GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Wine at £300 a pop

PUBLISHED: 10:00 04 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:33 07 September 2010

For Paul Pontallier, the good news is that he works in wonderful conditions. The bad? When you re director-general of one of the most prestigious chateaux in Bordeaux, that s not something you confide to wine writers. Deep in the cellars of Chateau Marga

For Paul Pontallier, the good news is that he works in wonderful conditions.

The bad? When you're director-general of one of the most prestigious chateaux in Bordeaux, that's not something you confide to wine writers.

Deep in the cellars of Chateau Margaux and upstairs in the elegant tasting room, I'm not inclined towards too much investigative journalism.

It's a privilege to be here, in Pontallier's company, and to taste wines of seductive beauty - of a cost which puts them beyond the pocket of almost every wine lover.

So is first growth Bordeaux worthy of the price it commands?

Chateau Margaux, from the classically elegant 2004 vintage which I tasted, is about £300 a bottle - Berry Bros & Rudd is a stockist.

Pontallier's response is simple: "We have no choice."

He means that if the chateau set a lower price, the intermediaries through whose hands the wine passes would simply make loads more profit as they set the final price in line with historically high precedents.

"It is slightly frustrating," he says. "It impedes some extremely nice and knowledgeable people from getting hold of the wines."

With disarming honesty, however, he adds: "For us, it is extremely good news."

All I can suggest is that you grab any opportunity which comes your way to taste Chateau Margaux. The second wine, Pavillon Rouge, makes a very acceptable alternative if the top bottles are for ever out of reach.

This suggestion is not as outrageous as it might appear. There are merchants who arrange tastings of the very finest wines, comparing chateaux and vintages and sharing the cost among participants.

But back to Margaux.

It's extraordinary the difference a minimal change in geology can make. Much of the Medoc - the vine-rich region which runs north from Bordeaux along the Gironde estuary - is low and soggy.

Until Dutch engineers drained it in the 17th century, it was unhealthy marshland.

Today, the hierarchy of its wines is determined by location.

Chateau Margaux and its fellow classed growths have vineyards on the humps of gravel which stand just a few metres higher than their surroundings.

Rainwater filters away, there's less humidity around the vines and the grapes ripen better.

So the French adage is true - the finest wines are those from the best terroir.

Pontallier adds in another factor, arguing that "there is no terroir without a deep history".

Already at the end of the 17th century, Chateau Margaux was recognised among the Medoc elite.

In the 1855 classification, it was named one of the top five.

Its fortune has fluctuated - but the reputation is stratospheric again.

Progress now is gentle, says Pontallier. "The way we work here is a combination of practices that don't change unless we have found a better solution, not a different solution. But many things have changed because we have found a better solution."

Most crucial to final success, he insists, is the work in the vineyards, each plot tended, year-on-year, by the same worker.

There has been no use of pesticides for a decade. Work is ongoing on controlling mildew without chemicals and cautious moves are made towards biodynamics.

He adds: "There is no religion regarding wine-making, no philosophy. We try to be pragmatic. We know what we owe to our predecessors and we try to put our own small stone on top of the pile."

He's happy to explain in detail the grape varieties, the vineyard and winery practices and the selection of the 1,200 new oak barrels bought each year.

But he argues that the real point of wine is pleasure and there is a particular pleasure in the marriage of fine wine and fine food.

His glass isn't always filled with Chateau Margaux, however. He had recently very much enjoyed a four euro muscadet.

"It was the wine of the moment," he said, perfect in its context.

Liz Sagues


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