The first growth châteaux are special places, I’d say Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion in particular. But at Margaux there is, and I hope that this will continue, something a bit special going on. There is something a little Burgundian about the way that the custodians of the château, and Paul Pontallier in particular, were and are bound to the soil that they work.
My first recollection of Paul Pontallier comes from 2006. We were tasting the ethereal, celestial, wine of a lifetime that is 2005 Château Margaux. I was in love with some grape juice and wondering if it would be totally out of order to steal a second glass from one of my colleagues. And I remember the look in Paul’s eyes. He knew that he had something special in 2005 Margaux, something that transcended us, something out of this world.
Though at the time Paul wouldn’t have known me from Adam, I admired and respected him, and looked forward to tasting at Margaux every year. I worked out after a while that you had to make a real effort to tune him out – if not you would soon find him writing your notes for you: he was that good. I was in awe of the way that this man understood the property, the vines, the juice. He just “got” Margaux in the most perfect way. He breathed it.
In 2013 I met the man proper. One of the best tastings I have ever enjoyed, and one that became an annual event, was the tasting of Margaux’s component parts at blending time. In the tasting room that you enter by going underneath the grand staircase in front of the chateau, we would taste ten or fifteen different wines: the component parts of the grand vin before they were blended and, a couple or three months later, bottled.
Despite its grandeur, Margaux is a family place. Dogs and cats meander around, pause to greet you, wander off. Paul has a beautifully simple map of the vineyards: he shows you where which part of the assemblage comes from. He is disarmingly honest, albeit with a hint of mischief as we taste the opening wines. “You can’t make great wine from Merlot” he says with a glance, I like to think, in the direction of Château Palmer.
Of the fifteen or so parcels that make Margaux, there are three that are the heart of the blend. Getting to these is something special, even more so with a man who knows each plot, maybe each vine. And again, when you get to the most serious of the wines, there is that look on Paul’s face: we are dealing with something that is bigger than both of us. We have beauty in the room with us.
After the tasting we enjoy lunch in the kitchen. Paul, Nice Guy Eddie and I just talk. Nice Guy can’t resist a bit of commerce and price-talk; Paul’s response is honest and pragmatic. But, the work done, we talk mostly about life, about family in particular. Pride in children. Talking about his children there is that glazy-eyed look again. There is love. And a pride, I hope, that I will have when my son is a young man instead of a young boy.
Bordeaux is a special place, and an odd one. What is made in Bordeaux is occasionally elysian. It is art. And a lot of it is – maybe this is the wrong word – tainted by money. It’s a place where a great deal of trade is done and this can both detract from the beauty of the goods being sold and tarnish those that run the show. Paul Pontallier, one of Bordeaux’s most important figures, was one of the good guys. Not just in terms of skill and of the work that he did, but in terms of character. There are few men in this business that I would rather spend time with, and few so humble when they could justifiably be anything but.
Adieu, Paul, and thank you.