Château Montrose: 1895-2010

Over the years Château Montrose has become one of my very favourite estates in the Médoc, a wine I appreciate more and more for its uncompromising personality. I suppose this reflects an increasing taste for the austere; for wines that make no concessions to the impatient, only revealing their true quality in the fullness of time. Thanks to this partiality, and plenty of good fortune, it’s probably the Château with which I’m most familiar in the northern Médoc, and this post offers some reflections on Montrose, its history, and the character of its wines, illustrated by some tasting notes.

History & terroir

Château Montrose was created comparatively recently, around the turn of the nineteenth century, when Théodore Dumoulin decided to plant vines on an uncultivated part of what was then the vast Château de Calon estate. That site, a gravelly knoll only 800 m from the Gironde estuary, was covered with pink heather which gave Château Montrose its name. To this day, the vineyard still consists of a single south-east facing block of 95 hectares overlooking the estuary, planted with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc at a density of 9,000 vines per hectare. The vineyard is the nearest of all the cru classés to the river, which mitigates extremes of temperature—whether winter and spring frost or summer heat. Equally importantly, a soil of large gravel with iron-rich black sand and clay lenses rests on a bed of limestone to provide an optimal drainage dynamic. In fact, there is more gravel in Montrose’s soils than elsewhere in Saint Estèphe, which combined with its microclimate makes the terroir more suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon than the Merlot which has traditionally been planted elsewhere in the appellation’s heavier, clay-based soils.

In 2006 Martin and Olivier Bouygues purchased Château Montrose from the Charmolüe family, who had owned the estate for the preceding 110 years. While gradual modernisation had been under way, with stainless steel fermenting tanks replacing the old wooden vats after the 2000 vintage, under the Bouygues brothers that process has accelerated: first Jean-Bernard Delmas, winemaker of Château Haut Brion between 1962 and 2003, and now Hervé Berland, for some years the director of Château Mouton-Rothschild, have been brought in to revitalise the estate. A new winemaking facility, higher planting densities and more careful hand-picking have been among the changes; and the percentage of new oak has increased too, to around 60%. The changes have been intended, in the words of Monsieur Delmas, ‘to tame Montrose’s legendary strength in order to make it rounder and enhance its smoothness’. All this begs the question whether something that was not broken really needed to be fixed, and it is too soon to say whether the changes have all been for the better. While 2009 seems to be a benchmark vintage for Montrose, the critically-acclaimed 2010 is more modernist, its finish blurred by alcohol; but whether this is merely an artefact of the unusual (and to my mind overrated) year, or indicative of more systematic changes, remains to be seen.

The wine

The character of Château Montrose, like its terroir, is often compared to that of Château Latour in Pauillac. Both are impressively consistent, and they also share a reputation for producing dense, concentrated wines with formidable tannic heft and saturated colour. Twenty years is seldom sufficient for great vintages of Montrose to unwind: even the 1989 and 1990, comparatively forward (as we shall see) compared with more old-school vintages such as 1961 and 1970, are only just reaching maturity. Montrose typically suggests black fruits (cherry, cassis), cigar ash, truffle, rich soil tones and in ripe vintages rather empyreumatic aromas including mocha and dark chocolate. Old-school vintages have often displayed a touch of brettanomyces saddle leather—but such aromatics are almost always beautifully integrated into the wines’ aromatic profiles. Compared with Latour, Montrose has historically been a bit more rustic in aromatics, with fruit tones towards the more torrefied, roasted end of the spectrum, without Latour’s purity, and if anything harder and more structurally backward on the palate.

Of course, the style of Montrose has changed quite a bit over the years. Some older vintages such as the 1961 show signs of being made from fruit at differing degrees of maturity, combining some of the characteristics of sur maturité with some of the characteristics of under-ripeness. At over fifty years of age, this mélange seems to have had a lovely complexifying effect, but may always leave the wines rather hard at the core, for if the under-ripe fruit gives the wine lifting acidity it also brings concomitant green tannin. That said, it’s entirely possible that the 1961 is still just a bit too young for prime-time drinking.

