Monday, 11 April 2011

Château Pontet-Canet

Pontet-canet is one of Bordeaux’s recent success stories – a poster child for change in the region. Thriving from recent refurbishment, investment and innovations, its star is fixed firmly in the ascendancy, and with opening prices for the 2009 vintage released at double that of 2005, it seems the only way is up. Founded by Jean-François de Pontet, governor general of the Médoc and secretary to King Louis XV, the château was bought from Bordeaux winemaking dynasty the Cruse family in 1975 by Cognac merchant Guy Tesseron. Full time management of the property was taken over by Guy’s son Alfred in 1994.

With Alfred at the helm, Pontet-Canet has grown steadily in quality each year. And with the rapturous reception given to the 2009 vintage, it earned its stripes as a member of the elite club of over-achieving non-first-growth châteaux alongside Cos d’Estournel and Palmer. Pontet-Canet’s swathe of vineyards reside in a prime position on the plateau of Pauillac, north-west of the town, and due south of illustrious neighbours Château Lafite and Château Mouton Rothschild. The 81-hectare estate’s gravel over clay and limestone soils are planted with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon – roughly two-thirds – and Merlot, with a sprinkling of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

This January, the estate was re-awarded full Biodyvin biodynamic certification, having lost it in 2007 when a severe bout of mildew threatened the entire crop, forcing Tesseron to use chemicals to treat it – a decision he now says he regrets. The loss of certification was a huge blow, but signalled an important change. “2007 was a learning curve. We lost crops but the wine was good and people began to realise there may be a price to pay for higher quality. 2008 was just as bad, but we managed because we were prepared. With biodynamics, it’s more about prevention than cure when it comes to treatments,” says Tesseron.

His appointment of Jean-Michel Comme as technical director in 1989 brought about a period of change for the estate. The pair reintroduced green harvesting – without Guy’s knowledge – in 1990. Together with Comme and famed Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland, Tesseron, 63, has taken Pontet-Canet from good-value over-performer to super-second challenger. Pontet-Canet is the first and only Bordeaux classed growth thus far to be certified biodynamic. The process began in 2004, a year after Tesseron stopped using herbicides. Testing the water with just 14ha of the vineyard, in 2005 they expanded the practices to the whole estate, signalling an incredible shift in philosophy.

“In the end, you have to decide if you’re going to stand still or improve, and what I saw at Champs des Treilles was the turning point,” says Tesseron of Comme’s 25-acre organic estate. “I said to Jean-Michel: ‘If you think you can do it, let’s try’.” Tesseron replaced the stainless steel tanks in the cellar with small conical concrete vats that are gravity-filled for gentler tannin management, giving much softer extraction and the best vinification for each individual plot. In 2008, three Breton horses were brought in to plough 8ha of vineyard in place of tractors. Today the ploughing and spraying has been extended to 24ha.

The long-term aim is to get rid of the tractors altogether and bring in more horses – used at the château in the ‘60s – to work the entire estate. In January, a fourth horse, Surprise, joined the château and is currently being trained alongside the other three. “Our aim is to use horses as much as we can. It’s early days, but we’re taking slow steps. Working biodynamically is a holistic approach. It’s constant, everyday work that puts us in close touch with the vineyard.

Our first motivation is to create the best wines possible, but we also know that biodynamics is the purest way of respecting the environment,” says Tesseron. Lower yields are offset by increased grape quality, which leads to a higher proportion of first-label wines. “Pontet-Canet is not a potato patch; I need sufficient yield and quality,” says Comme, who argues that the same model works for less prestigious estates. “I don’t live in a Grand Cru Classé bubble – I have a little vineyard myself,” Comme says, referring to Château du Champs des Treilles, run by his wife Corinne, who also consults with first growth Sauternes Château Climens in their conversion to biodynamics.

Pontet-Canet doesn’t make a fuss about being biodynamic – no mention of its re-certification will appear on the 2010 labels. “A certification on the label is not important to us. What is important is the name Château Pontet-Canet, and how the wine makes you feel,” says Tesseron. Attitudes towards biodymamics in Bordeaux remain sceptical, but for Pontet-Canet, it’s a way of life, rather than a marketing tool. “There are still people who don’t believe it’s possible to be organic in Bordeaux,” says Comme. “As soon as the whole estate was biodynamic, we aimed for certification as a way to prove we were sincere in our project.”

Pontet-Canet has ploughed a green path in Bordeaux, and proved that biodynamics is possible in the region. It will be exciting to see which châteaux jump on the biodynamic bandwagon and follow suit.

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