R.I.P. Paul Pontallier, Man of Margaux
I am deeply saddened by news today of the death of Paul Pontallier, managing director of Château Margaux. He was very young, aged just 59 years.
Paul Pontallier was the face of Château Margaux for as long as I have known it. Having studied in Paris, Montpellier and Bordeaux, he took up a position at Château Margaux, working for Corinne Mentzelopoulos, in 1983. In 1990 he replaced Philippe Barré, who was set to retire, as managing director. It was a post Paul (pictured below) was to hold for more than 25 years.
My first ever visit to Bordeaux, a press trip in the depths of December as it happened, included a few hours at Château Margaux. It was, I think, the first time I had ever met Paul. He was charming and clearly deeply knowledgable about not just Margaux and its vineyard, but about all things Bordeaux. About rootstocks, terroir, varieties, canopy management and more. His mind was insightful and enquiring, evidence of which I was fortunate to experience many years later when tasting some of the wines from the Margaux Research Programme.
Paul Pontallier was, technically speaking, an employee, although to see him and Corinne Mentzelopoulos working together at Château Margaux it was clear that there was a relationship of mutual respect and trust. I recall one tasting, perhaps back in 2008 or 2009, when Paul captivated the crowd of assembled tasters with his report on the vintage and opinion of the wine, while Corinne bustled away alongside, pouring the wines. Each was completely at ease in their respective roles, even though you might have thought they had it the wrong way round. It was a joy to watch.
Many of those visits were diluted by the number of people present. During the primeurs there are always crowds of tasters at the big-name châteaux, but I soon discovered that when I visited Bordeaux alone Paul was no less open, amiable and free with both his knowledge and his time. And yet he always remained humble. I recall standing in the usual tasting room (before tastings were moved down to the orangerie because of the recent building work), just Paul and I around a bottle or two of his wine, chewing the fat regarding recent vintages. I expressed an opinion that 2010 was particularly strong in the Margaux appellation. He seemed genuinely interested, and it soon became clear why – “I wouldn’t know”, he said, “I really haven’t had the chance to taste many”. His mind and palate had been focused solely on Margaux’s grand vin.
Under Paul’s direction Château Margaux rose from the doldrums of the 1970s, when it was frequently accused of under-performing, to produce some of the finest wines this estate has ever produced. He focused more and more on the heart of the domaine, its gravelly core, and pushing quality, expressed through the finesse rather than the power of the wines, ever higher. Is it possible for one man to achieve anything more significant in wine? He leaves behind a formidable legacy, and many, many people who are very saddened by his premature departure. These include a son Thibault who also now works at Château Margaux. My condolences to Thibault and the rest of Paul’s family, and to Corinne and the team at Château Margaux.