Wine Words & Video Tape

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The simple life at Chateau Pontet-Canet

Written by JW. Posted in Bordeaux

Alfred Tesseron of Chateau Pontet-Canet in Pauillac

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have had a different agenda. I fear that you might suggest I should rechristen the site ‘wine, hagiography and videotape’ – that’s before you berate me for not posting any videotape yet either – those vast millions of you quietly visiting this site each day! Would I be better writing about the most under-performing estates in Bordeaux rather than the other way round? Say – ‘Five ways to squander great terrior’? That way I could try and answer the question why Chateau Rauzan-Gassies is not a patch on Chateau Rauzan-Ségla, for example. How about a list of the most over-extracted wines in St Emilion – wait a minute I haven’t the space….  How about ‘Slave to labels’ – crus classé to avoid at all costs? This all sounds rather fun, but I’m not yet finished with the hagiographies, though the following property I’m about to describe would have certainly made it onto a list of disappointing estates prior to its purchase by a family of cognac merchants in the mid-seventies.

Sitting across the road from Pauillac first growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the quality of Chateau Pontet-Canet should surprise no-one. Certainly in the past decade the estate has been widely seen as one of the wonders of the Pauillac appellation and, until the recent 2009 price hikes, it was also pretty good value. Arguably it still is as the cost of the nearby first growths canter into the far distance. And canter is an apt word for Pontet-Canet, an estate now farmed along organic lines, with horses augmenting the mechanisation used in the vineyard, and plans to increase the thoroughbred contingent further.

Yet when cognac merchant Guy Tesseron bought Pontet-Canet in 1975 the estate was in a poor state of neglect and nowhere near its current ‘super second’ status. In many ways the pace of renaissance at this is property parallels that of St Julien’s once ‘third’ Leoville, Chateau Léoville Poyferré.  The parallels are interesting I think. With both properties it is a case of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. At Pontet-Canet this was the arrival of Guy Tesseron’s son Alfred at the helm which coincided with the rise of this estate to its current level.  Likewise at Chateau Léoville Poyferré it was the arrival of Didier Cuvelier which heralded the gradual upswing, but more on LP later….

Tesseron examining the freshly pressed 2010 marc

The moment that is widely acknowledged as the turning point at Chateau Pontet Canet in recent years was the 1994 vintage. A tricky harvest, though one which looked like it was going to be a belter before rain washed away the hopes of a ‘vintage of the century’, Pontet Canet’s resultant wine was seen as a head turner in a year that provided its fair share of disappointments. Since then the estate has not looked back, the wine now firmly in Pauillac’s top tier.  This itself is a result of the three basic principles of wine renaissance once you have afforded sufficiently good terrior – investment, investment and investment.  These principles work best when allied to Alfred Tesserson’s own three-fold mantra – ‘Observation, observation, observation.’

Alfred Tesseron is a very interesting man. I met him for the first time in November. You can’t judge a book by its cover but I’d like to think that making documentaries for twenty years gives you a reasonable grasp on people. Alfred definitely comes across as a wine grower rather than a winemaker or some faux aristo Baron de Pontet. Tesseron has the enviable knack of making things seem transparently simple. In fact this is his quest, the search for simplicity. Simplicity in the sense of purity. Tesseron knows what he wants, and he strikes you as a man who does, but not because it’s an ego thing, rather because his understanding is based on experience, or as he would most likely say, the close observation of nature.

Tesseron is also surprisingly frank about his mistakes, which says something about the man, though I can’t imagine he’s made that many mistakes, given the degree of success this estate now enjoys. One which seems to bear upon him considerably was his decision in 2007 to spray in the extremely wet and miserable conditions in the run up to the harvest that year. It was a decision that instantly unraveled years of organic work in the vineyards. At the time, with the prospect of losing an entire crop and plagued by nightmares of a disaster vintage forcing him to put the property on the market, Alfred Tesseron felt there was nothing else he could do. Hindsight’s such fine thing. The weather improved sufficiently that in the end he probably could have avoided spraying as he did.

If anything the experience has strengthened Tesseron’s resolve, not to persevere with organic farming come what may, or simply because it’s fashionable, but more because it speaks to his idea of listening to nature. For that short period in 2007, he stopped listening to nature and the people around him who told him not to lose his nerve. But in the end it was his call. It’s a tale that gives you a real insight into the stresses and complexities of decision making at harvest time, not to mention huge financial responsibilities of running an estate like this.

In the years since Tesserson’s momentary lost of nerve the opposite has appeared to have happened in respect of his nightmare of losing everything. I don’t know the exact financial position of Chateau Pontet-Canet –  I should probably check – but with the wine flying out the window each year, not to mention opening prices for the remarkable 2009 released at double for that for the 2005 there surely can’t be many properties outside of the first growths on a more stable financial footing. Running a property at this level of course consumes huge sums and recently lots of cash was spent on a series of new fermenting tanks in beautiful concrete. Their new semi-conical shape gives much softer extraction, the cone of the tank allowing the cap of skins to be broken more easily, if I understood it right. It lessens the need for thrashing the cap with violent pumping overs, allowing for a more delicate ‘irrigation’.

The new conical concrete fermenting cuves

Great wine comes from the vineyard of course, and over the lean gravelly soils of the 80 hectares or so of vines, there has been much replanting since the Tesserons took over the property thirty five years ago. Then there are the organic methods mentioned above and the contingent of horses returning to the vineyards, more you feel part of Tesserons search for simplicity than a cheesy attempt to evoke the past. Simplicity in the viticultural sense of course. Keeping horses fed and watered is far more complicated and expensive than parking the tractor and leaving it there the weekend.

Simplicity is also the key to the harvest – with grapes being picked into small crates and then transported in them, uncrushed and unbruised, and with minimal intervention [no must pumps], the sorted grapes then dropped by conveyor belt directly into the top of the fermenters. Natural yeasts then do their work. Dare I say it, it’s all quite Burgundian. And if I had a compliment to pay Alfred Tesseron it would be exactly that. He’s seems quite Burgundian too. Chateau Pontet Canet 2009

Very dense, saturated colour; blackcurrant cassis on the nose; wonderful purity and richness; concentration and precision; very ripe fruits too; palate fat and concentrated; lots of density and concentration with real power. Tannins but not dry just very ripe. Great density, purity and length. I’d love to see this blind alongside Mouton. Terrific wine in a terrific vintage. 96+/100

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