At Pontet-Canet, Everyone Feels Like The Big Cheese

by Chuck Hayward

At Pontet-Canet, Everyone Feels Like The Big Cheese

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 14th, 2011

Tasting at Maison Joanne

Maison Joanne is one of leading Bordeaux negociants and a tasting there is a marathon of immense proportions. Donning Joanne's signature bibs (to avoid staining our shirts), we sit down and rapidly evaluate some 200 to 300 barrel samples, ranging from simple Bordeaux Superieurs to grand cru classés. It's an intense experience for anyone, even those of us who've logged a quarter-century of "flight-time" in the biz. A break in the action this year brought welcome respite in the form of a bottle of 2010 Chateau Pontet-Canet, which arrived to the table with JJB co-founder Shaun Bishop's name affixed to the bottle.'s the little things.

The Pontet-Canet personal touch

This year, as last, Pontet-Canet made more than just a statement of class, and the sample we tried left us gobsmacked as we passed the bottle around. And just like last year, even after tasting a squillion palate-challenging barrel samples, it made an impression, standing out as one of the best wines tasted and giving the First Growths a serious run for their money. When you consider the prices those wines fetch, at under $200 (for the 2009) Pontet-Canet represents a relative bargain.

This Pauillac estate has quickly risen to the upper echelons thanks to the determined leadership of Alfred Tesseron and his niece Melanie. "When he bought the winery," said Melanie in JJ Buckley's visit to the property later that day, "my father observed that we were surrounded by First Growths. He said that we have to do what is necessary to achieve that level."

One of the most significant standard-raising moves they made was to institute a block-by-block management system to better understand the dynamics of their vineyards. The vine-level knowledge this provided allowed them to move to organic viticulture, and later to incorporate many biodynamic practices. Pontet-Canet is one of the only Bordeaux properties to have adopted these concepts.

While quite popular in Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone, organic and biodynamic viticulture is rare in Bordeaux. One of the main benefits those regions have enjoyed by adopting more natural techniques is a recovery of soil health, previously stripped of vitality after decades of chemical and pesticide use. Yet while Bordeaux wineries have experimented and pushed the envelope in the cellar, their inherently conservative nature has made them reluctant to embrace these principles in the vineyard. Being close to the ocean, the region is assaulted by storm after storm during the growing season, which brings the very real threat of rot, mildew and other potential crop-damaging problems. When such conditions occur, the Bordelais fear that strict adherence to non-chemical means of threat-control would leave them facing total crop loss and economic disaster.

Those who have converted from conventional to organic farming typically notice immediate changes in their vineyards, including more foliage in vine spaces and an increase in insect activity. Insects act much in the same way as a till, stirring up the soil and giving vines easier access to nutrients and allowing for development of a bigger root structure. Apparently it has already worked at Pontet-Canet, as the quality they are seeing has allowed them to place successively larger portions of their harvest into the grand vin.

Cheese? Oui, please!

We concluded our visit to the property with a relaxed lunch served by a small army of waiters, who brought us heaping plates of food, baguettes and a seemingly endless supply of 2000 Pontet-Canet. (For those that have this release in their cellars, the 2000 is looking very good, and is just starting to develop those delicious secondary characteristics.) As is the way in France, cheese was served following the meal and here they really pulled out all the stops. Rather than a simple platter, guests were invited to visit the "Cavalcade of Cheese", a large display which held forth a wide range of exciting and bewildering options, complete with a few maîtres des fromagesto explain them. Like the personalized sample bottle we were presented earlier at Maison Joanne, Pontet-Canet really puts the class into Grand Cru Classé.

On location at Pontet-Canet: Q&A with Melanie Tesseron