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The Remarkable Rise of Le Pin

It took Bordeaux centuries to create great wine, Jacques Thienpont did it in just 30 years

By WILL LYONS

Near the medieval town of Libourne in southwestern France, the vineyards of Pomerol fan out northeast, covering the landscape like a quilted blanket of vines, an agricultural scene punctured only by the soaring neo-Gothic spire of Saint-Jean de Pomerol towering above the tiny appellation. Navigation through the vineyards is achieved by traveling along a confusing lattice of sandy tracks, one of which veers off the back road from the small village of Catusseau and leads to Le Pin, until recently identified only by an unexceptional house, standing in front of two pine trees and a line of frail-looking telephone wires.

Le Pin owner Jacques Thienpont smiles as he shares a glass of the 2010 vintage with some buyers from Asia. 

 

Today the scene resembles a construction site. After more than half a century of continuity, the landscape is changing. The modest house, which for decades was inhabited by Madame Loubat, has been demolished. In its place rises a futuristic winery complete with underground winemaking facilities, temperature-controlled cellars and a roof terrace offering a commanding view of the Pomerol plateau, the highest part of which sits on soil layered with gravel over sandy clay. From the top of the partly constructed winery, one can make out the vineyards of some of the most famous names on the right bank of Bordeaux: Château Lafleur, La Fleur-Pétrus, Pétrus, Certan de May, Vieux Château Certan, L'Evangile, La Conseillante and, just behind the trees, Cheval Blanc. Finally, looking down, one has a view of the gently sloping three hectares of vines that form Le Pin, regarded by many as the finest parcel of agricultural land in the world, where the Merlot grape variety is grown.

Le Pin's world is also expanding. Later this year, its owner, Jacques Thienpont, will introduce another wine made from a small pocket of vines in neighboring Saint-Émilion. Like Le Pin, the name of the new wine is short: L'if, which Mr. Thienpont says translates as Yew tree, perhaps in the hope that it will emulate the success of its forebear.

The house of Madame Loubat, where Le Pin was made, shortly before it was demolished 

 

In Bordeaux, Le Pin is unusual. Firstly, there is its size. It is tiny, its 2.7 hectares limiting it to a production run of between 5,000-6,000 bottles a year. Secondly, despite the construction work, there is no grand neo-Palladian Château, gothic label or gravel drive. For many years, the only landmark of any interest beside the unremarkable vineyard, was a workman-like one-story building accompanied by the now famous pine trees. In recent years, a small cellar with a kitchen and living room attached has been added. This will be joined, later this year, by the modest, albeit, high-tech winery. Then there is its history. Only, compared with its neighbors, it doesn't really have any. This isn't a wine that can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, was tended by Cistercian monks and lived through the Napoleonic and Hundred Years' War.

The first vintage was in 1979 but it wasn't until the late '80s that the wine really achieved international acclaim. So there are no reference points from the last century, there is no formal cellar containing examples of past vintages from decades such as the '20s, '30s or '50s. Most of the 1982s, one of its most distinguished years, have been drunk, or are in the hands of a few private collectors.

Merlot vineyards in Pomerol 

 

But perhaps more than anything else, its uniqueness lies in its taste. Texturally, it is light, more akin to a heavy Pinot Noir, than what it is, a predominantly Merlot blend. The nose is floral, ripe and intense. There is power, but this is accompanied by an ethereal weightlessness, silky tannins and a refined but very long length. In many ways, the size of the property and the character of the wine are reminiscent of something one may find in Burgundy, which probably explains why, in some circles, it has been referred to as the Romanée-Conti of Bordeaux.

"I never forget tasting it in 1981 and thinking this was one of the most remarkable wines I had ever drunk in my life," recalls Bordeaux négociant Mark Walford, who was responsible for introducing the wine into the U.K. market. "It was quite unlike anything else I had ever tasted, it was simply sublime." That tasting took place in the Belgium home of Le Pin's creator and owner, Jacques Thienpont.

