On the Trail

The Modern Makings of Montrose

David Driscoll

Many of us are familiar with the 1855 classification of the Mèdoc: the five-tiered ranking system put into place by the Emperor Napoleon to effectively rate the wines of Bordeaux's left bank. We know the five first growths by heart: Latour, Lafife, Haut-Brion, Margaux, and Mouton. Many of us even know the second growths, of which Château Montrose is one. But seeing that we still rank these iconic wines via a system of classification based on the quality of wine made more than 150 years ago, do we know what's happened since that time? Do we think that the properties, the vineyards, the systems of winemaking, and the technologies of each château have also remained unchanged? Much has altered at many of these classified growths since Napoleon's original decree—some for the better, some for the worse—yet the rankings remain the same. The iconic Château Montrose, which was purchased by billionaire brothers Martin and Olivier Bouygues ten years ago, has undergone a series of important changes over the past decade, let alone the past century. The new owners have invested a serious amount of money, time, and energy into improving both the vineyards and the estate itself, elevating the St. Estèphe property to new heights.

I sat down for an interview with Montrose's sales manager Lorraine Watrin this past week to talk about the evolution of the historic second-growth, as well as the adjacent property Tronquoy-Lalande—a château that had fallen into disregard until it was purchased around the same time by Bouygues. 

David: Who are the people behind Château Montrose today?

Lorraine: Montrose and Tronquoy-Lalande are both owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bouygues. Mr. Bouygues is a big media and construction mogul in France—he’s very well-known. They purchased both the properties in 2006.

David: Were they both owned by the same person at the time, or were these two separate purchases?

Lorraine: No, they were acquired from two different purchases. They first purchased Château Montrose from the Charmolue family and with Tronquoy-Lalande it was from a woman named Mrs. Casteja who still lives in the house. The purchase of Montrose was done in May, and then there was an opportunity that summer to also buy Tronquoy-Lalande.

David: Are they right next to one-another?

Lorraine: Yes, it’s about one kilometer between the two properties. You literally cross the road and go down a bit and you’re at Tronquoy-Lalande.

David: Both fall into the St. Estèphe appellation, right?

Lorraine: Yes, the difference being that Montrose is a second classified growth and Tronquoy-Lalande used to be a Cru Bourgeois, but we chose to not subscribe again in 2010. 

David: Besides the classification of status, what are the physical differences of the two properties?

Lorraine: The real difference is the terroir. The terroir at Château Montrose is gravel on a subsoil of clay. There’s a lot of cabernet sauvignon planted there as a result. But then you cross the road over to Tronquoy-Lalande and the soil is very different. It’s more gravel mixed with clay and there’s more merlot planted there, which is quite unusual for a Médoc wine. 

David: Because normally properties in the Médoc are more cabernet-focused, right? 

Lorraine: Yes. At Montrose it’s about 65% planted with cabernet. Tronquoy-Lalande by contrast has about 50% merlot, 45% cabernet, and about 5% petit verdot. 

David: What are some of the changes that took place at both properties once they were purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Bouygues? We like to think of the famous Bordeaux chateaux as never-changing since we still classify them from a ranking done in 1855, but few of these properties have remained the same since then.

Lorraine: There have been many changes since the purchase. We should start with Montrose because that’s where the bigger changes occurred. The first thing that happened was an investment in the vineyards—in the quality of the vineyards. They began taking care of the soil, they began green harvesting, and they hired more employees to provide better maintenance, which of course resulted in higher quality grapes. Second, there was a big renovation program that took place. It took about four years to restore Tronquoy-Lalande because it’s a smaller property, but it took seven years to restore Château Montrose. It’s just fabulous. It’s a wonderful place now. It was a big project and Mr. Bouygues was very interested in utilizing both new technology as well as sustainable development with alternative energy sources. Also there was work with esthetics with the help of Mrs. Bouygues—they invested in architecture, decor, art, etc. We had good facilities before, but now we have the best facilities available.

David: I read that Montrose will now be a model for other Bordeaux producers looking to utilize things like solar power and geothermal energy. It's become a prime example in the wine world of how to modernize while improving sustainability. When do you think the result of those changes will be noticeable in the wines? If they began renovating in 2006, then maybe with the 2014 vintage?

Lorraine: It’s for sure a long term job! We invest in quality every day! Maybe 2014 will show the achievement of all that work. We had good vintages in 2009 and 10, but they were good vintages for all of Bordeaux, not just us. 2014, however, should show the results of all the investment because we were able to produce a very good wine from a less heralded vintage, which is more impressive. 

David: How is 2015 looking? From everything I’ve heard people seem to be very happy with the results.

Lorraine: It’s very, very good. It’s a very powerful vintage for us with long, elegant tannins. We did a very strict selection for our wine—I believe there’s more than 65% cabernet in the blend. Every year is a challenge to produce the best wine possible, but 2015 is a very good cabernet vintage. We’re actually finishing the blend on Monday. 

David: How did Tronquoy-Lalande do in 2015?

Lorraine: The vineyard is only about 30 hectares, so that’s about 30% the size of Montrose. We invested a lot of time and money over there as well, but in the case of Tronquoy-Lalande we had to actually replant a lot of the vines. But now the combination of young vines with some of the older stock puts us in a good position to start making some very good wines. 

David: We did very well with the 2009 expressions—both the standard Tronquoy-Lalande and the Tronquoy de St. Anne—so I have to imagine the wines will continue to get better as the vines continue to mature.

Lorraine: Yes, indeed.

David: Let me ask you about 2012 at Montrose. We’re starting to see some more interest in these wines as the quality now seems to be much better than was originally thought during the en premier tasting. Have you seen the 2012 wines come around as of late? Do you think maybe the wines were originally underrated?

Lorraine: We know that 2012 was a very good vintage because it was a classic vintage—finer, maybe in the style of 2008. We made a very fruity, elegant wine that’s still full-bodied, but finer in flavor. 53% of the production went into the grand vin, so that’s a good thing.

David: The prices for 2012 had to come down, but personally I don’t feel like the wines are any lower in quality than some of the more highly-rated vintages.

Lorraine: It was a different moment during the release of the 2012s. After 2011 when people saw that the wines could not sustain their previous prices, it was going to be difficult to justify raising them for 2012. But the quality is there. I think if we wait another year or two the market will begin to recognize the quality of the twelves and we’ll see more interest in the wines.

David: I couldn’t agree more.

As you can see with the example of Château Montrose, when it comes understanding Bordeaux it's not just a matter of knowing the vintage or the classification of the growth, it's also a matter of understanding the era from which the wine was produced! Is the bottle of Montrose you're drinking pre-Bouygues or post? All in all, it's more of a reason to look at the category of Bordeaux wine on a producer-by-producer basis, rather than search out blanket statements that seek to generalize the genre.

-David Driscoll