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Chateau Margaux's New Phase: An Interview with Thibault Pontallier

Written by: Emerson Baun |  Date of Published: 6th February 2018


(L-R: Alice Wee, Executive Director of Wine Clique, Thibault Pontailler, Global Brand Ambassador of Chateau Margaux, Gaetan de Corbier, Export Manager of Veyret-Latour, and Emerson Baun, Marketing & PR Manager, Wine Clique)

Thibault Pontallier's career in Chateau Margaux started in 2010 when the Chateau offered him the job to become the brand ambassador in Asia at the age of 24. Growing up in the Chateau alongside with his father, the late Paul Pontallier, his dream as a child in representing the place where he grew up finally became a reality. Few years had passed, the chateau now celebrates the bicentenary of Chateau Margaux's exceptional architecture and produced one of their greatest vintages, 2015. Thibault, which now settles on his current role as the Global Brand Ambassador continues the legacy of his father that served as his winemaking mentor and shares the same philosophy that the best way to bring people together is a great bottle of wine. He even quoted what his father used to say: "The good wine brings you pleasure and the great wine sometimes like the great people, gives you emotion."

What were the changes happened, or developments that have gone through since the Chateau set-up an office in Hong Kong and appointed you as Asia's ambassador?

Back in the days, we don't know Asia that much, we only know Japan and probably went once or twice in Hong Kong or China and we felt that it's not quite right because we didn't know well enough our clients. The chateau decided that the best way to know our clients is to have someone based in Asia. Luckily, I just finished my business school that time and I love wine, so when Chateau Margaux offered me that great opportunity to become the Ambassador in Asia, I accepted it. My job was mainly to get to know the best importers and distributors like Wine Clique in different countries in Asia, and in the last seven years, we managed to get a lot of friends and private clients. We were also the first chateau to have someone based here full-time before it became common and I was very lucky to be the first one. 

I would say that the quantitative achievements are sales & brand recognition, media mileages, followers, but there is also qualitative achievement which is understanding the culture, understanding your client and making people fall in love with the wine. We don't make so many wines, therefore, my job was never to sell more but to raise awareness and show that Margaux is the best in the world - I think we've raised the profile and we have gained a lot of great friends and understood the market much better.

As a child, have you ever imagined yourself following your father steps?

It's a good question, the good thing is that my father was very smart, he was never pushing me too hard. I think the best way when you want your kids to do something is by not pushing them too hard as it'll come naturally. You just gently make them fall in love with what you do, and that's what happened. My father was so in love with his job, he's very relaxed whenever he comes home and that made me realized that what he's doing is what makes him so happy. So I think joining Margaux is a mix of wanting to work with him and wanting to represent that amazing place that I knew and grew up since I was a child. Also, to be able to represent a bit of the art of France which is the winemaking. For me, wine is the best thing God has invented to bring people together, like food. So when they told me when I was 24 if I wanted to help to promote the brand in Asia, as they say in the movie, 'The Godfather', they made me an offer that I cannot refuse, so I am very lucky. It's great! -  the best way to describe the work. I'm just sad because I love to do it with my father.

Thibault Pontallier during one of the Chateau Margaux Dinners organized by Wine Clique

Are there any advantages of being young representing the Chateaux?

I would say that my age is actually an advantage especially in Asia. I think in France, I wouldn't have done it because people would want to talk to my father or somebody whose older than me. Whereas in Asia, I think it was easier to be young to engage with clients. If you look at Margaux drinkers in Europe, they are around 50-55, very masculine, they have a big successful career so they are quite older than we are. In Asia, sometimes twenty years younger, yesterday during our dinner, the people were like around 30s-40s and we can say that at least half of them would be a local ambassador of Margaux in their own way. 

Chateau Margaux was very smart to send me because I obviously have this familial link, I grew up there and being the son of the person who makes the wine, so it helped me a lot. 

Growing up in the Chateau and being able to personally watched several harvests throughout the years, is there any particular memory that you remember you enjoyed the most?

I remembered as a kid when we were like 5 or 6 years old, our whole class took part in the harvest for half a day and probably, we harvested 20 meters nothing! We were doing it with the school scissors and we were all making fun of ourselves. I think the harvest is also about that huge family spirit where people wants to sing, to relax during the harvest, it's all the hard work actually. 

And yeah, of course, it was also fun to bring your friends from school to the beautiful chateau during the harvest. The girls will treat you differently, the guys think it's pretty cool. So If I could offer the same possibility with my kids in the future, it's not just for being cool but to grow up in a vineyard, run and play in nature, that's a good alternative for them to be excited and drop their phones which kids nowadays spend so much time to.

Any particular vintage that gives you nostalgia? 

1986, because every year, during my birthday, my father was very great to open either a bottle of Margaux or Cheval Blanc 1986, it was beautiful and it was always a great bottle of my vintage. 

