André's unexpected death in 1980. She invested heavily in upgrading the château, winery and vineyards and, perhaps most important, hired a young Paul Pontallier in 1983.
Mentzelopoulos pointed out that all six wines served were made under the direction of Pontallier, who passed away in March 2016. "The quality you will hopefully find in these wines is really due to him," she said. But Margaux is still in good hands, she noted: His successor, Philippe Bascaules, had spent 21 years at the château before a five-year stint at California's Inglenook.
The lineup started with the 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc Château Margaux Bordeaux Pavillon Blanc 2011 (95 points, $155), unusual for Bordeaux whites, which are typically blended with Sémillon. Served from magnum, it showed bracing acidity and a distinctive salinity.
Five vintages of the Margaux grand vin followed, illustrating the estate's shifting emphasis away from Merlot and onto Cabernet Sauvignon over the past 40 years. Bordeaux saw a string of bad vintages in the 1970s, and the easier-ripening, higher-yielding Merlot found favor throughout the region. Over the subsequent decades, however, Mentzelopoulos and Pontallier refined the grand vin parcel selection, focusing on prime plots of Cabernet Sauvignon on chalky, stony soils.
"As you know each piece of land better, once you have the best possible Cabernet, Merlot cannot compete anymore," she said. The Château Margaux Margaux 2009 (97, $1,250) is a prime example, from one of the best Bordeaux vintages of the 21st century; Cabernet comprises 87 percent of the blend, while Merlot represents just 9. It was showing some signs of development already, with notes of black olive and tobacco.
By contrast, the Margaux 2004 (94 points, $398 current auction price) has double the Merlot percentage. It wasn't a blockbuster vintage, but Mentzelopoulos said she wanted to show a vintage that was drinking well when younger, to disprove the notion that top Bordeauxs must be cellared for decades.
As a counterpoint, she suggested that the Margaux 1995 (97, $500 current auction price) could age another 50 years, but is also drinkable now at age 22. It showed a solid core of fruit, with black pepper accents. Interestingly, the Margaux 1989 (97, $411 current auction price) was showing much brighter fruit, with perfumed components, but still some savory hints toward the long finish.
Concluding the tasting was the Margaux 1986 (95, $523 current auction price), poured from magnum. Mentzelopoulos says the vintage was a benchmark: That year, after paying a visit to a fellow vintner in Pomerol and observing the vineyard work, she started bringing the yields down—a turning point for the château. The wine showed dark fruit, with smoke and mineral notes.
Senior editor James Molesworth commented that Château Margaux is the only first-growth that doesn't have another winery project. Mentzelopoulos replied, simply: "I'm pretty convinced we wouldn't do something as magic as Margaux."