Château Prieuré-Lichine is a 4er cru from Margaux.
This photo is in the public domain.
Margaux is the smallest of the four Médoc villages, with a little less than 2.9 square miles of area. The population, however, is over 1,300, perhaps due to the large number of wineries and winemakers that are located there.
Although it's near to the Bordeaux water and showcases a beautiful climate, Margaux has been entirely developed by winemakers and is virtually a winemaking town. Margaux wines are known for being full-bodied, but they tend to be lighter and have a softer texture than the more intense wines of neighboring villages.
Margaux has a quiet history. During the 1700s, its wet and unpleasant marshes were converted by enterprising would-be winemakers into wine land. As the Médoc became popular, Margaux advanced to the forefront of Left Bank wine. Although it lacked the heavy investment by the billionaire Rothschild family that made Pauillac so legendary, that never stopped Margaux from increasing its quality and prices to an almost equally exclusive level.
The 1855 classification of the Médoc included more Margaux producers (21, to be exact) than any other appellation. Unsurprisingly, Margaux was one of the original AOCs, granted status in 1936. Quality remained solid, and Margaux accumulated a reputation for producing unusual but highly classy, reliable wines. This pedigree has caused prices to continue increasing, and wines from top châteaux now cost, while not as much as those of Pauillac, into the high three figures.
Climate and Viticulture
Gravel is much less widespread and concentrated in Margaux than it is in Pauillac, but there is enough to make the Cabernet Sauvignon grape thrive unconditionally. Although not all châteaux have the same amount of gravel as others, this makes for variety rather than an uncomfortable difference in quality. Producers have clearly established the wine production techniques necessary to bring out the best in Margaux's optimal climate.
Margaux grape varieties tend to parallel those of the Médoc in general. A typical vineyard blend is Château Margaux itself: 75% Cabernet, 20% Merlot, the rest Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. In the actual wines, these numbers will vary slightly but Cabernet is usually a good 3/4 of most blends.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Cab in Margaux lacks the dizzyingly full-bodied nature that it takes on in the neighboring villages, but in fact the best wines from Margaux prove that the great red grape can be great without being monstrously powerful. In fact, Margaux Cabernet is unlike anything else in the world, with a more medium-bodied, highly aromatic nature that concentrates more on its diverse bouquet of flavors than overwhelming the drinker with tannin and unadulterated power.
- Merlot: Merlot is popular in Margaux, used in much higher percentages than in the other villages. On the average château in Margaux, perhaps about 1/5 of plantings consist of Merlot. As usual, it plays the part of taming Cabernet and adding softness and makes the wine more supple and textured. But some châteaux use much more: Outsider châteaux Giscours and Palmer have their vineyards planted with over 40% Merlot.
- Cabernet Franc: Cabernet Franc is not often used in Margaux in more than a small percentage, but there are still some exceptions. About 10% of Rauzan-Gassies vineyards are made up of this grape, and many châteaux use 5% or so. Château du Tertre uses the most of any grand cru in Margaux, with around 20% in their unconventional blend.
- Petit Verdot: Palmer and Lascombes use this grape to add structure, but elsewhere it is being pretty much phased out.
The Château Palmer is one of the leading Margaux estates.
This photo is in the public domain.
An impressive 21 out of 61 out of the Médoc's classified wines are in Margaux. Margaux has only one of the 1ers crus, but supports itself with five 2ers crus, no less than ten 3ers crus, three 4ers crus, and two 5ers crus. As a result, even the most snobbish wine aristocrats will find at least one wine to buy here, and average wine drinkers will be able to find reasonably priced wine. Commonly cited examples of great wines outside the classification include châteaux Labegorce-Zede and Siran.
One of the five 1ers crus in Médoc is from Margaux.
- Château Margaux: This 800-year-old estate has been among the top Margaux producers since it started making wine. Thomas Jefferson, on a trip to Bordeaux, cited it as a particularly good manufacturer of wine. The quality of the wine suffered from instability in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Then a change of ownership brought the wine's old reputation back. Although the gap between the château and its lower-rated competitors is nowhere near as large as the classification would lead one to believe, it is usually considered the top estate in its appellation. This wine is a fixture in the cellars of all serious Bordeaux collectors. Pure, silky tannins, a velvety texture, and a diversity of powerful but smooth flavors make Margaux what it is. Although the 2005 vintage is especially acclaimed, vintages such as 2004 are also highly subtle and feature layered aromas and flavors. Wines from this château generally cost $200 at the least, range up to $600 or so for good vintages, and are between $1,000 and $2,000 for the 2005.
Five of the 14 2ers crus are in Margaux:
- Château Brane-Cantenac: This château was owned by a devoted baron who named the winery after himself (Brane) and the commune it was listed under (Cantenac.) Despite the long history, quality has been up and down, but since showing a strong revival in the 1990s and 2000s, the wine showcases noble flavors and a good compromise between elegance and complexity. Prices have charted the wine's increase in popularity, rising to consistently $70, so this château will rarely be a place to find a bargain.
- Château Durfort-Vivens: This winery is now owned by the same people that own Brane-Cantenac. If history repeats itself, this affordable wine is soon to increase greatly in quality...and price. Right now, the wines are obscure and are hard to find even at superstores, but are well-priced at less than $50.
