By REBECCA GIBB — WINE SEARCHER Monday, 17-Mar-2014
In his 20 years at the helm of Pauillac estate Château Pontet-Canet, he has introduced unconventional methods including green harvesting, biodynamics and now amphorae. He reveals the ups and downs of his career.
Interview by Rebecca Gibb
Were you always destined to be in the wine and spirits game?
When I was a kid I dreamed of being a farmer, not to be in wine. Some kids want to be firemen or policemen or whatever, but I wanted to be a farmer. So I am a farmer specializing in grapes. Always on Sunday, my father would open wine for pleasure for us kids to try and to think about whether or not we liked it. It was a game. Somehow wine is in our blood. I first studied but my father didn’t give me pocket money so I had to earn money to be able to have fun. I was working as a wine salesman in Bordeaux [and in Paris].
© Pontet Canet | Alfred Tesseron below, plans on building more stables to increase his horse power at Pontet-Canet
Tell me about your father, Guy, who purchased Pontet-Canet.
I had a very bright father. We are a Cognac family, but in 1975 he had the idea to buy Pontet-Canet. He already owned Lafon-Rochet, which is now owned by my brother. At that time I lived in the United States. I studied oenology but went into sales and marketing and had no idea that I would be invited to help my father. When I started to work with my father and I had been to the U.S., I thought I knew everything, but I still had everything to learn. I knew nothing.
Was there any conflict between the generations?
1994 was a very painful year for me. I thought I would lose my job that year. I hired Jean-Michel [Comme] in 1989 and he started to do the green harvest, which was not done on the Left Bank at all at that time; it was practised on the Right Bank. We started but I didn’t tell my father. I told Jean-Michel to try the green harvest a long way away from the house. That summer, I went to the beach in August like everyone does; my father stayed at home. When I came back, I went to hug him [his father did not reciprocate]. I asked him what was wrong. I thought he was sick, but Nicole [Guy’s wife] told me: ‘No, it’s about you.‘
I couldn’t sleep. The next day I went to the vineyard and spoke to one of the older chaps and he said, ‘You know, your father and I get on very well.‘ I asked him what he meant. He told me, ‘You are killing the vines. It’s against Mother Nature to cut off the grapes and leave them on the floor.‘
I went to see my father and told him I had made a mistake but that the grapes were on the floor and they were not coming back. I said: ‘Let me do the vintage 100%. If the wine is good let me carry on and you can handle the finances.‘ My father smiled and said, ‘We have a deal.‘ He went back to his house in Bordeaux and never came back to Pontet-Canet.
What happened next?
I asked him to taste the 1994 vintage in 1995. He said: ‘I have a cold and I don’t want to taste the wine.‘ I thought ‘My God, something is wrong again,‘ but then he said, ‘I don’t need to taste the wine, people that I trust have called me to tell me it’s good.‘ So, from that time on we were able to work together but in a different way. 1994 was a very big turning point.
© Pontet Canet |
There have been big changes at the château since. Tell me about the adoption of biodynamics.
We started in 2004 with 14 hectares. I told Jean-Michel to try biodynamics at Pontet-Canet, thinking ‘two hectares,’ but he wanted to do more. When I tasted the Merlot [from the biodynamic plot], it was different. I asked if we could do it all over at Pontet-Canet but it was a risk. In 2005 we went 100%.
He was so happy I gave him the opportunity to do so, but it was also different for him. It takes a lot of looking after. At that time I had lost my father and in France we always have the problem of following on [inheritance tax]. We had to give the government half of the property to pay tax. If we did not succeed [with biodynamics] we would have lost Pontet-Canet.
Do you believe in Steiner’s principles or do you follow biodynamics because you believe the wines taste better?
I’ll tell you honestly — I tried to read Steiner. I couldn’t. It sends me to sleep but I am lucky because I have Jean-Michel. He is so involved in it that he is my bible. I enjoy it because it has made us closer to what we do. It has made us more involved, and what is interesting is that people who work at Pontet-Canet are also more involved.
Some of the practices seem crazy to me.
When I taste the wine and when I tasted Jean-Michel’s wine [Château du Champs des Treilles in Sainte-Foy], which is from a difficult terroir, they were so good. That’s how we got into it. To explain biodynamics is close to impossible but the things we do make sense.
But in 2007, you sprayed the vines, which went against biodynamic practice. Why?
In 2007 we had a mildew attack and I got scared. I thought we were losing the crop. We sprayed for a week and a half and I said as soon as we could, we would go back to biodynamics. I shouldn’t have done that but when you don’t sleep, one day is fine, the second day is okay but the third day you start to think funny. That’s when you make mistakes. If I get like this now, I know better. I get up, have a Cognac [for breakfast] and I make no decisions [that day].
You’ve now introduced amphorae and are reducing the amount of new oak in your wine. Why the change?
When you have such great fruit, why put too much make-up on it? We are down to 50% new oak. In the future we can play more with the amphora. My feeling is we don’t need oak but if I do that the world would be against me. In 2012, we started with amphorae. I’m sure if I had had everything in oak, the wine would not have been so balanced.
© Pontet Canet |
The 2013 en primeur tasting kicks off at the end of March. Tell me about the 2013 season from your point of view.
It was not easy but I am very proud of what we did. There will be very little wine that carries the Pontet-Canet name — yields were down by more than half — but what wine there is will be in the Pontet-Canet style. It will be a wine of pleasure. People will come and they will taste it and they will be happy that they have come.
Would you like to give the wines more time before the en primeur tastings?
When you know what you are doing, why would you need more time? If you are given a deadline for tomorrow morning, you are a professional, you are going to do it. You can taste the wine today, you can taste it in two years from now, but when it is good, it is always good.
Pontet-Canet is a 5th growth, according to the 1855 classification. Do you the the château to be better than its rank?
It will always be a fifth growth, which is a good thing. When you have many classifications you don’t know who is who. If a new classification came maybe I would be something different but that is not going to happen. I’m competing against myself. I’m not going to change the classification but I’m going to make some people happy drinking my wine.
I hear that you like to sail. Tell me about that.
I don’t like to swim but I like to be on the water and sailing is freedom and I like that.
Do you get much time to do it?
Mélanie [Alfred’s niece who helps to run the estate] is getting better and she is doing a lot of things that I don’t have to do, but I don’t think that I will ever retire. It’s not my style.
What keeps you awake at night?
It depends. Sometimes nothing and sometimes I rebuild the world. But now I have a new system: next to my bed, I put a pen and a piece of paper and my glasses. Immediately as I start thinking, I write and get back to sleep.
What brings you true happiness?
To me, the success of the family is important. The best thing is to be able to work with your family and to make them happy.