“I haven’t had the 82 for about a year and a half,” said Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos, heir to Château Margaux. I laughed: she’s luckier than the rest of us. But we’re not doing badly; we’ve taken over the dining room of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay for an evening of Margaux with a bespoke menu. It sounds almost run-of-the-mill, put like that, but for those of us who might have a glass of fine old Margaux once every three years, rather than 18 months, it’s a rare treat. The fact that Ramsay has closed his three-Michelin-starred restaurant for us, on a Saturday night in late December, is almost incidental: Margaux should expect no less.
The evening is co-hosted by fine wine merchant Fine+Rare and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Mentzelopoulos is there with her husband François Chirumberro (they were married two months ago but it might be years, the way they spar with each other over the relative merits of the new Scorsese picture, The Irishman. For the record, he loved it, she went and found something better to do), along with the team from F+R and a dozen or so claret-lovers.
From the first sip of the Gosset 2004 as an ice-breaker, the wines are magnificent. Ramsay’s veteran head sommelier James Lloyd introduces two Pavillon Blancs (96 and 2016). Both are ripe and luscious; the younger’s boisterous, crunchy fruit is matched by the 96’s cooked peach.
Then Pavillon Rouge from two outstanding vintages, 2000 and 2009. “My God what a nose,” I scrawl, as if I’ve just seen Cleopatra swoosh by on her burnished throne. That was the 2000; the 09 is as intense.
Meanwhile the wait staff – black-suited like an army of CIA operatives – know the provenance of every herb, and every ingredient of any one of the superlative sauces. A red wine reduction with Cornish turbot doesn’t so much accompany the Pavillon as marry it and settle down for a life of connubial bliss.
The grand vin appears. 1990 and 1996: I know it’s a cliché but their aromas truly do fill the room. Claret-light in colour, bright and oh-so-alive, you realise you’re touching them at a mere point in their evolution; wine critics not yet born will savour these wines to mid-century and far beyond.
There’s a good deal of talk about the 1982 and its successor, the 83. Over the years the latter has been considered an anomalous triumph, the former only rarely preferred by critics. Tonight is different: 1982 shimmers; 1983 has a curious flatness, its earthiness unperfumed, its finish tinged with herb. Never mind – these wines are alive, and they have their moods. It’ll find its mojo again.
The fact that the rain tonight is apocalyptic (when we emerge onto Royal Hospital Road at midnight it’s still coming down like stair-rods) leads us to talk about the biodynamic calendar. Is today a root day or fruit day? As far as I’m concerned it’s atmospheric pressure that counts – but why should the 83 be affected while the other reds sing? Discuss.
Chateau Margaux is a lovely property. I first went there 20 years ago and was warmly welcomed by Corinne Mentzelopoulos; her daughter Alexandra is equally unfussy. On Saturday she introduced herself to her guests as deputy manager, then added, “I’m kind of the owner as well.” One is still conscious that there’s a big hole at the centre of the business: the much-loved managing director Paul Pontallier died in 2016 and he’s obviously still very much in the minds of the family. He joined in 1983 just as Corinne took over on the death of her father, and the two were close as siblings. Alexandra knew him from a baby – he was like an uncle, she told me.
For all it’s one of the half-dozen grandest estates in the world, Margaux has never been formal. For a couple of seasons Pontallier’s son, the irrepressible Thibault, hosted groups of journalists for En Primeur. One year, in the vast hall they call the Orangery, he made a joke that might have been construed as off-message. The voice of Mentzelopoulos came from behind a partition: “I’m listening to everything you say, you know.” It might have been his mum talking.