Bordeaux Diary Part 3: Outsiders on the Right Bank – From Garage Wines to Single Vineyards and Respectability

Through the 1980s, it was outsiders, such as Jacques Thienpont from Belgium, or Jean Luc Thunevin from Algeria, who made the running in putting St. Emilion in the forefront of the news by upsetting the traditional order.

Tuesday: the heights of Pomerol. The tiny property of Le Pin is overshadowed by the huge pine tree that gave it its name. Jacques Thienpont, who comes here from his native Belgium, admits Le Pin may have been confused with (and have become a model for) the garage wines, but says that “we knew this was special terroir, wine was always made at the cellar here. It’s 100% Merlot, but I don’t have the power and richness of Pétrus, Le Pin is more elegant.” Then we go over to L’If in St. Emilion, where Jacques aims to repeat the experience of le Pin in another appellation. After lunch with Jacques and his nephew Cyrille, who manages L’If, on to another Thienpont family property, Vieux Chateau Certan, managed by Alexandre, who believes that the high proportion of Cabernet Franc is important in the character. “Instead of a monodimensional wine that is pure Merlot, the Cabernet Franc gives complexity… People are coming back to complexity.”

Dinner with Jonathan and Lynn Maltus at Chateau Teyssier. Since coming from Britain 20 years ago, Jonathan has built Chateau Teyssier into one of the larger properties in St. Emilion, but is now equally well known for his four single vineyard wines, which fall into two pairs. Le Carré and Les Astéries are 200 yards apart, but Le Carré is plush whereas Les Astéries is all tension. “This is the least Maltus-like wine I make; our other wines are accused of being North American in style.” In the other pair, Le Dôme actually used to be part of Vieux Chateau Mazerat, but “this is one of three garage wines that have become proper wines (the others are Valandraud and La Mondotte).”

Wednesday: Finished the day at Jean Luc Thunevin’s cramped offices in St. Emilion. The self-named bad boy of St. Emilion was inclined to philosophize on this occasion. The first garagiste has been very canny in turning Valandraud into a real chateau, with some vineyards in the eastern part of St. Emilion, but not surprisingly doesn’t bow to the god of terroir. “There are many cases where terroir hasn’t changed but people have variously made poor wine or great wine.”

Bordeaux is fairly regarded as closed: not very receptive to outsiders (at least not unless they come with very deep pockets) but here are three who have more than bucked the trend, in fact they have created a new trend towards expression of special sites and methods for achieving ultimate quality.

A Visit to Jean Luc Thunevin: the Bad Boy of St. Emilion Explains his Philosophy

My visit to Jean Luc got off to an interesting start when I explained that I was writing a book called The Wines of Modern France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers. He looked slightly quizzical. “You don’t believe that France can be modern,” I asked, as that’s a wry response that has been made by other producers in France. “The title of your book seems curious to me because even the classic are modern now,” he explained. “I give you an example,” he continued. “Le Pin: is it a modern wine or a classic? It’s not a garage wine but it inspired me.” Then another example: “It’s not so easy to find a classic wine: Léoville Barton? But it’s also a modern wine.” Then a little more argumentative: “the image of modern wine is new oak. But then Mouton 1947 was a modern wine.”

True to the French tradition, Jean Luc then asked what is the philosophy of modernity. “The success of modernity is to be able to have a product that pleases the clients,” he concluded. “What’s a wine that’s a has-been? It’s one that doesn’t please the clients.” I argued that Valandraud was a modern wine that altered the paradigm by introducing changes that many others followed, first in St. Emilion and then elsewhere. Jean Luc agreed at least that he is a modernist. “I’m modern, I was the first garagiste. We protected the fruits, took precautions against oxidation, introduced green harvest, leaf pulling. Everyone does it now.”

“The first wine that I loved was Pétrus. Then Le Pin was my inspiration,” he explained, “I wanted to make a wine like Le Pin, hedonistic and sexy, soft and chic.” This seemed to be an argument for instant gratification, so I asked about the importance of ageability. “Ageability is a big obligation of Bordeaux,” he agreed, “everyone wants wine that can age because of Bordeaux. But happily we can now make wines that are good now and age well. When I started people said Valandraud would not last more than ten years, but now it has lasted thirty years.” Later he proved his point by pulling out a 2002 Valandraud for tasting. “I give you this because it’s easy to make a sexy wine in a good year, but this was a difficult year.” The wine was delicious, just on the tipping point into tertiary development. I asked how long Jean Luc thinks it will last. “It’s a baby, it’s just beginning to develop,” he said. “The 1992 is still good and we didn’t have the same techniques then, for example, sorting,” he explained.

