Jacques Thienpont on Pomerol – An interview for Vila Viniteca

How would you describe the Pomerol landscape?
You can divide Pomerol into three distinct zones. There is the highest point of Pomerol, the plateau, which includes all of the top estates –Pétrus, Vieux Chateau Certan, L’Evangile, La Conseillante, Le Pin, Trotanoy and Eglise Clinet; then you have the slopes that go from the plateau down to the plain where you find excellent chateaux such as La Croix de Gay, Gazin, Feytit Clinet, Nenin and finally there are the chateaux which are on the sandier soils such as Clos de Réné, Chateau de Sales, Chateau Fayat, Chateau La Pointe which also have a very good reputation.

Can the soil types be divided up in the same three ways?
The plateau is the most interesting part of the appellation. The soils of Pomerol are above all characterized by their high clay content with varying amounts of sand and gravel, some of the gravel on the plateau – such as that around Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan and Lafleur can be 30 cms deep. Pétrus with its high clay content is a bit of an anomaly. 

Is Pomerol an ancient wine region?
Not as old as Saint Emilion or even the Médoc, at least in terms of reputation. It was Pétrus and Madame Loubat who put Pomerol on the wine map. Up until quite recently there were fields, orchards, gardens and grazing lands around the plateau. All that has disappeared now to give us a landscape, which is uniquely vineyard. Vines have been grown here for a long time however; in the middle ages, it was an important place for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella to rest (hence our wine guild, the Hospitaliers de Pomerol).

Why don’t you find many impressive chateaux in Pomerol?
There are very few. Take Vieux Chateau Certan for example which is one of the only ones and is quite old. Originally it was one large estate; then with the French Revolution, Certan de May and Certan Giraud were created, dividing the domain into smaller parcels. The most impressive chateau in Pomerol is Chateau de Sales built in the 17th century; it has been owned by the same family for 500 years. In general, the estates in Pomerol are much more modest than in other regions –the owners are simple winegrowers with no pretentions of owning a great domain. With the Napoleonic code, any grand estates were divided with each subsequent generation.  In the not so distant past, Pomerol was characterized as an appellation with lots of small estates –today, it is hard for the same families to hold onto their land when there are often several members of the family who inherit and the cost of vineyard land in Pomerol has risen to such a high price; the inheritance taxes are enormous. Today, outsiders own more and more chateaux from the region –either companies or institutional investors. Thirty years ago, there were around 180 wine growers in Pomerol with 50 who owned less than a hectare; today there are approximately 120 different growers, with very few that own less than one hectare. Since 1979 when I purchased the first hectare of Le Pin, the cost of land in Pomerol has risen by 24 times (and everyone said I had paid too much at that time!).

How has the style of Pomerol wines changed over the years?
The style of Pomerol has improved immensely thanks to the new techniques of winemaking.  We have become much more precise in the way that we care for our vineyards.  We are much more meticulous these days both in the point of view of hygiene and then in choice of barrels, grape selection, parcel selection.  Personally, we are very strict with ourselves in point of view of winemaking and tasting.  You cannot compare the wine of today with that of the past. Today the modern wines are much more fruity with balance and better tannins, good to drink when young while in the past the wines were rather herbaceous, thin, tannic in average years.  This style of wine is disappearing. 

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Is the small size of a vineyard in Pomerol an advantage or not?
Small estates have the problem of having to sell their wine at a rather high price in order to make money. If you want to concentrate on a quality wine, the larger the vineyard, the better selection you have to produce a great wine. I compare the work that is done by the Thienpont family at Vieux Chateau Certan and Le Pin; the work and the care is exactly the same but in difficult years, VCC with its 14 hectares of vineyard, has a far better choice of parcels it can use in the top blend. 

Has climate change played a role in Pomerol?
Certainly.  Especially when it comes to the sugar concentration in the grapes. Twenty years ago, every two or three years, we needed to chaptalize our harvest to reach 12° alcohol while today, we can easily reach 13° alcohol or even higher.

Is Pomerol blessed with its climate?
One great advantage is that Pomerol is an early ripening region with the predominance of Merlot grapes that are an early ripening variety. We are usually one of the first appellations to start picking which can be a big help if there is the threat of autumn rains. 

