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Climbing the Pyramid

Alfred Tesseron is raising quality at Bordeaux's Pontet-Canet
Jo Cooke
Posted: April 30, 2008

A morning chill pervades the air as Alfred Tesseron, owner of fifth-growth Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac on Bordeaux's Left Bank, leads the way through the vineyards that surround the château. He sets a brisk pace to keep up with his two Labradors, Rusty and Arthus, who are bounding away in the distance.

Halting at the first vantage point, where the Gironde estuary is in view just half a mile away, Tesseron waves his arm to point out the vineyards of his illustrious neighbors—plots owned by first-growths Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Latour.

"Every morning," he says, "we wake up and say, 'We are a fifth-growth surrounded by first-growths, so we have to do better.' We want to get as close as we can to the quality of our neighbors." To illustrate his goal, Tesseron outlines a pyramid in the air and points to the peak. "This is where we want to be."

Most wine producers worldwide would echo Tesseron's aspirations, but in Bordeaux the "pyramid" is a reality, in the form of the 1855 Classification, which placed Pontet-Canet on the bottom rung of its five-tier quality hierarchy. The club of classified-growths is a small one—only 61 estates in their current incarnations—but the ambitious look upward, not down.

Since 1997, when he took over the running of the estate from his father, Guy, Tesseron has worked with determination to elevate the quality of the estate's wines beyond what is expected of a fifth-growth château. He has lavished attention and money on improvements to every aspect of the estate, from vineyard management to harvesting and winemaking processes to storage facilities and office areas.

The result is that Pontet-Canet is today frequently lauded by both merchants and consumers as an estate with fifth-growth prices but higher-class quality.

"When it comes to value for money," says Pierre Lawton, owner of Alias, one of Bordeaux's most dynamic négociant firms, "Pontet-Canet is one of the top Bordeaux wines. In fact, it's one of the great values worldwide. People look at the top names in Bordeaux and say, 'Why do I need that, when I can get Pontet-Canet for half the price?' The impeccable track record since Tesseron took over makes it an easy sell."

"Alfred is a very determined man," says Stefan von Neipperg, owner of Right Bank estates Château Canon-La Gaffelière, La Mondotte and Clos de L'Oratoire, as well as Château d'Aiguilhe in Côtes de Castillon. "Now that he has a free hand at the estate, he is showing everyone what he can do. He is an easygoing man and laughs when he wants to laugh. But he can also put his foot down locally in the market. And that's good for Bordeaux." Both von Neipperg and Tesseron are part of a group of top Bordeaux producers called Les Cinq, who collaborate on the promotional side of the business.

Pontet-Canet has earned ratings of outstanding or better (at least 90 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) in blind tastings of every vintage since the 2000, with the just-released 2005 topping out at a classic 96 points.

"[2005] was a great vintage and we were ready for it," says Tesseron. "It was the culmination of all the work we have done over the last 10 years, both in the vineyard and the cellar."

Tesseron, 60, exudes a youthful charm, and his warm smile is the first hint of the slightly mischievous air that characterizes his personality and colors his conversation. His standard Médoc owner's uniform of jacket, tie and pocket handkerchief is a little at odds with his laid-back temperament.

He has married twice; his teenage children, Noë and Justine, live in Bordeaux with their mother, while he and his second wife, Isabelle, divide their time between Pontet-Canet and their house at Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast, where he indulges his passion for sailing. He's a member of a club at the nearby port of Arcachon, where he regularly sails a century-old, 6-meter boat. It's "proper sailing," he says, "in the old way."

Tesseron comes from a family of Cognac blenders, based in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, in the heart of the Cognac region north of Bordeaux. The business, which Tesseron shares today with his brother, Gérard, dates back to the 19th century, when their grandfather, Abel, began amassing a stock of fine Cognacs. The brandies, which still lie in old oak casks in the family cellars, provide stock to larger Cognac houses for blending; small amounts are bottled under the boutique "Cognac Tesseron" label.

Tesseron's father extended the family's horizons to Bordeaux with his purchase of Château Lafon-Rochet in 1959, followed by nearby Château Pontet-Canet in 1975. Tesseron was studying enology and working for U.S. importer Shaw-Ross, in charge of sales of the Bordeaux wine brand A. de Luze. In 1977, his father called him back to Bordeaux to help manage the Pontet-Canet estate. Upon his return, Tesseron worked to gradually improve the quality of the estate's wine and, in 1990, reduced the grape yields with a green harvest for the first time—much to his father's dismay.

"My father came from a generation that didn't understand the concept of a green harvest," says Tesseron. The differences between father and son culminated in a proviso that Tesseron was to present the first glass of the wine from the 1994 vintage to his father. "If he didn't think the quality was better," Tesseron recalls, "it was understood that I was out."

But when he dutifully knocked on his father's study door at the appointed time, with a glass of the "new" wine in hand, his father told him, "There's no need for that. I've heard it's good."

Before he died in 2003, Tesseron's father split the estates between his four children, giving Lafon-Rochet to Caroline and Michel and Pontet-Canet to Alfred and Gérard, leaving Alfred with a free hand to direct the winemaking at the estate. Gérard takes no active role in either the Cognac business or Pontet-Canet, but his daughter, Mélanie, recently began learning the ropes from her uncle, tackling everything from vineyard management to sales.

The estate is located about half a mile from the Gironde, at around 90 feet above sea level, making it the highest vineyard point in Pauillac. The château, like most in the Médoc, was designed to show off the wealth of its merchant owner. Built mostly in the 18th century, with parts dating back to the 16th, it's rather top-heavy in style, with a large slate roof that appears to be pushing the building into the ground.

