Paul Pontallier, director of Bordeaux’s famous Château Margaux, passed away on Monday, March 28 at the age of 59, after a long battle with cancer.
Pontallier was born in Bordeaux on April 22 1956. Having being raised to learn and love wine—his family owned vines in Entre-deux-Mers—he studied oenology at Bordeaux University under the legendary Emile Peynaud, where he wrote a thesis on how red wine ages in barrel. After earning his degree, Pontallier accepted his first and only job at the First Growth Estate Château Margaux in 1983. The 2015 vintage was his 32nd.
I first met Pontallier in 1991 at the Groucho Club in London, a journalist’s haunt. It was a year after his appointment as director. I remember that he was impeccably dressed, with a tweed jacket, tie and perfectly pressed pants—a stylish professionalism that never changed in all his years as director.
“He was a true gentleman,” said Chris Adams, CEO of New York City wine merchant Sherry-Lehmann. “And he inherently understood that the ‘business’ of Margaux was centered on the relationships built through time, and he clearly cherished this aspect of his work. I will miss him immensely.”
Whenever I visited Château Margaux, I sincerely looked forward to talking with Pontallier about his view of the vintage. If it was a great vintage, his excitement instantly showed. When we discussed the 2010 vintage, for example, he said enthusiastically that it was “so rare and so special.”
Despite his outward traditionalism, Pontallier made important changes at Margaux, working fruitfully with owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos. He had moved towards biodynamic viticulture for some of the best vineyards at the estate. He was also among the first in Bordeaux to work on anti-counterfeiting measures as well as the first to set aside bottles with different closures to see their effects on wine aging.
Pontallier was also responsible for developing Château Margaux’s white wine program until he was making a wine that he described as nearly a Grand Vin. He was curious and willing to experiment, yet his caution came from the knowledge that he was indeed the guardian of a great estate.