France – Bordeaux

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Pomerol: Making The Case For Merlot

29 January 2018

“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Those two little sentences from the 2004 film Sideways continue to f*** up Merlot to this day. Certain large California wineries didn’t do the grape any favors, producing all too much flabby, overripe, jammy, unbalanced Merlot. It’s understandable that it developed an unfortunate reputation in the United States.

At a recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I mentioned that reputation to Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Château La Pointe in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. He sighed and said, “In the U.S., people don’t believe that Merlot can be fresh. People can’t imagine a fresh Merlot. The window to the harvest is very short — Merlot becomes overcooked very quickly.” Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are more forgiving, he said, but Merlot — you have to be precise.

Dany Rolland

And I suspect that few places are as precise with their Merlot as Pomerol. “Merlot was born in Pomerol,” Dany Rolland, sister to Michel Rolland, explained to me. “It’s difficult to make elsewhere,” she said, though Pomerol’s neighbor, St-Émilion, might disagree.

The World Atlas of Wine also has kind words for Pomerol, saying that “…an astonishing number of small [Pomerol] properties, for an area no bigger than St-Julien, are generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux.” And if properties are among the best in Bordeaux, that means they’re among the best in the world. Not bad for poor old Merlot!

Unlike many of Bordeaux’s appellations, Pomerol is unclassified, which means that all wines from the region are simply Pomerol. The soil changes too frequently, it seems, and the terroir doesn’t necessarily follow vineyard boundaries. But as The Atlas explains, “Rather than being overwhelmed by the complications of Pomerol, it is worth knowing that the average standard here is very high.” So if you pick a Pomerol more or less at random, you’re likely to get something quite good. Unfortunately, as The Atlas goes on to say, it likely won’t be inexpensive.

I had the chance to taste six Pomerols at the tasting at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, and oh my, they really were a delight.

2015 Château La Pointe: Mr. Monneret told me that in 2015, the Merlot was strong and fresh (sometimes, it’s just one or the other). And certainly his wine was both. A blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, it had an aroma of fresh dark cherries mixed with some spiciness and a light vanilla note, and it tasted very well-balanced, moving slowly and deliberately from rich, ripe dark-red fruit to ample acids and spice. There was a delectable chewiness to the wine at first. I suspect that will lessen as time goes on, but the wine is a pleasure to drink even now.

Eric Monneret

2015 Château Le Bon Pasteur: The Rolland family used to own this château, but Michel sold it in 2013. Nevertheless, Dany still serves as the winemaker. She told me that 2015 was a sunny vintage that had rain at just the right time. This Pomerol, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, had an aroma dominated by mocha, with a cherry note underneath. It tasted rich with chocolate-covered cherries, leavened with hint of coffee-like bitterness. A shaft of acids and spice kept the wine tight, and it had a long, fresh finish. The tannins sneaked up on me, meaning that they were more-than-usually well integrated.

2015 Château Beauregard: This château’s representative was ill at the time of the tasting, so we didn’t have the chance to chat. It’s too bad, because this wine smelled particularly fresh, with the dark-cherry fruit and vanilla notes buoyed by a bright leafiness. It tasted wonderfully fresh as well, with round fruit and supple tannins. All that freshness likely comes from the higher percentage of Cabernet Franc — this bottling is 70% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheerful and refined.

2015 Château Rouget: This château has fallen into the hands of Burgundians! The only Burgundian château-owners in Bordeaux, according to Edouard Labruyère, who represents a family of winemakers going back some 250 years. The Labruyères bought Rouget in 1994, and they farm the vineyards totally organically. “As a Burgundian,” he confided, “I use whole [grape] clusters — I don’t de-stem.” His crazy Burgundian techniques seem to be working, even in Bordeaux. His Pomerol’s aroma had an almost electric tension between ripe dark cherries and bright freshness. It tasted big and juicy and fresh, and the finish went on for ages.

François Estager

2015 Château La Cabanne: Owner François Estager went all-in with Merlot in 2015. Well, almost — his wine is 95% Merlot blended with 5% Cabernet Franc. I loved its aroma of dark cherries mixed with a bit of chocolate and a violet-like perfume. This wine also moved with slow grace, changing effortlessly from ripe fruit to focused spice to supple tannins to a fresh eucalyptus finish. “Zowie,” I wrote in my notebook. You could surely age this, but it’s gorgeous now.