Looking back further in time, the post-war vintages of the ‘40s and ‘50s are simply magical wines, endowed with immense power and structural integrity. The 1947, a vintage often marked by excessive volatile acidity, is a particular success, and the 1955’s brilliance will be predictable to admirers of that superb year. Looking back to the 1920s, the story is the same: and if anything, that decade produced still more powerful renditions of Montrose. In the pre- and inter-war years, élevage would presumably have taken place in Baltic oak, and the wines do seem to reveal a different oak character; one that recalls to me the subtle signature of American oak one finds in mature Ridge Monte Bello or Vega Sicilia Unico.

To return to more recent years, the Montrose vintages of the 1970s still boast very serious tannic and acidic structure, which is taking a long time to unwind. But the wines of the ’70s lack a bit of the amplitude of the great old vintages. The fruit seems to have been less mature. Perhaps in response to the ungiving nature of these wines, by the early 1980s some critics have noted that Montrose briefly flirted with a somewhat more accessible style, and that does seem to be the case based on the surprisingly open-knit 1982: an attractive wine, but not the hulking behemoth one might expect in this dense, ripe and frequently rustic vintage.

Whether the 1985 marked a return to form, or whether the charming, seductive character of the vintage simply synthesised with the new stylist imperatives chez Montrose is difficult to say. But the 1989 and 1990 vintages seem to mark definitively the emergence of a new style, which recaptures the structure, depth and volume of the past, but also introduces riper fruit that makes these vintages more accessible than their older siblings from the 1970s. Montrose’s signatures are still there, but the wines are more generous and expressive, without such pronounced acids. After 2000, Montrose has been fermented in stainless steel rather than wood, and concerted efforts seem to have been made in the cellar to tame the estate’s animal side: the 2005 is as great as the 2000, but noticeably more pure, less rustic—a change that some, the present writer included, may regard with cautious ambivalence instead of outright enthusiasm. The wines’ tannins are now more refined. Their higher percentage of new oak, however, is not particularly evident.

Tasting notes

I drink Château Montrose pretty frequently, so many of these notes are the fruit of experience with multiple bottles, consumed as they were intended to be, with food and friends, though always with the attention that Montrose typically demands. Those notes are supplemented here by others from two recent vertical tastings: one which I organized in Oxford in 2015, featuring (ex-Château) vintages between 1975 and 2010, and another in London a year later, stretching from 1895 to 2010 and organized by the unstintingly generous and charming Jordi Orriols-Gil. Taken together, what follows amounts to a relatively comprehensive look at the last century or so at Château Montrose.

The 1895 Montrose is still drinking very well, with a creamy bouquet of vanilla pod, griotte cherry and dried currants, and a impressively full, dry and intense palate impression. While I imagine this might have boasted just a bit more energy a few decades ago, this was still an extremely creditable showing, and I doubt the wine is going to change very much anytime soon. 90/100

The 1921 Montrose might well be my favourite vintage of all time at this address. An extraordinary bouquet of menthol, exotic spice, baked black fruit, rich soil tones and truffle is followed by dense, rich wine of incredible savoury amplitude, persistence and intensity. Magical stuff that is going to cruise past the century marker with ease. 100/100

I was immensely excited to try the 1929 Montrose, but it ended up being upstaged somewhat by the profound 1921. This wine is more evidently marked by the warm year, with a rich, chocolately bouquet that revealed notes of dark fruits, truffle and earth as it sat in the glass. The wine still boasts a great deal of volume and power, and comparisons with the 2009 do not, in fact, seem entirely specious. It was suggested that this was a less-than-perfect bottle, but I found the wine’s torrefied character perfectly consistent with the style of the vintage, though I’d defer to anyone with greater experience. 94/100

The 1934 Montrose hailed from a challenging vintage, and while this was a very rich, deep and still youthfully structured wine, it seemed marked by mercaptans. Whether this was actually the case, or whether the wine was just reduced and needed a few hours in the decanter, was hard to say, and I regret I didn’t get the chance to experiment. ?/100

The 1945 Montrose is a magical wine, though quite formidable too, as the combination of so masculine a vintage and so masculine a terroir is quite a marriage! Notes of cassis, red cherry, subtle truffle and graphite are followed by a reserved, structured, pure and intense wine which seems decades away from maturity. Its unerring focus and uncompromising character, however, are impossible not to admire. 96/100

