During Bordeaux Primeurs for the 2016 vintage, we had the usual questions and considerations going into the week. But that year, we were also particularly interested in visiting Château Margaux since the property had experienced a number of changes during that season.
A positive note was the opening of the new Norman Foster designed winery — a facility that is as architecturally beautiful as it is technically cutting-edge. However, an especially tragic event that year was the untimely passing of the Château’s esteemed winemaker Paul Pontallier. We wondered how these various issues would affect the wine.
As we waited in the tasting room, an elegantly attired man walked in and began to describe the vintage in systematic detail. Moreover, to our surprise, he spoke in perfect English with an American accent. He answered all our questions in depth. In addition to his extensive wine knowledge, it was clear he had keen insight into the U.S. market. In short…he got us!
Later he introduced himself as Thomas Burke, the new Ambassador for Château Margaux. We became instant fans.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen Thomas regularly during our visits to Margaux. Recently, we had a chance to discuss at length his experiences in the wine industry, his new life in France and his thoughts on the future of Bordeaux.
You’ve mentioned on several occasions that your “wine epiphany” arrived after you’d worked in the hospitality industry. A career in wine wasn’t something you pursued initially.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that I realized wine might be my calling. At that point, I was working in upstate New York, at Friends Lake Inn Restaurant. Their Grand Award Program was stellar. Being able to taste wine from all over the word really flipped the switch for me. Shortly after that experience, I began studying and received my Master Sommelier degree from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007.
In addition to the degree, you’ve had quite a broad range of experiences in the industry, including a stint at winemaking.
I was in distribution for eight years as an education director, later in portfolio management and sales. But it was at Preston Vineyards, in Dry Creek Valley, that I really began to understand the process of winemaking.
And then the dream job!
Yes! There was a long process of preliminary exchanges followed up by a series of interviews over a three-month period. It’s typical of the Château Margaux managers to be very methodical and thoughtful in their decision making — an attribute I especially appreciate about the estate. Once I was hired, I worked in the U.S. for two years, then moved to France in 2017.
When we first met, you said you couldn’t imagine having a better job — that you got goosebumps on the way to work each morning. What about now?
Nothing’s changed. I still pinch myself every morning. It’s an unbelievable experience to work here. You know, everyone thinks of Margaux as a First Growth estate, but it’s also a farm that has been cultivated for over 350 years — generation after generation of individuals have worked this property. There’s an innate passion here that stems from centuries of care and devotion to the land.
And the support I received when I first arrived was really gratifying as well. The Château did everything imaginable to help with the transition. They hired a lawyer who took care of my visa and the myriad of legal aspects involved with all that. The paperwork is really a daunting task. I’m not sure I would have gotten though it all on my own.
How important do you think your Master Sommelier degree was in obtaining the position at Margaux?
Here in Europe, the MS degree doesn’t have as much importance as in the U.S. I was lucky to pass at a time when few people had the diploma, so it had more significance. I also think that the publicity and television shows about sommeliers have made some would-be somms a bit starstruck.
The sommelier programs in the U.S. are auto-didactic. It’s quite different in France. Programs are very focused and accredited with a built-in legitimacy. Here too, another added benefit is that the students come from families who have been making wine for hundreds of years.
Now that you’ve had a chance to sample a number of the vintages, which are your favorite Margaux?
I love every year, but the 1990 is absolute magic. With this vintage, I have an emotional reaction. It has lots of fruit and an astounding range of aromatics. It’s beautifully balanced. Integrated. Just gorgeous. I try to never miss a tasting when the 1990 is being offered.
The ratings for the 2018 Grand Vin were spectacular during Primeurs. In fact Antonio Galloni called it “the finest Margaux in recent memory.” Stylistically, the wine appeared much more concentrated than previous vintages. Is this a new direction for Margaux?
You always have two sides of the same coin with Margaux. The wine has great concentration, but often that’s hidden behind the integrated structure. With some vintages, the concentration is more evident. The 2018 is like that as are 2000 and 2005. During the 2018 growing season, we experienced a dry spell and lack of water. So the vineyards that traditionally provide structured wines became even more concentrated with this weather.
We’re eager to sample the 2019s in a few weeks? How does that that vintage compare with previous years?
We just started blending the 2019 so, it is a bit too early to give you a definitive answer, but some great quality across the board and the classic Château Margaux balance and beautifully refined tannins are already evident. I think assemblage will be even more critical this year. Last year was a really long harvest because we had good weather and the time to pick when we wanted. We didn’t take as much time this year to pick because the weather during harvest was more unsettled. Fortunately, however, no issues with frost or hail so, quantities will be a bit better than the last couple years.
During a couple of our recent visits, we’ve discussed how estate second wines have improved in recent vintages. You frequently refer to Pavillon Rouge as a “second expression of the Château.” Could you elaborate a bit more.
In general, here in Bordeaux, growing techniques have improved tremendously, resulting in greater parcel selection. It’s no longer a case of simply using the spillover for a second selection. Now winemakers make as rigorous a selection for the second wines as they do for the Grands Vins — in essence capturing the style and character of the Château in another iteration.
The term “second wine” sounds pejorative given the quality of these wines. The other advantage to these wines is that they afford an opportunity to experience the Château without spending quite so much. That’s another one of the reasons people are embracing second wines.
Aren’t most second wines also designed to be drunk earlier — another advantage in collecting them?
I’m not so sure about that. Maybe some estates do. But I think it’s primarily a result of what winemakers are working with — typically Merlot. So perhaps it’s just a natural consequence.
