The wines of Bernard Magrez
Part 1: Château La Tour Carnet

Bernard Magrez is a self-made man who made his fortune from drinks, creating and selling a range of drinks brands in France through his company, William Pitters. But now he’s involved in quite a different, more upmarket side of the business: for the last 20 years he’s been acquiring prestigious vineyards, first of all in Bordeaux, where he owns several chateaux, and more recently around the world. The total count at the moment is 35 wine estates, which makes for quite a portfolio. Although he’s recently added one more, in the Douro (no wine has been made from this yet), he’s pretty much finished his collecting spree, and is now looking to reinforce the Bernard Magrez ‘signature’ as a top quality brand in the world of fine wine.

[For those who want to know more about his background and personality, there’s a really good interview by Robert Joseph here.]

I spent a couple of days with him in Bordeaux to visit some of his properties, and try to get a feel for what he’s about. The purpose of the visit was to publicise the launch of his new luxury wine tourism venture. Tourism is something that Bordeaux has actually been quite bad at in the past: despite the fact that it’s the world’s largest fine wine region. Although it’s possible to visit most of the leading properties, tourism isn’t actively encouraged on the whole, and Bordeaux remains fairly inaccessible. Magrez agrees that Bordeaux isn’t friendly enough towards visitors. ‘Oenotourism is important’, says Magrez. ‘Bordeaux is now just beginning, but slowly. One of the problems for Bordeaux is that they haven’t developed this wine tourism before’.


To get a taste for what the Magrez brand of luxury wine tourism might involve, we travelled in style, flying out from London City airport on his private jet, and then transferring to helicopter to fly from Bordeaux airport over the Médoc, to the first stop, Château La Tour Carnet, a 120 hectare estate with 68 hectares under vine.


Since taking over this fourth-growth estate, Magrez has totally renovated the vineyards, cellar and ancient Château, which now look stunning. As with all his properties, winemaking is under the watchful eye of consultant winemaker Michel Rolland, who Magrez has been working with for 20 years. The cellar has some 2400 barrels, which is enough to cater for two vintages at once. This means that the wines don’t have to be out of barrel by the next vintage. New oak percentage is 60–80, and depends on the capacity of the wine. ‘We don’t want to make wood infusions’, says Magrez.


I’ve seen a lot of cellars, and immediately Magrez’ cellars stand out because they are spotless, and the barrels all look brand new – great care has been taken not to spill any wine on them. Each of Magrez’ properties conducts trials with a range of barrel makers, with a view to improving quality, because oak quality is so important to the final wine. Magrez has been working with Radoux to develop even better barrels: for example, he uses special barrels called ‘X blend’, which is a top selection of very fine grained wood. Radox made just 20 of these barrels, and they cost double (1200 Euros) the price of the classic barrels.

He explained that the previous day he did a tasting comparing the 2007 vintage wine in barrels made by five different manufacturers with this kind of top selection of wood. The goal is to improve the quality of the whole blend. ‘Starting at around 5% of that type of barrel you are improving the quality of the blend’, explains Magrez. ‘Lots of small additions of detail make the difference to quality in the end’.


At La Tour Carnet, selection is one of the keys to quality. Triage is first made in the vineyard, and then there are 30 metres of sorting tables, with 26–30 people sorting berries and taking stems out. The aim is to have less than 2% of stems in the vats. At Château Pape Clement, the first and most prestigious of Magrez’ properties, hand destemming is employed. ‘This has been done for a long time and makes a big difference’, says Magrez. ‘We get much more silky tannins’.

‘When you hand destem the grapes you respect the berry’, he continues. ‘It just has a small hole at the location of the stem. Classic destemmers rip the skin’. This hand destemming is expensive, though, adding 2 Euros to the price of a bottle, but it is indicative of the single-minded pursuit of quality that Magrez is after. As well as being used for Pape Clement, hand destemming is also employed for certain top cuvées from other properties.

He thinks that even small gains in quality matter. ‘The quality has risen a lot in other countries, which is providing new competition for Bordeaux. If we don’t even try to improve it, it will be difficult for high quality Bordeaux wine. We have vineyards across the world and we know the improvements going on: we have contact with the best wineries. In the whole world of wine the quality at the top end is changing. In Bordeaux, Chateaux that don’t try to improve themselves every year will be in trouble. The quality overall is now so high that basic Bordeaux wine finds it difficult to compete.’

‘One of the reasons I work with Michel Rolland is that he is a world winemaker’, explains Magrez. ‘In Napa he is now in charge of 9 of the top 10 properties. It is interesting to work with a man who knows the improvement of the competitors.’


