As the owner of the well-respected Château Pontet-Canet, Alfred Tesseron has been around the block. I sat down with him here at my office today to talk about his latest efforts at the Pauillac property.
Tesseron's father bought the estate in 1975, when the economics of winemaking in Bordeaux were deeply troubled. With family ties in the Cognac region, Pontet-Canet was doubly pressed when Cognac fell on hard times as well, limiting Tesseron’s ability to invest in the estate right away.
“I was living in the U.S. in the 70s and when my father bought the estate, I returned home to manage it for him,” said Tesseron, who at 63 now has wisps of grey hair, steely blue eyes and a lightly weathered face that drips distinction. “It suffered first from my non-knowledge of running a wine estate and then second from the crisis in Cognac.”
Now, after 30-plus years at the helm of Pontet-Canet, Tesseron is raising eyebrows with his conversion to biodynamic farming, which he began with 18 hectares in 2004 and then eventually the whole 81-hectare estate by 2007. It was in 2007, just as he had gone all in, that Tesseron’s faith in the system, which eschews chemical treatments and relies more on a belief in the lunar calendar, among other things, was tested for the first time. And Tesseron blinked.
“In 2007, we had issues with humidity, and I didn’t have the [courage] to stay with it,” said Tesseron, who chose a word other than courage to describe his lack of courage. “I sprayed hard for a week and a half [to defend against rot] because I got nervous.” (Check out this video for more on Tesseron's biodynamic approach.)
The estate, which produces around 25,000 cases annually, has always been a solid producer, though in recent years quality has taken a decidedly upward turn, including a classic-rated 2005 and a potentially classic 2009 (those ratings from my former colleague James Suckling). It’s been a long road to reach those heights though.
“When you have no money, you learn to work harder,” said Tesseron, referring back to his early days at the property. “And you learn to focus on the one, single most important thing. In this case, that was the vineyard, rather than the winery. Now, after 30 years, it shows the benefits more and more of that work.”
That work comprises both the institution of new ideas—green harvesting for instance in the 1980s and 1990s—as well as a willingness to change, even if it meant going back on your own ideas. “We were one of the first properties to do green harvesting, and now we are one of the first to stop,” said Tesseron.
Why stop green harvesting, a technique generally considered beneficial, as it reduces the number of clusters each vine is required to ripen, resulting in more concentrated fruit?
“Because it is not natural,” said Tesseron flatly. “When you trim your nails, or cut your hair, they grow back. And if you do them more frequently, they grow back faster. Nature always compensates and the vine is the same. If you keep cutting bunches and shoots in the middle of the growing season, they just want to grow back faster. Now, since we stopped, we let the vine do what it wants, and the yields are naturally in balance at around 40 hectoliters per hectare. And we no longer see second generation grapes at the end of the season,” he said, referring to a vines’ propensity to produce a second, late crop that typically doesn’t ripen fully.
“It took me years to realize what to do at Pontet-Canet. Maybe too long,” he added with a hint of a sigh.
“But it’s not about being 'green,'” said Tesseron, debunking the usual explanation for converting to biodynamics. “I have a big car. I fly in planes. There are lots of things I do 'wrong.' I didn’t make this change because it looks pretty to be photographed with a horse in the vineyard. Biodynamics is about being close to your vineyard, to understand how it works.”
Tesseron further explained that going back to more natural farming techniques made things more difficult than he anticipated.
“The leather straps for the horse’s harness were always coming apart as the craftsmanship wasn’t there in the beginning,” he said. “And the horse’s shoes had to be changed frequently, but that expertise is not as easy to find anymore. It takes longer to work this way, instead of with a tractor, and there is always a labor shortage. Then there are French regulations. 35 hours a week doesn’t really work when you’re farming a vineyard,” said Tesseron.
But Tesseron is committed to the changes, even at this late stage in his career. He said he sees the change in the wines since he converted to biodynamics and that is what drives him.
“They have more precision,” he said. “Even in 2007, when I went against my philosophy for that week and a half, you can taste it in the wine. Perhaps not as much as ’08 or ’09, but it’s there.”
Failing the test in ’07 has seemingly made Tesseron stronger in his new found faith, as he took what he views as a mistake as an opportunity to learn once again.
“No, I won’t do that again,” he said about falling back to a non-biodynamic approach if tested again. “I will never do that again. Now I am committed. You can’t do something unless you are fully committed to it. And I think soon you will see some others make the change soon too.”