On the Trail

An Intimate Evening with Magdelaine

Jeff Garneau
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Last night we held a wake of sorts to celebrate the passing of one of the great estates of Saint-Émilion: Premier Grand Cru Classé Château Magdelaine. A tradition of fine winemaking dating back to the early 19th century ended with the 2011 vintage when the current owners, Ets. JP Mouiex, elected to consolidate the vineyards with its neighbor Chateau Bélair (rechristened Bélair-Monange by the Mouiex family after its acquisition in 2008). We sat down to an extraordinary dinner prepared by chef John Bentley of the eponymously named restaurant in Redwood City. Led by K&L owner Clyde Beffa and senior Bordeaux specialist Ralph Sands we shared our memories, swapping stories about the Château and vintages past. And we drank. How we drank! (for a look at what we have left in stock after all that gluttony, click here).

We revisited some of the greatest vintages of the past half century, ones in which Château Magdelaine particularly shone. Purchased directly from Ets. JP Mouiex, the bottles were in supremely good condition, and aside from one corked bottle of the 1970, showed magnificently.

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One of the surprises of the night was the 1972: a cool, wet year producing mostly thin, vegetal wines that is usually dismissed out of hand as one of the worst vintages of the decade. There was no sense of herbaceousness about the wine, but a lively acidity and – wonder of wonders – a modest ripeness that was absolutely charming. Nothing earth shattering perhaps but so unexpected as to elicit a smile, like a nursery school production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The 1981, too, was a delightful surprise. Redolent with cinnamon spice and truffle notes. Lovely weight here and not lacking in ripeness if a bit short on the finish. A seesaw vintage of mixed conditions that nevertheless produced some solidly good wines. Alas, one that will live forever in the shadow of its much more famous younger sibling, the ’82 vintage. We were privileged to taste two of the greatest vintages of the 1970’s, the glorious ’70, still utterly charming after nearly five decades, and the indefatigable ’75, ramrod straight with a firm spine of tannin even now.

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Of all the Premier Grand Cru Classé estates, Chateau Magdelaine has always had the highest proportion of Merlot in the blend. How exciting then to be able to taste two vintages famous for the quality of the Merlot! I confess to being completely enthralled by the ’85. Still very youthful with loads of bright, sweet fruit. Lushly textured with great concentration and intensity. The ’98 was a Right Bank vintage if ever there was one. A bit more muscular with darker fruit, still showing admirable ripeness and fine tannins.

We enjoyed more recent outstanding vintages like the formidable 2000. The famous millennial vintage was ripe and full-bodied with substantial black cherry fruit and fine tannins. The 2001 was close behind with more notable acidity and perhaps a bit less weight but plenty of sweet, ripe fruit. The 2009, a vintage in which some Right Bank producers pushed the boundaries of ripeness, was a model of restraint. Lively acidity, very bright and fresh, yet possessed of remarkable ripeness and weight. Rich, lush, with ultrafine tannins, the ’09 Magdelaine can hold its own with some of the best wines of the vintage.

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We closed out the night with two venerable vintages. First was the somewhat controversial ’66, a vintage praised by Clive Coates as “classic”, elegant and charming, and panned by Robert Parker as “austere, unyielding and tannic.” The vintage is often cited as the best of the decade after the celebrated ’61, but our staff too, was split on this one with some rejoicing in the wine’s longevity and others complaining of too firm tannins and meager fruit. There was, finally, complete consensus on the majestic ’59, heralded at the time of its release as the “vintage of the century”. As the wine was poured, the room fell silent, in admiration and awe of a wine – and of an estate – that has spanned decades.

RIP Château Magdelaine.

Santé Château Bélair-Monange.

-Jeff Garneau