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Paul Pontallier: The enthusiast of Margaux

Written by JW. Posted in Bordeaux

 Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux

Paul Pontallier seems such an assured presence you just can’t imagine him losing his temper.  If something seriously went wrong, say someone racked Pavillon Blanc into a vat containing the Grand Vin at Chateau Margaux of course, I’m sure he’d go completely bonkers but in twenty-seven or so consecutive vintages at the helm here there can’t be a problem of one sort of another that Pontallier hasn’t encountered either in the vineyard or the cellar, or demonstrably surmounted, given the consistency of the wines at this property over the years.

As the longest running winemaker/general director currently at the reigns of any of Bordeaux’s first growths, Pontallier has a level of experience at the top level that is bound to lead you to take everything in your stride. Enthusiasm, nevertheless, seems to be in his nature. Even under the near continuous scrutiny of the BBC documentary Wine: The Faith, which aired a year or so ago in the UK, despite being pursued through the vineyards and chais for a year, Pontallier’s upbeat demeanour didn’t so much as crack once, even during the nerve racking 2008 growing season, a vintage now posthumously seen as something of a success overall.

I caught up with Pontallier earlier this month firstly to talk about the 2010 vintage, now safely in vat, and also to discuss the evolution of the 2009s after a year or so in barrel. The first thing I was immediately reminded of is just what a youthful presence Pontallier remains. It’s been ten years since I last met him but even now aged 54 there’s is the inquisitive interest of a wine maker half his age, laced with comparable degree of wonder, not to mention humour. ‘Now our sample bottles are in here’, he began, rummaging in the back of an unlikely looking cupboard in a small lab room at Chateau Margaux, ‘Honestly’ he added, ‘I know this looks a bit strange, but this is where we’ve put them’. The lengths you have to go to keep bottles of the 2009 hidden eh?

Pontallier’s inquisitiveness is not surprising when you remember he has a PhD in oenology, his thesis on the subject of barrel ageing in red wines. Initially he worked in Chile at the University of Santiago as Professor of Oenology before joining Chateau Margaux back in 1983 when the Mentzelopoulos renaissance was well underway. Pontallier’s Chilean sojourn has an interesting parallelism with that other legendary winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in California. Draper began his wine career in Chile, albeit in a more practical and less academic position. Draper, rightly one of the most admired winemakers in the world, is a man who has seen a great many California screaming eagles fly into view, only to pass away again. And I mention Draper in the same breath as Pontallier because, to me, there seems something fixed and immutable about both these figures in the world of wine. Pontallier himself was drawn back to Chile in 1990 with what began as the venture Domaine Paul Bruno in the Maipo Valley established with Bruno Prats, then of Chateau Cos d’Estournel and Chilean Felipe de Solminihac. The venture still exists, now under the name Vina Aquitania, with a fourth partner Ghislane de Montgolfier joining in 2003. Pontallier told me he is especially happy with the quality of the Pinot Noir they are making there now, a variety that fascinates him.

Back to Bordeaux and I’ve already reported just how upbeat Pontallier is about the quality of the 2010 vintage at Chateau Margaux. ‘Terribly excited’ he said, and he sees 2010 as another ‘extraordinary’ vintage to rank alongside 2009 in quality if not in character, the former most likely to turn out to be a wine of more structure and acidity than the latter, although we’ll not truly know until the wines emerge from their malolactic fermentation.

Chateau Margaux and Pavillon Rouge may yet be joined by a third wine in 2009

In the meantime, just how are the 2009’s developing? Extremely well is the short answer. In fact the more I re-taste this vintage in the Haut-Médoc generally the more enthusiastic I feel about it – and believe me I was not a doubting Thomas in the first place. It’s fair to say that I was very impressed with the purity of Chateau Margaux and of Pavillon Rouge 2009 when I first had these wines in late March this year but even that did not quite prepare me for just how extraordinary these wines have become, the Grand Vin especially. Chateau Margaux 2009 has to go down as one of the most vivid and flattering samples of young wine I’ve yet had. Admittedly in a different style from its competitors up the road in Pauillac but surely it must seriously be in contention as the wine of the vintage? All that and it’s currently trading at almost less than half the heady price of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (£16000 or $25000] depending on your market – Chateau Margaux is now around £9000 [$14000] a case – a price that hasn’t budged much since release. Comparatively it’s a good buy, and probably a sound investment in the long run.

On the subject of affordability Paul Pontallier also hinted at an interesting piece of good news, though still to be confirmed, that being the possible emergence of a third red wine from Chateau Margaux in 2009. What doesn’t make it into Pavillon Rouge is usually sold off discretely as generic Margaux, but so far that decision has yet to be taken in 2009. Pontallier was clear that there is real chance that a ‘third’ wine may yet be released. This is good news if this proves to be the case. The opportunity of buying something from Chateau Margaux in this extraordinary vintage that ordinary mortals can afford, assuming sensible pricing, sounds like good news to me. Pontallier certainly seemed keen to make it happen, if the quality is there.

The following wines were tasted at Chateau Margaux on Tuesday 9th November 2010:

Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux

Dense core; tight to the rim; lovely perfume and ripeness to the nose; floral quality; layered and fragrant; lovely layers of fruit on the palate, quite dense with lots of fruit, extract and density and yet despite the extract and material, excellent balance and good length on the finish. Pontallier describes it has the most concentrated Pavillon Rouge they have ever made. Because of the balance and lightness of touch here the concentration is almost deceptive. Excellent 94+/100

Chateau Margaux 2009

Deep and concentrated, even more saturated than the Pavillon Rouge; a fantastically opulent nose of wonderful perfume: violets and blackcurrants; real intensity and extraordinary depth to the nose; palate is layered and intense, a wine of complete purity; this has developed wonderfully; it has fantastic density and extract as well as tannin on the palate but tannin which is extremely ripe and fine. Great depth, mouth watering richness and truly amazing length here – I simply can’t imagine a young wine tasting better. There is no doubting this wines likely future perfection. Certainly it feels perfect now. 100/100

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