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Improving a Wine’s Wattage

Chateau Montrose

In Bordeaux, I’m always on the lookout for chateau reputations on the rise. Yes, the 1855 Classification ranking of the top 61 has been in place for 150 years, but everybody knows wine quality isn’t static. Chateau Montrose is the latest aiming for new heights and buzz.

Sure signs? A new owner with megabucks hired one of the region’s star winemakers and is throwing pots of cash at the vineyards and winery. This turns out to include going “green” too.

That’s why I grabbed the chance recently to have lunch at the chateau in Saint-Estephe with world-renowned Jean-Bernard Delmas, who spent his stellar 47-year career perfecting first growth Chateau Haut-Brion in Pessac-Leognan, south of Bordeaux. Many think he made its sister property La Mission Haut Brion into such a star that it should be promoted to the short first growth list.

Is that his goal at Montrose? What’s he changing? Are current vintages bargains to buy before the wine gets more buzz and prices skyrocket?

Those were the questions on my mind as I drove the fast route north from the city of Bordeaux, avoiding traffic slog on the D2, which passes all the famous châteaux. It still took nearly an hour to reach the winding roads of Saint-Estephe, the Medoc’s northernmost appellation, which feels like the middle of nowhere. Finally I arrive at the chateau office where I met up with wine director Delmas.

A solid man with a square face topped with white hair, he’s in gray linen jacket and jeans. Calm and courtly, he reminds me of a patient, high-powered headmaster used to being in authority and ready to instruct.

So he filled me in on the chateau’s past and the new owners. The Charmolue family owned it for a century, during which they weathered an economic depression, a major cellar fire and occupation by German forces, which set up a firing range in the vineyards. The ’80s saw restoration, renovation, modernization. For the past couple of decades, I’ve found the wine one of the best and most consistent in Saint-Estephe, which has only five crus classés, fewer than any other commune, with no first growths and only two seconds.

All are noted for earthy, tannic wines. Montrose’s gravelly terroir produces dense, powerful, muscular examples that last for decades, but the wines don’t have the flash and luxury buzz of ambitious neighbor Château Cos d’Estournel.

Montrose’s reputation was pretty grand by 2006 when French billionaire and construction tycoon Martin Bouygues (and his brother Olivier) forked over about $170 million for 95 percent of it. (Negociant Jean-François Moüeix, owner of famous Chateau Petrus, owns the rest.)

Martin Bouygues called Delmas.

Jean-Bernard Delmas

Famed Bordeaux winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas

He’d retired from Haut-Brion in 2003, handing responsibility over to his son, started a small consulting business and was ready for a challenge that didn’t involve Haut-Brion. “The first thing I did as wine director,” Delmas says, “was taste the three best wines Montrose ever made –1970, 1989, 1990.” Then he persuaded the Bouygueses not to bulldoze the modest château to build a grand monstrosity, and got to work.

As we tour the property under cloudy skies, the sound of construction is everywhere, and, to my surprise, most of it is from making the cellars and buildings completely energy self-sufficient through solar, water and wind power by mid-2010. The estate expects to have excess energy to sell. Beneath the chateau is a geothermal source of water that’s a constant 14 degrees centigrade for keeping things warm in winter and cool in summer. Saint-Estèphe’s trademark stiff breeze has more uses than just drying grapes after a hard rain. All this puts Montrose at the cutting edge of green consciousness in Bordeaux.

“Most wineries can’t afford the initial investment in things like our planned 3,000 square meters of solar panels,” Delmas says. But the Bouygues brothers’ estimated personal fortune is a cool $2.7 billion in 2009, according to Forbes. It comes from their eponymously named international telecommunications and construction businesses, which now have similar environmental policies. Projects have included ports, nuclear power stations, the Channel tunnel and the Musee d’Orsay. Company take in 2008: 32 billion-plus euros.

Delmas tells me he’s made dozens of the small changes that I know add up to greatness in wine — maybe. He’s reduced yields, cut out weed killers and is thinking about including more petit verdot in the blend, now that it ripens more easily because of global warming.

The 70-hectare vineyard was in good shape, he says, but every year Monsieur Charmolue picked it all at the same time. “You never have the same maturity in each parcel every year, so now we pick according to maturity, as at Haut-Brion.”

That costs, but, he claims, this has improved the wine’s silkiness. I didn’t see it in the barrel samples I sipped and spit in the long, elegant tasting room. The just-bottled 2007 was ripe and scented but lacked heft. The 2008 ($75 as future) was terrific — big, powerful, smoky, full of spice and ripe plums and purity of fruit, with lots and lots of tannin that needs plenty of time to age.

With lamb chops at lunch in the château dining room, I savor a dark and dramatic 1999 Montrose, and Delmas finally drops his real ambitions: “Yes, we want to make a Saint-Estephe-style of first growth.”

Chateau Montrose wine tasting

Wine tasting at Château Montrose. Photo by Elin McCoy