Vin­tage Legacy

The loss of a good friend turns James Suck­ling’s thoughts to a sea change in wine­mak­ing

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life Wine -

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.

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