Margaux is Open for Business
Secretive, insular and legacy-owned are all words that define Bordeaux, arguably the most famous wine region in the world. The larger-than-life Bordeaux estates (think Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Haut-Brion, Petrus), together with their 7,000 lesser-known neighbors,produce the greatest volume of wine in France.
For centuries, Bordeaux’s wine trade was so lucrative that it made its sprawling, eponymous city a gleaming bastion of architecturally significant white-stoned wealth. People made prosperous from grapes came from surrounding regions like Margaux, Pauillac, Pomerol, St. Estephe and St. Emilion to buy city houses and establish business offices in Bordeaux.
The hidebound wine world worked like this: Vignerons (farmers) grew grapes and bottled their own wine. The bottles then went to négociants, who were responsible for marketing to importers and distributors, who in turn sold to retailers. Because of their control of the product, and as the only known “face” of the region, the négociants wielded all the power, not the vignerons. Naturally, it was in their interest to keep it this way, and it’s because of this dynamic that famed winemakers and their chateaux were largely inaccessible to the public.
But in the last several decades, booming wine production around the world (South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, not to mention Napa and Sonoma valleys) has given wine drinkers hundreds of choices, and Bordeaux needed a way to stay competitive. Simultaneously, dynastically-owned Bordeaux vineyards were sold to international corporations, hedge funds or wealthy individuals, often with no history in the wine business and therefore no historical investment in retaining the status quo.
Christophe Chateau, director of communications for Vins de Bordeaux, whose job is to market the region and help return Bordeaux to the limelight, says, “One of the ways we’re doing this is to stage worldwide events. We have an annual presence at tastings in the UK, Japan and Hong Kong, among other places. For the last four years we’ve partnered with Harlem’s EatUp! Festival.”
Margaux, the storied appellation in Bordeaux’s northwest, is one region that’s branching into new ventures as part of the ongoing fight to stay relevant. For the first time, chateaux are marketing themselves by opening their previously-locked doors to the public. Drive up scenic Route D2 and you’ll pass venerable properties open for wine tastings, tours, accommodations and events. One of the key people behind this initiative is Edouard Miailhe, seventh-generation owner of Chateau Siran and now head of the Margaux Wine Producers Association. “We‘re excited to share the Siran experience with the public,” Miailhe says. “In the last few years we’ve built a museum, tasting room and banquet facility. We serve lunch on our rooftop terrace and have a rental bastide [cottage] nearby.”
In the fields, Miailhe is committed to environmentally responsible viticulture, a priority to today’s consumers. He primarily uses organic products and limits his interventions. “We’re fortunate that our vineyards are surrounded by woods, meadows and an orchard, all of which contribute to a healthy biodiversity,” he told us.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Siran, there are two tour options available by appointment. The 60- to 90-minute visits include a lesson on the history of the chateau (purchased from the grandparents of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), tours of the 300-artifact museum and barrel cellar and a wine tasting on their rooftop terrace overlooking the estate’s 217 acres. “We are fortunate to have visitors from all over the world, and after spending time with us, many become brand ambassadors,” Miailhe says.
And Chateau Siran is not unique. Here are just some of the legendary chateaux you’ll see on a drive through Margaux and what they offer to visitors.
The family that owns Chateau D’Issan sold 50 percent of the estate to a French investor in 2013. It’s open weekdays to visitors.
Chateau Dauzac is managed by the André Lurton group and run by president Christine Lurton-Bazin de Caix.
Chateau Giscours is owned by a Dutch billionaire and used for events and as a B&B.
Chateau Kirwan is still owned by the original family and now used for catering and events. Chateau Palmer, a biodynamic vineyard whose vintages sell out for hundreds of dollars per bottle before reaching the open market, offers tours by appointment only. Legendary Chateau Margaux, a billion-dollar business owned by a Greek family, lets visitors stroll through the park-like 200-acre property and soak up the ambience, while professionals may schedule a tasting. Lascombes is owned by an insurance company and with 270 acres, is the largest estate in Margaux.
Oenophiles may be interested to know that visionary wine-brand builder Alexis Lichine is buried next door at Chateau Prieure Lichine, which boasts a gorgeous new cellar that’s open to the public.
Margaux may be leading the way, but transparency is becoming the norm across the Bordeaux region. Free from its semi-feudal past, you can now tour, sample the vintages, dine and sleep at the legendary estates you once only knew from their labels. The result of this open-door policy is that Margaux is thriving. “By 2021 wine lovers will have a brand new tourism office to help them with all their needs,” Miailhe says.