Paul Pontallier, who died on 28 March aged just 59 years old, had been managing director of first growth Château Margaux in Bordeaux since 1990. He would have turned 60 on 22 April.
Margaux a ‘perfect fit’
He first joined the estate in 1983 aged 27, two years after graduating as an agricultural engineer with a doctorate at oenology. Besides 18 months teaching winemaking at the Catholic University of Santiago, Margaux was to be his only full-time professional role and proved a perfect fit.
Hired by owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos – following a recommendation from his mentor Emile Peynaud – just three years after she stepped into her father’s shoes, the two shared a complicity and friendship rarely seen between owner and director. Together they worked to ensure that the transformation of Château Margaux that had begun under André Mentzelopoulos continued until it reached the exalted position it holds today.
A partnership ‘unsurpassed’ – Steven Spurrier
Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier described their partnership as ‘something that has never been surpassed even by that of Jean-Bernard or Jean-Philippe Delmas with Haut-Brion. It is difficult to imagine Margaux without him’.
Born in the Bordeaux region, Pontallier spent his early life on his parents’ wine estate, Château La Loge Saint-Léger in AOC Bordeaux Supérieur and went to the city’s most exclusive school, the Catholic-run Sainte-Marie-Grand-Lebrun.
He first considered a career as a doctor, and once told Decanter.com in an interview that ‘wine was so natural to me that I couldn’t imagine it being a serious career choice’.
But, he decided to follow his heart into agriculture. He gained his first degree in 1975 from the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon that is today known as AgroParisTech. From there he specialised in oenology and viticulture, first in Montpellier and then at the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology in Talence, where he wrote his PhD on the effect of barrel ageing on red wines.
Joining Château Margaux
His first seven years at Château Margaux were spent alongside Philippe Barré, and he took over as managing director when Barré retired in 1990. Under his direction, Château Margaux delivered consistently magnificent vintages and confirmed its position as one of the world’s truly great châteaux.
Outside of Château Margaux, in 1984 Pontallier started the venture that would become Domaine Paul Bruno in Chile with his longtime friend Bruno Prats, and also consulted for Stellenbosch’s Plaisir de Merle. More recently he helped his son Thibault Pontallier with the creation of the Pont des Arts wine brand. But there is no doubt that he will forever be linked to Château Margaux, a place that he loved and frequently said he would never be tempted away from.
An ‘extraordinary talent’
‘The world is a sadder place today for the loss of Paul Pontallier,’ Decanter’s managing director, Sarah Kemp, said. ‘An extraordinary talent, an extraordinary man. He was the embodiment of the wines he crafted; elegant and refined. His humanity and kindness enriched many lives. He will be missed.’
Philippe Bascaules, who worked alongside Pontallier for eleven years at Château Margaux before joining Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook in 2011, said, ‘I admired not only his humility but his passion. He used to say that doubt is the driving force of all scientific research. This was something that he felt very deeply, and that made him both very open and very human.
‘I always took great pleasure in speaking with him about wine of course, but also about history and the many other subjects that interested him so deeply’.
Pontallier leaves a wife and four children from his first marriage, Guillaume, Thibault, Alice and Antoine. The 2015 vintage was his 33rd in Margaux.
Details of a memorial service have not yet been announced.
Watch Decanter.com video interviews with Paul Pontallier:
- Paul Pontallier on the Bordeaux 2010 harvest
- Paul Pontallier on Bordeaux 2012
- Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter in 2009