I thought I might provoke an interesting response by asking whether garage wines are finished. “As a phenomenon, that’s sure. But not as a niche. And there are garagistes in other places, Spain for example. But anyway, it’s not the phenomenon of garage wines, it’s the phenomenon of expensive wines.” Of course, Valandraud has now come a long way from its origins as a garage wine: it’s now a St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. Doesn’t the latest reclassification in St. Emilion show a big change in attitude, I asked. “You have a point,” Jean Luc agreed. “It’s hard for people to accept that success can depend on a person and (just) on the terroir. But it’s only fifty years since the first classification. At that time it was incredible to believe that St. Emilion would be ready for reclassification in ten years…Angelus’s promotion is due to Hubert de Bouard’s talent… If Cheval Blanc hadn’t had good proprietors, it wouldn’t have become a Premier Grand Cru Classé.”

As you might expect from the first garagiste, Jen Luc has some reservations about terroir. “People don’t understand what is good terroir. They confuse aesthetics with reality. I give you the example of Chateau Rayas—the soil is sandy… It’s (only) necessary that the soil isn’t bad, not too dry, not too wet. You have to have good berries.”

Jean Luc has a strong sense of independence, but for all his success, no pretension. We met above the l’Essential wine shop in his tiny office, where Jean Luc has a desk at one end and his assistants are grouped at the other end. “There’s a glass ceiling in the Médoc, he said, “I could get nowhere, but in St. Emilion the door was open. I sell my wine in my boutique, I don’t need negociants, I don’t need to export, I have autonomy.” Then we went down to the wine shop and tasted the 2011 Valandraud—“this was an austere year in Bordeaux, the problem for me was to make a sexy wine”—followed by the 2002. Jean Luc sent the shop manager up to the office to collect the staff, who came down to try the 2002. It was a good end to the day, with appreciative murmurs all round.

Will L’If Become the Le Pin of St. Emilion: Jacques Thienpont Strikes Again?

When Jacques Thienpont started Le Pin in 1979, he had no idea it was going to become one of the most famous—and at one time the most expensive—wine of Pomerol. Owned by the Laubie family since 1924, this tiny vineyard of 1.2 ha was located between Vieux Chateau Certan (also owned by the Thienpont family) and Trotanoy (one of Moueix’s leading properties). The Thienponts knew it was special terroir, and the original plan was to buy it to add to Vieux Chateau Certan, but the family did not want to pay the price, so Jacques bought it himself, paying a million francs for it (equivalent to 150,000 euros or $200,000).

The small scale of production, high price, character of 100% Merlot, and concentrated character of the wine led it to be grouped with the garage wines, although this has never really been an appropriate description, since it comes from prime terroir, and winemaking does not use any extreme methods. Subsequently some more small plots, contiguous with the original holding, were added to bring the total size up to 2.7 ha. There is no second wine at Le Pin, but there is another label called Trilogie, which is a blend across three successive vintages.LePin-original

The original house at Le Pin.

LepinS

The new winery

The property takes its name from the massive pine tree that stands just in front of the winery. Jacques now seems to be repeating history with the recent purchase of a property in St. Emilion, originally Chateau Haut-Plantey, but now renamed L’If (the French for yew tree).

My visit to Le Pin this week started out at the new winery, a contemporary jewel that replaced the old building in 2012, more than thirty years after the original purchase. Then we visited L’If, where the building is pretty dilapidated, but modern equipment has been installed inside. The old large fermentation tanks have been replaced with a variety of tanks to allow fermentation of individual plots. The original purchase included 5 ha in single block around the building, and another 2 ha close by; another hectare has since been added, bringing the total to 8 ha. This is good terroir, a nice slope just under Chateau Troplong Mondot, with a view across to the church at St. Emilion. There’s lots of limestone, which will be planted with Cabernet Franc; Merlot will be retained or planted on the plots with more clay. “It’s good terroir, but we will have to start from scratch, because they used weed killer,” Jacques says.

Almost half of the property has been pulled out for replanting. 1 ha is about to be replanted, and another 2 ha will be uprooted shortly; the land will be left fallow for four years before replanting, and then it will be three years till the first grapes are ready to use, so for the next 7 years production will be down. Cabernet Sauvignon has been removed—this is not a good spot for it, says Cyrille Thienpont, who is managing the property (and we will meet again at other Thienpont properties). Replanting will bring the varieties to a mix of about 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. The big debate of the moment is how much to increase the density of planting from the present 6,500 vines/ha. With any significant increase come additional costs such as the need for different tractors that can handle narrower rows. I asked Jacques whether he was going to be frantically busy at harvest with two properties, but he explained that, even though the distance between the properties is only about five miles, L’If always harvests about three weeks later than Le Pin. “When we are putting wine into the barrels at Le Pin, we know it’s time to go and do the harvest at L’If,” he says. The first vintage to be released under the L’If name is 2011.

Coming from Pomerol, where there is no classification, Jacques does not intend L’If to become part of the St. Emilion classification. It may join Chateau Tertre Rôteboeuf as one of the most significant unclassified properties in the appellation. No one could have forecast Le Pin’s rise to fame, but it’s much easier to prophesy that we’re going to hear a good deal about L’If once the project really gets under way: Jacques hopes it will take less than the thirty years he’s been at Le Pin to fructify. Whether it will rise to the dizzy heights of challenging the top wines of the appellation remains to be seen.