The 1947 Montrose is a fantastic achievement in a vintage sometimes marked by volatile acidity. There is a touch of that here, expressed as a balsamic edge to the wine’s griotte cherry and cassis fruit, and beautifully integrated in a bouquet that also features notes of pencil shavings and tobacco leaf. Juicy, bright and powerful, this is a far crisper, less roasted wine than one might have expected. It’s hard to make any comparisons, indeed, with subsequent ripe vintages like ’59, ’89, ’90 or 2003. 97/100

The 1950 Montrose is another success here, and another vintage (like 1947) that is typically of greater stature in Pomerol than the northern Médoc. While not quite as concentrated as the 1945, this is also a very dense, savoury wine, with a bouquet of crisp red fruits, cassis, cedar and summer truffle. Still firmly in the post-war paradigm. 94/100

The 1953 Montrose is a very typical example of the charming, gracious and supple ’53 vintage, but it still retains the firm core and amplitude so typical of this estate. A sweet bouquet of cassis, dried red fruits, chocolate and subtle grilled meat introduces a rich, textural and generous wine, graced by the appealing sucrosity of ripe fruit. 94/100

The 1955 Montrose is particularly thrilling vintage for lovers of classical claret, with a fragrant and extraordinarily complex bouquet of raspberry, red cherry, cedar, camphor and graphite. On the palate the wine is absolutely singing, with sappy intensity and beautiful focus, with a deep core and long finish. This is a rather more savoury and vertical wine than the ripe, broad 1953; but it’s also more expressive and giving than the austere 1945. Just an immensely pleasurable example of this great vintage. 98/100

My only encounter with the 1959 Montrose suggests that this wine is not quite on the level of the formidable 1961. Notes of dusty cassis, chocolate, cedar and Latour-like walnut are followed by a rich, dense wine which misses some of the concentration and energy of the 1961. I’m more than willing to believe that there are better bottles out there, as Montrose seems like a property that would have really excelled in the ’59 vintage. 92?/100

After several hours in the decanter, the 1961 Montrose begins to unwind and reveal an expansive bouquet of blackcurrant, dried griotte cherry, saddle leather, cigar ash and gravelly soil tones. On the palate this extraordinarily youthful wine is immensely concentrated, with noticeably mineral tannic bite and very good acidity. One of the most concentrated, powerful Médocs of this great vintage, this harks back to a different era of winemaking. 97/100

The 1962 Montrose is a very fine wine, and not so far behind the level of the 1961. A bouquet of griotte cherry, dried red berries, cedar and complex, irony soil tones introduces a masculine with a lot of energy, minerality and intensity. More savoury and austere than the ’61, this is reminiscent of the 1970, though somewhat larger-framed. 94/100

The 1964 Montrose is at its peak right now, with a darker-fruited, more generous nose of ripe cassis, blackberry and strawberry, mingling with notions of tobacco leaf and subtle truffle. On the palate the wine is also quite generous, and comparatively open-knit, with juicy fruit and melted tannins. Of all the 1960s Montrose vintages, this is the most giving today. 93/100

The 1966 Montrose is a beautiful wine: a very classic and pure bouquet of cedar, cassis, dried berries and Montrose soil tones is followed by a dense, concentrated and intense wine. The bright core of acidity so characteristic of this vintage marries nicely with Montrose’s density and concentration. Cut from the same cloth as vintages like 1955 and 1996. 95/100

The 1969 Montrose hails from a vintage which produced some pretty atrocious, heavily chaptalised wines, marked by rot and rain. In the context of what was possible, Montrose clearly did very well, producing an attractive but ephemeral mid-weight which is not as strongly marked by its sugar additions as many of its neighbours. 80/100

The 1970 Montrose is a benchmark vintage, bursting from the glass (after a few hours in a decanter) with a attractively pure bouquet of cassis, saddle leather, baked earth, cigar ash and minerals. On the palate, the wine displays lovely balance, with bright acids and a very structured, firm core of tannins and minerality. Like the 1961, this is in fact still some years away from real maturity, but it is also more elegant and refined than its older and more rustic sibling. 94/100

The 1971 Montrose is a very creditable wine which just lacks some of the authority and magic of the really great years at this estate; minerally black fruit leads on the nose and palate. A nice luncheon claret but nothing more. 88/100