Today, Mr. Thienpoint, reticent, reserved, but with a charming, warm smile, says he can enjoy his wine. But it wasn't always the case, he explains over a cup of coffee in the small anteroom adjoining Le Pin. "In the early days, I was never satisfied with my wine," he says. "I was always anxious. It is just like when you have children you don't know what they will become. Fortunately, I can enjoy it now."

Like most overnight success stories, the achievement of Le Pin is the result of many years of hard work, attention to detail and that heady mixture of fate and opportunism. In many ways, the story of Le Pin starts in Belgium, in the year 1842, when Jacques's great-grandfather Camille Thienpont began running a successful wine merchant based in Flanders.

 

A map of the Pomerol Plateau none

 

"Belgium was always a very great lover of the wines of Saint-Émilion," says Mr. Thienpont. "The wines arrived by road and train, whereas on the other side of the Gironde, on the Medoc, those wines left by sea and found their way to England." So successful were the Thienponts that after the First World War, which had left many widows in the region, Jacques's grandfather Georges Thienpont came to Bordeaux and bought Château Troplong Mondot in Saint-Émilion and Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol. In 1934, the family was forced to sell Château Troplong Mondot after a string of bad vintages. But they managed to keep Vieux Château Certan, which today is run by Jacques's cousin, Alexandre. Crucially, its vineyards backed onto a plot of 2.4 acres of vines that now forms Le Pin, owned since 1924 by Madame Laubat.

Exceptional vineyards are nature's fortunate accident. Often it is a unique combination of soil, aspect, drainage, local weather and finding the right grape variety to match. They are also rare, and truly great parcels like Le Pin, Pétrus and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy are even rarer.

A young star improving with age

 

The Price

The first view vintages of Le Pin appeared on the market in the early 1980s, priced at around €10 a bottle. For those private collectors who still have some of those vintages, their bottles are now worth more than €2,500 each. In the case of the 1982 vintage, they are selling at more than €6,000 a bottle.

In many ways, the fortunes and price inflation experienced by this small pocket of land in Pomerol has mirrored the fortunes and prosperity of Bordeaux as a whole.

On the other side of the Gironde, the Left Bank, many châteaux that were once in family hands are now owned by international conglomerates, and wines that were once sold for around €20 are now on the market for thousands of euros a bottle. These profits have been ploughed back into the properties with a raft of stateof-the-art cellars and tasting rooms emerging from the rubble.

Across the vineyards from Le Pin's futuristic winery rises the enormous cellar and contemporary extension of LVMH-owned Château Cheval Blanc, hugging the landscape like a giant aircraft hangar.

While the renewed investment has undoubtedly bought improvements in the winemaking and husbandry of the vineyards, the upshot has been that within a generation, many of the traditional collectors have been priced out of the market.

The Taste

I have visited the property three times in recent years, tasting from the barrel and, in the case of 2008, from the bottle. It is interesting how different these wines taste from any other in the region; they have enormous concentration, power and opulence, but retain an elegance, finesse and refinement that doesn't overwhelm the palate.

2008 
This has evolved beautifully into a very graceful wine The nose is very ripe with an overwhelming damson character and a little spice. The tannins are bold and present but on the palate they are fine and soft, giving the wine a glorious, silky texture. The finish is both refreshing and long.

2009 
Even for a wine with the reputation of Le Pin, the 2009 is exceptional. A first sip evokes feelings similar to those when drinking fine red Burgundy. The nose is intense, with notes of liquorice and sloes, and a slightly spicy character. The palate has that magic Le Pin combination of intense flavor married with weightlessness and a fine, supple, long, length.

2010 
The 2010 is surprisingly vibrant with more energy and vitality. It is unctuous on the nose with a dark fruit character but elegance and length. The impression is one of freshness and energy, even at this youthful stage.

Madame Laubat had rented the vineyard to a winemaker who used the grapes for a generic Pomerol blend. It was Jacques's uncle who first saw the potential of the soil being made up of gravel and sand. Believing the terroir was exceptional, he proposed buying the plot to extend the footprint of Vieux Château Certan after the death of Madame Laubat, but the châteaux's board disagreed.