2015 Château Gazin: Gazin’s Technical Director Mikaël Obert used the same blend as La Cabanne. In some years, he explained, he uses a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, but in 2015 it didn’t ripen as well, so it ended up in the château’s second-label wine. He also uses just 15% new oak, because he prefers “for the grapes to express their personality, not the barrel.” There was that dark cherry aroma again mingled with dark chocolate, and the flavor was lush and velvety. It moved seamlessly and luxuriously from fruit to spice to a finish of dusty mocha. Or rather, I thought that was the finish, until it moved yet again, on to some eucalyptus freshness. Very polished, and very delicious.

The point of all these tasting notes is that Merlot can be ever so much more than a flabby jam bomb. I most certainly am drinking some f***ing Merlot, and I suggest you do the same. Especially if it’s Pomerol.

Intimidation In Bordeaux

31 July 2017

“This is a professional tasting,” our escort told us, with a touch of concern in his voice. He was leading me and five other wine bloggers into the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux “Silent Tasting.” After we agreed on a place to meet after some time on our own to sample whatever wines caught our eyes, he reminded us, “This tasting… it’s professional.”

I can’t deny that I felt a little irritated at the time. Did he think we would embarrass ourselves in there? We were Millésima’s 2017 Wine Blog Award winners, which meant that each of us surely had at least some experience tasting wine. But this was Bordeaux, and Bordeaux during En Primeur Week, no less, when everyone who’s anyone in the wine world descends on the region to sample and evaluate the latest vintage. Bordeaux is synonymous with wine aristocracy, and I’m guessing that our escort felt worried that we wine commoners might not mix well with the nobility.

Bordeaux château

Our escort’s feelings, considered in that context, were perfectly understandable. I can think of few wine regions more intimidating to the average wine consumer than Bordeaux, where bottles have labels depicting palatial châteaux and, in many cases, prices to match. It’s a place, in the popular imagination, where only people with enormous wallets, super-sensitive palates and double-breasted blazers (or better yet, all three) are welcome.

But Bordeaux does not have a monopoly on intimidation. I’ve met numerous people who enjoy wine but fear being judged in a tasting room setting, regardless of the location. What if you smell peony in the aroma, when in fact you’re supposed to smell gardenia? What if the winemaker tells you that you should be tasting a gooseberry note, but you don’t even know what the hell a gooseberry is? In short, what happens if you get it wrong?

Being told you’re wrong feels terrible, and there are seemingly so very many ways to get it wrong with wine.

Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Pomerol’s Château La Pointe

Fortunately, most winemakers and winery owners aren’t waiting, panther-like, to pounce on you for saying the wrong thing. Not even in aristocratic Bordeaux.* Not that you would know it from attendees’ behavior during tastings at En Primeur Week. Millésima took us to numerous public tastings over the course of the week, and I noticed a pattern, a pattern I’ve seen at quite a few other walk-around tastings over the years.

If the tasters spoke to the pourers at all, it was usually just to indicate the wine they wanted to try. Tasters sometimes sampled the wine at the table, with dare-to-impress-me looks on their faces, or else took the wine elsewhere to try it. They might talk with fellow tasters about the wines, but I observed very few tasters giving the pourers any feedback. Curious to see if the pourers at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux event were indeed the haughty monsters of myth and legend, I decided to share my impressions of the wines with them as often as possible.

Taster at Château Mouton Rothschild

Not a single one of the pourers, who ranged from marketing people to the winemakers themselves, responded to my comments with snobbery. Some looked quite surprised to be hearing from me, and when I complimented the ripeness of the fruit or the balance or the refined texture, of course they looked pleased. They’re human! And all humans — even Bordeaux winemakers — like receiving compliments. When I ventured a more creative description, such as, “The finish of this wine [the 2016 Smith Haut Lafitte] is like putting your head into a big soft pillow of tannins,” I gave us a meatier starting point for a discussion, and the pourers seemed to enjoy it even more.

These were not scary people. Indeed, if anyone in the room was stand-offish, it was the tasters. They wore facial expressions of slight disdain like armor. Some of them avoided interactions with pourers as a time-saving measure, allowing them to taste more wines. But I saw many tasters standing around chatting with their friends and colleagues. For them, avoiding pourers wasn’t about saving time. It was about not being vulnerable. It was about the simple and ubiquitous fear of looking foolish.