The nearly 200 acres of vineyards that surround the château are divided into 100 parcels and planted with an average density of nearly 4,000 plants per acre. The vines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, interspersed with typical Médoc varieties Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Tesseron installed a new drainage system throughout the vineyard, a costly process, he says, which improved the performance in the vineyard but also began luring thieves onto the property. "One night recently, we had uninvited visitors who lifted and took away 80 cast-iron drain culverts," he says, adding good-humoredly, "A good night's work, no?"

Following an old tradition in the Médoc, Tesseron appointed a team of one man and one woman to look after each vineyard parcel year round. The team watches out for any underperforming or dead vines (typically about 1.5 percent of the stock per year), ripping them out during the winter and replanting. This leaves no gaps in the vineyard, which, Tesseron says, might encourage neighboring vines to overproduce, upsetting the balance in the vineyard.

"The soil here is very poor," he adds, "and that's very good. We want our vines to suffer, so that each plant will produce around 400 to 500 grams of fruit—enough to produce only half a bottle of wine." Tesseron cites the superhot 2003 vintage as a good illustration of the benefits of low yields from "suffering" vines. In that year, his vineyard team refrained from fertilizing the vines and merely worked the soil, making the roots dig deeper for moisture. The resulting wine (94, $60) outshone the 2000 vintage (93, $55).

Production of Château Pontet-Canet ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 cases per year. The estate also makes a second wine called Les Hauts de Pontet from younger vines, aged 10 to 15 years (those averaging 45 years go into the first wine). Production ranges from 4,000 to 8,000 cases, depending on the vintage; it is released at about 40 percent of the price of the grand vin. The 2000 Hauts de Pontet scored 89 points, while the 2003 earned 90 points.

"We don't have particular parcels for the first and second wines," says Tesseron. "Every parcel should, in time, be able to contribute to the first wine. This is what we have been working for in the past 10 years."

Rather than have one person directing the vineyards and another in the cellar, Tesseron employs Jean-Michel Comme for both. Comme is an old hand at Pontet-Canet, having worked at the château for the past 17 years, while also managing his family estate, Château du Champ des Treilles in the Bordeaux satellite appellation of Sainte-Foy.

"Jean-Michel is responsible for everything," quips Tesseron, "so if it goes wrong, I know who to blame." The two men have developed a productive synergy over the years and both possess an acute and detailed knowledge of the Pontet-Canet vineyards.

Stopping to pluck a weed growing next to a vine, Tesseron muses, "If you have a healthy vineyard you have life. If you see [ladybugs], it's a sign of health. Different weeds grow in different parcels, some in compact soil, others in more loose-knit soil. If you spot a weed like this, you can tell what is happening to the soil in that particular spot."

Tesseron endeavors to keep as much natural life as possible on the estate, maintaining the trees and, in 2003, building a water depuration system for the cellar waste. He uses no chemical-based weed killers. To give life to the soil when needed, he uses natural manure—but never, he says, to feed the vines.

"When I came, nothing was alive," he recalls. "We were working with a calendar—spraying according to the instructions on the packet. Now it's different. If you spray and fertilize badly, the wine will show it—maybe after a few years, but it will show in the end. The best way to learn is through observation. It's a costly exercise, because you make a lot of mistakes along the road."

Pontet-Canet's winery is housed in a 19th-century building, the project of the dynamic estate manager of the time, Charles Skawinski, with ironwork influenced by Gustave Eiffel. In recent years, Tesseron has made major changes to the winery, including rebuilding the sorting room above the vat rooms in 1999 to accommodate a new process he devised for picking and sorting the grapes during the harvest.

As part of the revamped picking process, he has done away with tractors and trailers. Instead, Tesseron divides the work force into teams of four pickers and a carrier who brings the plastic trays containing the grapes directly to either of the two entrances to the sorting room, unloading them directly onto a sorting belt where any rot on the incoming fruit is revealed by fluorescent lights.

"We go through about 8,000 trays a day," says Tesseron, "but this method ensures that the grapes arrive in small, manageable quantities. With 15 people around each of the two sorting tables, we are geared up for a difficult year. In a good year, there are a lot of sorters standing around doing nothing—fortunately!"

In one section of the winery, wooden fermentation vats receive grapes from a sorting room by a gravity system, with no pumping or pressurized tubes. Tesseron decided to duplicate this system in the second part of the cellar, using concrete rather than wooden vats; for the 2005 vintage, he replaced the stainless-steel and traditional concrete tanks with 32 truncated, unlined concrete vats, each 6 inches thick, weighing 9 tons and having a capacity of 80 hectoliters. The vats are designed to facilitate manual pigeage (the punching-down of the cap during fermentation). Fermentation temperatures are managed based on manual readings of thermometers inserted into the vats, rather than by way of computers that make automatic decisions.

"[The new vats] were hell to get in," says Tesseron, "but they are perfect for our way of working. Here, the emphasis is on human contact with the grapes and the wine, so that the worker can feel what's going on. When the wine is fermenting, we open the vat and smell to find out what's happening.

"It's the same when we pick the grapes," he adds. "Our mouth tells us when it's time. When we blend the wine, it's tasting that tells us, not lab results." Tesseron uses only indigenous yeasts for the slow fermentation process, and prefers a long, gentle extraction to get the highest-quality tannins possible.

"We are here to serve the wine, no matter what the hour or the difficulty," says Tesseron. "Our workers will stay here till past midnight if necessary. This is the best way, not only to make great wine, but, even more importantly, to continually improve the quality."

He concludes, "I believe we are on the right track."

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