“Making wines that are neither New World nor last century”
In Bordeaux the Thienponts have long been known as people of few words. This reserve has been a family trait down the generations and is also characteristic of Guillaume Thienpont, who now works alongside his father Alexandre on their Pomerol estate. If they aren’t much given to talking it’s so they can concentrate more effectively on the tasks in their vineyard and winery. In addition to the arrival of Guillaume, new methods enable them to work this unusual terroir to the greatest effect. All the optimization serves the expression of aroma and taste, “the main virtue of Grands Vins” says the vineyard owner, setting the tone for our conversation. So these are wines in tune with their times, but never inauthentic; they maintain their elegance and aging potential, always expressing the freshness and persistence of their high percentage of cabernets franc.
Vieux château certan was born in 1745, making it one of the oldest wineries in Pomerol. On the famous map drawn up by the 18th century geographer Pierre de Belleyme, the estate already appears with the appellation “Sertan”, giving the locality the name certan we know today, rather than the other way round, as is the usual case on the left bank. Handed down from father to son, Vieux Château Certan has belonged to the Thienpont family, of Flemish origins, for almost a century. Wine dealer Georges Thienpont first bought the estate in 1924 (he already owned château Troplong Mondot, which he sold after the financial crash of 1929); it then passed to the next generation with léon, who was succeeded by Alexandre in 1985, followed by the arrival of Guillaume in 2011. “My approach is the same as my father’s – exploiting all the potential of blending in our search for complexity.”
By good fortune the grapes historically planted at Vieux château certan include the three great Bordeaux varieties, all at home on this excellent clay and gravel terroir of 14 unbroken hectares in the center of the plateau. “In the wine the merlot (70% of the vineyard) is all attack, whereas the cabernet franc (25%) is expressed from the middle of the mouth to the finish. Meanwhile the cabernet-sauvignon (5%) gives the wine both backbone and a little twist of fresh lemon that galvanizes the whole.” Guillaume goes on, “Yes, the cabernets francs rule the roost at Vieux Château Certan, but only as long as they are willing to give us optimal ripeness.” This variety, which requires a long, constant ripening cycle, can become “blocked” in very sunny years
due to sudden heat waves. Recent vintages from the estate that do it justice include the 2004, 2006 and 2008 (35% of the blend is cabernet franc), not forgetting the superb 2011, in which the drought enabled this noble variety to extend its cycle to the maximum. The great early harvest vintages are more dedicated to merlot, which ripens more quickly – 2005, 2009, 2010 (up to 86%), 2015 and 2016 which is still aging. “But that’s all theory. When we tip over into extremes, all the rules fly out the window, as in 2013 when the cabernet franc should have had the advantage, but the merlot came off best.” And then there are the vintages where both varieties are equally excellent, as in the very fine 2014: “The blend is not a matter of arithmetical balance between the two varieties, but ensuring the aromatic expression in the glass elevates both to the same degree.”
The challenge to avoiding the leafy aromas of cabernet franc is to be able to reach total phenolic maturity before harvesting “without running the risk of making New World wines that are too high in alcohol.” But Guillaume doesn’t seem overly worried about this. He counts on the muted qualities of his old merlots (average age 50) and the freshness that cabernet franc always brings to the blend. With the reticence typical of the whole family, he tells us nothing about his life until we ask. Then we hear how his many experiences abroad have enabled him to see how merlots behave in much hotter, drier latitudes, from california’s Napa Valley to Tuscany (Ornellaia no less!). “We’ve got some flexibility here. There’s no need to start panicking when the lower leaves start turning yellow on the vines. Moderate hydric stress is beneficial to making he vines produce grapes of good quality.”
To aim for the harvest window that is just right for each vine in each parcel, Guillaume and Alexandre put their trust in, among other things, the vigor of the vine. unlike many estates that subcontract analysis, they do them in-house. “When I was younger I’d go up in a plane with my father – he’s a pilot – and my camera, but now we scan the vineyard ourselves to get more detail.” In addition to a ten-fold increase in wine quality through better monitoring of ripeness, measuring vigor in this way has other benefits, including helping to fine-tune the complexities of the blends that are so dear to the hearts of both winemakers. When harvest time comes around the decision to pick is based on tasting the grapes and taking samples. If the hypotheses are confirmed, the decision to harvest is made. A sorting table specially designed for the estate follows the harvesters along the rows of vines and, once the grapes have arrived at the winery, they are sorted again twice before they go into the vats.
So what does Guillaume do in the fermentation room? We should explain that he has a degree in agricultural engineering and enology from Bordeaux university, since again, he doesn’t tell us himself. “We keep our interventions at a low level – fermentation takes place in oak vats at controlled temperatures and we just make extractions very gently. We work to ensure that the wine reflects as closely as possible what happened before in the vineyard. At the end of the transformation process we are able to decide which lots will go into the Grand Vin and which
to the second wine, which was created in 1985 with the name La Gravette de Certan. This second wine makes our style accessible at a very good price.” The selections are made solely on the basis of tasting. No parcels are automatically attributed to either wine. The lots of young wines are not systematically sent to la Gravette, because before becoming too vigorous, these vines can bring a fine fruitiness to the blend. “Any source of diversity can contribute to the ultimate expression.”
So what does the future hold? While working on quality, father and son always bear in mind the crucial issue of the vineyard’s longevity, given that it is located in Pomerol on less than 15 hectares and global demand for their wine is on an upward curve. The age their vines have now reached is a real advantage for the quality of the wine but also leads to decreasing output (a large proportion of vines in the Bordeaux region had to be replaced at the same time following the frosts of 1956). “We are gradually replanting. We have to re-establish a staggered approach to avoid going over a cliff-edge in 50 years’ time.” And their planting priority? cabernet franc!