Half a Century of Saint Estephe - Chateau Montrose
When I arrived in France in 1991, visitors to my Paris apartment joked that the furniture was mainly made up of wooden wine cases. They were nearly all Bordeaux. It was easy to find, easy to afford and, with the 1855 classification, easy to understand. Of the famous communes, I always had a bit of a soft spot for Saint Estephe, the most northerly. It had no premier crus and was less expensive than its southern neighbours; it was a bit less pompous and formal, and with its sometimes outrageous architecture (like the Chinese pagodas at Cos d’Estournel) and the often generous dose of merlot, (Cos again, Haut Marbuzet) it was a flash more exotic.
Nowadays I rarely buy Bordeaux and have largely lost interest. Since 2005 the prices of the best wines tripled literally overnight, a shocking way to dump loyal customers in favour of richer buyers mainly from the East. The cynicism became so flagrant that in 2008 Mouton and Lafite put a Chinese artist and a Chinese symbol on their respective bottles. The market in hyper priced Rothschild wine subsequently crashed, but by then I had sold what little I had of the two chateaux and bought a lot more of their peers at a third of the price. It was probably the best investment turn I have ever made.
Sadly, in Bordeaux (both banks), alcohols seem to have climbed faster than mere global warming would warrant, to the joy of critical accolades, consultant winemakers more than nodding in the direction of the all-powerful US critics. They began to talk of ‘terroir’ in an effort to grab some of the trendy lustre of Burgundy, but were mainly blends high on marketing. One chateau (Pontet-Canet) went biodynamic, and the wine press swooned. As the vintage hype got higher every year, (like the prices and alcohol), there began a competition to see which chateau could spend more on the overhaul of its chai, greatly to the profit of designer architects. The region had simply lost its soul, and then complained about ‘Bordeaux bashing’.
But if the emotion has rather gone for me, like a love affair beyond its sell by date, every now and then I am reminded just how wonderful the old classic wines of Bordeaux can be, how elegant, balanced and complex. Nowadays everyone is obsessed with 2005, 2009/10 and 2015/16 and proclaims every good vintage to be ‘the greatest ever’ a ridiculous assertion as who is alive to comment on 1929, 1945, 1961 etc at a similar stage in their evolution?
So let’s go back to the glory days of the last century when Bordeaux was still the standard bearer for good value, balanced high quality wine. I managed to buy 1990 Cos, Ducru and Pichon-Lalande for 150 French Francs, or 15 pounds sterling at the time! Yes, inflation would bump that up, but not by the 1,000% you’d need to buy a recent vintage. Ironically, the three ‘super seconds’ were not a perfect choice despite the bargain price – the Cos was indeed magnificent, but Ducru had some taint issues at the time and Pichon, like nearby Mouton, seemed to fall asleep at the wheel in what was such a great vintage.
The wine I should have bought was Montrose, a second growth (but not a ‘super second’) that Robert Parker thought worthy of the perfect 100/100. Yes, so did Latour, but at a different price point. Suddenly a solidly reliable wine was thrust into the megastar limelight.
The history of the chateau is interesting as it’s a relative newcomer, first planted in 1815 as the Duke of Wellington was about to encounter Napoleon at Waterloo. It was a scrubby bit of overgrown land situated close to the Gironde estuary on the Calon Segur estate. The owner, Dumoulin, spotted that underneath all the heather and trees sat a perfect gravel-sand croupe – the ideal geography for wine - good drainage and the tempering climate effect of the vast expanse of water next door. He began to clear the land and plant vines, a backbreaking business that gave birth to a vineyard originally known as Escargeon, but subsequently named Montrose-Segur. Nobody knows why, but Clive Coates MW wonders if it was due to the pink heather flowering on the gravel croupe? It is one of the few gBordeaux chateaus that has all its vineyards in one swather around the chateau, rather than numerous plots dotted all over the place with neighbours inbetween.
In 1855 the newbie was classed as Deuxieme Grand Cru, an amazing effort for what was scrubland 40 years previously, but was sold in 1861 to Mathieu Dolfus who is perhaps best known for introducing profit sharing for the workers, free medical attention and maternity leave – a very enlightened employer for the late nineteenth century. The estate then passed to the Charmolue family (his uncle owned Chateau Figeac in Saint Emilion and the family also counted Cos, Pomys and other chateaux in their portfolio) before being sold to the Bouygues in 2006, another family domain to cede to the advances of multinational corporate wealth.
But it’s the Charmolue era that interests me, as though the Bouygues investments may be tremendous, the wine is out of my price range and I’ll be senile by the time the top vintages are really at their peak. Besides, the old vintages which are ready to drink tend to be more forgotten and thus undervalued in today’s lofty market.
If I missed out on the 1990, my father, bless him, had bought a case of the 1989, the chateau as I said not being particularly high profile or expensive before the 1990. For years we drank it, I think the last bottle maybe 5 years ago, and it was always, for my taste, a true classic that embodied everything that a left bank Bordeaux should - a soft, ripe mulberry-cassis fruit, curranty, a ripe, rich but not heavy core, the earthy-cedary flavours of mature cabernet (about 60%) and flashes of tobacco leaf/meatiness from the ageing merlot (around a third of the mix). A wine that mixed power with grace, richness with elegance. The 1996 was cut from very much the same cloth.
The last time I was lucky enough to meet it was when a super generous friend, Paul, served it on a sunny island to celebrate our last visit. It was even more broad shouldered, in magnum, and though it was at the end of a ridiculously indulgent vinous evening, I suspect it outshone the bottle of Lafite 1989 served with it. Certainly, for me it’s one wine that can sometimes punch above its grade, and there is only one floor above.
Which brings me to the last bottle of Montrose that I tasted, brought by another super generous friend Peter to the house. It came with a rather terse appraisal from Clive Coates ‘Both the 1970 and the 1961 can be criticised for being too tough for their own good, having a tannic element which continues to obtrude even now that the wines are well matured’. His tasting note was pretty damning ‘Not a lot of intensity either. On the palate really rather too astringent…’.
Ah, but as the old adage goes, there are no great wines, just great bottles. And especially with great Bordeaux, sometimes they just need a long, long sleep in the cellar to outgrow a very surly adolescence. And if you fall upon the right bottle on the right day…
1970 Montrose. Its colour was a gloriously deep mix, a base of bright red with a splash of black and a good slosh of garnet, luminous, deep and glowingly optimistic. The nose had all that cabernet fruit - berries, currants, ripeness, a pot of simmering red fruits that must have been so happy to see the cork pulled after so long in confinement that it exploded out, then softened into the elegance of maturity and tertiary flavours. 50 years old and as lovely and classy a glass of Bordeaux as I can remember drinking. Delicious and moving. Exactly what great Bordeaux was, and should be, all about.