I’m not the only one to have noticed the predominance of stand-offish tasters. After trying the new vintage of Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, we sat down to lunch at the winery to enjoy a vertical tasting (a tasting of several different vintages of the same wine). I sat near one of the winery’s PR people, an elegant woman perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s. Whenever I tasted a wine — which I did with undisguised pleasure — she stared at me, smiling and shaking her head. “Wonderful!” she said, almost under her breath.

Lunch at Château Petit-Village

I asked her what she meant, and she explained that most people, when they come to taste, do not visibly respond to the wine. Their faces do not change; they don’t make any sound; they don’t share their impressions. “You are so expressive! Wonderful…” she said again, looking at me like I was a delightful if incomprehensible alien. We had great fun talking about the wines together.

Tasting wine with those who work in the industry can be anxiety-provoking. Even professionals, as evidenced by the behavior of many tasters at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux event, can feel intimidated. No one wants to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. But the path through the fear of looking foolish is not silence and impassivity. Talk to the pourers. Give them a compliment and see what happens. In most cases, both you and the pourer will end up feeling esteemed.

And if you do happen to encounter one of the few remaining snobs in the industry who tells you that no, it’s not peony you’re smelling but gardenia, remember two things: First, it’s not about the wine. He’s trying to boost his own self-esteem by making himself right and you wrong. Second, this is one of the few times in your life you’ll have the chance to use the phrase, “Fuck your gardenia.” Don’t pass it up.

*Bordeaux is, in a sense, old money. The people there generally have no interest in trying to make you feel inferior. Napa, on the other hand, is new money, and it’s one of the few places where wine snobbery still has a foothold.

Sauternes: It’s What’s For Breakfast

28 April 2017

Everyone agrees that we should all be drinking more Sauternes. The World Atlas of Wine calls it “lamentably underappreciated but incomparable,” and The Oxford Companion to Wine argues that “it remains underpriced in relation to the enormous pleasure it brings to those growing numbers of wine lovers who find a fine Sauternes has an undeniable place on the dinner table.”

Alas, Sauternes is the gym membership of wine. We all think it’s a great idea, but too few of us actually take advantage of it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attended a dinner where the Sauternes truly flowed: at the charming Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes itself. Over some exquisite foie gras and sensationally flavorful duck breast that had been grilled in the restaurant’s fireplace, the six of us who won the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards discussed Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine with Pierre Montégut, the Technical Director of Château Suduiraut.

Auberge les Vignes

“People tell me all the time that they love Sauternes, and that they don’t understand why people don’t drink more of it,” he said. “Then I ask them, how many bottles of Sauternes do you drink in a month? Or in a year?” If people manage two or three bottles a year, they’re at the top end of the curve, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably average only a bottle a year myself.

What makes Sauternes so special, anyway? In a word: rot. The vineyards of Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) grow near the confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers. Starting in the early autumn, the Garonne is warm enough so that when the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron flow into it, the temperature difference causes evening mists. The fog creates conditions ideal for the development of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. This mold looks ugly but it is vital to Sauternes.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut abut forest and the vineyards of Château d’Yquem

Noble Rot causes minuscule holes in the skins of the grape, encouraging water inside to evaporate, concentrating the remaining juice. But simple concentration isn’t enough — that only sweetens the wine. The mold also chemically alters the juice, usually Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, adding important complexity and aroma. Unfortunately, the mold does not affect all the grapes at once, and the best châteaux harvest multiple times, sometimes going so far as to select berries individually in the vineyard.

When it works, the wine is sweet, yes, but it also has an almost startling liveliness, with big but focused acidity and a shaft of spice, in addition to flavors such as green tobacco, mint, oak, orange, saffron and jasmine combining with the honeyed richness. It’s one of the most sensual wines I can think of. The combination of sweetness, acidity and freshness is one of the wine world’s most compelling.

Agnes Nemeth and the Head Sommelier of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Why do we deny ourselves the pleasures of Sauternes? Well, dessert wine just isn’t a thing in the United States, for starters. I have yet to attend a dinner party in Chicago in which a friend presented a wine to pair with dessert (or a dessert wine as dessert), and people don’t think to order it in restaurants, either. And it’s not just Americans. Even in the city of Bordeaux, the Head Sommelier of the restaurants in the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel said that she rarely sells Sauternes. People might order a glass from time to time, but it was highly unusual for a table to order a bottle.

