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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.