Pontallier hails Plaisir de Merle’s special wine growing sites

Tuesday, 21 December, 2004
Paul Pontallier, managing director of Château Margaux, is unequivocal in his preference for food-friendly, approachable wines over blockbuster show-stoppers.
“The success of a wine is in the pleasure it gives at the table. If it is not good to drink, its awards are irrelevant. There are also so many prize-winning wines without staying power. They collapse after a few years, lacking the longevity you expect from a wine of stature. For me a good wine is one that quite simply you can enjoy, and it most certainly should not produce palate fatigue after a single glass.” Château Margaux, dating back to the 12th century, is to all who know of this Bordeaux First Growth, synonymous with the highest quality standards in wine internationally. Pontallier, who is credited with having re-invented this famous French estate after its fortunes had dipped, is hailed as a luminary among winemakers. The wines produced under the illustrious label of Château Margaux fetch stratospheric prices and are coveted by serious collectors worldwide, as are the wines he produces in a joint venture in Chile. He also consults to Plaisir de Merle and has been doing so since its establishment as an estate in 1990. He played a central role in the redevelopment of its mostly dryland vineyards and mentored its sole winemaker Niel Bester, who worked with him in Bordeaux before becoming winemaker of this estate in Simondium in 1993. Pontallier is in South Africa to assess progress on the farm and to evaluate the young wines scheduled for bottling in the future. He highlights what he calls the “very special viticultural conditions” of the estate, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon. Its east and south-eastern facing vineyards are shielded from the summer afternoon sun. The vines grow in well-drained red soils of decomposed granite across a range of altitudes from 250 m to 450 m above sea level and he says they produce wines of rich intensity and concentrated varietal flavour with a nevertheless soft texture and enduring structure. No wonder then that this grape dominates the estate, accounting for well over half the total plantings of 120 ha dedicated to Plaisir de Merle. It is destined not only for a varietal wine, but also for the winery’s flagship, the Cabernet Sauvignon-led Grand Plaisir. Despite the aversion for show-designed wines, Plaisir de Merle continues to win awards. Its most recent international coup was the South Africa Prix du Jury award in the 2004 Sélections Mondiales des Vins for the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the highest honour accorded in the Montreal-based bi-ennial event, that this year drew 2 100 entries from all over the world. While other wineries are selling more recent vintage reds, Bester remains focused on producing and maturing wines that have a capacity to age with consummate grace. The current Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2001, has not even begun to approach its peak, according to this Pontallier protégé. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Petit Verdot, the Grand Plaisir that is now in circulation is a 2002 vintage wine, as are the highly respected Shiraz and Merlot. Bester applies an artisanal, low-impact approach, learned from Pontallier that seeks to make reds with a lifespan of 10 years at the very least. With the accent on technique rather than technology, he imparts his own classical, distinctive wine style that favours muted oaking and complex, well integrated and accessible flavours. His whites too, are elegant, attractive wines that draw praise. The Sauvignon Blanc is strikingly aromatic with fresh green flavours, while creamy wood cloaks the ripe but restrained fruit of the Chardonnay. Bester takes first pick of the 400 ha of vines on this vast and varied 975 ha farm that exhibits a range of soil types, imparting different characters to the vines it hosts. Altitudes across the farm span 140 m to 500 m above sea level, creating a variety of meso-climatic conditions and terroir. Vineyards are fed by mountain streams that prevent undue water stress in the summer months to deliver very pronounced varietal flavours. Pontallier continues to be impressed by the continuing huge strides in South African viticulture. When he first visited the country about 15 years ago, he found wines quite out of synch with their place of origin. “My experience then was of wines forced into a certain style rather than made to express their terroir. Today it is evident that there exists a far closer understanding of viticultural sites and their potential. “Better matching of varietal with terroir and striving to achieve an ideal balance between the soil and the vine have translated into better wines.” He is also heartened by South Africa’s focus on sustainable wine growing that seeks to produce wines in harmony with the environment and that protects indigenous vegetation and eco-systems, wherever possible. “Perhaps the biodynamic approach goes too far. It is applied almost as a religion, whereas we should be less emotional and more factual in our attitude to viticulture but it does draw the wider public’s attention to the need to respect the land of which we can never be the owners. We can be no more than custodians for future generations.” Some 120 ha of indigenous fynbos is maintained on Plaisir de Merle. Elsewhere on this prime-wine growing terrain, advances continue in vineyard management and in experimentation with new varietals. At the same time, investment in small 300-litre and 225-litre barrels, mostly from France, Hungary and America, has extended Bester’s scope for micro-vinification and experimentation. He hopes to introduce small-edition varietal wines from cultivars currently used for blending purposes and Pontallier remains a critical palate, ready to provide his expertise in fashioning wines that speak with elegance but complexity and always of place. QUERIES LIZE-MARIÈ LUIS, BRAND MANAGER, PLAISIR DE MERLE, (021) 809 7000/082 452 8208 TESSA DE KOCK/PIPPA PRINGLE, DE KOCK COMMUNICATIONS, (021) 422 2690