Keep it simple
Jacques Thienpont was working with his uncle Gérard in the family business in Belgium when he heard about a tiny parcel of vineyard next to Vieux Château Certan. His uncle Léon knew how good the terroir was and tried to persuade the family to buy the vineyard and add it to Certan. They deemed the one million French francs too expensive. Jacques realised that it was an opportunity to make his own wine and Le Pin’s tiny size was manageable for him alone.
Le Pin had existed as a vineyard for some time but the previous owner, Madame Laubie had a contract with a winemaker in Lalande-de-Pomerol to make the wine. When Jacques came to make his first vintage just after the purchase, he found the cellars in a pitiful state. He had just enough money to buy one stainless steel vat and the necessary amount of French oak barrels but his first vintage was as artisanal as one can imagine. By accident Jacques started the trend for doing the secondary malolactic fermentation in barrels, since he had nowhere else to run off his wine.
Gradually he brought the vineyard up to a good quality level, working closely with his cousin Alexandre at Vieux Château Certan. He replanted a significant part of the land with new Merlot clones and re-trellised the vines. In 1984, the wine was just becoming appreciated and he could afford to buy an adjacent plot of 30 ares – the former vegetable garden of a local widow. A few years later, the Domaine de la Vielle Ecole came up for sale, and he seized the opportunity to add another 60 ares to the estate.
Today, Le Pin is 2.7 hectares although continued replanting means that only 80% of the vineyard is in operation at the moment. Visitors to Le Pin are always amazed at its size and the simplicity of the winemaking. Jacques makes the wine as he did from the beginning; he learnt the art from his uncle Léon and by following courses at Bordeaux’s Institute of Oenology. The vineyard is managed on the same principles as Vieux Château Certan – severe pruning, minimum spraying - no fertilisers, no pesticides and no weed killers - green harvest and leaf stripping before harvest.
The latest development in the history of the Le Pin is a new winery, designed by Belgian architect Paul Robbrecht and inaugurated in September 2011 for the harvest. The new winery introduces a new standard of excellence at Le Pin: better hygiene, better temperature control, movement by gravity, and certainly more precision in the winemaking and parcel selection. The grapes are hand harvested and sorted in three different steps before being transported to seven small stainless steel conical vats varying from 16 to 45 hectolitres in size. Jacques has always worked every part of the winemaking himself and sees no reason to change this hands-on approach. The wines are fermented in stainless steel at warm temperatures and then after a two week maceration, transferred into new oak barrels (Seguin Moreau and Taransaud) for the malolactic fermentation and ageing. After 18 months, the wine is clarified with egg whites and bottled without filtration.
So what makes Le Pin so magical? Although it may seem like a Bordeaux cliché, it really is the terroir in the vineyard that counts. Lying in the centre of the Pomerol plateau, the vineyard, with its perfect southern exposure to the sun, slopes down to a small ditch that divides the estate. The topsoil contains a high amount of ancient pebbles that are rare in the mainly clay soils here. Underneath is a complex layer of ferruginous limestone, gravel and sand. The Merlot ripens early here and produces an exotic coffee and blackcurrant fruit which is evident as the first juice is tasted. The whole operation is reminiscent of a cellar in the Côtes de Nuits, which is perhaps one of the reasons that Le Pin was dubbed “The Domaine de La Romanée Conti of Bordeaux” by Jacques Luxey in 1983.
The glamorous image of Le Pin abroad lies in contrast to the winery and the winemaker. Jacques is a soft spoken, down to earth Belgian who divides his time between the family home, Hof te Cattebeke, in Etikhove and Pomerol. When he is not making, tasting or selling wine, he is to be found shooting, playing with his two young sons or overseeing one of his many renovation projects. Talk of the stratospheric prices that Le Pin now fetches once it leaves the cellar door and the current debate about “garage wines” bemuses Jacques. He has been making Le Pin for over thirty years and has watched the wine’s meteoric rise with incredulity. “Pour vue que ça dure” (Let’s hope it lasts) he says with a grin. Of course Le Pin, which produces only 5,000-6,000 bottles a year is very rare. However, it is rather the exotic richness and supple, velvety tannins which have won admirers throughout the world. The Thienpont winemaking traditions and the Flemish simplicity of life are well installed at Le Pin.
11 rue de la Fontaine
33500 Pomerol, France
Tel: & Fax: +33 557 51 17 33
Or: Hof te Cattebeke
9680 Etikhove, Belgium