A short video of the visit to La Tour Carnet

Anne Lenaour is the enologist responsible for Château La Tour Carnet; she’s been working with Magrez since 2002, and has been at La Tour Carnet since 2002. She explained to role of Michel Rolland. ‘Rolland gives us guidelines. As well as visiting himself, he has a team of three who also visit. A consultant is very important for a Grand Cru. It is necessary to have a personal bond between the two people [the consultant and the in-house enologist] so they can work as a unit.’

Rolland started working with Magrez in the 1990s, and now Magrez is his biggest customer. Lenaour describes him as ‘the king of the blend’, and as a ‘genius’. For example, Rolland and Magrez recently did the blending for Fombrauge 2007 and Rolland remembered the exact assemblage of the 2006 vintage. But Rolland has a controversial image in the wine world, as a winemaker who is manipulative (using techniques such as microoxygenation and lots of new oak), such that his wines all tend to taste similar in an ‘international’ style. Lenaour disagrees. ‘This image is 100% due to Mondovino [Jonathan Nossiter’s film on the effect of globalization on the wine industry], which was completely partisan’, she says. ‘Since I’ve been working with him I have never heard him advise us to use microoxygenation. That is a caricature of the man. It is also a caricature that Rolland likes wood infusions in his wines.’

‘At the beginning of the harvest when he tastes the grapes he knows what maceration temperature to use, what pigeage and so on: he is very skilled. He is probably one of the few enologists selling his expertise and not selling any product. Most of the wines here are made with natural fermentations.’ I asked her whether he was expensive. ‘In Bordeaux, some advisors charge more than Rolland’, she replied.

Magrez is unusual among Bordeaux producers in that he has back labels, and these include his picture. ‘In a shop or restaurant the wine lover is facing 15–20 different Château and doesn’t know the name or quality of the Château. In Bordeaux there are 12000 properties making wine. For the wine lover it is difficult to choose.’ He adds that, ‘here the producer is a man, and the man is Bernard Magrez. People like to know the name of the owner: it’s very important now.’ His decision to use photos on the back label was taken after market research in Belgium, Germany and the UK. As to breaking with convention, Magrez emphasizes that, ‘The wine lover is my boss, not my competitors!’


Château La Tour Carnet Blanc 2007
From 1.2 hectares that Magrez planted, with a view to making a top quality white. 35% Sauvignon Blanc, 31% Sauvignon Gris, 34% Semillon ; spends 9 months in French oak. Richly fruited nose with some spicy, sweet oak. The palate is dense and rich with powerful, rich fruit. Quite exotic, with nicely integrated oak. 89/100

Château La Tour Carnet Blanc 2006
Lovely aromatics : fresh, lemony, pithy, slightly oily, grapefruity. The palate is fresh and lemony with lovely fruit and some spicy structure, with well integrated oak. Dense and savoury. 90/100

Château La Tour Carnet 2005
Dense and youthful, but with smooth, supple structure.
Nice dark cherry and blackberry character. Bright with a seamless structure; currently a little closed but with great potential. 91/100

Château La Tour Carnet 2003
Sweet, dark, lush and spicy with nice structure. Smooth, ripe, sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with firm, minerally, spicy tannins. Starting to show some evolution, with some elegance. 92/100

Servitude Voloutaire du Château La Tour Carnet 2005
This is a special cuvee : it’s 100% Merlot and it’s hand destemmed. Rich, smooth, spicy chocolatey nose. The palate is concentrated and intense with ripe, smooth blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Very smooth and concentrated, with lushness but also some fine-grained structure. Modern and sophisticated. 93/100

Then we tried some wines from the previous regime, which employed machine harvesting and higher yields. The actual yields were 60 hl/hectare, but the vineyard was pruned for higher yields than this. It was a vicious circle: because the price was low, more wine had to be made, which lowered quality and kept the price low.

Now Magrez’ team harvests each block just at the right time, taking real risks. ‘When Michel Rolland arrived he asked us to delay harvest, waiting and harvesting as late as we could when the seed is almost like toast’, says Magrez. ‘Yields are much lower doing this but the quality is better. We have lost 20 hl/hectare. ‘

Château La Tour Carnet 1996
Earthy, leafy aromatics. The palate has earthy, spicy notes with some evolution evident. Open and evolving nicely but also a bit of greenness and rusticity showing. A savoury, mid-weight style. 87/100

Château La Tour Carnet 1970
Aromatic and quite evolved but still alive. Nicely mineralic with some herby, leafy notes. Quite elegant with some spice and earth notes. It’s a really delicious midweight Claret drinking well now. Very digestible. 89/100

Also in this series:

Wines tasted 11/08  
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