Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates III – Pontet Canet and Pichon Baron

January 2015I first visited Château Pontet Canet, the Pauillac Fifth Growth, in the early 1980s (for more details, see below). It was then undergoing yet another of the many upheavals it had been through since it was first “pieced together” (in David Peppercorn’s words) by Jean-Francois Pontet in the second quarter of the 18th century. He was eventually succeeded by Pierre-Bernard de Pontet, under whose stewardship the Château’s reputation grew markedly. After his death in 1836 it dipped again, which is the reason why, less than two decades later, this fine estate was accorded only Fifth Growth status in the 1855 classification.

a

a

It was sold to the Cruse family in 1865. A new chai and cuvier were built, and Pontet Canet’s reputation was soon on the rise again, with the result that it often fetched the price of a third or even second growth. The 1929 is said to have been one of the very greatest wines made in that fabled vintage. But following a major crisis in the Cruse business, the Château’s fortunes declined once more, and in 1975 it was sold to Guy Tesseron, who put his son Alfred in charge. Then began a new but slow – very slow – ascent in quality.

a

a

I went there to taste the infant 1982 in the spring of 1983. The dark, concentrated sample of the ’82 showed well at that point but the grand vin, when eventually bottled, simply did not live up to its early promise (I still have a few bottles but open them with reluctance). Not long after that Alfred hired Emile Peynaud as wine-making consultant. Stainless steel vats were installed in place of the old wooden ones and a whole series of radical improvements was suggested by Peynaud, both as regards harvesting and vinification. Some were acted upon.

a

a

Emile Peynaud presents a copy of his classic "Knowing and Making Wine" to Frank Ward, following a "long conversation about oenology" in his home in Talence.

Emile Peynaud presents a copy of his classic “Knowing and Making Wine” to Frank Ward, following a “long conversation about oenology” in his home in Talence.

The Tesserons had already made some improvements following Alfred’s arrival, and did of course listen to Peynaud – probably the greatest oenologist of all time – but only followed his advice to a limited extent. Around that time Peynaud’s friend, Alexis Lichine, pioneer wine writer and owner of Château Prieure Lichine, told me that “very few of his clients listen to him with complete attention. Some turn off their hearing aid! They find it hard to overcome their old prejudices, to stop doing what they’ve been doing for years and take up practices that are diametrically opposed to what they’re used to…” This of course didn’t apply to the young Alfred Tesseron, who as a relative beginner was simply faced with a multitude of imponderables.

a

a

The plain truth is that the science of oenology – still in its infancy in those times – simply didn’t have the huge credibility it enjoys today. And few proprietors fully grasped the immense importance of what Peynaud was telling them.

a

a

In the mid-1980s I had a long discussion with Peynaud at his home in Talence. In the course of this he recounted his entire career to me, from childhood to the present day, summarizing his lifetime’s experience. In the process he told me that, in those days, the only Château that wholly and completely followed his advice was Château Margaux, whose previously underperforming wines he had transformed almost from the first day of his tenure there, in 1978. It should be pointed out, however, that a number of other estates with enlightened proprietors – among them Léoville Las-Cases, Lafite, and Lagrange – followed his counsel religiously, even if not quite as completely as Margaux.

a

a

But we shouldn’t underestimate Alfred Tesseron, a young man with an open mind. He had a lot to contend within those early days. However things were on the move. After a number of fits and starts Pontet Canet started to improve again, at first slowly, then at ever-increasing pace. It picked up speed in the early 1990s and by the middle of that decade had almost reached Super Second status. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, frequently achieving scores similar to, or even higher than, one of more of the First Growths. The French Wine Review (RVF) now accords Pontet Canet the same three-star rating as the First Growths.

a

a

Radiant light casts dramatic shadows across Pontet Canet's tasting room as Jean Michel Comme, in silhouette, moves to pour the 2009 wine into a crystal decanter. Photo : Frank Ward.

