One Man, Two Paths: Q&A with Alfred Tesseron
The director of both a Bordeaux and Cognac house—a rarity—Tesseron recalls the tense early days of his dual roles, the rise of biodynamics and tractors versus horses.
Alfred Tesseron is a rarity in that he is the only person who owns and directs both a classified growth Bordeaux chateau, Pontet-Canet, and a spirits house, Cognac Tesseron. Over the past 15 years, he has moved out of the shadow of his late father, Guy, in making both properties critically and financially successful—Pontet-Canet now earns ratings almost on a par with its three first-growth Pauillac neighbors, and Cognac Tesseron is known for its high-end brandies. Having enjoyed the hospitality of Tesseron on prior visits to Pontet-Canet, we sat down with him recently in the offices of New York wine retailer Sherry-Lehmann to discuss how his paths to success differ from those of his peers.
Wine Enthusiast: How did your family come to own both Cognac Tesseron and Château Pontet-Canet?
Alfred Tesseron: In 1975, Pontet-Canet came up for sale. My father had the idea of buying it because our Cognac business was doing well. But, when he bought it, the Cognac business went down. Of course, the reason he was able to buy Pontet-Canet was because the wine business was down, too! For many years we had problems because we didn’t have any money. So I was learning the business and trying to help my father, but also coming from a generation where I had my idea, and he had his idea. He was a strong man, so it was complicated—but interesting.
WE: When and how did you begin to turn things around at Pontet-Canet?
AT: When you don’t have money, you think more. At the time, I was taking care of the vineyards and doing things my father did not see—until he caught me in 1994. I did not tell him I was doing green harvest, which was a new thing in the Médoc. I had brought in a young man to help me to bring the quality up, Jean-Michel Commes. When my father found out during the summer I was cutting grapes, I almost lost my job.
WE: But you didn’t.
AT: The 1994 got good recognition, and he said, “You continue to do your thing, I do mine.”
WE: Your pricing is generally less than other chateaus with similar ratings. Why is that?
AT: For me, the answer is given by the market. When I make a price, I think of all the different hands that carry my wines—they all have to make money. If I’m too greedy, it doesn’t work.
WE: Pontet-Canet is biodynamic, one of the few in Bordeaux. How did that happen?
AT: In Paulliac, there are three first growths. I’m sure there’s something there [in the terroir] —it didn’t happen just like this. Jean- Michel Commes has a vineyard in Ste. Foy, and I was impressed with what he had done there with biodynamie. He said we should think about it. At the time, I had just lost my father, and we had taxes to pay. I say, we cannot be wrong. He took two parcels of Merlot, which is our most difficult variety, for the vintage of 2004. I won’t say that it changed the whole picture at Pontet-Canet, but it changed what I knew from the parcels. After we did the harvest, and I tasted those wines, I said to Jean-Michel, “Why don’t we do it all?”
WE: You’ve gotten a lot of publicity about gradually changing from tractors to horses.
AT: We have narrow vines, and the tractor wheels are always on the same places, so it compacts the soil. And the tractors have become heavier and heavier. So one day I said to Jean-Michel, what about a horse? And he said, “Coming from you, I’m surprised!”