It's hard to believe that this most iconic of wines has only been around since 1979, the year when Léon Thienpont bought a hectare of vines for 1 million francs from the neighboring Loubie family, who had been farming the grapes and happily sending them off to be made into generic Lalande-de-Pomerol since 1924.
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It helped that Thienpont was in charge of organizing the collection plate for the local Pomerol church and so was first in line for village gossip. The Loubie family asked him to take the land off its hands, and hoped he could integrate it into his Vieux Château Certan (VCC) estate. Thienpont faced resistance from his own family who felt that his existing 14 hectares (35 acres) were plenty, and that he would be overpaying.
Eventually Gérard Thienpont, based back in Belgium, his brother Marcel and Marcel's son Jacques looked carefully at the soil, saw how different it was from their own terroir at VCC (the gravel at Le Pin is up to three meters deep), and decided to make it as a separate wine – retaining its original name, in reference to a lone pine tree at the property. "It was barely as big as a vegetable garden," says Jacques, "so we felt it would be possible to do something interesting with it."
Today Jacques owns just over 80 percent of the property, and his cousin Alexandre (Leon's son) the remainder, and today he’s the man in charge of the vineyard (with some help from his own son Guillaume), while Jacques remains the winemaker. Along the way, an extra hectare of vines was added in 1984, and a few more rows in 2008, but they are adamant that no further expansion will take place so as not to change the character of Le Pin. In fact, an excellent plot of vines adjoining Le Pin was up for sale last year, and they didn’t buy it.
|First produced 1974, with its reputation really established by the mid-1980s|
|Second wine: No second wine, but grapes rejected for Le Pin are used for AOC Pomerol, Trilogy|
|Owners: The Thienpont family|
|Size: 2.7 hectares (6.7 acres)|
|Production 6000-7000 bottles per year|
|Consulting enologoist: Dany Rolland (wife of Michel Rolland)|
The gravelly soils are planted to Merlot (there are also small amounts of Cabernet Franc, but these vines don’t make it into the wine), all naturally low yielding and giving super-concentrated flavors. Now approaching 40 years of age (except a few more recent replantings), they make around of 500-600 cases per year. Not, however, in 2013, where the yields were down to a fraction of the usual amount, furnishing around 13 barrels compared to the usual 26 – and not even all were to be used in the main wine.
Le Pin is famously lush. Alexandre Thienpont compares it to La Tâche for its velvety texture and rich floral aroma, and it can be drunk fairly young as the tannins somehow manage to be soft and plush almost from the off. But it will also age exceptionally well – a fact that many critics underestimated at first. Simon Larkin of Atlas Fine Wines calls Le Pin: "Pretty much the ultimate collector wine. People approach it more like a Burgundian collection, with an emotional attachment rather than an eye on speculation."
Larkin would suggest, if you are able to finance it, getting hold of the 2001. "It’s priced right now around £9000 ($15,400) for a case of six, compared to maybe £16,000 ($27,400) for the 2000, and the gulf between the two vintages is nowhere near that big. For me, the 2001 may even be a better wine than the 2000. Le Pin, with its small scale and the talent of its winemaker, will always do well in the smaller vintages."
So is the new winery – completed in 2012 by Belgian architects Robbrecht & Daem – going to change anything? Not according to Jacques. "It’s a pleasure to make the wines now because the equipment is better; we have thermoregulation that we didn’t have before. I maybe miss that the old cellar was more artisan, but I am far less stressed during harvest."
The key figures here are Jacques Thienpont and Fiona Morrison, one of the uncontested power couples of the wine world. Since getting married in 1997, they divide their time between Belgium, where they run the family négociant business, and their winery in France. Fiona is also a Master of Wine, writer, wine consultant at Christie's and creates wine lists for restaurants. But although Jacques and Fiona are most readily associated with Le Pin, both of them would be very happy to point out the role played by Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan. He has a one-sixth share in the property, and is the man responsible for the upkeep of the vineyard throughout the year.
Not a lot of people know it but...
Not content with a solitary pine, Jacques has added a yew tree to his collection in the form of L’If, an eight-hectare (20-acre) Saint-Émilion estate that he purchased as Château Haut-Plantey in 2010. This is run by Jacques’ nephew Cyrille (son of Nicolas Thienpont), who takes care of the vineyard while Jacques makes the wine, following the same basic task-splitting as in Pomerol.
Since the purchase, they have been concentrating on getting the vines into shape, completing a geological survey, pulling up a plot of Cabernet Sauvignon and replanting with a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Five hectares are currently planted, the rest lying fallow. The winery building itself remains small, crumbling and unobtrusive. "And if it’s anything like Le Pin," Cyrille said, "it will stay that way for the next 20 years. We believe in putting the money into the soil first."
There are two little known facts worth sharing about L’If. First, there is no yew tree on the estate, unlike the pine tree at its sister property. "We just liked the possiblilities of the name," Cyrille said. "The sense of belonging to the family of wines of Le Pin, and also a play on the English meaning of If … the challenge of seeing if it can measure up."
The other is the family history behind its purchase. The first of the family to arrive in Bordeaux, Georges Thienpont, purchased Troplong Mondot in 1920. He spoke of how much he loved the château, but was forced to sell it after the 1929 crash. His grandson Jacques saw a happy symmetry in buying this plot of land, directly next door to Troplong, and bringing things full circle.
What the critics say
You have to go a long way to find a wine critic who doesn’t speak highly of Le Pin. In terms of Parker points, it seems to hover in the 95-plus range most years, although the 1998 and 2009 received 100 points on release.
According to Bordeaux Traders, this doesn’t stop it from being one of the soundest investments you can make. If you had bought Le Pin 2000 on release (96 points, $12,790 at the time for case of six) you would now be looking at a case worth $59,100 a rise of more than 400 percent. Larkin agrees. "Its prices are holding up much better than some of the other icon wines of Bordeaux, particularly those from the Left Bank. There is just so little available that even if wine [investment] funds buy Le Pin, they are unlikely to be able to get enough of it to disrupt the wider market."
The Thienponts may be low-key, but they are not afraid to take the money when it’s available – 2009 Le Pin, for example, was released at $1630 per bottle, which was 161 percent up on the 2008 and 100 percent up on the 2005. But they are also obsessive about quality – there was no wine made in 2003 after the heatwave summer and, in 2013, they have made just three barrels. "There is going to be no 2013 released en primeur. It will be sold in bottle, or at the very least not until after the 2014 vintage," Jacques confirmed this week. He watches over the commercial side of things carefully; only 40 percent of production is sold in Bordeaux and the rest is sold straight to wine merchants in distributor countries.