Radiant light casts dramatic shadows across Pontet Canet’s tasting room as Jean Michel Comme, in silhouette, moves to pour the 2009 wine into a crystal decanter. Photo : Frank Ward.

a

a

Pontet Canet is vinified by Jean-Michel Comme, who was taken on in 1989 and has been responsible for 25 vintages of the wine. A great talker, intense, even visionary (I think of him as the van Gogh of the Médoc!), he’s passionately committed to excellence, ready to go to almost any lengths to improve the wine. His declared aim: “the pure expression of the terroir”. With this as his lodestar, he persuaded Alfred to convert to biodynamic methods some years back, beginning with an initial 14-hectare plot. Now the whole estate of 81 hectares is biodynamic. Comme is so uncompromising about authenticity, fidelity to nature, that he’s recently started maturing part of the wine in amphorae in place of oak barrels. Expression of terroir could scarcely be purer than that! For those amphorae are made from clay and crushed rock taken from the very soil of Pontet Canet. Another innovation: the soil is now worked by horses in place of tractors – the latter were deemed to have compressed the soil excessively. They have five horses now; but as they’ll need 15 for coverage of the whole estate they are now constructing stables.

a

a

Jean-Michel Comme, winemaker at Château Pontet Canet, with the new amphorae. Some 35% of the 2013 wine is being matured in these vessels, which are made from the very terroir (clay, crushed rock, etc.) of the Pauillac estate. Photo : Courtesy Château Pontet Canet.

Jean-Michel Comme, winemaker at Château Pontet Canet, with the new amphorae. Some 35% of the 2013 wine is being matured in these vessels, which are made from the very terroir (clay, crushed rock, etc.) of the Pauillac estate.         Photo : Courtesy Château Pontet Canet.

a

a

The amphorae were made by a local mason, Comme explains, and there are a hundred of them. The vessels, in the ancient Roman style, are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, thereby reducing contact with the lees. They play a key role in reducing the 2013’s exposure to new oak (down to only 50%), and account for 35% of total volume. The remaining 15% of production is stored in older oak, which of course has much less effect – sometimes of a cosmetic nature – on the wine’s colour, aroma, and flavour.

a

a

2013 CHÂTEAU PONTET CANET ****                                                 

The “robe” is a vivid black purple, if not of maximum depth. The nose, about 80% concentrated, is broad, elegant, and well-balanced. It exhales sweet cherry, raspberry, peony, and spices. The flavour is strikingly fresh and pure, and so pleasing you feel you could almost drink it now. The aftertaste, medium long at present, is very clean and, even if the tannins dry the palate, they’re of the ripe kind and are not ascerbic. A very stylish wine, clearly in a reticent mood on the day, it needs 5-6 years to find its balance and should continue to improve thereafter for a good 20 years.

a

a

2000 CHÂTEAU PONTET CANET *****

Dark and lustrous, with ripe-grape sweetness, this thrilling wine smells like damson jam, sweet blackberry, smoke, blackcurrant, truffle, and underbrush, with chocolaty overtones. The superb flavour, faintly leathery, delivers a cascade of damson and ripe blackberry fruit, with a restrained, and corrective, bitterness on the finish, leaving an impression of crushed stone (an effect I often find in Latour). Going back for a second and third sniff, I now find that the nose has expanded to include precise, flowery scents reminiscent of iris and peony. This truly great wine needs about 8 years to reach a first phase of maturity but won’t reveal its full complexity before 2030-40.

a

a

2009 HAUTS DE PONTET ***

A similar “great vintage” colour if less nuanced, this has a fine, smooth aroma – what a lovely scent! – of black cherry and raspberry and shows not a little depth too. Succulently fruity on the palate (the Merlot makes its mark), with good concentration, it has a fine sweeping finish. This is, quite simply, delicious. In a restaurant, today, it would give far more hedonistic pleasure than the (infinitely greater) 2000 Pontet Canet at a mere fraction of the price. (In 20 years’ time the situation will be wholly reversed – except for the price tag!).

a

a

*

a

It’s time for our last visit of the trip, to Château Pichon Longueville Baron, a Second Growth Pauillac that produced disappointing wines for literally decades, until purchased by AXA Millésimes in the mid-1980s. I can say this with some authority, as not long after the takeover I was present at a vertical tasting of many older vintages held at the Château in around 1986. Not one single wine was exceptional and most were mediocre.

a

a

Like other inherently great Médocs badly managed in those days, its wines did not reflect the true nature of the property, showing rusticity, lack of concentration, and a want of total purity. This, however, was about to change.

a

a

In the first few years under the new regime the standard of wine-making improved a great deal but there was a tendency to use far too much new oak, and heavily toasted oak to boot. That regrettable tendency was toned down in stages over a number of years and there has been little sign of undue oakiness in recent vintages.

a

a

Indeed, the standard of wine-making has been at the very highest level for quite some years now and today Pichon Baron is one of the 20 or so finest Médocs in existence. Now its true nature, and distinct personality, can be seen in full glory. With almost the weight and density of Latour, and an almost Lafite-like subtlety, it shows quintessential Pauillac character: an inspiring meld of body, harmony, length, and complexity.

