Château Pontet-Canet

In the early 18th century the royal governor of the Médoc, Jean-François De Pontet, purchased and combined several plots of vineyards in Pauillac. Years later, his descendants acquired neighbouring vineyards in a place named Canet. This was the foundation of one of the largest estates in the Médoc, which quite naturally added the name of its founder to that of the land registry reference.

A century later, Pontet-Canet was included in the famous 1855 classification, confirming its membership among the elite châteaux of the Médoc. This privileged position did not go unnoticed by one of the most important Bordeaux shippers of the time, Herman Cruse, who bought the estate in 1865. He built new cellars, modernised the winemaking facilities, and established the wine's reputation around the world. The Cruse family owned Pontet-Canet for 110 years, until another shipper (from Cognac this time), Guy Tesseron, acquired it in 1975.

Over two centuries Pontet-Canet has only been owned by three different families. Today it is run by Alfred Tesseron with his niece, Melanie. Thirty years after their arrival in Pauillac, the Tesserons have the satisfaction of knowing that they have gradually replanted a substantial area of the vineyard, as well as renovating the buildings and the wine making facilities.

Château Pontet-Canet is located in the heart of the Pauillac appellation, just south of châteaux Mouton Rothschild and d'Armailhac. It has the poor gravelly soil typical of the appellation's greatest vineyards. In fact, the soil has so much gravel and sand that it is difficult to imagine that anything could grow there at all. The 80-hectare estate is predominately planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, the signature variety for the great wines of Pauillac. This demanding grape is perfectly adapted to Pauillac's climate and soil, producing full-bodied, well-structured, long-lived wines famous for their finesse and elegance. In keeping with a longstanding Médoc tradition, it is blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which add a touch of smoothness and charm. In certain vintages, Petit Verdot can also be counted on to contribute complexity.

Pontet-Canet's terroir features rises of Garonne gravel on limestone bedrock. The soil is lean, warm, and well-drained. In order to make the most of this terrroir, Alfred Tesseron instituted a plot-by-plot vineyard management system.

Careful observation year after year has led to an intimate familiarity with practically every vine. The château's winegrowing philosophy is to intervene as little as possible and as naturally as possible in the vineyard. Only traditional viticultural and cultivation practices are used. Chemical weed killers are banned, in keeping with environmental protection, and priority is given to the vine's long-term health. In keeping with this spirit, fertilisers are entirely organic, and only used on plots that genuinely require extra nutrition. This helps to maintain a good balance of growth and self-regulates yields of grapes, as well as respecting the soil, reflecting the terroir, and producing pure, natural wine. Pruning is done with the greatest of care in winter by highly qualified workers. Each individual vine is considered separately and treated accordingly. All of these efforts result in grapes that are evenly distributed, with good ventilation, maximum sun exposure, and improved ripeness.

Great attention to detail is paid during the harvest at Pontet-Canet. In fact, preparations begin as soon as the previous harvest is over! Alfred Tesseron implemented a new system, starting with the 1999 vintage. Grape picking baskets were replaced by small crates. Once full, these go directly from the vineyard to sorting tables. This avoids transferring the grapes between various baskets, and from a hod to a trailer. It also enables the château to manage parcels of seven and a half kilos of grapes rather than two tonnes, which was the case when trailers were used...

The grapes are kept unbruised and uncrushed, and they are not pumped around the winery to eliminate the risk of oxidation. The two sorting tables and the two reception areas located above the vats run non-stop, but at a slow rate to allow for extremely careful sorting and absolutely minimal handling of the grapes. This close surveillance – the natural continuation of the care and attention lavished on the vineyard throughout the growing season – makes it possible to separate lots according to plot and grape variety with extreme precision, and to fine tune the final blend.

Since the very hot 2003 vintage, sorting has been further improved. A second vibrating sorting table, located behind each destemmer, provides perfect quality control. Eight people sort the uncrushed grapes by hand in order to remove all matter other than grapes, including small pieces of stems. This method ensures that only the ripest, healthiest grapes make it to the fermenting vats. However, it is also very labour-intensive, calling for some 30 workers at the grape reception area and to do the sorting, or the equivalent of one person per three pickers.

Rather than heavy, polluting tractors, horses are used to work the vineyards. Reine, Sans Soucis, Surprise, Turbo, Ulysse, Univers, Vigor joined the Pontet-Canet team a couple of years ago with the aim of cultivating the vines and avoiding compacting the soil so that the roots are better able to penetrate the soil and extract nutrients. This isn't anything to do with nostalgia or gimmickery, but more to do with a real bet on the future that obliges the team to adapt working with a horse to modern methods and constraints. It is of course a challenge that draws the estate closer to nature and enables it to go even further with its ideology of respecting its vines and terroir. 32 hectares are now entirely cultivated by horses, without any intervention from a tractor. If this scheme is successful, more stables will gradually be built.

A unique vat room was built in the 19th century which allowed the grapes to drop into the vats via gravity rather than via pumping. This method of filling, combined with the use of natural yeasts, gives a slow fermentation. Gentle maceraction over a long period ensures the extraction of the most elegant tannins. Taking this as his model, Alfred built a modern version in 2005 when he built a new vat room based on the same principles. The first of its kind in the Médoc, this vat room houses 32 truncated cone-shaped vats, each with a capacity of 80 hectolitres. These vats are located in the previous cement vat room, dating back to the 1940s, and renovated several times since. The previous vats were all taken out to make space for them. Furthermore, the stainless steel vat room, built in 1986, was also abandoned. The vats were removed and sold. The new cement vats each weigh 9 tonnes and their 15cm thick walls provide good thermal inertia, thereby encouraging slow, gentle fermentations. The vats are fully temperature controlled and they can be either cooled down or warmed up very efficiently. Their hatches, which cover almost the entire top of the vat, are located directly under the sorting tables on the first floor. The grapes thus fall down straight into the vats by simple gravity. This vat room is both resolutely modern and in keeping with the Médoc's winegrowing tradition. It is the result of discussions between Alfred Tesseron, the famous oenologist Michel Rolland, the architect Christophe Massie, and Jean-Michel Comme, Regisseur of Pontet-Canet.

By facilitating the fermentation of small lots, this new system makes it easier to select and fine tune the final blend. Grapes from each plot (or part of a plot) are kept separate. This is done out of deference to the terroir and out of respect for the fruit, which are the two bywords for making fine wine. Pontet-Canet is truly a tailor-made wine.

Maceration generally lasts for more than four weeks, but varies according to grape variety, vineyard plot, and the age of the vines. The wine is run off directly into barrels, where it ages for sixteen to twenty months, depending on the vintage. The proportion of new barrels is never greater than two thirds.

Pontet-Canet has always been a legendary Médoc. It is deep ruby-red, crimson, and sometimes almost black colour and has a characteristic bouquet of black fruit (especially blackcurrant), liquorice, and prune as well as fig, cedar, and sometimes cocoa overtones. Pontet-Canet combines power and elegance, as well as concentration and fullness on the palate. Rather sinewy in style, Pontet-Canet is clearly a classical wine with a tannic structure that provides excellent ageing potential. The château team is conscious of the fact that they are following in the footsteps of more than three centuries of tradition, with each period contributing its technical innovations in the interest of quality and in order faithfully to reflect the terroir.
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