Paul Pontallier – An Appreciation

Paul Pontallier, who died aged 59 from cancer this week, was a towering figure in wine. Partly because he was Director (‘regisseur’) of Chateau Margaux, but beyond that, because he embodied a healthy and rational counterpoint to the view that winemakers are only the servants of a great terroir and finally unimportant. He brought a creative, technical and artistic drive to Margaux since arriving in 1983 which of course is a superb site, but whose wines are a brilliant human creation too. He once said: ‘Terroir is not just a site, but the collective intelligence of the people who worked and work at that site.’

In 1983, appointed by Corinne Mentzelopoulos, he defied local tradition. No years of quiet service helping the incumbent estate manager before stepping into well-fitting shoes. No seamless inside appointment. Corinne said she wanted, as Nicholas Faith wrote (see below) ‘someone of my own age with whom I could work for a long time.’ He was 27, inexperienced, had only ever made wine at a small estate in Chile and an unabashed oenology academic. He had been the star graduate of Bordeaux University’s Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, toting a Ph.D on barrel maturation.

My direct experience of him was through taking wine enthusiasts on Bordeaux tours run by my Scala School of Wine, in London, from the late 90s onwards. We would visit Margaux from time to time. I may have expected a mad professor in specs but met a polished operator with a charismatic human touch. He came over as a global wine oracle, rather belying he was French and a Bordeaux local. He was an Anglo-French wizard amalgum of gallic noblesse oblige and the English country gentleman. That could, in theory, be an annoying combination.  But in his case it came with great charm, impeccable tweed jackets, silk ties and sharp suits and a very sharp mind.  He always managed to speak crafted prose in English as though from a heavily-edited dense text and deliver it with the emotional force of someone speaking right off the top of their head, spontaneously.

With wine people, he paid attention, looking for and at every speaker who asked a question, as I once observed in a PR seminar I went to in London.  But I remember too how he came along the corridor at Margaux to talk to my rather small and modest group of seven London people.  The guide who had led the tour said he might have ten minutes for us.  But when he came and presented several chateau wines, he stayed an hour. Although speaking English far better than most English people, his commentary always showed that trick French intellectuals can pull off – the mix of detail and airy generalisation but delivered with a progression and oral paragraphing that is pyrotechnic but convincing.

And it all came with great modesty and ease. I asked him once how he made such a legendary vintage at Margaux in 1983 having just walked through the door. He laughed. ‘I did not dare to do anything’, he said. ‘I watched and asked things.  It wasn’t me’. When he focused on an issue, there were the researcher’s ‘maybes’ and the hedging ‘we will have to observe and check carefully over the next period’. He wore his erudition quietly.  I last met him in April 2013 on an en primeur tasting visit at the chateau. Our group was regaled by his son Thibault Pontallier and Paul popped in with Corinne Mentzelopoulos but stayed on the side and did not take over. Then at the end he made a round of each person in the room.

His interest was always piqued, more than anything else, by what he was tasting and what there was to discuss about the glass of wine in front of him. I find that a litmus test of wine people – those who are helplessly in love with what the liquid itself may convey. He was, another reason why he was the embodiment of more than Margaux.

Chateau Margaux – Nicholas Faith, 1991, Mitchell Beazley
Bordeaux Legends – The 1855 First Growth Wines, Jane Anson, 2013, Stewart, Tabori & Chang
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