Then 34-years old, Jacques, who had visited Pomerol to make wine from an early age, was persuaded by a colleague back in Belgium to buy it for himself. At first, he did so in partnership with his father and uncle. Later, he gained full control and extended the vineyard by buying up a vegetable patch next door.

"I had no idea whether it was good-quality soil or not," he says. "I was just making wine, nothing more. At the time I had no more money but I tried to do my best, to pay attention [to the vineyards and winemaking]) and to do everything by hand."

His philosophy is minimum intervention. Bunches of grapes are hand picked, the selection process is rigorous, with grapes that are showing any sign of disease or under-ripeness being discarded.

The first vintage was 1979 and sold relatively cheaply. Private collectors often reminisce of the days they picked up six bottles of 1982 Le Pin at under €20 a bottle, back then not an inconsiderable amount to pay for a relatively unknown wine. But word soon spread and after favorable reviews from critics such as Robert Parker. Its fame and price began to rise. By 1987, its reputation was secured. Today, the 2009 vintage is selling for around €20,000 a case, or €1,600 a bottle.

But it is not all perfection. Some critics question its ability to age, and it is no secret that the vineyards don't respond well to extreme heat. Le Pin made no wine in 2003, when it was deemed the grapes were overripe.

"When it is dry weather, my wine suffers quite a lot, but in an average vintage, the quality is very good because the drainage of the water is very fast," Mr. Thienpont says.

Now the wheel has come full circle. In April last year, Mr. Thienpont received a call in Belgium: seven hectares of land had come up for sale in neighboring Saint-Émilion near Château Troplong Mondot. The caller added that a decision was required quickly.

"I flew down that night," says Mr. Thienpont. "We drove around and saw it in the evening, and I agreed to it there and then."

The soil is predominantly chalk and clay, planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 2010 will be the first vintage but Mr. Thienpont is careful to keep his powder dry on the final blend and the eventual taste. He says the wine, L'if, which will have an annual production of around 20,000 bottles, promises to be more full bodied than Le Pin, with perhaps more opulence and immediate power.

Back in Pomerol, some buyers from Asia have arrived, keen to sample a glass of the 2009 vintage and meet the man behind the wine. He's happy to oblige and while they form a small semicircle in the middle of the cellar, he carefully extracts half a decanter from a waiting barrel and pours it into their glasses, minding not to spill a drop. As they sniff, sip and slurp, he stands back crossing his hands, his face illuminated by a warm, engaging smile. Just for a moment, one senses a flicker of recognition that he cannot quite believe his luck.

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History

The term "garagiste", used in a good sense as often as in a bad one, was coined to describe those small producers in Bordeaux whose production, according to wine writer Michel Bettane, "was so small that it would fit into a garage". The contrast with the grandiose wine castles in the region is huge, especially if you look at Le Pin at the best spot in Pomerol and the initiator of the boom. The tiny, haphazardly plastered building looks more like an uninhabited shack waiting to be pulled down. Only a small text on the side of the mailbox reveals that you are close to the origin of cult wine.

Château Le Pin was the first of the "garage wines" or microchateau that have become cult collector wines. Belgian-born Jacques Thienpont bought Le Pin in 1979, and its popularity flared up as early as the hot year 1982. The "Domaine de la Romanée Conti of Pomerol" had seen daylight. Alhough it is an unclassed Bordeaux wine from the appellation Pomerol, Chateau Le Pin commands prices that put it at levels equal to the best wines of Bordeaux.

         Madame Laubie, whose family had owned the plot since 1924 sold the vineyard in 1979 to the Belgian Thienpont family for 1 million francs. Developed by Marcel and Gérard Thienpont on less than 2 hectares, wine was produced by microcuvée from a farmhouse basement. The property was given the name Le Pin by the Thienponts from a solitary pine tree that shades the property. By acquiring tiny adjoining plots of land, Jacques has doubled the size of Le Pin to five acres.