On my visit, what we’re missing by ignoring Sauternes became painfully clear. First, let’s start with something inexpensive and relatively easy to find: the 2013 Lions de Suduiraut, a new Sauternes developed by Suduiraut to emphasize freshness and minerality, which you can open immediately with no decanting, according to Montégut. The flavor started on a rich and honeyed note, but a wave of sharp ginger spice swept in, along with bright, orangey acids. The finish was fresh and spicy, not sweet. It’s absolutely delicious, rather sexy, and a screaming value at just $13 for a half-bottle.

Pierre Montégut, Technical Director of Château Suduiraut

What about something a little older and more expensive? We did an unforgettable vertical tasting (trying several different vintages of the same wine) at Château Suduiraut, one of which was the 2009. Its aroma had more to it than the Lions’ did, with heady honeysuckle, tropical fruit and some spiciness. The flavor kept changing and flowing — honey, orange, cardamom, hay — and all the notes felt beautifully integrated and refined. Fellow Millésima blog award-winner Agnes Nemeth of Hungarian Wines remarked, “I would really use this as a perfume.” Binny’s sells this wine for $45 for a half-bottle, an excellent value considering the quality. Even better, buy a magnum of it from Millésima for $190 and throw a party.

Sauternes, though white, can age just as well as any red, especially in the good years. Consider the 1997 Château Suduiraut, which had an aroma redolent of honey and something savory as well. It tasted of overripe apricot and dark honey, which moved into toffee/caramel country. Deep and dark orange acids, along with some spiciness and a touch of something smokey, assured balance. Gorgeous and complex.

To hammer home the point, Montégut also presented us with a bottle of 1975 Château Suduiraut to have with dessert at the Auberge les Vignes. This wine is older than I am, and yet it still feels lively. The aroma had an almost startling freshness to it. And I felt thoroughly seduced by the flavors of dark honey, green tobacco, dark orange and honeysuckle. The acids and spice were more than up to the task of balancing the sweetness. This unforgettable wine can be had for $80 to $100, according to Wine Searcher. That’s insane. I’m tempted to buy a bottle before I finish writing this post.

The 1975 Château Suduiraut caused quite a stir at the Auberge les Vignes!

We also had the chance to try numerous Sauternes en primeur, which means that we sampled the latest vintage, 2016, well before bottling, in order to try to determine the vintage’s quality. According to Montégut, Sauternes this young should display balance, freshness, and energy on the finish, if they’re to attain greatness.

I think the 2016 vintage should be quite fine, even though the Noble Rot arrived only in the last half of October. The 2016 Bastor-Lamontagne had more citrus to it than honey, with ginger spice and a dry finish. Château Guiraud took things a step further, balancing its dark honey flavors with deep orangey acids and a surprising blast of eucalyptus freshness. Lafaurie-Peyraguey offered stone fruit, incense and more of that eye-opening eucalyptus. And then there was the Sigalas-Rabaud, which kept itself taut as it moved through flavors of honey and peach, ending with such freshness that I felt as if I’d just popped a breath mint. Wow.

Jeff Burrows and Lisa Denning at our vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut

Which brings me to breakfast. We started our vertical tasting of Château Suduiraut at 9:30 a.m., at the end of a long week of château hopping. The week was a joy, to be sure, but exhausting. That tasting at Suduiraut perked me up far more than the pot of coffee I’d had earlier. The wines — we sampled ten of them — felt positively invigorating. Each one made me feel more and more energized, even aroused.

At brunch, we Americans tend to drink only two alcoholic beverages: Bloody Marys and sparkling wine. Why not Sauternes? I wrote in my notebook, “These would be amazing with some chicken and waffles!” Or pancakes and sausages. It’s an ideal breakfast wine. And because Sauternes is sweet and spicy, it also would work well with a range of Asian foods. If you think of sweet wines as simple and heavy, you’re not thinking of Sauternes. Instead, think rich, racy, complex and fresh.

Rare is the wine which will please absolutely everyone, from the most amateur wine drinker to the most jaded connoisseur. Sauternes is one of those wines.

For more about Sauternes and some fantastic photos of the vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut, check out this post by fellow award-winner Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, or this post for more photos of the village itself.

