Château Margaux 1900
The legendary 1900 ! The century began with an extraordinary harvest both in terms of quantity and quality. 1900 is firstly a record volume of wine, which was equalled only in 1982 ! There had been several bumper years previously, in 1896 and 1893. 1900 though, was legendary for its quality ! Despite the huge volume, this wine was of a power and concentration that have rarely been matched. This vintage aroused immediate excitement and eclipsed the fantastic 1899.
A wonderful year, which benefited from a very hot summer as well as very fine weather during the harvest. (Picking began 24th September)
"Chateau Margaux was another celebrated 1900, and said to be the finest Margaux of all" so wrote the noted British author, Edmund Penning Rowsell in describing the 1900 vintage in his book, "The Wines of Bordeaux", published in 1979--a book I religiously followed in my early days of collecting great wines.
The Finest Margaux
The finest Margaux of all? Thus started my odyssey of almost twenty years of acquiring, drinking and tasting this wine. It has been like the movie Forrest Gump -- it seems I was present, at least in the early years, whenever the 1900 Margaux was drunk. At times I even helped initiate the drinking! I met some remarkable people and made life long friends along the way in a journey which, even after two decades, shows no signs of ending.
It was in the late seventies when I was just starting to collect wines that I got hold of a bottle. My friend Edward Lazarus and his friends had acquired a large quantity of 1900 Chateau Margaux at a Christie's auction held in England to help raise money to save Venice, Italy, from being submerged under flood of water. One of his friends, Richard Webber, was willing to exchange a bottle of his 1900 with six bottles of Chateau Petrus 1975. I had a full case of Petrus so without hesitation I agreed to the exchange.
That was my first occasion to taste this remarkable wine.
Several months later I had another bottle, this time with Ed Lazarus and two others at a lunch when both Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut Brion, each from the greatest twin vintages of Bordeaux, 1899 and 1900 -- a total of four wines--were drunk side by side. To this day I remember how spectacular the 1900 Margaux and 1899 Haut Brion were.
Describing the taste of 1900 Ch. Margaux
How do you describe 1900 Margaux? The word that almost always comes to my mind is, other worldly. It has that scent which is loaded with violets, a hallmark of this chateau (I use the word scent rather than the traditional "nose" because that is what it is). Velvety texture, elegance and finesse are all there that symbolize a great Margaux but it is also very sweet and jammy with just the perfect balance, no sharp edges, no excessive sweetness or dryness even after many decades. A wine of incredibly many layers.
Years went by, interrupted, with occasional drinking of this wine with my friends. Then in 1987 as Chateau Margaux, after many years of lackluster performance, was making a dramatic comeback under the leadership of the Mentzelopoulos family that I began thinking about doing a giant vertical tasting. The time was ripe to show the wine world how great this property really was. Corinne Mentzelopoulos who was then at the helm of the Chateau wholeheartedly agreed. We worked out the logistics for the tasting when we got together for dinner at TAILLEVENT, one of my most favorite restaurants in Paris, with my wife, Blaire, along with my friend Wolfgang Grunewald. What was served? 1900 Margaux, of course, as well as the other two great Margaux, 1928 and 1961, all from Wolfgang's and my collection.
It so happened that just about that time there was a big sale at Christie's in London of older vintages of Chateau Margaux from a cellar belonging to a British family. It had vintages back to 1860's. I was successful in getting most of them which were then served at the tasting. The Chateau also supplied a large array of their wines, young and old.
The L.A. event and The Wine of the Century
The tasting was finally held in 1987 at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles over three sessions covering an entire weekend. It was one of those memorable tastings where almost every single bottle turned out to be in impeccable condition, including the 1900, 1899, all the way back. At the tasting, I remember looking over my shoulder asking Ed Lazarus down the table, with whom I had shared great memories of these wines, how the bottles were. "Perfect" he reassured me. Many notable wine personalities, including Michael Broadbent, attended. Also present was the motion picture director Francis Ford Coppola, a friend of the Mentzelopoulos family. In welcoming him to the tasting I told the audience, borrowing the famous line from his movie, The Godfather," Here is Mr. Coppola. He came because Corinne made an offer he could not refuse".
Along with the sensational 1900 there were other vintages at least as good if not better like 1865 and 1864 -- considered one of the greatest twin vintages in Bordeaux. I will be writing about this tasting in one of the later issues describing fully all the vintages we tasted (yes, including 1771 and 1791). The tasting was written up in many renowned wine magazines around the world including in the Wine Spectator by Harvey Steiman as well as in Decanter by Michael Broadbent. Last year the Wine Spectator named 1900 Ch. Margaux as one of the wines of the century.
Contacting Robert Parker
As it almost always happens, not everyone who was invited to the tasting was able to attend. There were a number of writers from abroad who could not make it.
Among Americans two who we particularly wanted to attend were, unfortunately, unable to do so, Frank Prial of New York Times, one of the most respected wine writers in this country, and Robert Parker. Parker had been writing gloriously at that time about Chateau Margaux based on his tastings of the Mentzelopoulos vintages of 1978 through the '80s. It was only natural, I thought, that he also taste the great old vintages.