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Vineyards

The holdings represent now 2.5 hectares, on sandy gravel soil of Pomerol on the right bank of the Gironde Estuary, the vines are 40 years old on average and they are planted with 92% of Merlot and the rest is Cabernet Franc. The very singular composition of the soil is responsible for the exceptional law yielding (around 35 hl/hc) giving way to a super concentrated Merlot. The grapes are harvested by hand and vinified in stainless steel vats then the wines go through a 200% new oak elevage which means that the wine is transferred into 100% new oak barrels for 9 months then it is racked and put into other 100% new oak barrels for another 9 months period.

 

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Winemaking

Occasionally the most expensive wine in the world, continually receiving high ratings from wine critics and produced in extremely small numbers, Le Pin bottles are a constant presence on the wine auction market. Le Pin produces just 600 to 700 cases each year.

Soil:   gravel and clay with a little sand, Production area: 5 ha Grape varieties:  Merlot almost 100% (some Cabernet Franc) Average age of vines:  32 years Harvest method: hand picked Winemaking: fermented in stainless steel before being matured in 200% new oak barriques for between 14 and 18 months

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Inside information

Chateau Le Pin using NFC to ensure authenticity of wine

When it comes to high-class brands of wine, there is always the risk of counterfeiting or fraud due to their high-value. The price of a single bottle of French Bordeaux, from Chateau Le Pin, ranges from $3,000 to $10,000, and thus trafficking of forgeries is a highly-lucrative business for the counterfeiters. These counterfeiters can attach the photocopied labels of cult and other rare and expensive wines to the low-quality and less expensive wine, which is then resold to the customers – often at auctions.

To encounter the counterfeiting the French winemaker, who supplies its wine in Europe and parts of Asia, used several technologies including bubble codes, QR codes, holograms and Data Matrix but still failed to prevent the fraud because all of these solutions could be replicated using laser, digital or industrial printers.


Recently, Chateau Le Pin has acquired a Near Field Communication (NFC) solution from Anti-counterfeiting identification technology company Selinko to ensure the delivery of 100% real wine to its customers.
This solution consists of a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz NFC-compliant RFID tag built into the label of wine bottle, an application for an NFC-enabled phone to detect the identification number of that label, and a server for managing the collected data. This helps Le Pin make sure that every bottle’s label is authentic, and confirm that customer has received the right product. Apart from preventing the counterfeiting, another advantage of the technology is that it couldn’t be replicated.
Le Pin began affixing the Selinko logo to its bottles two months back. The lower left corner of every label includes a logo which specifies that the label is interactive. Encoded with a unique identification number, an inside secured NFC RFID chip is embedded in the label just underneath the Selinko logo.


To determine the authenticity of wine bottle, the users have to log into the Selinko Website from their NFC-enabled phone and place it near Le Pin label. Now if the wine is authentic, the user will receive a unique serial number and the certificate of bottle’s authenticity.
The server stores the transaction, enabling the winemaker to see that what is happening with its bottles after they are shipped to a store or customer. Every time the label is read by an individual via an NFC-enabled phone, the record of that read event is fed into company’s data. In this way, the firm acknowledges that where its bottles were distributed and to which customer.
Once an individual reads the label after purchasing the bottle, the software eliminates its digital certificate from company server, thereby making the refilling and reselling of that bottle as a counterfeit product

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Winemaking since 1979

  • Jacques Thienpont

    Owner AND MANAGER
    “luxury is all about quality; it can’t be created by an advertising agency. We have no marketing plan, the taste and ageabilty are the two most important factors”.
  • Jeff Leve

    Writer
    Make sure you swallow the wine. Rumor has it, visitors that spit are never invited back to Le Pin.

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users.    or    to see wine moments from your world.

 Marie-Helen Krebs, Sommelier (Germany)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  12 wines 

A "petite" 2010 vintage tasting with perfect Le Pin and other gems!

