Paul Pontallier 1956 -2016. A true great of the Wine Industry


All of us involved with the wines of Bordeaux over the last 33 years have most definitely been knocked by the very sad news of the death of Ch Margaux’s Wine Director, Paul Pontallier, yesterday morning after a brave fight against cancer.

To classify somebody as a genius or even simply a great in their own field of work is an accolade that can only be bestowed on a few and with real care. In my mind, there is no doubt Paul Pontallier fully justifies such acclaim. He was undoubtedly one of the most influential winemakers of his generation, responsible for making some of the greatest red wines each and every vintage during his 33 year tenure at Ch Margaux.

Tom Stopford Sackville and Paul Pontallier at Chateau Margaux during last year's En Primeur tastings
Paul Pontallier and Tom Stopford Sackville at Chateau Margaux during last year’s En Primeur tastings

Something I have noticed during my 23 years as a wine buyer is that the greatest wine makers are not only the most humblest of people, but they are also extraordinarily generous with their time and in sharing their knowledge. Paul embodied these characteristics to a maximum. He had an amazing ability to make you feel totally on the same level as him, despite his unique knowledge. He listened and valued everybody’s opinion, but most importantly he shared his unstintingly. An hour with Paul Pontallier was a masterclass and some… and I will remain forever grateful for the many words of wisdom he passed on to me with such charm and enthusiasm.

It was this enthusiasm that always caused a smile amongst tasters during our annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux tasting the newest vintage en primeur. Paul just couldn’t contain himself with his excitement for the new baby and so it was that, whatever the year, great or average or even sometimes poor, it would always be “possibly the finest Ch Margaux I have ever made…”

But boy did he make some extraordinary wines. His first vintage in complete charge as wine director was 1990 and at our recent Charity Wine dinner at the Savoy tasting the 1990 vintage it is only fitting that the sensational 1990 Ch Margaux was unquestionably my wine of the night. If I could only have taken one bottle home with me that evening, it would definitely have been this absolute beauty.

My tasting note in homage was “For sheer pleasure and hedonism look no further, this glorious wine is an absolute beauty and leaves you in no doubt about the rewards and delights of great Margaux. Bright crimson colour, this is full of pure red fruits and lively fresh cherries. The focus here is all about fruit and grace. A total and utter charmer, so giving, harmonious and fine. The final sensation is one of fruit which simply says “Drink me”. At its very peak and don’t miss at this stage in its glorious life. 19.5/20″

There are so many other truly great wines that have the touch of Paul Pontallier. 1996 Ch Margaux would most definitely be in my desert island basket; a wine which for me is testament to so many things, Paul’s amazing skills, the uniqueness of the extraordinary flavours from the finest Bordeauxs, justification of the 1855 classification system and Ch Margaux’s rightful position as a 1st growth estate and what all great wines should have, balance, excitement, pleasure and most of all longevity. This is a wine we will all be able to drink for many years to come and raise our eyes upwards and thank him for providing us with such a pleasure. The 2005 Ch Margaux is surely one of the wines of the vintage, at our annual blind tasting at Southwold, back in 2009 it came out as the wine of the vintage and the 2009 vintage itself is one of my absolute favourites. So many memories for so many years to come.


Next week as we head off to taste the 2015 Bordeaux vintage en primeur, Paul’s last. It will be a sad occasion as we enter the doors of Ch Margaux, but hopefully also a happy one as we look back on so many wonderful memories for a fine, kind and courageous man.