Winemaker Jean-Michel Comme, who arrived at Château Pontet-Canet in 1989, can fairly claim responsibility for the astonishing improvements in the quality of its wine over the past few decades. This is not a man who takes his work lightly. He walks miles through the vines every day, and agonizes over every decision.
Comme has his own estate – Champ des Treilles in Sainte-Foy – farmed biodynamically with his wife, Corinne, and it was his belief in the logic of biodynamics that first convinced Pontet owner Alfred Tesseron to convert. But we shouldn’t underestimate what it took for Tesseron himself to take the leap, both financially and philosophically. There were no classified Bordeaux estates that were certified biodynamic (and beyond Pontet there is still only one organically certified classified estate – Château Giraud in Sauternes), and the “beards and sandals” perception of the biodynamic approach lingered on. But Tesseron put his trust in Comme, and encouraged him to do more than experiment with a few hectares.
“There was no point trying such a radical change over a little corner of vines,” says Tesseron, “and I trusted his expertise and his belief in the system. So I told him to go for it.”
No.2. Hoof power:
Nowadays, you can barely visit a Bordeaux estate without getting a tour of the stables, but Pontet-Canet was one of the first properties to bring back this ancient method of working the vines. Today, the estate has five Breton draft horses plowing 34 hectares out of the full 81 – the widest area of any vineyard in Bordeaux.
Alfred Tesseron and his niece Melanie, who now works full-time at the estate, are currently considering building more stables. They hope the work will be completed in two years’ time, when they can look at doubling the number of horses and getting rid of tractors entirely.
No. 3. A family affair:
There have been just three families at this property since Jean-François de Pontet arrived in the early 1700s (the name comes from the Pontet family and the Canet plot of land on which the best vines are planted). The original de Pontet was the Governor of the Médoc, so it’s fair to assume he would have had access to prime plots of land.
When de Pontet’s descendants sold up in 1865 (10 years after being named a fifth growth in the 1855 Classification), the next owner was Hermann Cruse, one of the leading négociants in the region. The Cruse family stayed at Pontet-Canet for 100 years, until they were finally brought down by a scandal in 1973 involving adulterated wine and had to sell off their assets. Two years later, in 1975, Cognac shipper Guy Tesseron (father of Alfred) bought Pontet, ushering in the Tesseron era.
No. 4. Attracted by amphorae:
Pontet-Canet was among the very first Médoc estates to champion the use of cabernet sauvignon vines in the 18th century, and its original cellars were designed by the brilliant engineer Théophile Skavinski (who also showcased his skills at Léoville Las Cases). The present-day team also likes to be ahead of the times, although any technological innovations are usually disguised with materials and shapes that look charmingly artisan.
The latest additions to appear in the cellars – following the concrete triconic vats that arrived in 2005 – are beautifully curved amphorae that are crafted from gravel, clay and limestone, reflecting the soil of Pontet-Canet. Each vessel can hold 900 liters of wine and will be used to age 35 percent of the harvest to ensure that the influence of oak is never too much. The use of amphorae was introduced after Comme spent the last three years trialing various different shapes and sizes of alternatives to oak barrels.
No. 5. Growing grand:
Whether it’s a testament to the success of biodynamics or simply confidence in the quality of the estate’s winemaking, it is striking that Pontet-Canet produces barely any second wine, known as Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet. Approximately 90 percent of each harvest is destined for the first wine, leaving little fruit for the second label. This is in sharp contrast to other estates such as neighboring Mouton Rothschild (who allocated 49 per cent of its crop to its grand vin in 2012) or Haut-Brion (only 40 percent made it into the château’s grand vin).
Financial implications aside, it does seem logical that as a producer improves their work in the vineyards, grows healthier grapes, and uses ever-more-precise vinification methods in the winery, the quantity of the good stuff should go up rather than down. Certainly, that is what the Tesserons believe – and they intend to take the concept all the way.
