Paul Pontallier, who oversaw production at the famed Bordeaux first-growth Château Margaux for 33 years, helping lead it through a renaissance in quality, died March 28 after an extended battle with cancer. He was 59.
Pontallier was hired as technical director at Margaux in 1983 by owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos. At the time it was just three years after the then 30-year-old Mentzelopoulos had taken charge of the first-growth following the unexpected death of her father, who had bought the estate in 1976. Margaux was struggling—Bordeaux in general was suffering from the economic malaise of the '70s, there had been a string of difficult vintages and the vineyard had been neglected.
Pontallier was just 27 when he took the job. He worked closely with Mentzelopoulos, and their partnership went on to become the longest-tenured relationship between a first-growth owner and director. The pair fueled a resurgence of the estate to the very top of Bordeaux's qualitative hierarchy. Under his guidance, Château Margaux's grand vin earned classic ratings of 95 points or higher in 15 vintages between 1983 and 2013 (the 2014 and 2015 vintages are not yet bottled).
Pontallier grew up in the Bordeaux area; his winemaking parents had a modest château in Ste.-Foy-la-Grande, just east of Libourne. In 1975 he attended the Grignon National Agronomic Institute of Paris and went on to specialize in winegrowing and enology in Montpellier. He later obtained his doctorate from the Talence Institute of Oenology in 1981.
After a brief stint teaching enology in Santiago, Chile, during his military service, he joined the team at Margaux, where he spent his first 10 vintages working alongside the legendary Emile Peynaud, who consulted on the wine, as well as Philippe Barré. Following the disastrous vintages of the 1970s, Pontallier immediately set out to improve the viticulture, most notably by lowering yields, which according to him had gotten out of control.
Pontallier was promoted to managing director in 1990 when Barré retired. Following the lead of his mentors, he exerted enormous influence in teaching numerous young winemakers who took turns apprenticing at Margaux over the years.
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Pontallier's personal and winemaking styles were inextricably linked, relying on discretion rather than bombast, elegance rather than power.
Pontallier also made wine around the globe, partnering with Bruno Prats at Chile's Viña Aquitania. He also consulted with Marqués de Riscal in Spain's Rioja region and assisted with Long Island's Raphael winery.
In recent years, Pontallier had initiated experiments with organic growing practices and oversaw the completion of a large-scale renovation of the chai at Château Margaux, including construction of a secondary vinification facility for the white wine of the estate, along with expanded cellars to store larger quantities of the château’s wines for future releases. Last year, Pontallier confirmed that he had appointed a new technical director, Sebastien Vergne.
Pontallier is survived by his wife and four children, including his son Thibault, who works at Château Margaux.