Vertical Tasting of Château Magdelaine

Château Magdelaine might well be the most misunderstood of all the great wines of Saint-Emilion.  In an appellation that witnessed the birth of the garagiste movement, and the entrenchment of consulting winemakers bent on making the biggest and blackest wines possible for the greater part of the '90s and into the new century, Magdelaine's pristine, lacy, minerally, discreet wine has seemed to be hopelessly anachronistic for the better part of two decades.  Clearly, all was not well at the property in the 1980s, and some wines were less than they might have been during that time.  But overall, the wines from this estate have been penalized over the years by wine critics looking for size rather than finesse.

Château Magdelaine is ideally situated on the edge of the limestone plateau of Saint-Martin for which Saint-Emilion is renowned.  It is this limestone (or calcaire) that characterizes the wine of Magdelaine.  Owned for more than 200 years by the Chatonnet family, it has belonged since 1952 to the respected Libourne négociant J. P. Moueix, which also owns many other noteworthy properties, including Pétrus, Trotanoy and Hosanna, and Dominus Estate in California.  The estate consists of 11 hectares, 6 of which are located on the plateau and 5 on the côtes below (these 5 hectares were originally bought by the Chatonnet family from nearby Château Fonplégade in 1863).  According to owner Christian Moueix, the limestone gives Magdelaine its finesse, while the clay of the slopes provides power. 

The grape varieties planted are 90% merlot and 10% cabernet franc, at a density of 6,000 vines per hectare, with an average annual yield around 40 hectoliters per hectare.  The average age of the vines is 36 years.  The large proportion of merlot might fool some into believing that the wine will be soft and fruity, but this is rarely the case with Magdelaine, especially in its youth.  In fact, it greatly benefits from seven or eight years of bottle age to begin to fully express itself.  "It is certainly one of the hardest of all Saint-Emilions to judge when young," Moueix told me.  Another important fact about Magdelaine is that it performs particularly well in warm to hot years thanks to the tempering influence of its limestone-rich.

The wines have long enjoyed a reputation for aging extremely well.  For example, older vintages such as the 1865 and 1858 were still considered to be standouts at the beginning of the 20th century.  Jean-Claude Berrouet, the firm's long-time winemaker (now retired) who oversaw almost all the wines in this vertical, told me little has changed at Magdelaine over the last 30 years.  The oak regimen has remained the same:  one-third new oak, and one-third each second- and third-year barrels.  "Perhaps the major change over time has been a greater precision in harvesting dates," said Berrouet.  "With the 1985 vintage, we began spreading the merlot harvest over a slightly longer period.  Depending on the vintage, the harvest will now occur over roughly 10 or 11 days as opposed to the 7 of previous decades."  When I asked him if it was possible that Magdelaine might have been harvested too early in some years, given the relatively low pHs of the wines, Berrouet answered that he really didn't believe so.

Above all, Magdelaine is an excellent example of a more elegant, refined Saint-Emilion that becomes charming and flattering over time like few other Saint-Emilions.  In particular, as noted previously, it is a near-textbook example of what merlot can give on limestone soils, an altogether different wine than when merlot is grown on clay, such as at Pétrus, or on gravel, such as at Lafleur-Pétrus or Bellegrave.  Magdelaine is never a blockbuster, even in its near-mythical vintages such as 1961 or 1975 (though the latter is about as massive an example of Magdelaine as there is).  Said Moueix:  "Some people feel we should change our winemaking style at Magdelaine; they'd like to see a much more structured wine, but that is not what the terroir there can give."  Berrouet has always felt that Magdelaine represents the finer side of Saint-Emilion.  Tongue firmly planted in cheek, he told me:  "There are some in this appellation who like to work with raisins, and by harvesting very late, using 100% new oak, and carrying out the malolactic transformation in new barriques, they can make wines like those of the Midi.  That's perfectly acceptable, but some of us would rather make Saint-Emilions of a different ilk, in my view more representative of the limestone terroir."  Still, Magdelaine has routinely been a huge commercial success, according to Moueix:  "We never have enough; it sells out all the time almost immediately.  Certainly, it is the lowest-priced of the premier crus of Saint-Emilion, and it is a wine with a remarkably faithful following."

I organized this tasting for the IWC and it took place last May in the J. P. Moueix tasting room in Libourne.  Owner Christian Moueix and general director Frédéric Lospied popped in from time to time to answer questions.  With vertical tastings provenance is everything, and I never write about, or score, wines whose source I'm not confident about.  The wines in this tasting all came from the firm's cellars, except a second bottle of the 1961 that I tasted courtesy of Jean-Claude Berrouet, and two that came from my own cellar in Rome (and that were bought upon release directly in Bordeaux).  The wines were opened one hour before my tasting.

I was not at all surprised by the fine showing of the wines in the tasting:  they performed and scored better than reviews by many other critics and experts over the years would have you believe.  In fact, this is precisely why I wanted to do a vertical of Magdelaine in the first place, in order to verify how Magdelaine performs and improves over time.  As always with these vertical tastings, I have purposely gone out of my way to include some lesser vintages (such as the 2002 and the 2004) so as to give readers an appreciation for wines that may not be long-term keepers but that represent excellent value and are ideal for drinking on the young side (in fact, these are often great restaurant wines) while more important vintages mature in the cellar.

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata