The Pontac Family of Haut Brion – Their Legacy: Pontac Chateaux, a London Tavern, an Old English Sauce and Perhaps a Grape.

I have wanted to write about the Pontac family of Chateau Haut Brion for some time but there has not been enough time in the day to do them justice. What started my musings on the legacy they gave to the world of wine was the practically extinct Pontac grape.

I wondered if it had any connection to the family? This grape was thought to be originally native to Bordeaux and is one of a handful of grapes that are known as Teinturier grapes (from the French word meaning “to dye or stain”).

These grapes have red skins and red flesh and when the grape skins and pulp are crushed together their juice is a much darker red than other grape varieties.

A century ago, before Bordeaux set down the laws of which grape varieties were permitted in the blend, many different and varieties were used. Sometimes wines from different regions in France – and other countries – were added to the blend.

It intrigues me to think of what is actually inside those rare bottles of old claret that we see sold for great prices at auctions . . . and I am fascinated as to what they taste like. Joseph Addison writing in The Tatler in 1708 referred to the wine of Haut Brion having a very deep colour, darker than Hermitage and Burgundy.

Was he drinking a Haut Brion wine made from a blend of Pontac grapes? I suppose we will never know.

Pontac is one of the ancient grapes that has found new pastures and now has a home in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa – although it is becoming increasingly rare. In the past it was used to make the South African dessert wine Constantia or Vin de Constance which was a favourite of European kings and Emperors. Napoleon himself ordered it from his exile on St Helena. If you are interested in the Pontac grape in South Africa I’d recommend checking out Peter May’s The Pinotage Club as his knowledge of South African grapes is as extensive as it is excellent.

The Pontac family’s legacy began when Jean de Pontac acquired the property known as Maison Noble d’Aubrion through his marriage to Jeanne de Bellon in 1525. It’s thought that Haut Brion takes its name from the Celtic word briga meaning hill or high place. Jean de Pontac had fifteen children and initiated a veritable dynasty that would in time become increasingly prominent in the region. Chateau Pontac Monplaisir, also in Pessac Leognan, was owned by the Pontac family in the 1500s up until the French Revolution, though by which Pontac I can not ascertain. It was used as a hunting lodge and it’s said that the Lord of Haut Brion enjoyed drinking the wines made there.

Chateau Pontac Lynch, in Margaux, was created in 1720 by thePontac family of Haut Brion. The Lynch references the Lynch family who established Chateau Lynch Bages. Pontac Lynch is not the only connection that the Pontac family had to the Margaux appellation – for a period in time Chateau Margaux and Haut Brion were allied via the marriage of Arnaud Pontac in 1654.

In 1594, the widow of Raymond de Pontac, first president of Bordeaux, La Isabella Chassaigne, bought the Chateau des Jaubertes in Graves and it remains in her descendants hands today, the current owner being Emmanuel de Pontac.

Chateau Peychaud is owned by Comte Jacques de Pontac (who is also a direct descendant of the Marquis de Fayet who founded the chateau in 1630).  Comte Jacques de Pontac also owns Chateau de Myrat in Sauternes along with his brother Xavier.  Interestingly the Pontac family also have connections with the First Growth Sauternes Chateau Rayne Vigneau as Madame de Rayne, née Catherine de Pontac, bought the Domaine du Vigneau in 1834.  Albert de Pontac, a great nephew of Madame de Rayne, decided to call the estate “Rayne Vigneau” in her honour

The Pontac family created the vineyards at Chateau de  Pez in Saint Estephe and the property remained in the hands of descendants (the Marquis d’Aulède and Count de Fumel, Commander of the Province of Guyenne) until the French Revolution.

The Pontac family also founded the Chateau de Fourens in Nérigean.  Fourens was owned by Gabriel de Pontac, Lord of Fourens, who was sentenced by the Parliament of Bordeaux as a traitor to his country for his activity during the Fronde (1648 – 1653).

There are two other chateau that have connections to the Pontac family.  Chateau Pontac in Loupiac bears their name (although I can find no records as to why) and the elusive Chateau St.  Brise in Graves.  Thomas Jefferson records St Brise as a principal growth as belonging to the Pontac family but either the chateau has been absorbed into another or its name changed past recognition as I can sadly find no trace of it.

Doubtless there are many more chateaux with connections to the Pontac family in Bordeaux – if anyone can tell me those that I have missed I would be most grateful!

François-Auguste de Pontac was the last Pontac to own Haut Brion through direct inheritance. He served as President of the Parliament in Bordeaux in 1653 but in 1666 he came to London and opened a tavern to promote his wines, called the “Enseigne de Pontac” or “Pontacks Head”.

The tavern was situated in Abchurch Lane and François-Auguste displayed a picture of his father’s head as the inn sign.  This was no ordinary tavern as the Pontack’s Head had a fashionable place in London society where  John Locke, Daniel Defoe and Swift came to eat and drink.

The Pontack’s head stayed in the family for 200 years and The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1811 says that  it was a fashionable, genteel eating house which was “the first public place where persons could bespeak a dinner from 4 to 5 shillings a head, to a guinea”.

The Fellows of the Royal Society dined at Pontack’s until 1746  and a Mr Burn tells us in Metamorphoses of the Town in 1731, of Pontack’s  “ragout of fatted snails,” and “chickens not two hours from the shell.” 

François-Auguste was described as an eminent French cook, handsome, sensual, educated and wealthy.  William Hogarth, the painter, satirist and cartoonist is said to have paid François-Auguste a compliment in the third plate of his Rake’s Progress series. The room of that boisterous scene is adorned with pictures of the Roman Emperors – amongst them hangs the portrait of François-Auguste.

There is one last legacy that  François-Auguste left us – Pontack Sauce, made from elderberries and spices and said to be the perfect accompaniment to rich game. If you would like the recipe check out Dan’s Blog at Essex Eating!

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