Château Magdelaine is quite simply my very favorite estate in all of St. Emilion, and probably would rank in my top five producers from the entire Bordeaux region, if I had to come up with a short list of my favorites. This is one of the best-situated châteaux in the heart and soul of the St. Emilion Côtes, with beautifully laid out vineyards planted to ninety percent Merlot and (a surprisingly low) ten percent Cabernet Franc.
Not surprisingly, Château Magdelaine travels a bit below most peoples’ radars these days, for it does not exude radiance through its black-purple color, neon violet rim, gobs and gobs of fat and happy fruit or run with the pack at the best purveyors of new oak. Thankfully Château Magdelaine is different. It is an understated, complex and tightly-knit wine that starts out life reticent and bound up in its structure, but which blossoms beautifully with time in bottle and actually does something increasingly rare in the Bordeaux of the twenty-first century- it ages into a wine of greater complexity, purity and elegance. It is also one of the very rare examples from either bank of the Gironde that is actually defined by its soil, and which consistently delivers wines that pay homage to the concept of terroir. As such, Château Magdelaine remains a classic example of St. Émilion and one of the brightest stars to be found amongst the traditionalists of Bordeaux.
Château Magdelaine is owned by the firm of Jean-Pierre Moueix, started in 1937, which to many Bordeaux lovers is synonymous with the greatest wines of the Right Bank. Amongst the several holdings of the company on the right side of the Gironde are the historic Pomerol châteaux of Pétrus and Trotanoy. Château Magdelaine may not have the same universal recognition amongst wine lovers as these two châteaux, or several other of the Moueix properties for that matter, which include Dominus in the Napa Valley, but it does hold the distinction of being the very first estate that the Moueix family purchased. Jean-Pierre Moueix bought Château Magdelaine in 1952, and while many of the family’s later acquisitions read like a who’s who of Pomerol and St. Émilion superstars, Magdelaine has remained very much an insider’s wine. It is a small property by historic standards on the Right Bank, with just under eleven hectares of vines. Magdelaine has a very high percentage of merlot in its cépage, and its ninety percent merlot content is the highest to be found amongst the Premier Grand Cru Classés in St. Émilion. The remainder of the blend at Château Magdelaine is made up of ten percent cabernet franc.
Magdelaine is located on the famous St. Émilion “Côtes”, sitting on the limestone plateau and hillsides that surround the walled town of St. Émilion. The château lies just outside of the town to the southwest, with its vineyards bordering amongst others, those of Châteaux Canon and Bélair. The most famous of the Côtes St. Émilions has always been Château Ausone, which until its rather recent reincarnation as a garage wine wannabe, was always one of the most extraordinary expressions of terroir in all of Bordeaux. Ausone for hundreds of years was considered the greatest wine of St. Émilion, as it was not until the great 1921 Cheval Blanc was released that Château Ausone was seen to have any equals in the commune. As Robert Parker Jr. wrote in the 1991 second edition of his book on Bordeaux, the “only other Côtes vineyards capable of achieving the complexity and sheer class of Ausone are Canon and Magdelaine.”
It is the intense base of limestone that the vineyards of Magdelaine tap into that defines the wine, as it is one of the most soil-driven and profound terroirs to be found in all of Bordeaux. The distinctive chalky soils here produce a St. Émilion that is markedly higher in acidity than is the norm in Bordeaux even in the best of times, and with so many wines in this commune now sand-blasted into creamy anonymity with every bit of vinification gadgetry known to man, Magdelaine stands nearly alone in its sleek, youthful profile. The Moueix family, since their arrival at Magdelaine in 1952, have always vinified the wine in a traditional manner aimed to produce a long-lived and harmonious wine that demands bottle age before it blossoms. Like the great clarets of yesteryear, this is a château where the wine does not really begin to sing until it has seen a minimum of twenty years bottle age, and in top vintage, thirty years is clearly preferable. The Moueix team has always allowed Magdelaine to take its time during fermentation, with the grapes picked on the earlier side to protect the inimitable acidity that the merlot and cabernet franc retain in these chalky soils. A percentage of the stems is also retained during the fermentation, which further adds to the youthful austerity in the short-term, but adds structural integrity for the long haul.
The style of Magdelaine when the wine has blossomed and is approaching maturity is racy and glorious, with great depth of fruit coupled to lively acidity and a framing of chalky soil that adds a near-Burgundian like signature of terroir, and harkens back to the glory days of Château Ausone. Young Magdelaine is not a particularly powerful wine by Bordeaux standards, but at the same time it offers absolutely stunning intensity of flavor and authority on the palate. In many ways I think of it as very similarly structured to the top red Burgundies of Domaine Joseph Drouhin. Because the vinification techniques employed emphasize long-term cellaring and eschew early showiness, the wines are often very buttoned down when they are young, with much of the ultimate richness and depth well hidden behind the girdle of acidity and tannin that a young Magdelaine prominently displays. In early comparative tastings, Magdelaine is easily overlooked alongside all the various châteaux where early flashiness and “sex appeal” are emphasized in the winemaking style. However, much like the top Joseph Drouhin wines, with extended bottle age, the intensity of Magdelaine emerges from behind its other structural elements, while at the same time, many of its more showy neighbors have lost much of their early puppy fat, so that Magdelaine ultimately proves to be the deeper and richer wine at maturity.
Château Magdelaine at maturity is a beautifully balanced and complex wine that exudes notes of pure red cherries, berries, often hints of blood orange, profoundly complex chalky limestone nuances, along with classic St. Émilion notes of tobacco and coffee. On the palate the wine is often ranges from medium-full to elegantly full-bodied, with wonderful depth, poise and inner mouth perfume. The tannins take a while to fade away, as Magdelaine is crafted with an eye towards keeping its acidity fresh and bouncy in every vintage, so that the fruit component of a thirty or forty year-old vintage will simply exude freshness that seems to indicate that time has not touched this wine. Along with Châteaux Cheval Blanc (still First Growth in all but official recognition), Figeac and Canon, Château Magdelaine is in my estimate the greatest wine made in the commune of St. Émilion and one of Bordeaux’s greatest and least well-known superstars. It is worth a search of the marketplace to locate and cellar, as it rewards aging as only the very best wines of Bordeaux can still do today.
This article is part of a three part series on St. Emilion.
I. Discover St. Emilion
II. The Grapes of St. Emilion
III. Ch. Magdelaine