5h 21min ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Pro (China)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  11 wines 

Petrus 2009 / 100 points / If a wine's aroma can be sexy, then this is it: Vibrant mixed spices, sweet, ripe plums, blackberries and violets. The wine has amazing density and richness with Petrus' signature layers of flavours including hint of game, anise and exotic Asian spices that go on and on. This is an intoxicating wine that will be a hedonists' delight in its youth or after decades of aging.

3m 15d ago

 Christer Byklum / Leading Scandinavian wine blogger, Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  5 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  5 wines 

1994 Le Pin / Deep ruby, very thin garnet rim. Very intense and complex, truffles, mushrooms, forest floor, paprika, leather, minerals, hint of cigars, great balance, fresh acidity, great texture, ripe tannins, the texture makes them hard to notice somehow, starting to evolve, perfect now and in the next 10 years. Very elegant, and at least in this vintage, nothing like a Parker monster as one could expect, a bit short finish if I'm picky. 93

3m 15d ago

 Izak Litwar / The most important Scandinavian Bordeaux Critic, Pro (Denmark)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  161 wines 

Bordeaux 2016 vintage!

4m 22h ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Pro (China)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  30 wines 

My TOP 30 wines of the Bordeaux 2016 vintage.

4m 3d ago

 Markus Del Monego MW / Best Sommelier in the World 1998, MW (Germany)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  272 wines 

BORDEAUX VINTAGE 2016 / Tasting "en primeur" is a challenge every year. The wines tasted are showing a tendency only and it is still the beginning of a longer process of evolution and maturation in the barrels. There might be some changes during the next year and a half until the wines will be bottled, but already today the tendency is quite clear. For most of the red wines it will be an outstanding vintage, a vintage for Cabernet, old vines, limestone and clay soil. It was a challenging year for the vintners. An incredibly wet spring was worrying the winegrowers and at the beginning of June, the spirits were down. However warm and dry weather between June 3 and June 11 creating an close to ideal situation for the flowering and good weather conditions starting in mid June changed the nature of the vintage. The fine weather continued into July and August. The month of August was featuring hot weather and a remarkable amount of sunshine but the absence of rain let to water stress. Heavy rain in mid September set an end to water stress and when the sun returned on September 20 the vintage was saved as there was excellent weather till to the end of the harvest. The effects were various. the white wines are on a good quality level and display fruit and flavour but the acidity is lower than in previous vintages and the white wines show an opulent and rather soft style. The noble sweet wines are extremely pure and are more on the rich and powerful side than on the freshness. For the red wines originating from the right terroirs and old vines, the vintage an be called outstanding. Water stress was managed well on limestone and clay terroirs, Cabernet varieties did extremely well and old vines found water even during the stressful dry periods of summer. In some few red wines the tannins are slightly harsh, almost bitter, a result of water stress and/or intense extraction. In general the red wines are on an excellent level with an advantage for the left bank, mainly the Médoc area, and the classic great terroirs of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. 

4m 5d ago

 Christer Byklum / Leading Scandinavian wine blogger, Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  64 wines 

98 wines tasted from Pomerol 2016 vintage, a stunning vintage for the appelation. Petrus might be the wine of the vintage, such finesse! But many others as well. Le Pin, La Conseillante, Clinet, Gazin, Petit Village, Lafleur, L'Evangile, VCC, La Fleur-Pétrus, Trotanoy, L'Eglise-Clinet and many more made stunning wines. Gazin made the best wine they ever did, same with Nenin. Pomerols are beyond seductive in 2016.

4m 15d ago

 Aldo Sohm / Best Sommelier in the World 2008, Pro (Austria)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  10 wines 

"MY TOP 10 WINES OF THE 2016"

5m 17d ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Pro (China)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  10 wines 

"MY TOP 10 WINES OF THE 2016"

6m 10d ago

 Jeff Leve, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  3 wines 

1795 Madeira is not your everyday wine. As a wine, it does not rank with any of the best wines I tasted this year, last year, or the year before. But as a glass of liquid contemplation, blended with a history lesson, it remains unequaled. This is 4 centuries old! In 1795, all the Founding Fathers were alive. George Washington was president, John Adams is Vice President and Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State. France adopts a new Constitution, Napoleon makes himself known, and Madeira had a great vintage. It only takes a glass with a bit of 1795 Madeira to make it all come alive again.