a

a

We were received by Jean René Matignon, Directeur Technique, a modest-mannered person who, to judge from the fabulous quality of the wines we were about to taste, must be a perfectionist of the highest order. That approach is reflected in his choice of oenologist: Eric Boissenot, the self-effacing genius who helps make all but one of Bordeaux’s First Growths.

a

a

2013 CHÂTEAU PIBRAN, Cru Bourgeois, Pauillac *** (50% M, 50% CS)

Representing only 25% of normal production, this is as dark and intense as crème de cassis, with a vital, concentrated aroma, very smooth, of blackcurrant and raspberry. The suave and vigorous flavour is fullish, all of a piece, and long. As healthy and wholesome as a chubby baby, it needs 4-5 years to round out and should improve for another decade or more.

a

a

2013 TOURELLES DE PICHON ***(*). 63% m, 30% cs, 7% pv).

The Baron’s second wine is slightly darker than Pibran, with an amazingly intense scent of crème de cassis and framboise, with the dominant Merlot delivering a waft of carnation. It shows great Pauillac vigour. This is a lovely, expressive aroma, round and exceptionally juicy, with peony showing too after a couple of shakes of the glass. Merlot dominates on the palate as well, and the finish is both sinewy and suave. The tannins dry the palate slightly, but the wine has such ample fruit that it’s sure to improve for a decade or two.

a

a

A comment from Monsieur Matignon throws light on why this is so: “We used no {very tannic] press-wine at all, only free-run juice. And the production was only 32 hectolitres per hectare.”

a

a

2013 CHÂTEAU PICHON BARON **** (83% CS, 18% M)

Made from vines with an average age of 50 years, at only half of normal production, this has an amazingly deep colour and a gorgeous, richly concentrated aroma suggestive of crème de cassis, raspberry, black cherry, and peony. Very round, voluptuous even, with that unmistakeable complexity only old vines can give.

All of these traits are reprised on the palate, which is vinous, round, and vital. The tannins are firm but of the ripe, harmonious kind, and this amazingly buoyant wine seems sure to improve for a third of a century at least.

a

a

I would never have guessed this to be a 2013!

a

a

Now, the same wines from a truly great vintage:

a

2009 CHÂTEAU PIBRAN *** (50% M, 50% CS)

Great colour and a noble, complex, very Pauillac aroma of black cherry, ripe blackberry, chocolate, and leather, with a subtle hint of raspberry. The excellent flavour shifts towards ripe plum, with a reprise of black cherry and suggestions of morel and cocoa. The aftertaste is long and assertive – and very Pauillac – the finish firm. Should be best around 2022-35.

a

a

2009 LES TOURELLES DE PICHON **** (60% M, 30% CS, 10% CF)

The blackish “robe” impresses and the huge, expansive aroma exhales hints of incense, blackberry, cocoa, with a fugitive hint of morel. The lovely, very fleshy flavour conjures up blackberry, plum jam, incense, tea, and even molasses (probably from exceptionally ripe old Merlot). The tannins are in perfect harmony with the fruit. A dynamic wine, all of a piece and with great sweep (and so good I almost forgot it wasn’t Pichon Baron itself!). Six years to open, then at least two decades of further improvement.

a

a

2009 CHÂTEAU PICHON BARON ***** (70% CS, 30% M)

If the Tourelles seemed black, this is blacker than black – yet somehow luminous. The vast, slightly roasted aroma is of maximum concentration yet with no hint of over-extraction: freshness is all. It’s an all-encompassing nose that conjures up black cherry, crème de mûre, truffle, and with many other, incipient sub-aromas. (I could detect only the most elusive hint of oak on re-tasting this after 20 minutes). The flavour is buoyant, voluminous, but in no way ponderous. It tastes like a harmonious meld of black cherry, coffee, truffle, sweet Agen prunes. The quintessence of all that’s best in a Pauillac – vigour allied to power – it exhibits an exhilarating depth and persistence. A truly great Pichon Baron.

a

a

These wines were, quite simply, of First Growth quality.

a

a

© Frank Ward 2015

a

a

<< Back to : Bordeaux Part II – The Médoc


a a

Advertisements

One Response to “A Fresh Look at Some Top Bordeaux Estates III – Pontet Canet and Pichon Baron”

  1. […] January 2015. I first visited Château Pontet Canet, the Pauillac Fifth Growth, in the early 1980s (… […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s