Award-winner Chiara Bassi of Perlage Suite also wrote about Sauternes, posting about our dinner at Auberges les Vignes here. She also wrote about our 2016 en primeur Sauternes tasting here, including detailed tasting notes about 19 different wines.

And on my blog, you can learn more about the 2011 vintage and why Sauternes is Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine.

Note: These wine samples were all provided free of charge.

Château Margaux: Is It Worth It?

14 April 2017

Corinne Menztelopoulos and the author (photo by Lisa Denning)

“I don’t know! Do I like Rob?” asked Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, while considering the seating arrangement for lunch. We all laughed, because she was almost certainly joking. Against her better judgment, she placed me next to her at the dining table. Immediately I was smitten by this woman, with her easy elegance and wicked sense of humor.

Already I had been feeling a little overwhelmed. The schedule, arranged by Millésima for the six of us who had won its wine blog competition, said only this about the visit: “Private tasting & lunch at Château Margaux with Aurélien Valance, Managing Director and member of the Blog Awards jury.”

I had anticipated a lunch in the airy new Norman Foster-designed winery with Valance and perhaps a PR person for Margaux. But our group paused before the tall gates leading to the neo-Palladian château itself, and they proceeded to swing open. The building looked familiar — it appears on the château’s wine labels, which I had seen reproduced in my World Atlas of Wine. But the drawing didn’t prepare me for the experience of standing in front of the château itself.

Château Margaux

It has a startling and imposing verticality, with four ionic columns and a pediment rising from a base that itself is 22 steps above ground level (I counted). Château Margaux’s General Director Philippe Bascaules descended to meet us, accompanied by what appeared to be a foxhound. I have been witness to few tableaux more aristocratic than this.

He led us inside to the entry hall and an adjacent salon, both decorated in high French Empire style, with spindly-legged chairs upholstered in jewel-tone silk damask and marble-topped tables supported by winged caryatid figures. In my hand was a flute of Krug Champagne. I stared at it and my surroundings for a moment, feeling a sort of elated confusion.

“I don’t want to see any blog posts about Krug at Château Margaux!” someone joked. I refrained from taking tasting notes.*

Instead, I fell into conversation with Monsieur Bascaules. He had loved his time at Inglenook, he told me, but he was pleased to be back in France, at Margaux, where he had worked for 20 years before his time in California. I asked what food he most craved when he returned to France. “The bread,” he replied, without hesitation. “A crusty baguette… it’s just different here.” I told him I agreed, and that I felt the same way about chocolate chip cookies. It’s impossible to find good ones outside the U.S, I explained. Just as I realized that I was using my time with Philippe Bascaules to discuss baked goods, we were summoned to lunch.

We descended to the former kitchen. The formal dining room is too stuffy, Mentzelopoulos told us, and doesn’t promote relaxed conversation. A fire blazed in the giant hearth, complete with a spit for roasting entire lambs or pigs. In the center of the vaulted room of golden stone was a round table, laid with crystal wine glasses, tightly packed flower arrangements and delicate china of green, gold and white, all atop a pristine tablecloth embroidered with silk leaves. This room may be the more casual, relaxed dining space, but it dazzled nevertheless.

I took my place at the table between Madame Mentzelopoulos and her son, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos (he goes by Alexi). His sister, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos sat across from us. Because the two of them were young, beautiful, thin and rich, I hoped just a little bit that they would be haughty or in some other way unpleasant. Instead, they proved to be quite down-to-earth and charming, and as fluent in English as in French (and goodness knows what other languages). Alexandra later asked me for my card. “I want to know the best place in Chicago for deep-dish pizza,” she told me, to my astonishment.

Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos and Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos

I looked at the hand-lettered menu (which did not mention pizza, for better or worse) and discovered that we would be starting with the 2011 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc classed as a humble Bordeaux AOC (the Margaux appellation has no room for whites). Château Margaux has produced a white for three centuries, Madame Mentzelopoulos explained to us, starting when the château’s winemaker decided to separate the white and red grapes during vinification. Until then, most Bordeaux wines had been field blends of both red and white grapes.

