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Pontet-Canet has always been a legendary Médoc. It is deep ruby-red, crimson, and sometimes almost black colour and has a characteristic bouquet of black fruit (especially blackcurrant), liquorice, and prune as well as fig, cedar, and sometimes cocoa overtones. Pontet-Canet combines power and elegance, as well as concentration and fullness on the palate. Rather sinewy in style, Pontet-Canet is clearly a classical wine with a tannic structure that provides excellent ageing potential. The château team is conscious of the fact that they are following in the footsteps of more than three centuries of tradition, with each period contributing its technical innovations in the interest of quality and in order faithfully to reflect the terroir. Château Pontet-Canet and the estate's second wine, Hauts de Pontet-Canet, are sold exclusively via the Bordeaux wine trade.
Of the 120 hectares (300 acres) estate of Pontet-Canet located in the northern end of the Pauillac commune, across the road from first growth Château Mouton Rothschild, 80 ha (200 acres) are under vine. The soil composition is mainly gravel over a subsoil of clay and limestone. The grape variety distribution is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. Vines average 35 years of age.
Pontet-Canet has one of the largest productions of any classified growth in the Medoc with a production of nearly 20,000 cases of its grand-vin, and another 20,000 cases of its second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet. Harvesting is done by hand, and after sorting the grapes are moved into the estate's gravity-feed cellars for crushing. Fermentation takes place in a mixture of concrete and stainless steel vats. Wines are aged for 16-20 months in up to 60% new oak barrels before fining with egg whites and bottling.
The 1982 vintage in Bordeaux changed the wine world as well as changed my life. It was the first vintage I tasted from barrel as a young wine writer working for the American magazine The Wine Spectator, and I was amazed how gorgeous the quality of a young red could be from barrel.
I remember the first barrel samples I tasted during the summer of 1983 at Chateau Prieure-Lichine with the late wine author and vintner Alexis Lichine. The wines were so fruity with soft and rich tannins. They seemed too drinkable for a young wine, yet Lichine who had over forty years of experience tasting young wines told me the wines were “exceptional” and “some of the greatest young wines ever produced.”
He had invited some of his winemaking pals from the Medoc to a lunch at his chateau following the tasting. And he kept telling them, which included such names as Bruno Prats (then Cos d’Estournel), Anthony Barton (Leoville-Barton) and Jean-Eugene Borie (Ducru-Beaucaillou) that young writers like myself were the future of the region and that they had to make me understand that 1982 was a great year. He was upset that the New York Times and some other magazines had come out saying that the new vintage was not outstanding do to it seemingly early drinkability.
It was also a time an American lawyer in his mid-30s began writing full time on wine, creating a newsletter called The Wine Advocate. Many say Robert Parker built his career on advocating the greatness of Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage, although he obviously did much more.
More importantly, 1982 vintage marked a big change in the way Bordeaux was produced. It underlined fruit and ripe tannins in reds as well as a slightly higher level of alcohol and lower, or less strong acidity – higher pH. This is what gave the wines such wonderful texture, or drinkability in their youth.
It was a big change from most vintages before 1982 that produced hard and tannic wines that needed years, even decades to soften. The 1982 vintage became a model vintage for red Bordeaux in the future, and arguably for the wine world at large. Think of all the fruit-forward reds that are produced today in the world – for better or for worse. Alcohols are at least two, sometimes three or four degrees higher. Tannins are stronger yet riper. And natural acidities are lower. Chapitalization – adding sugar to the fermenting grape must to increase alcohol – seems a thing of the past.
“Young wines are so drinkable now,” said Alexander Thienpont, the winemaker of Pomerol’s Vieux-Chateau-Certan and Le Pin. The latter made its reputation on early drinkability. “It’s what people expect in a modern wine today.”
I believe some of the change with the 1982 was due to the “California” like growing conditions the Bordelias spoke of at the time. The summer was extremely hot and sunny. The harvest was warm and mostly clear of precipitation. Grape yields were high with many of the best wine properties making more wine per hectare than set by French authorities. In fact, the late Jean Pierre Moueix of Chateau Petrus always told me that the 1982 vintage would have been at the same level as the 1945 or 1949 vintage if yields had been lower.
Yet, the experience of the growing season and harvest in 1982 made a whole new generation of winemakers in the region understand the importance of picking grapes later and riper. They understood early on when wine critics such as Parker and myself as well as members of the US wine trade enthused so much about the 1982 reds from barrel. This also was the beginning of the popularization of barrel scores used to purchase wines.
The US market was the biggest market to buy top notch Bordeaux with the 1982 vintage. It began a decade of intense buying of Bordeaux in the states with consumers buying first growth and second growth as well as Pomerols and St. Emilion. Americans regaled in the wine’s juiciness and beauty. They also made a shit load of money if they held on to the wines in sold them later. For example, most of the first growths sold for about $40 a bottle in 1983 as futures and some are now as much as $3,500 a bottle. Prices for 1982 are down slightly now, but the price appreciation over 30 years is impressive after 30 years.
So is the quality of the wines still for the most part. I am lucky enough to drink top 1982 on a regular basis, and the best ones never cease to amaze me with their generous and complex fruit and polished, ripe tannins. Bottle variation can be a problem because many of the top names have been bought and sold and stored all over the world, but on a whole it is a treat to drink a great 1982. And the vintage always reminds me of my beginnings in the wine world
James Suckling has been writing about and tasting wine for over 30 years. He worked for 28 years as a senior editor of the American wine magazine The WIne Spectator, and in July 2010 he left to start his own website www. jamessuckling.com and wine events company. He also is wine editor of the Asia Tatler group with luxury magazines through the region including Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia. His specialty is Italy and Bordeaux, but he enjoys tasting and discovering wines from all over the world. His most recent great wine adventure was tasting 57 vintages of Chateau Petrus in the Hamptons, but he also just enjoyed sharing great Barolos from Bruno Giacosa, Roberto Vorezio, and Giacomo Conterno with wine lovers in Seoul.
by James Sucking