Pontallier arrived at the château in 1983 just in time for one of the estate’s finest vintages of the 20th century. As estate owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos recalled at the service, Pontallier was just 27 year old but was certain that he had what it took to lead the estate to glory. Mentzelopoulos was just 30. Together the two worked to bring Château Margaux up to the level of the other First Growths, and the mutual respect that they held for each other bore no trace of an owner-employee relationship.
Born in Bordeaux, Pontallier worked for 18 months teaching winemaking in Santiago, Chile, before joining Margaux. His love for that country continued throughout his life, and he remained connected through Viña Aquitania, his Chilean wine venture with partners Bruno Prats, Felipe de Solminihac and Ghislain de Montgolfier.
When Pontallier arrived at Château Margaux, Bordeaux was emerging out of a decade-long slumber. André Mentzelopoulos had purchased Chateau Margaux three years earlier and there was much work to be done, replanting, renovating the cellars, installing new equipment and identifying the differences in the varying soils and parcels. For the first seven years Pontallier worked alongside Philippe Barré, taking over as managing director in 1990. Later Pontallier would become one of the most innovative of the First Growth directors, implementing studies on oak, on bottle closures, on organic viticulture and, as one of his last great projects, overseeing construction of a new chai for both red and white winemaking designed by Sir Norman Foster.
Pontallier was not only a technician but, as the fine wine market grew, he became one of the most effective and passionate ambassadors for Margaux—and for great wine—travelling tirelessly around the world. One of his favorite lines was “a good wine gives pleasure but a great wine gives emotion.”
If one can sum up the style of Château Margaux it is one of elegance, harmony and finesse. These are exactly the adjectives that I would use to sum up Pontallier but I would also add passion and enthusiasm. His very British accent when he spoke English would come through in adjectives such as “splendid” and “tremendous” to describe his wines, his bright blue eyes twinkling as he extolled the qualities of the latest vintage.
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photo of Paul Pontallier courtesy of Chateau Margaux’s website
In addition to writing about wine, Master of Wine Fiona Morrison manages the Thienpont family’s négociant business in Etikhove, Belgium and, with her husband, Jacques, manages their three Bordeaux estates—Le Pin in Pomerol, L’If in St-Emilion and L’Hêtre in Castillon.
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