The death of Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux, has cast an undoubted shadow over the primeur tastings that will take place next week. Aged 59, he died this Easter Monday of cancer. When André Mentzelopoulos bought Margaux in 1976, at a time when it was seriously underperforming, he had the wisdom to engage Emile Peynaud as consultant. It is said that he told Peynaud “I want you to make me the best wine in the world.” To which Peynaud replied: “Give me the best grapes in the world and I will make you the best wine in the world.” Or words to that effect. It was Peynaud’s young protégé Paul Pontallier, who came to Margaux in 1983, who was largely responsible for achieving that goal, with the unswerving support of the current owner Corinne (daughter of André Mentzelopoulos).
Starting with the vineyard and continuing with the winemaking facilities, he transformed Margaux and its wines and restored the château to its rightful position among the First Growths. As recently as last year, he oversaw the construction of the new cellars designed by Norman Foster.
Pontallier was the very image of what we English imagine to be the perfect French gentleman: urbane, authoritative, patient and polite even when dealing with journalists’ sometimes inane questions.
Of the many great vintages he has left us, I trust that he was comforted by the fact that the 2015, his last, seems likely to be among his finest. It is with heavy hearts that we will taste it next week.