Also, I've always found 1990 to be the perfect vintage. It's just like kids, during infancy, they cry a lot and don't sleep nicely for few years or more and I'm not exactly sure why, but same with the wine, they developed eventually. 1985 & 1990 they were great to drink from day one and you could drink it after few years. Whereas the 1986 vintage, it took 25-30 years to finally open so I would say that 1990 was something that made me fall in love with wine and the style of Margaux, It was pure, beautiful, feminine and soft wine. 

And lately, I've been very moved and touched by 2009 & 2010. I remember my father when he made the 2009 and said "Oh my God, this is so special, I don't think we would see this in 50 years" and year after, 2010 (another great vintage), I told him "Do you remember what you said last year?" and he just answered "Yeah, I know." So 2009 and 2010 is a very interesting combination. Lastly, the one that I'll probably keep for the longest time would be the 2015, because my father's name is on it - his last vintage. I would show it to my kids and tell that it's their grandfather's name on the bottle.  

Late in 2017, Chateau Margaux finally revealed the special bottle for its Grand Vin 2015 which is a tribute to an exceptional year, two centuries of architecture and to Paul Pontallier, the Chateau's General Manager for almost 3 decades who made such an impact on the Estate. 2015 vintage was the last to be produced under his supervision before his untimely death in March 2016.

The bottle of Chateau Margaux 2015 is decorated with silk-screen printing on the glass in place of the usual labels on the bottles, magnums, double magnums, imperials, and balthazars.

Chateau Margaux 2015 case of 6 bottles. Photo credits G. de Beauchene

Your father, Mr. Paul, was part of the planning of the Chateau's bicentennial celebration, do you think that this launch of the new label and the homage of 200-year old architecture is what exactly he would have wanted it to be? 

He worked for 5 years on this with Lord Norman Foster and his team and I think he would absolutely love it. It was very challenging because to touch Chateau Margaux, a classified monument in France is very tricky. Nobody touched the chateau for two hundred years. 

It was actually a pleasure to meet Mr. Foster who completely fell in love with the Chateau and got really involved personally in the project, so that was great. My father really loved the idea of showing the history of Margaux, to show this 200 years of architecture. Prior to 2015,  he also wanted to create a special bottle if the vintage was great, then it turned out to be one of the greatest he'd ever done. 

Then I think, Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her daughter Alexandra continued to work on that project and Alexandra was the one in-charged of the design, so she did a great job because it was done very elegantly. Also, thanks to Corrinne who is very kind to put a slight note of my father. So yeah, I think my father would have loved it! I just actually thought of it the other day, I think if he would look on the bottle, he would say "Why do you put my name on the bottle?" [laughs]

Will the succeeding vintages be on this new label?

No, it's just for that. We are quite conservative in Chateau Margaux, it's 100% familial company so I don't think there is going to be a special bottle in the future, so it's usually a one-off for the Chateau.

3 words that best describe the vintage 2015?

Oh, I'm gonna steal my father's words, he had a very good way of describing it! The last time he described the vintage was this one and I love what he said. "It has the strength of 2005 (very powerful vintage), the flesh of 2009  (very sexy, very charming), the subtlety of 2010 and the inimitable charm of Chateau Margaux."

I think it describes perfectly the 2015 which is an amazing combination of everything you love in Margaux in different years. 

The winemaking duties have been taken over by Philippe Bascaules, who worked with your father for more than 21 years, Do you think Phillipe has the same passion and vision as your father did? 

I know Philip since I was 4. Philippe joined in 1990 and he's a very nice and very good winemaker. He's like a bit of my father because you know, he worked with him for 21 years.  He's very open-minded character and doesn't have too much ego. He puts himself behind the terroir, he wanted to try everything, biodynamic, organic, everything, so he's a pure scientist a bit like my father. 

I would say pretty much exactly the same vision and the same respect, and same love for the style of Margaux. So he's not going to suddenly put more oak or more strength to show that he's the new winemaker. He's not like that, my father was not like that either. Philip is fantastic. I can say that it's really great continuity for Chateau Margaux and it's certainly in good hands. I think my father would be very happy. 

Margaux tends to be described not by its power but as more feminine and fragrant, do you agree with it?

No, I disagree, my father used to say, people who say that the wine is feminine lacks power, don't understand women. Because if you understand women you would say the power is behind the charm. Women do charm first and then power, and that's the style of Chateau Margaux. It's a long powerful character, it's an iron fist in velvet glove. 

Moreover, to say Chateau Margaux is not powerful, doesn't understand wine. Yes, you have that perfume that's very elegant, very delicate but then, it's a massive wine. It's just the power is not the first thing but comes behind. What is true is that Margaux, for me has the best of both worlds, if you love Burgundy and subtlety or if you love Bordeaux and power,  Margaux has it. It has all the attributes that I love in a red wine.

Best Asian Food to pair with Margaux Wines?

I'm a big fan of Crispy pork belly, with either Pavillon Blanc or Pavillon Rouge. and then for Margaux, a good Char Siew, Beijing duck will work but not too much of the sweet sauce.

Lastly, what would you be if not in a wine industry?

I'm thinking...Emmanuel Macron is 40 years old now, so in 10 years, I would like to replace him! So, either the President of France or a rockstar! I like music! [laughs]