Another splendid day in Bordeaux, with bright skies and cool, breezy weather greeting me as I made the drive into the Margaux appellation for a handful of visits.
If Christian Moueix is the dean of Pomerol, Paul Pontallier holds an equivalent position in Margaux. The soft-spoken but serious winemaker has built a sterling 30-year career at the helm of one of the region’s top estates, first-growth Château Margaux. Like Moueix, Pontallier resists hyperbole, yet he was nearly giddy (by Pontallier standards) at the prospects of the 2010 vintage. I had spoken to him shortly after the harvest last year, and he has not changed his position.
“I said after ’09 that I wouldn’t see another vintage like that,” Pontallier marveled, “and then it happened right away.”
So what comes next, I asked?
“I don’t know. I guess retirement,” said Pontallier with a laugh.
Pontallier feels the vintage has two important facets: “First, the drought came at just the right time, mid-June, to stop the growth of the vines [vegetatively],” he said. “And the second key is that despite the drought, we had cool temperatures. So we have extraordinary aromatic complexity, higher than average acidity and great intensity. The wines don’t taste as dense as they are.”
We started with the Château Margaux Margaux Pavillon Rouge. It’s technically the “second wine” of the estate, but Pontallier has gotten more and more stringent in its selection in recent years. In 2010, it accounts for just 38 percent of the crop, the same amount as the grand vin. The remaining crop is now being put into a third wine (which will be commercialized starting with the ’09 vintage) and a fourth level of quality, which is sold off as bulk.
(All the wines described below were tasted non-blind. As these are unfinished wines, they are scored in four-point ranges—eg. 89-92 points—to indicate that the ratings are still preliminary.)
The 2010 Pavillon Rouge is a blend of 66 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot and 4 percent Petit Verdot. The wine is rather dense and muscular, with a broad range of red and black fruit, roasted apple wood and red licorice. But despite the heft, it stretches out, with long, supple tannins and an iron-packed finish that has a velvety coating (92-95 points).
The grand vin, Château Margaux Margaux 2010, is a major step up. The final blend is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with only 7 percent Merlot and 1.5 percent each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. This is only the second vintage this decade to contain as much as 90 percent Cabernet, along with the 2006. The wine is superfocused and racy, with torrents of red cherry, raspberry and red plum fruit. Again, despite the obvious weight, it has terrific mouthfeel as it glides effortlessly across the palate, while fantastic perfume develops on the finish (96-99).
Pavillon Blanc, Pontallier’s white wine, has improved steadily over the years, as he has admittedly tinkered often with his approach. “2010 is also a great vintage for whites,” said Pontallier. “The combination of drought and cool temperatures had the same effect, of allowing the grapes to ripen without blowing out acidity or freshness.”
The Château Margaux Bordeaux White Pavillon Blanc 2010, is made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc and fermented in a mix of new and used oak barrels. The wine is remarkably pure and focused, with grapefruit, verbena, honeysuckle and lime notes all seamlessly layered and gliding through the bright, stony finish (91-94).
The only damper on my day—which also included stops at Rauzan-Ségla and Palmer (notes on those to be published next week)—was driving into the teeth of the rush hour on the rocade, doubling my 45-minute drive time back to my hotel.
Tomorrow, I’ll move further up the Left Bank, with stops in St.-Julien and Pauillac. Stay tuned for my next post.
In addition to discussing Château Margaux’s wines, I also asked Pontallier the same questions I asked Moueix yesterday (read Moueix’ thoughts here).
Is there more pressure to make an excellent wine in a difficult year and exceed expectations, or to make a great wine in a great year, and match expectations?
I think there’s more pressure in a year like ’09 or ’10. Psychologically it’s tougher because outside expectations can be unrealistically high, yet you really want to achieve the high expectations. Technically there’s pressure too, because in great vintages, with supple, ripe grapes, the vinifications are actually more complicated. Grapes that are less ripe, with slightly less sugar, are easier to vinify. In great vintages, when the maturity is high, the alcohol is higher, which creates problems. The "rocking chair" vintage, where everything is perfect and easy, doesn’t exist. There are real risks. But, the more problems, the more ultimate potential.
It’s early, but how do you think ’10 measures up to ’09 in terms of quality and style?
The drought was pretty much the same, both ’09 and ’10 being as dry as ’05, and so yields and resulting concentration were about the same. ’09 was warmer though, with hot days and some hot nights, which didn’t happen in ’10—and this is the clear difference. ’09 has an opulence, while ’10 is more moderated by the acidity. Call it classic, or whatever term you want. But that intensity and freshness, at this early a stage, I’ve never seen before. ’10 jumps in the glass, but it is really refined too.
Do you look for finesse more than power in a wine, and if so, how do you handle a vintage like ’10?
Sure, I like finesse, but who doesn’t like power too? ’10 is remarkably powerful, but it has the finesse. That’s what Bordeaux does—the best Bordeaux combine the two. It’s a more discreet power. In such a vintage, we try to get everything we can. We extract much more than in a weaker vintage, because we know the potential is there. We never want to go too far, but we know that everything we can get is for the better. We actually extended the maceration a little longer and pumped over a little bit more frequently [in ’10]. Power is a fundamental aspect of wine—it just shouldn’t be the thing you experience first. The power should be on the finish, not at the start of the wine.
Suddenly, ’05 seems to have become a forgotten vintage. Does it measure up to ’09 and ’10?
People do forget. But those three vintages, ’05, ’09 and ’10 absolutely compare in quality. In some aspects, each could be interpreted as being better than the others. I’m not convinced one is clearly above the others. And then there’s ’00. Climate is a big factor for this [run of vintages], along with much more selection and precision in the vineyards. We work better in the winery now too. These are all factors for this new level. And then there are probably factors that I don’t understand yet … but this is a totally new level for wines in Bordeaux.