After departing Margaux we drove north along the D2, passing many famous chateaux until we came to Pauillac. We had the prix fixe menu at the charming Pauillac Café along the river, and then made our way to Chateau Pontet-Canet, where we met with the very charming Jean-Michel Comme, viticulture and winemaking director. With his perfect French-accented English, he regaled us with the progress of biodynamics in the vineyard, and we watched fascinated while a large draft horse pulled a plow through rows to aerate the soil.
The story at Pontet-Canet is all about their transition to biodynamics that was slowed slightly in 2007 when they were forced to spray with non-organic substances to halt the assault of powdery mildew. However they are back on track this year with great reviews on the 2008 en primeur. The chateau is over 300 years old; has 81 hectares with spacing ranging from 1 x1 or .95 x 1.2 on primarily 3309 and 101-14 rootstock, with an average of 6 buds on double guyot yielding 35 hectoliters per hectare. It is 62% cabernet sauvignon with the remainder being merlot (32%) and cabernet franc/petite verdot. 14 hectares have been converted to biodynamic farming.
Jean-Michel views the vines as children, which must be trained properly during the pruning season “with rules” so that they are in balance the rest of the year. By doing this well, he attempts to avoid such practices as hedging, suckering, and green harvest. His passionate viewpoints on the subject make him fascinating to listen to, and he appears to be a first-mover in the Medoc by advocating these practices – which are more common in Burgundy and parts of California. He says the “soil is alive” and must be nursed back to health after years of abuse.
Most of the story here is in the vineyards, but the winemaking practices are also novel in that he believes in having someone “watch” the fermentation constantly to “listen to and smell” any nuances of change – rather than rely on electronic readings. Grapes are hand-picked in small 7-8 kilo lugs; triage; destem/crush; natural yeast; no saignee. Fermentation takes place in cone-shaped cement vats with standard pump-overs – 3-4 weeks total maceration. Pneumatic press; 66% new oak; standard elevage practices yielding around 350,000 bottles with 50 full-time employees.
Though he offered us a chance to sample any vintage, we asked to try the 2008 Chateau Pontet-Canet which he was so enthusiastic about. After tasting it, we could see why. The wine was purple-black opaque with incredible concentration and a very rich nose of ripe fruit, cigar box, and herbs. The texture was velvety with a very long finish, and a touch of cranberry. My husband enjoyed it so much, that on Thursday night we purchased a bottle of the 2005 second label for $29E at E. Leclerc – which we were told carries the best selection of wine in France (indeed we were amazed to find a grocery store that sells Petrus and a vertical selection of Mouton Rothschild!). The wine took about an hour to open up and greeted us with ripe simple fruit on the nose/palate. However after 60 minutes, it transitioned into a lush, deep cassis with layers of complex flavors.
Interestingly enough, however, we left about a glass in the bottle and tried it the next evening to find that it had already turned. This was in sharp contrast to the 2003 St. Emilion from Ch. Monlot which still had a bright acid and fresh spice after being open for 3 days. Regardless, Ch. Pontet-Canet has now become a new favorite of my husband, and I am very intrigued by the biodynamic journey of the estate and wish them the utmost success.