Wine: A Vertical Tasting of Chateau Pontet-Canet

Chateau Pontet-Canet is one of the better known classed growth properties of Bordeaux’s Medoc region because of its noted surge in quality over the last several years.  When the best Medoc producers were classified into 5 bands in 1855 (a bit like Chambers & Partners – which may mean something to you if you are a lawyer), Pontet-Canet was given (and still has) “5th Growth” status.  That sounds a bit disparaging but frankly to be within the 1855 Classification at all is an achievement since only a small percentage of Medoc wines are included.

It is old news that Pontet-Canet has successfully risen well above its station.  These days the general consensus is that it holds its own amongst the “super seconds” – those chateaux of “2nd Growth” status that rival the elite 1st Growths (of which there are only 5).  Certainly the price reflects it.  A bottle of 2009 Pontet-Canet will set you back £175 (or almost certainly not “you”, gentle reader, unless I have suddenly developed a following amongst Chinese billionaires).  Less exhalted vintages are better value, relatively, with the 2004 at a less stratospheric £50 or so.

This is an encouraging example of a producer simply sucking it up and making the best wine they can, and being rewarded by the market (a lesson that Baron Philippe de Rothschild might have been encouraged to learn.  He carried on like a whiney little bitch for most of the 20th century on account of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild only being granted 2nd Growth status.  Finally Jacques Chirac said “enough already” and promoted Mouton to 1st Growth status in 1973 – the only time a ranking has ever been changed).

There is a temptation to view Pontet-Canet’s past through the lens of its current success.  We hear all this “100 points” business and are content to allow older vintages to bask in such reflected glory.  I think that is a mistake.  We talk of Mozart’s best work being his operas but what we basically mean is Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro – two of his last.  Who’s ever heard of, let alone seen, The Pretend Garden Maid, or The Goose of Cairo?  So too, older vintages of Pontet-Canet shouldn’t be assumed to be showstoppers.

It was perhaps not realising this that I attended a vertical tasting of Pontet-Canet at the Oxford and Cambridge Club last Tuesday – thankfully uninterrupted by bearded anti-elitism protesters (although if anything this event was a more obvious candidate for it than the Boat Race).  The vintages tasted were 2008, 2007, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2000, and 1996.  Note the absence of 2005, 2009 and 2010, the three vintages that have most cemented Pontet-Canet’s stellar reputation in recent times.  I had sort of expected that the wines would be beyond criticism and a bit disappointed to find out they weren’t.  Let us be clear – these are all fine clarets and I would be frankly proud to have them in my collection and delighted to drink any of them with a meal, but under the more severe conditions of a tasting/lecture one can’t help but draw comparisons and even find fault at times.

I was lucky to be seated two down from Alex Hunt MW who made the germane observation (which I will now steal) that the wines really do disclose a story of evolution over the last 16 years.  1996 and 2000 were both great years in general but the examples from Pontet-Canet were a bit hard and austere.  Enter Michel Rolland as a consultant (say what you will), and (whether causally related or not) the wines from the 2002-2007 were all fleshier, stylish, and good performers given the vintage conditions.  The 2008 seems to be a step up again and is rich and succulent in style.  If these characteristics are correspondingly better in the great vintages of 2005, 2009 and 2010 I would fully expect the wines to be of “super second” quality.  As it was though, as a set of wines poured on that occasion, I would not say they were of borderline first-growth quality (which would be to say that these wines were virtually as good as wine gets).

My favourite of the evening was the 2004, which for me was the most complete and polished wine.  This was followed by, in order, 2008, 2003, 2002, 1996, 2000, 2007.  Note that this does not correspond with what one would necessarily expect given the repute of each vintage in general terms.  For that reason I would be interested if the opportunity ever arises to try Pontet-Canet in a horizontal tasting.  For what they are worth, here are my notes.

1996 Chateau Pontet-Canet

Classic cabernet nose of blackcurrant and cedarwood.  Some developed chewy liquorice character beginning to show but finishing quite austere.

2000 Chateau Pontet-Canet

Pronounced wood ash on the nose.  Toasty.  Angular and drying.

2002 Chateau Pontet-Canet

An excellent wine for what is not known as a good vintage – considerable freshness, finishes clean.  Balanced fruit – not overripe, not underripe.

2003 Chateau Pontet-Canet

Does not conform to the vintage cliché of being “baked”.  The fruit is certainly on the ripe, plummy side but it doesn’t taste sweet or jammy.  Decent fresh acid finish.

2004 Chateau Pontet-Canet

Complete and well balanced.  Well knit fruit and oak.  Classic, although not yet ready to drink by any means.  Still quite closed.

2007 Chateau Pontet-Canet

Greenness on both the nose and the finish.  A “bell curve” structure – the palate is commendably supple and round, perhaps relying on oak to do so, but the opening and ending are both thin.

2008 Chateau Pontet-Canet

A much more robust, succulent style.  Vigorous fruit. Show stopper style. Will be interesting to see what this is like when it’s of a drinkable age.

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