Speaking about Merlot, how do you describe this grape?
As you know, Le Pin is 100 percent Merlot (as is Pétrus).  I think Merlot is not an easy grape, it is very sensitive; it is a little like Pinot Noir. You need to make sure that the maturity of the grapes is perfect and not overripe. In vinification, you have to be careful not to extract too much. You have to let the grape evolve naturally with frequent and light but perhaps longer macerations in vat.  Merlot does well in good quality new oak barrels where you can control the oxidation that brings out other flavours such as truffle and vanilla but above all, I try to make sure that I keep the class, the elegance and a certain lightness in the wines.

How do you describe the differences between Vieux Chateau Certan and Le Pin?
VCC’s proportion of Cabernet Franc adds a lightness, freshness, and more raciness to the wine, almost an aerian quality. Le Pin is much more exotic with richer, chocolate, cedar flavours; rounder, more feminine, more body.

What is your relationship with Le Pin?
She is a good friend with whom I have already been married for over 35 years. We tolerate each other; we usually come to an agreement and we get on very well together. Sometimes she is capable of being a bit capricious, especially in hot vintages but that’s part of the game.  I never get bored with her.  Each vintage is different and each year reveals new surprises. Often in a weaker vintage, we are astonished, how good the wine can be, especially in cooler, wetter years. I recently tasted the 1992 Le Pin and was astonished by its freshness and balance. Cooler vintages serve to calm some of Le Pin’s natural exuberance because of the gravelly, well-drained soils.  In hot vintages, there is sometimes not enough humidity left in the soil.

Are you still learning how to make Le Pin?
I learn every day; that is what is so fascinating about this work.  Each vintage is different:  how the vineyard is evolving, the vigour that one finds in each parcel, the characteristics from one parcel to the next.   The difference is that I often make Le Pin with “the inspiration of the moment”. I compare this to an artist who is painting his canvas. You obviously need to have technical knowledge in vinification and aging but there is room for intuition and personal feeling. 

Has your new winery changed the style of Le Pin?
We inaugurated the new cellar in 2011.  I don’t see a great difference in the quality of the wine but there is a very big advantage in that we can work in an even more precise and controlled way in the cellar with better parcel selection and better hygiene and with all the comfort of a new cellar. In the past, we achieved high results with a much more artisanal installation; today we can control and watch over the evolution of the wine in a much more detailed way.

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Does Le Pin age well?
We believe that because a wine is approachable when it is young, it will not age well.  In the beginning when critics tasted the 1981, 1982 & 1983 Le Pin they were so good that we did not believe that they would last that long.  Over the years, Le Pin has proved this theory wrong. Thanks to generous Le Pin collectors throughout the world, we sometimes have the chance to taste old wines; we are always astounded by the freshness and persistence in these years. I also tasted 1983, 1985, 1986 and 1988 recently in Germany; they came from a wonderful cellar where the wines have been aged since their release and they were all holding their own really, really well. 

Gazing into your crystal ball, how do you see the evolution of Pomerol and Le Pin in the future?
I think Pomerol will continue to be desired by a lot of people and consequently vineyard prices will remain high which will mean sadly that smaller winegrowers and local families will continue to disappear.   Thanks to the reputation of wines such as Pétrus, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Fleur and Le Pin, the wines will continue to grow in stature and find new fans. With regard to Le Pin, I have confidence in the future.  Le Pin will continue to change from one year to the next and I listen to older and younger winemakers; there is always something to learn. The new generation that is arriving (our two sons, Georges and William), will certainly have different ideas, maybe different ways of doing things; it is just important each year to pay attention to what nature gives us and adapt accordingly.  I’m still in love with Le Pin and Pomerol and feel good about the future.

Jacques Thienpont
After working in the family winery, La Maison de Négoce Thienpont in Etikhove established in 1842, Jacques Thienpont bought their 1.5 hectares of vineyards in 1979. From that moment began making his own wine with the help of his cousin Alexandre. The family chose Le Pin as a name due to the lonely pine that shaded the house. The exceptional land, know-how, complexity, wealth and wine shortages contributed to Le Pin became one of the most sought wines. In 1987 he became stockholder of Vieux Château Certan and 10 years later got married with Fiona Morrison M.W. and had two children, Georges and William. Jacques Thienpont didn’t stop here, as it began a new project with the purchase of 8 hectares of vineyards, Chateau L’If, located in Saint Émilion, whose first vintage was 2012.

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