Chateau Margaux and the 1855 Red Bordeaux Classification

The Château Margaux.

By Denman Moody –

This month, I digress from the great American wine estates. For a historical understanding of red Bordeaux wines, one must be familiar with the 1855 Classification, almost all being from the Médoc, or left bank, which is where most of all the great Bordeaux reds were produced at that time.

In 1855, based upon the prices each of the best wines had fetched in previous years, the classification was established. The best of the best were called Premier Cru, or first estate. The four named were Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. In one of the only two changes since, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to a Premier Cru in 1973, with a Picasso label that year to boot!

Unknown even to most oenophiles, even by the mid-1700s, the first four were recognized as the greatest Bordeaux wines. And, a particular portion of the Chateau Margaux vineyard called the Cap de Haut was one of the early parcels to receive great acclamation. Since the vast majority of Americans were still basically clueless about the great wines of the world, even in 1973 when Mouton became a Premier Cru, translated First Growth, the prices at auction were ridiculously low by today’s standards.  To show the unbelievable increase in value of one wine – Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1870 from the Glamis Castle Cellar in Scotland, that I was able to enjoy in the early 1980s – was valued at about $2,500 at that time.  Several sold at auction in 2001 for $25,000 per magnum, and today, I wouldn’t be surprised if one sold for $100,000.

Chateau Margaux began losing some of its other-worldly reputation when the then owners, the Ginestet family, began having financial problems in the early 1970s. They did their best, but with waning income, along with the vintages of 1973 and 1974, “the unwanted orphans of a shattered market-place” forced them to sell. A sale was affected in 1977 to André Mentzelopoulos, the majority owner of a huge grocery business. He had the foresight to hire Emile Peynaud, the leading wine consultant of France at that time. After his untimely death, his wife and daughter Corinne took over,  retained Peynaud and everything began to return to their former heralded status.

Denman Moody at a dinner with Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Chateau Margaux, and the brilliant wine consultant Emile Peynaud in 1983 in Houston.

My love affair with Chateaux Margaux was engendered by a dinner held in November of 1983 at Charlie’s 517 Restaurant in Houston hosted by Houston oenophiles Bill Sharman and Lenoir Josey. Guests of honor were Corinne Mentzelopoulos, her mother and Emile Peynaud. The five-course dinner was accompanied by 38 vintages of Chateau Margaux, including almost every great vintage from 1981 back to 1875!  The most exciting decade for me was the 20s: 1929, 1928, 1926, 1924, 1921 and 1920. As an aside, when previewing the wines to be served prior to the event, I noticed that the great 1928 – ‘28 and ‘29 were two of the greatest contiguous vintages – was missing, so I contributed a magnum from my cellar.

Two other fabled contiguous vintages, 1899 and 1900, were served, and to me, this was the absolute highlight of the evening. We were scoring on a scale of 20 being the highest at the time, and I gave the 1899 a 19.5 and the 1900 a 20! Professor Peynaud admired the 1900 as “very well kept, round, firm, full of finesse and lots of fragrance.  The ’99 is more supple with less tannin.  Just as good as the 1900 but in a different way.”

In looking over my article written at the time, I revisited one of my favorite wine notes about the 1961 Chateau Margaux at this tasting, “Power, charm, majesty, elegance.  This wine is so fabulous, it makes one wonder how so many of the others got such a high score.  Actually, there is a great chasm between a 17.5 and a 20. The 1961 Margaux is, along with Petrus, Palmer and Mouton, a perfect 20, although definitely of a different style.  Whereas the Petrus and Palmer are almost overpowering, and the Mouton is enthralling in its strength, the Margaux, even though powerful and rich, is uniquely beguiling and seductive.”    

As a surprise ending, my wife and I celebrated my 45th birthday dinner at Chateau Margaux on April 27, 1987.