Kentucky Derby weekend is fast approaching here in USA. In honor of the 136th annual Run for the Roses, it is fitting that we focus on the fast-charging Pauillac thoroughbred, Chateau Pontet-Canet. Hailing from a gravel topped vineyard across from Hall-of-Famer Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pontet-Canet has placed particularly well over the past 10-15 years. Older than the Derby herself, a mere fifth-growth in the 1855 Medoc classification, the Chateau really hit another level with the 2003 vintage. That year, during the fierce heatwave that broke pedigree names whose wines wilted on the back stretch, P-C somehow tamed the fierce elements and put forth a wine of power and depth that outpaced everything in its class. The public went wild. Then in 2005, Pontet-Canet again blasted out of the gate, this time producing a wine that Robert Parker declared to be "absolutely sensational." And in 2008, on a muddy, slow track, Pontet-Canet proved it is no mere fair weather filly. Parker extolled, "a wine for our children's children, and a candidate for wine of the vintage".
So, what's going on? I have visited the chateau several times, and participated in an extensive tasting of the best modern-day vintages of P-C. The more I learn, the more impressed I am. Owner Alfred Tesseron has teamed with technical director Jean-Michel Comme for well over a decade, instituting a meticulously detailed program of vineyard management that has now qualified for full 100% Biodynamic certification. P-C is perhaps the largest, and one of the most highly regarded, chateau in France to do so. This is no small artisan project of a few dozen barrels. Pontet-Canet vineyards cover 81 hectare (over 200 acres), with annual production of 20-25,000 cases. At roughly $50 per bottle Ex-Cellar (and now approaching $80-100 retail) this is big stakes racing in Bordeaux.
The objective is not simply to comply with BIO standards, but to understand exactly the nature of the vineyard, the plot, the row and the individual vine. To paraphrase a very interesting discussion with Jean-Michel, P-C is just trying to eliminate mildew or kill weeds. They are striving to understand why certain parts of the vineyard are affected by disease, and not others, and then to see what the implications of these insights might be. "Mildew does impose a problem, it reduces production, and you can see the effect on the leaves, as if there was a fire taken to the vine", he said. "But, the remaining bunches are wonderful, healthy and of superb quality, so we believe the vine is benefitting in some way. Not from the mildew, but from what the mildew creates in the vine under stress. So we are searching for ways to give the vine what it lacks in order to produce such quality grapes, give it this fire", and still maintain production. This level of dissection takes place across hundreds of interactions and touch points, small and large. The 2009 brochure lays out the goal: "We give our vines the potential to naturally resist attacks without causing harm". In 2007, the mildew was so bad, Mr. Tesseron doubted the ability of the BIO programs to combat it, and he now regrets the application of even a modest chemical application that year. In 2008, he avoided it, and again in 2009. And now, there is no turning back.
Which brings us to the horses. Pontet-Canet is slowly adapting vineyard management techniques to accommodate the use of horses. Last year, 8 Hectares were plowed by horses, and this year the goal is 24. The video explains the basic rationale, and watching Kakou perform, I can see both the objectives, and the challenges in clear light. Pontet-Canet built the stables, and the plows to fit the 9,000-vine-per-hectare vineyard density, and the harnesses and tools needed to carefully till the soil in close proximity to the trunks. Kakou worked steadily for about 30 minutes, then was given a quick energy treat and a few minutes' rest before resuming a full day's work. And Kakou is a willing performer, one of three on site at this point. This noble steed is also fluent in French, and a camera hog, pausing several times and giving me the best angle. And while there may be questions on output, capacity, adaptability to all classes of terrain, there is no doubt about the serenity and light touch of a horse footfall in contrast to the heavy track of a 3 ton diesel powered tractor that requires the guidance of a driver and a second observer to try to do the same careful work. That said, P-C is handling about 25-30% of the vineyard with horses.
The results are raising the profile of BIO methods on the Left Bank, as the wine goes from strength to strength every year. And if prestigious Pauillac neighbors are paying more than casual attention to all this horsing around at Pontet-Canet, no one will blame them.
Izak and I sampled the 2009 at Chateau with Mr. Tesseron and niece Melanie, who appears to be groomed for future leadership at this beautiful estate. My tasting note for the 09 is succinct: "Aromatically a correct and beautiful Pontet-Canet. Balanced. Complete".
[Sidebar: unfortunately, the wine was not made available for blind tasting comparisons with other highly regarded Pauillacs. This was a surprise. As much as I like to visit Chateaux, (and as accommodating with their time as the P-C team is), if the trend toward private tastings continues, it will make logistics and comparisons more challenging for UGC journalists during Primeur week. This has the unintended consequence of placing more evaluative importance on Negociant-hosted tastings where the entire appellation is made available to the Trade. The bottom line: given the strength of the appellation this year, Pauillac lovers will be thrilled to evaluate the 2009 P-C against a very strong peer group that includes Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Lalande -- wines that were priced higher than P-C in 2005, but not in 2008.]
The only remaining question is one of price. Pontet-Canet has earned critical and customer acclaim, propelling it to the top tier of Left Bank wines, even pushing the First Growths in recent vintages. In 2008, Pontet-Canet was the only chateau on the Liv-Ex.com Bordeaux tracker to release at a higher price Ex-Cellar than the vaunted 2005. I bought the 2006 and the 2008 vintages as Futures at $69. But, it's hard to find the 2005 at retailers for less than $100. So I expect Pontet-Canet to price the 2009 in the $80 +/- range as Futures. Hopefully Mr. Tesseron will take to heart his position as a large producer who is developing a loyal following. Under $70, Pontet-Canet occupies a strong position among Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux wines, offering exceptional quality and wide availability. It is priced as wine to aspire to, and also a wine that will capture customers trading down from $100-200 wines that, in this economy, are extravagant, and that will find it difficult to compare in quality. In 2009, if Pontet-Canet maintains this position, it is a great bet on a real thoroughbred, and a wine you would be proud to serve in the winners circle - any time, any where.