Château La Tour Carnet: A Storybook Finale at Last
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Driving through Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc, it’s easy to spot Château La Tour Carnet. The immense iron gates and towers are visible for miles. Stopping in front of the estate, we’re transfixed by the view — feeling as if we’ve crossed a time warp and dropped into the 12th century.
A late-model Mercedes pulls up beside us, breaking the spell. The driver motions for us to go in as the gigantic gates slowly creak open. In front of the venerable Château, our escort introduces himself — Philippe Magrez, owner of the estate. Leading us across the drawbridge over the moat, he confirms: “Indeed, the tower dates back to the 1100’s, but come inside and I’ll tell you the story, over a few glasses of good wine.”
Once Upon a Time…
Château La Tour Carnet’s storybook appearance belies a very long, complicated, sometimes violent history. The original castle was built in 1120 — officially making La Tour Carnet the oldest estate in the Médoc. A few decades later, all of Bordeaux was placed under English rule when the French Queen Aliénor d’Aquitaine (Eleanor of Aquitaine) married King Henry II of England in 1152.
By the 13th century, the estate belonged to the noble house of Foix, a family closely allied to the English crown. During this period, the first official wine harvest was documented in 1252.
The Foix family still owned La Tour Carnet in 1337, when early conflicts between the French and English broke out in what was to become the Hundred Years’ War. As the French became more resentful of English rule, the battles intensified and grew deadly. Jean de Foix was captured while fighting the French and incarcerated for seven years. Eventually he agreed to pay a huge ransom for his release. When he returned to his Château, however, the property was in ruins — only the tower, which still stands today, was left.
After de Foix’s death, Jean de Carnet was awarded the estate by the French monarchy and named the property after himself. Château La Tour Carnet passed through an endless number of owners from that point on. One of the better known occupants was the sister of legendary French philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne, who also served in the Bordeaux Parliament in 1557 – 1563.
Charles Oscar de Luetkens was in charge of the estate during the Classification of 1855. Château La Tour Carnet was listed as one of ten Quatrièmes Crus (Fourth Growths) and a Grand Cru Classé. The property consisted of 52-hectares (128 acres) at the time.
By the late 1800s, the Luetkens family was still in charge and La Tour Carnet produced wine from 60 hectares (148 acres) on an estate that was spread across a total of 300 hectares (741 acres) — the largest property among classified estates in Bordeaux. La Tour Carnet was also awarded gold medals at the Expositions Universelles in Paris in 1889, Lyon and Anvers in 1894, Bordeaux and Amsterdam in 1895.
But disaster struck in 1860, when phylloxera ravaged vineyards across Europe. Like many estates, La Tour Carnet suffered immensely and was ultimately abandoned for almost 100 years.
Finally, in 1972, Louis Lipschitz, a local shipping magnate, bought the estate, replanted the vineyards and did much to restore the castle. Lipschitz later bequeathed Château La Tour Carnet to his daughter Marie-Claire Pèlegrin in 1978. She continued her father’s work and added to the vineyards until there were once again an impressive 45 hectares (112 acres). Marie-Claire’s husband, Guy François Pèlegrin, was very much involved in managing the estate and even recognized for inventing a rotary sorting table. Then tragically, Guy François was killed in 1988 — asphyxiated by carbon dioxide in the cellars.
In 1999, Marie-Claire sold the property to wine magnate Bernard Magrez (father of Philippe Magrez) who at that time was already the proprietor of a number of other wine estates, most notably Château Pape Clément in Pessac-Léognan and Château Fombrauge in Saint-Émilion.
Under Bernard Magrez, the Château has been gloriously restored. The grounds are finely manicured. The cellars haven been completely modernized. The vineyards have been dramatically expanded — now at 75 hectares (185 acres).
Back in the 21st Century
After sharing the Château’s remarkable history, Philippe Magrez guides us through the vineyard, winery and cellars.The plots are planted 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc. On average, the vines are 24 years old. White varietals represent only 2% of the entire vineyard. Of those 33% are Sauvignon Blanc, 33% Semillon, 29% Sauvignon Gris and 5% Muscadelle.
Of particular interest is a unique and exceptional terroir, called the “Butte de la Tour Carnet”. Philippe explains that this is the only clay-limestone mound of the Médoc. On this type of soil, the Merlots flourish particularly well, which is why half of the Château La Tour Carnet vineyards are in Merlot.
Another large parcel of land is devoted to a collection of 75 different varietals as part of an experiment to address climate change. As temperatures continue to increase in Bordeaux and around the world, oenologists are concerned that the traditional varietals planted for decades will not be suitable. The purpose of the Tour Carnet experiment is to identify grape varieties which would thrive in hotter and drier conditions.
Touring the cellar, we’re immediately struck by the beautiful flooring and chandeliers — typical of all Magrez properties. Here the Grand Vin will go into oak for up to eighteen months depending on the vintage, with half in new barrels. The second wine will see an élevage lasting fifteen months.
Dîner avec les Nobles
Returning to the Château, we visit other rooms in the castle, including the salons and bedrooms. Then Philippe leads us into a spectacular dining room, where we’re served a deliciously crisp 2020 La Tour Carnet Blanc. After a few toasts to our host, we enjoy foie gras and candied fruit.
The main course is a duck fillet in a wine reduction with roasted carrots and turnip purée — savory and rich. A 2009 Château Magrez-Fombrauge, fragrant and smokey, with truffle, cherry and allspice notes, pairs beautifully with the fillet.
Dessert is a beautifully floral, lush 2015 Sauternes, from the Magrez property Clos Haut-Peyraguey. A roasted pear with Tonka caramel accompanies the wine. We sit back, savoring the exquisite wine and luxurious setting — relishing our time as aristocrats.
But, eventually, reality forces us back into the present. Philippe escorts us across the drawbridge once more, but reminds us that Château La Tour Carnet is also a bed & breakfast. “You’re welcome to return any time,” he says reassuringly.
As we drive through the massive gates, we’re already checking calendars for another possible visit to the 12th century with all the conveniences of the 21st… and great wine!
Interested in the wines of Château La Tour Carnet? See our selection at Michel Thibault Wine.