The 1975 Montrose is a solid vintage for this estate, ranking just a little behind the 1970. A bright, red-fruity bouquet is still youthful, complemented by some lovely gravelly soil tones, cedar and cigar box. On the palate, the wine leads with bright acids and noticeable tannic structure, but there is also a great deal of flavor here, and the wine’s acidity gives it a focus and detail that can be smudged off in vintages which display more sur maturité. 92/100

The 1978 Montrose is a pretty classic example of this charming and even, dare I say it, somewhat Burgundian vintage. A high-toned bouquet of raspberry, orange peel, cedar and subtle soil tones is followed by a wine full of juicy fruit, framed by melted tannins. It’s appealingly gulpable for Montrose. Not quite on the level of the ’78 La Mission or Pichon Lalande, but definitely one of the year’s successes. While this is very different in style to the 1975 it’s its qualitative peer. 92/100

The 1979 Montrose is not a wine to go out of one’s way to taste, with a bloody, estery bouquet and quite pronounced acidity and weedy Cabernet Sauvignon character on the palate; still alive, but not especially pleasurable. 83/100

The 1982 Montrose offers up a sweet nose of saddle leather, red currant fruit and cherry liqueur. On the palate, this wine leads with the sweet attack typical of the 1982 vintage, retaining lovely juicy acidity; but it is simply not as deep or as complex as great vintages of Montrose, and never really attains a particularly profound terroir expression. By the standards of Montrose, this seems like a missed opportunity. 91/100

The 1985 Montrose is a real sleeper vintage of this estate: an expressive and complex bouquet of cassis, red berries, cedar, tobacco leaf and dark soil tones introduces a very refined, elegant wine with nothing out of place, and good integrity at the core. This quintessentially charming vintage has mitigated some of Montrose’ propensity to hulking austerity, and that is not a bad thing every now and then. In fact, in the 1985 vintage Montrose for once seems to keep stylistic company with the northern Médoc’s most suave second growths: Pichon Lalande and Ducru Beaucaillou. 95/100

The 1988 Montrose is, like the 1985, a vintage that has been rather overlooked by the wine commentariat, which makes it a very appealing proposition in the marketplace. A sweet bouquet of raspberry, cassis and cedar, mingling with truffley, dark Montrose soil tones, is followed by an intense, powerful but still rather severe palate impression. I’m convinced, however, that this wine just needs time, and that in due course the appealing sweetness of this wine’s nose will be complemented by beautifully melted tannins too. 93+/100

The 1989 Montrose bursts from the glass with a strikingly appealing bouquet of juicy cassis and blackcurrant, hot earth, truffle, rich loamy soil tones and subtle leather, followed by an expansive, supple and rich palate impression, with comparatively low acidity. Layered, intense and seamless, this is one of the wines of the vintage and a benchmark Montrose. 97/100

From the best bottles, the 1990 Montrose is a profound, monumental Saint Estèphe, bursting from the glass after a few hours in the decanter with glorious notes of sweet black fruit, leather, cigar ash and hot bricks. On the palate the wine is stunningly broad and deep, with beautiful, layered structure, fresh tangy acids and an endless finish. This is very similar to the superb 1989 Montrose, which I drink quite regularly, but a step up in intensity, volume and breadth—with none of the increasing sur maturité of some of the other top 1990s such as La Mission, Lynch Bages etc. Yet while the 1990 Montrose is a massive wine, its balance is unerring and its sense of proportion perfect. Very, very fine, and entering an attractive phase as the wine’s serious tannic structure melts away somewhat. It’s much remarked in claret-drinking circles that the 1989 is actually the finer wine, and it’s certainly the more consistent; but when you get a great bottle of the 1990 its very hard to make that case. 98/100

The 1995 Montrose offers up a beautifully typical bouquet of red and black fruit, cigar ash, rich soil tones and cedar, followed by a lovely, juicy and harmonious palate impression, with a nice core of tannin and acidity that is beginning to resolve into something very attractive. The wine is still just a little knit up behind its structuring elements, but considering that this is old-school Montrose and a comparatively rustic vintage, this is really quite refined and elegant. 93/100