The dried fruits, brown sugar, piquant orange with bitter chocolate, roasted tangerine, burnt caramel and sharp acidic character neither add, or subtract from the fact that this is oldest wine I have ever tasted. It is more interesting than pleasurable. But it was truly a great experience, regardless.

6m 16d ago

 Aldo Sohm / Best Sommelier in the World 2008, Pro (Austria)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  9 wines 

MY TOP 10 WINES OF THE 2016

7m 1d ago

 Omar Khan, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  2 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  9 wines 

PETRUS, LAFLEUR AND LE PIN: A COMPARATIVE TASTING


So, 11 intrepid palates gathered at The Four Seasons Park Lane in London to do a “deep dive” into these hallowed Pomerols. Wine writer and Pomerol maven, Neal Martin had suggested he was unaware of any such structured comparison having been done, and so we took it on to provide one.


Some canopy comments. Le Pin is often called the Richebourg of Bordeaux. It is a seductive, appealing wine, virtually all Merlot, with some Cabernet Franc as “salt and pepper” so to speak (and so it has indeed been spoken of by those who should know). Produced by the family that owns Vieux Chateau Certan, the Thienponts, specifically Jacques Thienpont, this is the most seductive of the three wines, and certainly the most approachable in its youth. It really showed ravishingly in 2005, 1998 and 1990 in particular. It was certainly still distinguished in 1989.


Yet while I can understand why people have said it produced the best 1982, I believe they are quite wrong. While the other 82’s earlier in their life were more surly or in primary stages of development, Le Pin would have more precociously flared forth, its sails at or near full mast. Yet it flailed somewhat in that vintage today next to Lafleur and Petrus.


The production is so small of this just over 2 hectare property, and its scarcity and surrounding mythos as well as its evident appeal, make it one of the most expensive wines in the world. That we were able to taste so many of its vintages together already set this evening apart.


Lafleur was a revelation to many, particularly the arc of its development over age. Surly and taciturn in its youth, with the Cabernet Franc reining in the sails of the Merlot flamboyance, it bides its time, and can sometimes just “miss” (like the ’90). Yet as it hits its stride, and the Cabernet Franc and Merlot integrate, and begin to dance, this quixotic property proclaims both its stature and its appeal. Neal called the 1989 the quintessence of Pomerol. And both he and I felt, that if the 1989 was more currently enjoyable, the 1982 Lafleur was the greatest wine we tasted in an evening of superlative wines. It was a “complete” wine, with 50 years of development ahead of it potentially.


Petrus, an exemplar of all things Merlot, shines, it makes you smile, it seduces, it infiltrates, it ensnares your palate in ravishing enticements. The ’98 Petrus was gorgeous, the ’95 so appealing, the ’90 just superb. The ’89, a great wine in past showings seemed to be passing through a dormant phase on this evening. And to me one of the wines of the night (while I eschew such comparisons, I really couldn’t as it was intended as a “comparative” tasting) was the ’82 Petrus. It was delightful, a consummate example of the vintage and wine.


The 1975 Petrus and 1975 Lafleur you will read about if you delve into the notes, but again an overall point. These were resolutely “old school” wines compared to the others. A number of the others were pinnacles of balanced early modernity, classicism taking an adaptive step forward. The ‘75’s are icons of their time and style, and finding a ’75 Lafleur these days is next to impossible. They didn’t get the same swoons from our audience, but as I returned to them, they kept growing in appeal. And the reason was their relative initial diffidence compared to the opulence and emphatic nature of the other vintages. They remain an extraordinary snapshot and a bridge between eras. In fact, the 1978 Lafleur, tasted with Neal in New York soon after his book on Pomerol came out, showcased the brilliance of key vintages of that decade and perhaps among the last exaltations of this style.

7m 11d ago

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