At the Apogee of Unique: Mature, Under-the-Radar & Monumental Margaux from 100 Year Old Ungrafted Vines

Posted on: 10/29/18 5:45 PM

Recently Neal Martin wrote one of the most striking Bordeaux profiles I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I’d love to copy it all in here but for the full thing you’ll need to be a Vinous subscriber (I recommend it). It was however to me, a revelation. I don’t often come across ‘new’ stars in Bordeaux. Of course, Bordeaux is an enormous region producing more wine than the whole country of Australia, and there’s hundreds of wines that I’m not familiar with, but not like this.

Not this good. Not in the middle of Margaux, not one that has been there for generations rather than one founded by a plucky garagiste. This is not the product of lavish new investment, but of century old ungrafted (yes, really) vines tended by an 85 year old man of the soil. Frankly, not this good. I had somehow never tasted Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre before this year, and neither apparently had Neal Martin until last. I would now place it among the most special wines that I’ve ever had the pleasure to offer you. These wines could be poster children for everything that is great about Bordeaux, about France, about traditions, about farmers, and about wine.

It is not overstating it to say that these wines are capable of connecting you to another place and another time. The scores are good, but there is so much more to tell that makes the idea of even giving these wines scores seem somehow bizarre. However, there is also a short story here; these are some of the most characterful, fascinating, and outstandingly brilliant aged Margaux that you could hope to find at anything like this price or honestly, any other.

You will not see them often, and it has taken serious work to be able to offer you this range of four stunning vintages. Buy them in quantity, get to know them, and your future self will thank you. They are more special than I can put into words, but please read below the line to see me (and Neal Martin) try.

2000 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre, Margaux

The 2000 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre is like the 1986 on the nose: backward and broody, demanding coaxing from the glass. There are moss-like, undergrowth scents, a touch of morels emerging with time and then, after an hour, the nose blossoms and finds its groove. The fruit belatedly surfaces and you find yourself bewitched by the bouquet. The palate is medium-bodied with fine tannin. This is not a complex millennial Margaux however there is a beguiling sense of effortless class and poise that plenty of its Margaux colleagues crave. Towards the finish there are subtle notes of tobacco and terracotta that lend another layer of complexity. I just love this wine – one of the best vintages from Jean-Pierre Boyer. 93 pts., Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate

2005 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre, Margaux

The 2005 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre has a strict, backward, tobacco and graphite-tinged bouquet with more black fruit than red, unlike the 2001. The palate is medium-bodied with fine tannin, harmonious and crisp with a fine thread of acidity. There is a gentle build in the mouth, quite linear but delivering a very nuanced, lightly spiced, clove-infused finish. This Margaux is endowed with impressive density compared to other vintages tasted, the fruit veering towards black plums and a hint of balsamic. I admire the transparency of the wine, one that makes you feel as if you are peering directly into the vineyard. 92 pts., Drink 2018-2033, Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate

2009 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre, Margaux

The 2009 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre has a very pure and bewitching bouquet with much more primary fruit than the 2001 and 2005: cranberry, wild strawberry, mint and a touch of iodine. The palate is medium-bodied with a fine line of acidity; very pure with black cherries, wild strawberry and a harmonious and poised finish that is surfeited with energy. Even though it does not quite match the 2010 in terms of complexity and articulation of terroir, this is a beautiful wine. Perhaps this is one vintage where the imprimatur of the growing season is more pronounced than Pierre Boyer’s own, but it still carries it off with style. 92 pts.,Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate

2010 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre, Margaux, $74.99 NET

The 2010 Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre is even better on the nose than the 2009: beautifully defined with blackberry, raspberry preserve, a hint of tobacco and later a hint of black truffle. The palate is medium-bodied with tangy red berry fruit, raspberry and wild strawberry. This is endowed with impressive density and it offers a captivating and slightly saline finish. You could broach this now if you wish, though I would prefer to let this age for another four or five years. What a magnificent, cerebral proposition this is. Tasted at the Bel-Air Marquis d’Aligre dinner. 93 pts., Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate

More about the wine:

It’s hard to even know where to start with these. As above, if you can access the full Vinous article I would greatly encourage you to do so, but I’ve included here a few excerpts that give a glimpse of what we’re dealing with.

