High-profile chateau's second wine fails to make the grade
A mini scandal has had Bordeaux buzzing recently, as one of the most high-profile chateaux in the region has seen its wine fail an important test.
Hauts de Pontet-Canet, the second wine of Chateau Pontet-Canet, has for the first time failed its AOC Pauillac assessment, and will see its 2012 wine bottled under the label Vin de France.
In theory that means that it passes from being a prestigious Medoc wine to a humble table wine. Does anyone care? Pontet-Canet will certainly be hoping not. Its owner Melanie Tesseron says that - although she is "astonished" at the decision - it has not hurt sales and it is fast becoming a collector's item.
Various merchants agree that the brand is strong enough to ride out the hiccup. But is there a bigger warning for the chateau?
Pontet-Canet has seen something of a meteoric rise in recent years. With vines directly opposite those of 1st growth Mouton Rothschild, it was long a solid but unremarkable 5th growth in the 1855 ranking system that governs the Medoc. It converted to biodynamic farming in 2005 and has been officially certified since 2010 - the only classified growth in the Medoc to date to have received the official biodynamic stamp. This has coincided with a rise in critical acclaim, with the wines regularly equalling or bettering the big names of its appellation in points and prices.
The owners Alfred Tesseron and his niece Melanie (who has just spent a few years living in Hong Kong) are fanatical about quality and deeply proud of their superb terroir. The biggest sign of their confidence is that, while many chateaux in Bordeaux are reducing the quantity of main (first) wine produced at their estates, Pontet has gone the other way, routinely bottling around 90 per cent of production under its main label.
Does this focus on the first wine have anything to do with the second wine failing its taste test? And what does it mean to fail your AOC?
Every wine looking for AOC certification has to be submitted to a tasting organised by an independent body. All samples are blind and the results depend on a simple majority agreement by the panel. Wines are checked across a number of criteria - for faults such as volatile acidity or bacterial spoilage, but also the more difficult to define idea of non-conformity or being atypical of the appellation.
Minor faults simply result in a warning while major faults have to be followed up. Producers can appeal and even if they are not successful have the right to pass into Vins de France category. This means that Hauts de Pontet-Canet fell into the "major" but not "critical" category and so was allowed to go on sale as a Vins de France.
Plenty of commentators have questioned what effect the chateau's biodynamic farming in a difficult vintage might have had. And whether their reducing the use of oak barrels over recent years (experimenting with clay amphoras for ageing in a part of the production) might also have made it taste less typical of the classically structured, fairly tannic wines of Pauillac.
The tiny proportion of the harvest ending up in the second wine can not have helped either, as all the "best" plots are put into Pontet-Canet itself. Melanie Tesseron sent me a bottle of the second wine this week, and it tasted pretty atypical. Higher levels of volatile acidity than I would expect, even if not overtly faulty, and it was lighter and fresher than a typical Pauillac.
It probably doesn't matter; I am sure Melanie is right - it will sell out no matter what it says on the label. But the tasting has rather restored my faith in the AOC system, against all my expectations. I also have no doubt that it would have been unnoticeable if a few more of the stronger plots had been put into Hauts de Pontet instead of Pontet-Canet.
The chateau has said that it intends one day to get rid of its second wine, as the vineyard continues to reap the benefits of biodynamic farming and its vines become stronger and more expressive. That makes sense to me - but this result shows that, in the meantime, it might just need a helping hand.
Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine and travel writer