“We have always maintained that wine is made in the vineyard and not the winery,” says Melanie, “and our long years of work are showing their fruits. In time it will be our objective to make 100 percent grand vin as long the quality is there.”
No.6. The hand of Rolland:
With all the talk of biodynamics and staying close to the land, it might seem a bit odd that the wine consultant here is none other than Michel Rolland. And he’s not just here for the blending; Rolland is active at the estate throughout the year, and has been on board at Pontet since 1999. Melanie Tesseron explains that “we believe it is essential to have an external eye reassuring [us] in choices such as harvesting dates.”
Reaction from the trade is mixed. Mandy Chan of Ginsberg + Chan in Hong Kong says: “It does seem to clash with the biodynamic image, but running a successful winery is a complicated business, especially when you’ve become such a rising star.” Max Lalondrelle at Berry Bros. & Rudd in London believes the key difference at Pontet is that the estate is in firm control of the style.
“Michel Rolland has a finger in a lot of pies, including wines like Ausone,” says Lalondrelle.
“Unfortunately, over the past 15 years some properties have asked him to make Parker-point wines and this is what he did, while others have only taken the best out of Rolland but followed their own strategy.”
No. 7. Going it alone:
The monumental 2010 vintage was the first to be released after the estate became certified as fully organic by Ecocert and Biodyvin over all 81 hectares (200 acres). Pontet-Canet had originally won Biodyvin certification in 2005, but lost the rating with the 2007 vintage because conventional treatments were used when mildew threatened the vineyard; it then took three years without chemicals before the estate qualified again. Tesseron calls the experience “a learning curve.”
In addition, 2010 was the year that Tesseron stopped attending the communal Union des Grands Crus Classés tastings during en primeur week. Comme claimed that it felt wrong to be showing the estate’s wine next to people who used chemicals in their vineyards.
No. 8. A nip of brandy:
Pontet-Canet is always a popular spot for lunch during the annual en primeur week. Alfred Tesseron continues the family’s original business making a range of Cognacs and you’ll see queues of people waiting to try them. The most expensive, the Tesseron Extreme Black, is a blend of old Cognacs that are each more than 100 years old, with the oldest coming from 1853. The blend is made in a limited run of only 300 bottles and costs an average $3,838 ex-tax for 1.75 liters, making the rising prices for Pontet-Canet’s wines seem like a bargain.
Since 2003, Pontet-Canet has been the darling of both critics and wine investors. It’s regularly up there with the first growths in terms of scores, and on a number of occasions outdoes them. Some observers worry that this has had an unintended result: the wine gets bought only by investment funds and is not reaching the hands of regular drinkers.
Joss Fowler of Fine + Rare Wines is less concerned about this. “Yes, it does appeal to investors. There’s a quite simple argument why: in every vintage from 2005 to 2011 it gets a first-growth score yet is released at a second-growth price,” he explains. “The 2010 – an exceptional wine and a 100-pointer – sells for a price [$1,600] that isn’t beyond the means of many in the way that the first growths are these days.”
No. 10. What to drink now:
Fowler believes that “the nature of Pontet, certainly in the recent ‘great’ vintages, means that it is a wine for the cellar: 2005, 2009 and 2010 are all 50-year wines.” He adds wistfully: “I wish I was younger.”
Chan has tasted a wide number of vintages over the past year and recommends a number for current drinking. “The 1975 had surprising youth, though it did fade quickly, but I would say that the 1990 was at a prime drinking age. It was fresh, full, had great fruit and the tannins were chewy and not overpowering.”
She notes that younger vintages need lots of breathing time: “Even the 1990 was decanted for three hours before drinking.”
Personally, I would say ready your corkscrews for the 2000 Pontet Canet. Robert Parker originally gave this wine 92 points, but upgraded his score to 94+ in 2010. Judging by my recent tasting, a good session in a decanter should be enough to limber up those silky black fruits ready for drinking. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for the best prices over the past decade, it would have to be the 2002 and 2007 wines, which you may be able to find for under $800 a case.