You wouldn’t normally think that Château Pontet-Canet, a fifth-growth chateaux in Bordeaux, would be one of the leading examples of what the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker describes as “profound evolution in quality” in Bordeaux over the past 30 years.
Since proprietor Alfred Tesseron took over the 200 acre Pauillac estate from his father in 1997, he has ushered in a series of innovations in both viticultural and winemaking practices that have led to a remarkable lift in the quality of his wines. Of the 2009 vintage, for example, Robert Parker remarked that it was “A wine of irrefutable purity, laser-like precision, colossal weight and richness, and sensational freshness, this is a tour de force in winemaking that is capable of lasting 50 or more years.” (Wine Advocate #199 February 2012)
Granted, 2009 was a spectacular vintage, but Parker’s 100 point score was by no means a fluke. The wine has earned ratings of 93 or higher in both Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator tastings since 2000.
Château Pontet-Canet is a neighbour to plots owned by illustrious first-growths Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Latour. Tesseron told the Wine Spectator’s Jo Cooke that “Every morning…we wake up and say, ‘We are a fifth-growth surrounded by first-growths, so we have to do better.’ We want to get as close as we can to the quality of our neighbors.” (Climbing the Pyramid: Alfred Tesseron is raising quality at Bordeaux’s Pontet-Canet by Jo Cooke, Wine Spectator, 30 April 2008).
Tesseron has made significant investments in both the vineyards and the cellar to achieve his lofty goal. Pontet-Canet was one of the first Bordeaux estates to eschew the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Since 2007 both the vineyard and winery have been biodynamic.
At times the natural approach to vineyard management has presented significant challenges, probably not surprising given Bordeaux’s reputation for fickle weather. For Tesseron and his winemaker/vigneron Jean-Michel Comme the move towards becoming fully biodynamic has meant developing very intimate, labour-intensive approaches to vineyard management. The old Médoc tradition of appointing a two-person team (typically a man and woman) to monitor select vineyard parcels year-round, for example, has been revived, and in recent years horses and ploughs have replaced tractors in order to avoid compacting the soil.
At harvest time grapes are hand-picked and hand-delivered in plastic trays to a specially configured sorting room, where they are transferred by gravity to 32 truncated cone-shaped vats, each with a capacity of 80 hectolitres and designed to facilitate manual pigeage (the punching-down of the cap during fermentation). Each vineyard parcel is vinified separately and only natural yeasts are used.
The Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin is certainly impressed with Tesseron’s success in applying biodynamics on such a large scale. (The estate produces around 25,000 cases annually). But Tesseron is a firm believer that great wine is made in the vineyard, telling Martin that “There is no challenge in applying biodynamie to a large vineyard. If some do it on a small size then we can do it on a large. How can you explain to your customers that you know how to do something better but that your vineyard is too big to carry out?” (The Reality Of Extra Dreams: Chateau Pontet-Canet 1920-2008, Part 2 by Neal Martin, eRobertParker.com November 2009).
While Pontet-Cantet is technically at the bottom rung of the five-tier quality hierarchy established by the 1855 Classfication, the predominately cabernet sauvignon blend is setting a new benchmark for quality. Relatively speaking, at around $300 a bottle, the spectacular 2009 vintage also looks like great value. As Bordeaux négociant Pierre Lawton told Cooke:
Pontet-Canet is one of the top Bordeaux wines. In fact, it’s one of the great values worldwide. People look at the top names in Bordeaux and say, ‘Why do I need that, when I can get Pontet-Canet for half the price?’ The impeccable track record since Tesseron took over makes it an easy sell.
Photo Credit: Château Pontet-Canet