It occurred to me that another tasting was in order, but on a much smaller scale highlighting only the greatest wines, particularly the very old vintages, and invite those who, for one reason or another, could not make it to Los Angeles.
I knew Parker well so I called him in early 1988 to tell him how great the event in Los Angeles had turned out. I told him he had missed many sensational old vintages, particularly the 1900. He confessed he was not aware of anything special about the 1900 Margaux. I described to him how extraordinary this wine was and sent him all the details he requested. I also had something I knew would almost certainly clinch the issue.
At the Los Angeles tasting Paul Pontallier, the great wine maker at Margaux, had told me an astonishing fact: the two vintages 1900 and 1982 were almost identical for Chateau Margaux. Same weather conditions, same quantity of production, similar characteristics of the grapes etc.. Knowing Parker's fanaticism for the 1982 vintage I relayed this fact to him. It worked.
Paris Event and (two)bottles of 1900 Ch. Margaux
A dozen of us gathered at TAILLEVENT in Paris on November 17, 1988 for a tasting over two sessions. The group included, besides Parker and Prial, Jancis Robinson from England, Fumiko Arisaka from Japan, Hanns Janssen from Germany, along with my friends from Los Angeles, Manny and Willette Klausner and Wolfgang Grunewald. Corinne came with her fiancé, Hubert Leven.
For the event Blaire had prepared the books for the tasting notes that were themselves pieces of art. The cover paper, the text papers, and the end paper each had a special historical origin and the printing was done individually for each book on a special press. Each page was reserved for a specific vintage with the description of the harvest conditions supplied by the chateau. For the 1900 it read as follows:
"Very warm summer, hotter than 1899, and baking heat during the harvest. The grapes were very ripe. A superabundant crop. Picking began on September 24. Production: 29,000 cases."
The first session covered 1961, 1945, 1928, 1945(magnum), 1949(magnum), 1900, 1899, 1893, 1870. The second session was essentially a vertical of the vintages from 1978 to 1986. There were some incredible dishes accompanying the different flights.
And then came the flight which included one of the bottles of 1900 -- the chateau had contributed two bottles of it. It was superb. But with all the bonhommie and conviviality going on I said " what the heck, we might as well have the second bottle". Soon we started discussing the relative merits of the two bottles though it seemed a bit ridiculous to compare the two as both were so extraordinary. Then we realized that while we were all there on our vacations Hubert had to go back to work that day. We asked how he would explain to his colleagues such a long lunch break which was long even under French standards. " I'll tell them I was having lunch drinking many old bottles of Chateau Margaux, including the1900" he said. And what will he tell them about the 1900, we asked. He said " I'll tell them there were these two fantastic bottles---but the second one was better !".
Receiving 100 points
The event was written up in New York Times and in other journals and books.
As for Parker he sent me a gracious note thanking me for the Paris tasting, telling me that the taste of that remarkable 1900 was still there in his mouth and that he was going to anxiously monitor the 1982 to see if it will ever rise to that level.
He then wrote about the 1900 in the Wine Advocate awarding it a perfect score of 100.
Generosity of Friends
I have had the wine a number of times since then including once an Imperiale from the only person who can do it in large formats, the German collector Hardy Rodenstock.
There were a few other times which have particularly stayed in my memory because of the sheer generosity of my hosts. Once with Danny Oliveros and Jeff Sokolin from New York at Danny's apartment in one of the most casual surroundings for serving some of the world's greatest wines-around a coffee table with just some snacks. No fancy clothes, no fancy restaurants, but a single minded attention to a whole array of Margaux which were served blind: 1983, 82, 61, 53, 45 and then 1900. The other times were with Frank Komorowski, and his wife, Mary Wall at their lavish birthday celebrations, when bottles and magnums of 1900 Margaux were served along with many of the world's greatest rarities. An overwhelming number of participants at their events never had this wine previously and may never have it again. But the memory of this wine will linger on with everyone for a very long time.
The Greatest Wine ?
Is this the greatest wine in the world today? I would say it is certainly one of the 10 greatest red Bordeaux of that era. In this group I can think of other contenders which I have tasted like 1870 Ch. Lafite from the cellars of Glamis Castle in Scotland, 1864/1865 Ch.Lafite, 1864/1865 Ch.Margaux, 1870 Ch.Latour, several vintages of Ch. Ausone of last century, 1899 Ch. Haut Brion I already mentioned earlier.
But the 1900 Ch. Margaux has by far the greatest mystique, not only because of the wine but also because it happens to be a Margaux which has always had a certain special aura of romance and fascination associated with it.
Margaux and the Modern Style
How does it compare with the "modern" style of wines that is being aggressively touted today?... Is it a big wine with a huge amount of alcohol ? No, it has only 12 percent alcohol, if that. Like any great wine from Bordeaux, it never needed a huge dose of it. What you see in it is what comes from the greatness of the soil, the grape and the wine-making......Does it, or did it, have an inky-black-purple-knock-out color ? No and no. It is medium to dark-medium in color..... Is it now, or was it ever, a heavily extracted "fruit bomb"? Never.
And yet, it is still going strong after a hundred years, picking up many little nuances along the way as it ages gracefully.