It smelled spicy, with an undertone of tropical fruit. The wine felt lush and round, with creamy stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors, leavened with some focused green-peppercorn spice. A forceful but graceful wine, with a finish that was long and fresh. It worked beautifully with some crab salad topped with mango gelée. If you tasted this side by side with a Sauvignon Blanc from, say, New Zealand, you would never guess that the wines came from the same grape. Binny’s currently sells the 2015 Pavillon Blanc as a future for $140 a bottle. It’s steep, but if you have the funds, the wine is worth the money for a special occasion.

Foie gras stuffed chicken and 1996 Château Margaux

To pair with some foie gras-stuffed chicken, waiters poured us glasses of 1996 Château Margaux. Of this vintage, wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote, “You might call the 1996s classic, so long as you were sure that this would not be interpreted as skinny.” All the other sources I consulted also regarded 1996 as a very fine vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc, the left bank region where Margaux is located.

Aurélian Valance held up his glass and said simply, “This is Château Margaux.” He went on to tell us how this particular bottling was the first to give him a “wine emotion.” He loved it so much, in fact, that it inspired him to approach Madame Mentzelopoulos and ask if he could work at Château Margaux. She appreciated his enthusiasm and chutzpah, and gave him a job.

Madame Mentzelopoulos told us that “The tannins of Château Margaux are always very soft — you almost forget them.” That’s no mean feat for a wine composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 100% new oak (the rest of the blend in this vintage is 12% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc). “Sometimes people confuse the tannins of wood with the tannins of grapes,” she explained. currently sells the 1996 for $850 a bottle. What on earth do you get for that price?

I smelled the wine, redolent of dark cherries but with a wonderful freshness buoying them up. I braced myself — it’s not every day I try an $850 wine — and took a sip. The fruit flavors of dark berries and cherries felt pure and rich, and the wine positively vibrated in my mouth. The fruit rang like a bell, such was its clarity. The wine hummed on my palate, developing with great evenness and confidence. It moved with consistency, grace and firmness from one note to the next, and it still felt young, in spite of its age and in spite of it having been decanted.

Millésima’s photographer Frederic Lot in the Château Margaux winery

Involuntarily, I groaned and sighed. Madame Mentzelopoulos turned to me and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

I wish I could say that I responded with something like, “Madame, I am shameless!” or “Au contraire, Madame, it is you who should be ashamed!” But my mind was still aglow with the wonder of the wine, and witticisms were temporarily beyond my capacity.

It’s hard to believe that a wine that costs $850 a bottle could possibly be worth it. After all, there are perfectly lovely wines that cost $12. If you are one of the fortunate few with $850 to blow on a bottle, are you getting anything for your money other than hype and prestige? What makes Château Margaux so special that it can charge such a price?

It’s the finesse. The wine shifts gears in the mouth like an expert driver handling a finely tuned stick-shift racing car. That kind of experience comes at a price. Château Margaux is wildly expensive, yes, but it has the stuffing to back up the price. You can bet that if I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a case.

Philippe Bascaules, General Director of Château Margaux, discussing 2016

The 2016 vintage looks just as promising, should you be interested in investing in futures. The aroma of the château’s second wine, Pavillon Rouge, leapt from the glass, and I loved its cherry-pie fruit and sneaky tannins. The 2016 Château Margaux already felt lush and integrated, with rich fruit, focused acids and graceful tannins, capped with a fresh note of mint. And the 2016 Pavillon Blanc had all the tropical fruit and creamy stone fruit I loved in the 2011, plus an enticing note of popcorn and juicy green-apple acids. What a joy.

On our way to the winery to taste the 2016 vintage, Madame Mentzelopoulos drew our attention to a mosaic mounted on the wall. “This is a Roman mosaic, but it has the Greek name,” she told us. “I like that it’s Dionysus, and not Bacchus,” she continued. A few people, aware of the title of my blog, glanced nervously in my direction. “Dionysus is elegant, you see here,” she said, pointing to the lithe figure in the center. “Bacchus is fat and drunk and vulgar.” And very, very happy, I’d add.

The allée leading away from Château Margaux

Whether Madame Mentzelopoulos liked me or not is an open question, but my feelings about her and her wines are not in doubt.

Note: The lunch and wines at Château Margaux were provided free of charge, as part of the program for the Millésima Wine Blog Competition winners.

*Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that the Krug somehow managed to feel crisp and rich at the same time, and that its bubbles were sublimely elegant. But for my money, I’ll stick with a lesser-known Grower Champagne.

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