The 1996 Montrose is a terrific wine, with an absolutely classic bouquet of cassis, redcurrant, cedar and dried ceps, introducing a pure, intense wine structured around a firm chassis of ripe tannins and bright acids. The wine is simultaneously more concentrated and more focussed and elegant than the 1995, with more focus and precision. The best vintage between 1990 and 2000, and in the same school as years like ’55, ’61 and ’05. 96/100

The 1998 Montrose will delight anyone who likes classical, slightly rustic Médoc—although people looking for something more modern might be advised pick something else. An attractive bouquet of ripe cassis is inflected by leafy forest floor, menthol, leather, tar and rich Montrose soil tones that verge on truffle. On the palate, the wine is quite deep and broad-shouldered for the vintage, and there is nice sappy fruit here, wrapped up in a lot of tertiary complexity already. 91/100

The 2000 Montrose is another benchmark. This wine is still another two or three decades away from real maturity of course, but the quality is already apparent: a deep bouquet of black fruit and developing truffle and rich soil aromas inflected by subtle leather are followed by a strikingly three-dimensional, complete palate impression, with loads of savory tannins and a bottomless core of fruit and acidity. In style this is slightly more rustic and old-school than subsequent vintages—and I love it! This vintage marks the end of an era for the estate. 98+/100

The 2003 Montrose is certainly marked by the warm vintage, though its ripe bouquet of sweet cassis, tar, subtle tobacco and truffle currently shows no overt signs of torrefaction. On the palate the wine is quite open, rich and plush, with refined tannins and comparatively low but correct acidity. This is a lovely wine in its rich, ripe style, but those who like a bit more energy in their claret will want to gravitate towards the ’00, ’05 and ’08 rather than the ’03. 94/100

From magnum, the 2004 Montrose is beginning to drink very nicely, bursting from the glass with a youthful and expressive bouquet of red and black fruit, hints of tar and liquorice as well as Montrose’s lovely rich, truffle and tobacco soil tones. Juicy, supple and delicious. 93/100

The 2005 Montrose is a young classic from this great property. The nose is still properly primary and reserved, with fresh, perfectly ripe blackcurrant fruit, graphite, rich soil tones, hints of cigar ash and a nice framing of cedary new oak. Dense, deep, concentrated and very pure, this wine is savoury and structured—an archetypically masculine Montrose that is surely destined to emerge as a benchmark in the decades to come. Could this be the ’55 redivivus? 99/100

The 2007 Montrose really transcends the vintage, bursting from the glass with a youthful nose of red and black fruit, incipient cigar ash, and cedary oak. On the palate, the wine is rich and suavely textural; only a slightly ephemeral finish, at least at this stage, lets the side down. But this is a very refined vintage of Montrose with all this great estate’s signatures, and an easy fifteen to twenty years ahead of it. 91/100

The 2008 Montrose is one of the insider choices at this address. Notes of ripe cassis, black cherry, tobacco, and rich soil tones are framed by a gentle signature of cedary new oak; on the palate the wine is dense and concentrated, with abundant but ripe tannins and nice acidity. I could see this ending up rather like the wonderful 1996 some day. 95/100

The 2009 Montrose is an extraordinary wine. A wonderful bouquet of ripe black fruit, scorched earth, cigar ash and soil tones is followed by a wonderfully layered, symmetrical palate impression of incredible depth and richness. While a massive, fruit-laden, large-scaled wine, it always seems to be beautifully balanced. What’s more, its aromatics and flavours are absolutely textbook ripe vintage Montrose. 98/100

The 2010 Montrose boasts a deep and primary nose of tarry, liquorice-inflected cassis and black cherry fruit, with not a whole lot of Montrose character. On the palate, the wine is dense, crunchy and ripe with lots of fine, sweet structuring tannins—but a touch of alcoholic heat that smudges the finish. My scepticism about this vintage, despite its near-universal acclaim, is mounting. But this is certainly a minority perspective, and I hope the wine will make a mockery of me in twenty years. 90?/100

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4 thoughts on “Château Montrose: 1895-2010

  1. Sadly many of the 86 they served last year at the Fete de la Fleur party were corked. Quite shameful for the lack of attention with the team responsible for the service

    Like

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