Punching Above Its Weight Class: Chateau Pontet Canet

Technically, Pontet Canet is a “mere” cinquième cru, a chateau placed in the lowly fifth rank of the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines – but you’d never know that from the way the wines taste. From the powerhouse Pauillac commune, Pontet Canet fully delivers the appellation’s characteristic force, combined with great elegance and a fine ability to age gracefully and long.

A Muhammad Ali listed among lightweights, this is an estate that indeed punches above its supposed class. A few weeks ago, Diane and I belatedly celebrated her birthday with a dinner bottle of Pontet Canet 1997, a 21-year-old from what is usually regarded as at best a middling year in Bordeaux.

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Well, there was nothing middling about this bottle: big wafts of wood smoke, prunes, and dried flowers in the aroma; velvety and balanced in the mouth, redolent of dried red fruits and underbrush, with a long, smooth finish, almost a slow glide into silence. Our cheese course brought up in it waves of fresh fruit sweetness, black, plummy fruit sweetness. It was simply lovely, and as we experienced it, we couldn’t imagine any way it could have been better without being a different wine entirely. That, I think, is all you can ask of any wine.

Pontet Canet stands apart from most other Médoc châteaux in two non-trivial respects. In its long history, it has had only three owners, and its cellars are underground. The latter is a true rarity in Bordeaux, and I do think it makes – or maybe more accurately in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning, it made – a difference in the wine.
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The estate was founded in 1725 by Jean-Francois de Pontet, an important figure in Bordeaux. In 1852 Pontet Canet was sold to the Cruse family, major Bordeaux négociants, who owned it until 1975 when it was bought by the Tesseron family, who have spent many years and francs and euros steadily improving the property and its wines. As Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (the unofficial bible of Bordeaux) puts it, “At present, better than its classification…. In the 1855 classification, it was listed top of the fifth growths, but today the wine sells like a top second growth.”

Pontet Canet is a large estate, even by Médoc standards. It has 80 hectares in vines: that’s about 200 acres. They are planted 60% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% to Merlot, 5% to Cabernet franc, and a token 1% to Petit Verdot. Except for the tiny amount of Petit Verdot, that’s pretty much a standard Bordeaux blend.

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I have very pleasant memories of a visit to Pontet Canet not very many years after its acquisition by the Tesserons. After a dusty, warm tour of the vineyards and a tasting of recent vintages, we adjourned to the comfortably cool cellar where genial Alfred Tesseron presided over a very enjoyable dinner accompanied by several older vintages of Pontet Canet, each showing a different stage of the maturation of classic Pauillac, and each demonstrating the elegance he prized so highly in the wine.

He ended the meal with a little bit of Bordeaux theatre: An unidentified wine was served from decanter, and it really capped the evening. Headily fragrant and deeply flavorful, it was different from Pontet Canet yet similar to it in style, intriguing all of us. It turned out to be a 1945 Lafon Rochet, the fourth growth St. Estèphe estate the Tesserons had acquired at the same time as Pontet Canet. Alfred Tesseron’s point was to show us that the rankings really, finally meant very little: Almost every patch of the Médoc, he thought, was capable of greatness when it was treated properly. He made his point very well, and the lesson has stayed with me all these years.

Good as Pontet Canet already was in those years, it has been growing steadily better, and has now embarked on the whole biodynamic enterprise, one of the few major Bordeaux estates to undertake what some growers consider a very risky gamble. On the basis of too few tastings of recent Pontet Canet vintages, my palate says it’s working. The wines I’ve tasted have been pleasing and accessible, but still seem to have the structure to age as well as the vintages of the past. Given the care with which the Tesserons have managed Pontet Canet, I would expect no less.

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