“Jean-Pierre Boyer stands amongst his vines just outside the hamlet of Virefougasse, excoriating a wine region that has lost touch. He gesticulates wildly, enunciating sentences in crescendos of pent-up incredulity and frustration until a tipping point and then, instead of exploding in rage, he deflates. A resigned shrug of shoulders and outtake of breath, as he remembers his age, and the futility and inconsequence his opinion carries. Jean-Pierre is a bona fide French paysan. See the weather-beaten face, a lifetime exposed to the elements and labor in his rudimentary winery. Feel that indefatigable spirit. Listen to those incorrigible opinions. I look upon an old man caught adrift in a modernizing landscape that extinguished his brethren long ago. However, I am not in some bucolic backwater of Burgundy or less-travelled nook of Jura. I am a five-minute drive from Château Margaux. In fact, I can see that First Growth’s vines yonder.”

“The vines. Wow. I have visited most of the major vineyards in Bordeaux and never encountered any like these. “I have vines that are over 100-years old, maybe dating back to the 1870s on their own roots,” Boyer tells me, vanquishing the idea that the only Gallic vines on their original roots lie chez Bollinger. Winemakers often boast about the age of their vines, exaggerating and adding a few years. Inspecting these veterans close-up, they must constitute not just some of the oldest in Bordeaux, but in France.”

“To be honest, the quality of the wine is no surprise because it had been instigated the previous year. I had heard about the wine, but never tasted it until I encountered the 1970 last May. I was impressed. A few weeks later a munificent Belgian collector organized a private dinner with several vintages stretching back to a 1961. The wines were cut from a totally different cloth to any Bordeaux I had tasted. They evoked a fast-disappearing era of Bordeaux. They were remarkably consistent, and their backstory made them intermittently profound, extraordinarily pure, almost Saint Julien-like in style with sappy finishes that urged another sip.”

It’s worth stressing what Neal Martin reveals about the vines here. If you’re not familiar with the tale of phyloxerra, in the late 19th century French and European vineyards were struck by this devasting mite carried disease. It seems incredible now, but things got so bad that it looked like it could be the end for wine in Europe. In fact, at the time my own ancestors were wine growers in the south west of France, moving to England as the land became completely unworkable.

The disease originated in the United States thousands of years ago, causing native vines there to have developed immunity. The problem had come about when American vines were first brought to Europe, where the vines were defenseless and devastated long before anyone could work out what had happened. The cure when finally discovered, turned out to be to graft the vines of the desired European species (from which the entire world’s ‘fine wine’ is made) onto American rootstocks, and wine was forever changed. Many of the people that had the experience of drinking the pre phyloxerra, ungrafted wine said that nothing was ever quite as good again.

Now almost every vineyard in Europe is grafted. As Martin implies, the only ungrafted French one that I could have named was Bollinger’s tiny “Vielles Vignes Francais”, which sells for around $1000 per bottle. Outside France, Quinta do Noval’s legendary “Nacional” vineyard is the other widely known one, for which again you’d often be paying four figures.

It turns out, bizarrely sitting in the middle of Margaux is another, and the results are extraordinary. Not surprisingly given what you will have read about Monsieur Boyer above, he doesn’t really go in for self- promotion (or any sort of promotion at all really) so these wines have been hiding in plain sight. Only about ten hectares are farmed so there’s not much of them, and he doesn’t usually speak to journalists so you’re hardly ever going to see scores and reviews for them. The only ones I have seen are these and Jancis Robinson, who gives pretty much everything 17+ out of 20, a very high score for her.

These are however, wines that I honestly feel scores seem somehow pathetically meaningless for. These are wines made by a man from another time, from vines from another time, in a style that connects the drinker to the soil in a way that few others can. Measuring them on a supposedly objective scale seems to almost fly in the fact of what they are. Make no mistake, these scores are good and I like Neal Martin’s notes, but take it from me when I say that there is so much more going on here than that which can be communicated by a score, a note, or an e-mail.

Posted in Bordeaux List By Guy Davies