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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

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 Izak Litwar , Wine Writer (Denmark)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  20 wines 

Château Haut-Brion Blanc 2021 / 55% Semillon + 45% Semillon. Great intensity of green apple, pear and pineapple, acidity, crispiness, structure and length. Vibrant. Long lemony aftertaste. Sheer class. 98+p.

3m 6d ago

 James Suckling., Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  17 wines 

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc 2021 / This has so much depth and power, with complex notes of flint, oyster shell, white pepper, dried mango, lemon, papaya, apricot stone and chalk. Medium-to full-bodied. Bright, yet creamy. It’s so long and concentrated. Wait and see. 90% sauvignon blanc, 5% semillon, 5% sauvignon gris. From organically grown grapes. 98-99

3m 12d ago

 Markus Del Monego MW/BWW2022-Best Germany Wine Critic of the World, Wine Writer (Germany)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  745 wines 

This years "en primeur" tasting seemed like a journey in time. Bordeaux is back to a more moderate alcohol level and the style is lighter and more elegant. One could say the wines are reminiscent of the 80s, however made with more experience and the modern techniques today. It is not a powerful vintage. The wines are elegant, however the well made ones have an excellent persistence, depth and length. They offer a convincing potential for a long ageing and promote elegance in Bordeaux again. It is a true vintage of terroir although there is a lot of talk about a vintners vintage. However, terroir was the decisive factor in 2021.


Professor Axel Marchal has presented the 10 key points of this vintage on the occasion of the Union des Grands Crus press tasting:


"1. The start of the growing season was marked by severe frost on the 7th and 8th of April.


2. Wet and gloomy weather in May slowed down the vine growth although a providential window of fine weather helped flowering unfold in ideal conditions in early June.


3. Thunderstorms in June slowed down the onset of water stress.


4: Cool, dull weather in July increased the threat of vine diseases.


5. Véraison (colour change) was observed in mid-August, while vine growth had not stopped yet.


6. Thanks to a cool summer, the dry white wines are brilliant, lively and aromatic.


7. The wonderful Indian Summer allowed the red grape varieties to ripen in ideal conditions and preserved aromas.


8. The Merlots are fresh and aromatic while the Cabernets from the finest terroirs are well-structured with good balance.


9. The development of Botrytis cinerea in Sauternes was delayed by the cool summer and eventually triggered by rainfall in mid-September.


10. Despite low yields, the botrytised sweet white wines are of excellent quality."


It will be exciting to see the evolution of this vintage which produced in many cases yields on a very low scale. Arguably it will be a vintage praised for it finesse in the future. A vintage rated on finesse and persistence rather than on sheer power and opulence.

4m 26d ago

 Izak Litwar , Wine Writer (Denmark)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  36 wines 

2019 Le Pin  /  Excellent density, liquid silk or liquid cashmere, long, sophisticated, decadent and kinky, and fantastic midpalate. Heavenly stuff. 99p

7m 25d ago

 Le Pin  has updated producer and wine information

7m 25d ago

 Izak Litwar , Wine Writer (Denmark)  tasted  2 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  20 wines 

2020 Le Pin 99-100p / Barrel sample. Great density, liquid silk or liquid cashmere, long, sophisticated, so decadent and with fantastic midpalate. Heavenly stuff

8m 11d ago

 Le Pin  has updated producer and wine information

1y 7d ago

 Jancis Robinson MW, Wine Writer (United Kingdom)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  25 wines 

Alión 1994 / Production was much smaller then than now. All bought in fruit of course. There are different phases for ageing of Ribera. After bottling it is depressed and then the wine starts to develop. After 8 months some reduction but not a problem because reduction protects the wine against ageing.After 7-10 years there will be light reduction. This is the 1994 stage currently. Some people will call this brett butit’s not because we have analysed all our wines. We have observed that the 1994 is leaving the reductive phase but the 1996 is approaching it. This is why these are the two wines from the whole set that are more difficult than most to understand. We prefer not to decant.
Blackish crimson. Slightly cheesey on the nose – even a bit dusty. A more traditional style than many – hint of burnt toast. Really interesting and logn – complete. Thick and sweet. Dusty finish. Rich but with lots of very firm tannins.

1y 8d ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Wine Writer (South Korea)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  26 wines 

Château Mouton Rothschild 2016 / Gorgeous, subtle, layered Mouton with delicate and detailed flavors that linger on the palate for a long time. The density of the tannins combine with wonderful freshness and layers of flavors that range from dark berries, savory spices to cedar and earth. A glorious Mouton that has stature and concentration without any heaviness. The blend is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 1% Cab Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. The latter two varieties were co-fermented.


99 points

1y 5m ago

 Le Pin  has updated producer and wine information

1y 5m ago

 Julia Harding MW, Wine Writer (United Kingdom)  tasted  1 wines  from  Le Pin . In a tasting of  27 wines 

Telmo Rodríguez Lanzaga 2009 / Bushvine Tempranillo, Graciano and Garnacha from the village of Lanciego. Planted at 500-600 m on a sandstone plateau. Flat shallow soils, stony, calcareous and silty textured. Low fertility and low water retention capacity. Some fruit from own biodynamically farmed vineyard, some bought in. 40,000 bottles. Fermented with native yeasts in cement tanks, matured 14 months in big oak casks and smaller barrels. Bottled June 2012.
Intensely dark crimson with black core. Smells immediately sweeter and riper and more intense than the LZ, with some oak sweetness. Very dark fruited and more spice too. Even with that extra fruit intensity there is still a graphite/mineral dimension. On the palate, the tannins are dense but somehow silky at the same time, giving a wonderfully dry finish, the same effect as 70% dark chocolate but with a different flavour. Still pretty closed up on the palate, dark and savoury and firmly mineral. Super-dry, long finish. So much more to come. Stunning wine. A little more luscious than the 2010 Alto Lanzaga. (JH)

2y 7h ago

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