No One-Trick Pony: Recapturing Rusticity at Pontet-Canet

by Chuck Hayward

No One-Trick Pony: Recapturing Rusticity at Pontet-Canet

Post by Roland Hankerson | April 2nd, 2012

The cool breeze of a spring day in Bordeaux carries with it wisps of dust, which settle between the forty-year-old vines that line the gravelly vineyard of Pontet-CanetThe hoofs of horses drawing plows kicked up the dust, as they are charged with turning the earth on this stately property. The “old ways” of producing classic Bordeaux are new again in a vineyard accustomed to producing world class wine of power and elegance in a manner that preserves its piece of earth with great care.

Brittany horses cultivate the vines of Pontet-Canet

Alfred Tesseron, proprietor of Pontet-Canet, is on a quest to provide a world class wine that adheres to his environmental ethics. He turns to his long-time winemaker, Jean-Michel Comme, (a 22-year veteran of the estate) to not only make the wine, but also head a program of certified organic and biodynamic viticulture on the property. No expense has been spared on this project, and Jean-Michel was handed complete autonomy with which to transform the vineyard over the course of several patient years. By now, he has transformed vineyard operations in a manner that allows the grapes to express in his words, “…the true identity of themselves in terroir while caring for the future of the earth the grapes come from.”

The reintroduction of true horse-powered vineyard equipment at Pontet-Canet, came at Jean-Michel’s behest.  The methodical tradition of animal and man working side by side to till the earth eliminates the carbon footprint left behind by gas-powered tractors and tools. Fertilizers (when actually used) are uniquely organic, and winter pruning is managed by skilled, salaried workers to ensure that each every vine is treated with special consideration.

Pontet-Canet believes the horses contribute to the "serene atmosphere" of the domaine.

In addition to the gentle methods that are now commonplace on the estate, the elimination of excess clusters of grapes that bud early (in a practice known as green harvesting) has also been discontinued. Many vineyards around the world use this technique to focus soil nutrients, sugars in the grapes, and fruit density into results that are more intense at harvest. Jean-Michel’s philosophy here is unique: “The earth will produce what it will. We will take the best of it to produce our wine. To cut the early fruits for the sake of the later blooms is not exactly natural. It is not the true identity of the life of the vine; and therefore not the truest form the fruit we wish to use."

This philosophy and methodology is not a common practice amongst other winemakers and chateaus. Few others, if any, in Bordeaux follow the same practices.  In truth, the resulting wine is softer than one might expect as a result of allowing such natural growth in this method, without training back the vines. However, the wine’s overall balance, ripe red and dark fruits, subtle tannins, and depth of finish has inspired widespread agreement that there may be something to Jean-Michel’s methods.

2011 Pontet-Canet tasting at UGC

Unlike the stellar 2009 and 2010 vintages of Bordeaux, where almost everything was “buy,” the 2011 vintage had a tricky growing season that challenged the production of many of the great houses. In considering the 2011 vintage, Bordeaux lovers are going to need to be a bit choosier in their selections. 2011 Pontet-Canet shows serious potential where many selections of the vintage are lacking. After visiting the estate, it is clear why. Commitment to green viticulture certainly factors in, but such promise is due entirely to the painstaking effort that goes into the long-term preservation of such a classic vineyard as Pontet-Canet.

On location at Pontet-Canet: A short chat with Alfred Tesseron and Jean-Michel Comme