In the dark and rain, lightning struck the trees—but it never touched the part of the vineyard where the best vines were plantedby Barry Smith / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
If you could choose your last bottle of wine, what would it be? A tough question that became a reality for one member of my family many years ago. Tom, a lawyer in his early sixties, developed an inoperable brain tumour. Still quite well when given this terrible news, he knew that he faced a rapid decline. Tom loved cigars, wine and his home city of Edinburgh with its historic ties to claret. He decided to do the things he wanted to do, which included savouring an exceptional bottle of Château Margaux.
Tom invited my father to an Edinburgh restaurant and they dined together, choosing from the list a magnificent bottle of this precious Bordeaux. I never learned what vintage it was; I wish I had. The two talked openly about what was to come. My father was no stranger to medical treatment, having survived an early brush with lung cancer. Perhaps that’s why Tom sought him out for the occasion. Or, perhaps it was because my father, a restaurateur, was at home with the great wines of France. I was midway through my university training, but I found this event profoundly moving and it left its mark on me that Tom chose Château Margaux as his last wine.
I always wanted to taste a Margaux, to share in Tom’s joy in life. It was my 40th birthday in Paris when I had the opportunity. I remember lingering over the last sip of the 1986.
Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the Greek owner of Château Margaux, once wrote about a storm that hit the Margaux commune. In the dark and rain, lightning struck the trees—but it never touched the part of the vineyard where the best vines were planted. “They knew a thing or two, the ancients,” she wrote.
I think, too, of the stories of Margaux’s great vintages, of the glory of 1945 when those who toiled among the vines at harvest must have felt the surge of relief and joy at the end of the war. And I think of the story of Robert Parker, the wine critic, being asked to taste two bottles of 1900 Margaux at the Chateau to reassure a billionaire who wanted to buy the rest for a millennium dinner. Parker pronounced them in good condition: and with still some way to go.
I love the idea of uncovering wines made with love and care by the now long-dead. With each sip, we celebrate the people who made this possible.
It was only a few years ago that I had the extraordinary good fortune to be invited to a dinner at the Fat Duck restaurant where Paul Pontellier, the gifted wine maker at Château Margaux, was presenting his wines to complement a dinner created specially for the occasion. The wines included the 1985, 89 and 93 along with more recent vintages. The chief sommelier, Isa Ball, had proposed tasting the older vintages first so that as the dishes got bolder in their flavours they did not overwhelm the older wines.
Pontellier was sceptical initially but willingly conceded that it was the right decision. After dinner and I had the opportunity to talk to him then, about the wines and about the seasons at Margaux. He was extremely gracious and offered to show me around the winery if I cared to visit.
Just a few short years later he was dead. It was a shock to everyone in the world of wine and especially to his friends and colleagues in Bordeaux. These are moments of sadness and yet they help us to recognise the greatness of these wines and how they touched people’s lives.
We will remember them.