Pauillac had rarely looked as gloomy as it did on the wet spring day I took to the Route des Châteaux to taste the 2009 from barrel at Pontet-Canet.
Like a growing number of proprietors, owner Alfred Tesseron had withdrawn from the generic en primeur tastings put on by the Union des Grands Crus, feeling that anyone who really wanted to taste the wine would make the extra effort to get to the château.
He had no shortage of trade and press visitors keen to make the pilgrimage, despite the weather.
The sodden earth didn’t bother Opale, Reine and Kakou much either. It was a root day on the biodynamic calendar and the three Breton horses were in their element as they pulled their specially adapted carts through the vineyard, spraying cow-horn dung as they went.
Seeing biodynamic viticulture in Burgundy or in the Loire Valley is par for the course.
But in the Médoc, with its sizeable estates and humid weather, it comes as a shock to be confronted with the theories of Rudolf Steiner. Not least at a cru classé. So much so that you could be forgiven if it crossed your mind that Opale, Reine and Kakou might be merely players on an elaborate marketing stage.
But on the evidence of recent years, Pontet-Canet is about more than just image. Despite its status as a mere fifth growth, its potential, with vineyards next to those of first growth Mouton-Rothschild, is for greater things. The critical reception to – and clamour for – its wines over recent vintages suggests it is starting to realise them.
‘Sound and competent’ were the words used by Robert Parker to characterise its wines before the château was bought from the Cruse family in 1975 by Cognac merchant, Guy Tesseron, in the wake of the 1973 Bordeaux wine scandal (Henri Cruse was convicted of blending the estate’s wine with cheap Rioja).
Since the full-time management of the property was taken over by Guy’s son Alfred in 1994, the wines have grown steadily in quality. From the landmark 2000 vintage onwards, the wines have grown in reputation, too. Indeed the rapturous reception given to the 2009 vintage has been such that Pontet-Canet can consider itself a member of the elite club of over-achieving non-first-growth châteaux that includes Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel and Palmer.
Realising the vineyard’s potential was the catalyst that drove Alfred Tesseron from the moment he first got his hands dirty in 1977. Sorting was introduced in 1987, green harvesting began soon after, and he gave up herbicides altogether in 2003. In 2004, he decided on a bold plan unique for a cru classé: to turn the vineyards over to biodynamic viticulture via advice, and the requisite Maria Thun preparations, from biodynamics expert, the late François Boucher. How did it happen?
It came down to two things: a yearning to improve the wine; and admiration for what Jean-Michel Comme, technical director since 1989, had achieved at his own estate, Champs des Treilles in Ste-Foy la Grande. In 2004, Tesseron made the huge decision to entrust Comme with Pontet-Canet’s direction. ‘In the end, you have to decide if you’re going to stand still or improve, and what I saw at Champs des Treilles was the turning point’, says Tesseron. ‘I said to Jean-Michel, “If you think you can do it, let’s try.” It was a question of confidence. I wouldn’t have done it with just anyone, but he always explains what he’s doing.’
Divided into two main parcels, and sub-divided into a further 92 plots, the soils at Pontet-Canet are composed of classic Médoc Günzian gravel over clay and limestone. Registering with organic certifier Ecocert in 2005 (and then its biodynamic counterpart Biodivin), Tesseron replaced the stainless steel in the cellar with small conical concrete vats that are gravity-filled for gentler tannin management and the best vinification for each individual plot. As the yields came down naturally instead of by green harvesting, the quantity of grand vin rose from 50% to 80%, while the second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet, diminished.
Eight hectares of vineyard were chosen for horse power in place of tractors, and 14ha in total for the first experimental biodynamic vintage in 2004. Two years later, Comme extended the ploughing, spraying and replacing of dead vines to 24ha. The long-term aim is to ditch the tractors and bring in a full complement of 10 horses to work the entire 81ha, roughly two-thirds of which is Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Merlot and a smattering of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.
Tesseron insists that abandoning artificial fertilisers and chemicals is, literally, a down-to-earth approach aimed at making better wine.
‘For us, working biodynamically, like Chinese medicine, is a holistic approach. It’s not some magic wand, nor is it a gimmick. It’s constant, everyday work that puts us in close touch with the vineyard.’
There were horses at Pontet-Canet until 1960 and Tesseron feels that using them is a reversion to traditional methods that prevent compaction of the soil. ‘Our vineyard is very narrow and the tractors squeeze the roots which then don’t work well. But the vineyard gets its food from the roots, so if we improve it, the roots do a better job. Spraying cow-horn dung helps the roots to penetrate deeper and the leaves become healthier. We used to cut them; now we tie them together. They go straight up, like a man.’ The latter piece of information is delivered deadpan, with a knowing twinkle in the eye.
The 10ha of Champs des Treilles worked biodynamically by Comme and his wife Corinne was the inspiration behind Tesseron’s move to go biodynamic. Comme believes there’s no single reason for converting to biodynamic viticulture but rather that it makes sense if you want to improve the health of the vineyard, and with it the quality of the wine. ‘Using pesticides is not logical and not a good way for the future,’ says Comme. ‘We cannot improve quality any longer always using the same techniques – green harvesting, deleafing and so on. Biodynamics gave us a new vision and a new way of working.’
Comme is not a fan of organic viticulture, which he feels doesn’t get to the root causes, as it were. ‘With bio, you try to understand the disease without worrying too much. You try to understand things globally. Now we try to read nature. It may sound strange but it’s true.’
But worrying too much is precisely what Comme did. The challenges of the inclement 2007 vintage exemplified the risks they were taking and the reasons why the ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ mentality prevails in Bordeaux. The onset of mildew nearly drove him over the edge. ‘Without my family and children, I would have probably committed suicide. The pressure was so heavy I couldn’t sleep’, he admits.
Eventually he and Tesseron decided they had to use chemicals to eradicate the mildew. It was a huge blow at the time, resulting in three years of lost certification, yet it signalled an important change. ‘We learned a lot from 2007. It was a failure, but the start of the experiment. We lost crops but the wine was good and people began to realise there may be a price to pay for higher quality. 2008 was just as bad but we managed because we had learned from 2007. We realised that bio was necessary for good results, so now everything we do is with that vision.’
It might seem surprising that Tesseron employs Michel Rolland, not least because the ubiquitous consultant is better known for his association with Right Bank garagistes than with biodynamics. But Tesseron has used Rolland since 1999 not so much for his winemaking skills, as to bring an experienced external eye to Pontet-Canet. ‘Michel is curious about biodynamics and even if he’s not totally convinced, it’s good to have an alternative view,’ says Tesseron. ‘We don’t follow everything he says slavishly, but he explains things clearly and simply and gives me good examples. He’s a really good country person and he sees things in the vineyard’.
In respectable tweed jacket and cravat, the affable 62-year-old Tesseron seems an unlikely pioneer. Yet his ambition, open-mindedness and readiness to take risks have led him to see his vineyard and its potential afresh. Some 285 years after the property was founded by Jean-François de Pontet, governor general of the Médoc and secretary to King Louis XV, Pontet-Canet, which survived the Revolution, is today on course to deliver its full potential. There’s a new revolution going on that the Médoc grand crus classés will follow with admiration – and interest.
Written by Anthony Rose