Here at Margaux, our job is to ensure that the pieces fit together in the best way possible. In 2018, parcels that had previously gone into the Grand Vin went instead into the Pavillon Rouge. The plan changes every year, but the goal is always the same — to make the best blends possible.
The “hot” question of the day, literally — how is Margaux addressing climate change? In particular we’re wondering about Merlot. Most estates on the Right Bank are replacing Merlot with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some even go so far to say that Merlot will be gone by 2050. Your thoughts?
Well, Merlot is definitely the poster child for global warming. It’s tough to control alcohol levels with Merlot and so it encapsulates the challenges of dealing with climate change.
Currently we have an experimental plot planted in thirds with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Our technical team is constantly evaluating the results and developing strategies to implement if and when they become necessary.
What do you drink aside from Château Margaux?
I’m a huge fan of Bordeaux. I make a point to try to visit estates across the region and I’m constantly amazed at the quality and care that goes into the wines. And I’m not just talking about the Grands Crus. I’ve tasted excellent wines produced by Petits Châteaux and Crus Bourgeois.
What about the recent tariffs levied by the U.S. Trade Department directly affecting pricing and imports?
There’s no doubt that the current market is difficult. In addition to the U.S. tariffs, we also have Brexit and unrest in Hong Kong to contend with. But we have to stay positive and maintain perspective. Sometimes we have short memories. There have been any number of problems in the past — from tough economies to bad weather conditions, cycles and downturns, lots of situations creating difficult markets. But in the end, Bordeaux has been around for centuries and will continue to be around for centuries. There’s no question of longevity.
Moving on to happier topics, what do you enjoy most about living in France?
I love my life in France. The pace is slower than in the States, which certainly has avantages and disadvantages. But I really appreciate the way the French cherish time together with family and friends. Food, of course is a religion. I can’t believe how often we discuss food and dinner menus — wine pairings obviously. Long dinner conversations are typical too and something else I enjoy.
Learning the language has been an issue. When I first arrived and was still in the process of learning French, I felt as if I’d become a complete wall flower. And that is not my personality in the least. So it was a frustrating period initially.
Thank goodness for my wife, Christelle! She is originally from Lyon and was living in Las Vegas when we met. In a fortuitous coincidence, she was the director of the language institute where I was studying. But honestly, I don’t know how I would have survived without her. She helped me get through all the cultural issues and everyday situations — like going to the grocery store, opening bank accounts and reading traffic signs.
This sounds crazy, but one of the things I’m proudest of is my French driver’s license. Obtaining a license in France is much more difficult than in the States. Both the theory and the practical tests are much harder. It was even tougher because I chose to take the exams in French even though I could have asked for assistance in English.
I studied really hard, but missed a passing score by one question on the written test, so I had to take it all over again. Fortunately, I did get a perfect score on the practical test the first time around. But I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m as proud of my French driver’s license as I am of my MS degree.
So…..if someday you see a smartly dressed guy zooming down the winding road to Château Margaux, it just might be Thomas. Margaux has had a few Americans who contributed to her long and noble history. Jefferson and Hemingway come to mind, but we think Thomas Burke will add a few important chapters to the story as well.
Merci, Thomas – Bonne chance!
2016 Château Margaux. AG-99. $639.99. 10 bottles available
2016 Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux. $154.99. 4 bottles
2017 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux. DC 98-100 $198.99. 5 bottles
Estates within the Margaux Appellation
2005 Château Palmer. RP-98. $349.99. 10 bottles
2009 Chateau Palmer. JD-99. $339.99. 3 bottles.
2014 Château Palmer. $239.99. 6 bottles
2015 Château Palmer. JS-100. $339.99. 9 bottles
2016 Château Palmer. AG-100. $339.99. 10 bottles
2016 Alter Ego du Château Palmer. $79.99. 7 bottles.
2014 Château Palmer Historical XIXth Century Wine. $339.99. 3 bottles
2016 Château Palmer Historical XIXth Century Wine. $339.99. 6 bottles
2010 Château Rauzan-Ségla. $129.99. 24 bottles
2015 Château Rauzan-Ségla. $112.99. 16 bottles
2016 Château Rauzan-Ségla. $109.99. 60 bottles
2010 Château Malescot St-Exupéry. $96.99. 8 bottles
2015 Château Malescot St-Exupéry. $74.99. 24 bottles
2016 Château Malescot St-Exupéry. $64.99. 18 bottles
2016 Château d’Issan. $73.99. 12 bottles
2016 Marquis d’Alesme Becker. $45.99. 2 bottles.
2015 Château Giscours. $68.99. 24 bottles
2016 Château Giscours. $77.99. 3 bottles
2015 Château Lascombes. $85.99. 8 bottles
2016 Château Brane-Cantenac. $76.99. 26 bottles
2012 Château Cantenac-Brown. $59.99. 13 bottles
2015 Château Dauzac. $54.99. 12 bottles
2016 Château Labégorce. $42.99. 12 bottles
FUTURES – Estates within the Margaux Appellation
2017 Château Rauzan-Ségla. $72.99. 12 bottles
2018 Château Boyd-Cantenac. $49.99. 24 bottles
2018 Château Brane-Cantenac. $67.99. 32 bottles
2018 Château Cantenac-Brown. $58.99. 34 bottles
2018 Château Giscours. $61.99. 12 bottles available.
2018 Château Lascombes. $82.99. 12 bottles