The loss of a good friend turns James Suckling’s thoughts to a sea change in winemaking
hen a long-time friend of mine died of cancer in March, Château Margaux’s Paul Pontallier, it got me to thinking how much the wine world has changed in the three decades or so since I started out as a wine critic. The death of the famous Bordeaux first growth’s managing director reminded me of just how important winemakers are to the great wines we drink today. It wasn’t always like that. In fact, the most important figure for most wineries until the 1980s was the owner. Until then, most winemakers were simply cellar masters or technicians and had no formal training or education in oenology.
I met Paul in 1983 when I first visited Bordeaux as a young wine writer. He was always a man of elegance, dignity and intelligence. He also had a subtle sense of humour and remained open and inquisitive throughout his life. His professionalism was unparalleled in Bordeaux, and he embodied the racy and refined character of the great reds of Margaux. He made some of the greatest wines of my generation at Margaux, including 1986, 1989, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015. So many were perfect. His last wine, the 2015, may be his greatest.
I remember just about every year tasting the recent vintages of Margaux, and Paul was the definitive word on the wine. He picked the grapes. He made the wine. He bottled the wine. And he watched the wine grow like he watched his own children grow (Guillaume, Thibault, Alice and Antoine). Thibault is well known in wine circles in China as he lives part of the year in Hong Kong and works for Margaux.
The story of Paul’s life illustrates how important the winemaker has become to the product, perhaps even more important than the owner. Of course, a winery’s owner dictates the success of a winery or vineyard through various decisions, particularly financial ones, but it is the winemaker or technical director who makes the reputation of the wine through the quality of his or her work and management of the winery.
When Paul arrived on the scene in Bordeaux in 1983, very few top winemakers with university degrees worked full-time for wineries. It was the same around the world. I remember visiting one in Bordeaux’s Medoc region and the cellar master had never been to Saint-émilion in his life. He wore a beret and a blue apron each day to work and was happy not to stray too far from the cellars.
Yet university-trained winemakers such as Paul began to establish themselves as the creators of great wines. They were scientists with a passion for making high-quality wines. This also gave rise to winemaking gurus and consultants, including such personalities as Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland and California’s Helen Turley—but that’s another column.
Few could disagree that the rise of the winemaker since the 1980s has produced great wines. People like Paul better understood the intricacies of viticulture and oenology, enabling them to produce high-quality wines regularly, especially compared to their predecessors. Until the 1980s, it was difficult to have a good vintage in Bordeaux more than three or four times in a decade. That all changed in the 1980s, with outstanding wines made in just about every vintage.
The fact that I taste so many outstanding wines a year underlines this. I tasted about 9,000 last year and the majority were of outstanding quality—90 points or more. And most were reasonably priced, highlighting how it’s never been a better time to be a wine consumer. I greatly miss Paul, who was only 59. But his spirit as a great winemaker lives on, his life’s work setting a precedent for generations of wine lovers to come.