- Château Lascombes: Just like several of the other 2ers crus in Margaux, Lascombes had a long history of great wine, was classified highly in 1855, continued to make great wine, and then suddenly turned around and ran up a bad reputation in the 1950s and 1960s, possibly due to a change of ownership. The wine improved somewhat, but it has really gotten better since being acquired by an American firm in 2001, which has modernized the château's technique and brought its reputation back up to spec. Highly structured but opulent and aromatic, the wine now showcases typical Margaux flavors. Par prices are at $70 now, but are likely to be on the rise soon.
- Château Rauzan-Gassies: This wine sank into obscurity after a long, colorful history. Powerful but as refined as any Margaux, the wines are not unlikely to make a comeback. Right now, prices (around $40) are hard to resist considering the prestigious appellation. For bargain hunters wanting to add a Margaux to their collection, this is a wine to look at for sure.
- Château Rauzan-Ségla: Much more prominent than the other Rauzan, Rauzan-Ségla has optimized its land and gained a solid critical pedigree. These wines tend towards being a little fuller than your average Margaux, but underneath strong tannins they have the same refined flavors. Overall an elegant style is the norm. The highly praised 2005 vintage costs $130, but other vintages are usually much more affordable.
A majority—10—of the 14 3ers crus are from Margaux:
- Château Boyd-Cantenac: This wine is classical in flavor, but also in price, rarely available for under $40. The 2005 promises optimum flavors, but is around $65.
- Château Cantenac-Brown: Easily recognized by its distinctive brown label, this château provides reliably good wine that is also inexpensive. (Except in 2005, when prices inflated along with other Bordeaux of the vintage.) Flavors are slightly fuller and more rich than a typical Margaux, but by no means are they unrefined.
- Château Desmirail: In certain vintages, this wine can be a good bargain. Flavors are typical of Margaux, and prices are often under $40.
- Château Ferrière: Easy-drinking Margaux can provide unusual flavors, but enjoys a somewhat controversial style. Whether or not you like its style, the sub-$40 price range is undoubtedly one of the better bargains that can be found in this appellation.
- Château Giscours: A full-bodied Margaux that can lack the nuance of its more expensive 2er cru brothers, but its reputation has been almost vertically rising in recent years and it is now showing an ability for at least 2er cru status. It is austerely structured, and the tannins are stern, but with time Margaux's iconic flavors will show through. The 2005 vintage broke Wine Spectator's Top 100 of 2008, with prices of about $100. Other vintages are less expensive. This wine can be considered one of the best 3ers crus.
- Château d'Issan: Robert Parker seems to favor this wine, although other critics are not nearly so excited. A long history of ups and downs has led this château to be one of the classic underperformers, meaning that its reasonably priced wines often have serious potential for appreciation. Prices are on the increase.
- Château Kirwan: From a long history, this wine has sunk into an undistinguished obscurity. Prices, when the wine is available, are still rather high. However, a change in management is in the works so the story may change shortly.
- Château Malescot St-Exupery: This wine shows that Margaux doesn't always have to hold back on the tannins. Indeed, it offers extremely powerful tannins as well as the layered, complex fruit that Margaux is known for. Oddly, though, Merlot proportions are rather high at this château. Not everyone loves their style, since it departs somewhat from Margaux's characteristic flavors, but Wine Spectator placed it at #18 on the Top 100 list of 2008. This château may be underclassified.
- Château Marquis d'Alesme Becker: Despite 500 years of reputable planting, this wine does not always provide either good bargains or optimum quality in its appellation, requiring buyers to be selective. Plantings consist of about 45% Merlot, far more than most other Margaux houses.
- Château Palmer: This wine remains painfully underclassified, since it is definitely of high 2er cru strength. This château was an appropriate 3er cru for many years; the turnaround started only in the late 1980s, and since then it has brought Palmer to the forefront of Margaux. Critics agree that the wine has more power, but not necessarily less refinement, than Château Margaux itself. It is a modern style, but retains classicist flavors and production methods. Not surprisingly, none of Palmer's wines are bargains, with $150 just the starting point.
Several bottles of grand cru Margaux. This photo is in the public domain.
A 1994 Château Margaux. Licensing and other info here.
Three of the 10 4ers crus hail from Margaux:
- Château Marquis de Terme: This wine is not particularly reputable, though low prices could become good values if the château stages a turnaround.
- Château Pouget: Very little information is available about this wine, which has apparently become obscure since the classification.
- Château Prieuré-Lichine: The most interesting part of this château is its history. Originally, the house was inhabited by a priory, hence the first part of its name. Centuries later, French wine writer Alexis Lichine bought the château and attached his own name to it. Nowadays, the wine can provide good bargains and generally has a good pedigree among critics.
Only two of the eighteen 5ers crus are from Margaux, which is a good indication of the village's high average quality.
- Château Dauzac: This wine's distinguishing characteristic is its high Merlot percentage, which makes it unusual and, for some critics, undesirable. Generally, though, ratings are reasonably high. The main caveat of the wine is the price, which at $50-odd is typical for Margaux, but high for a 5er cru.
- Château du Tertre: Ups and downs have distinguished this château since its very inception. Proportions are extremely odd, with 20% Cabernet Franc in the vineyards, and traditionalists will not favor this wine. But in its good years, flavors can be a modernists' delight, and prices are seldom inflated.
Any detailed description of the subregions within Margaux, most of which have been phased out anyway, would be largely irrelevant in a nontrivial, practical discussion of wine. Buyers should not pay attention to the exact place of origin of the wine if it's Margaux. This is generally true of all the Médoc villages.
Château Rauzan-Ségla is a very highly reputed 2er cru in Margaux. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.