We always assumed we’d be headed for Bordeaux and the Primeurs for the 2019 vintage this week. But, of course, the COVID-19 virus has turned the world upside down, disrupting day-to-day activites and events around the globe. Bordeaux Futures seem pretty trivial at the moment. Perhaps we’ll know something about the 2019 vintage this summer or this fall. For now, we wait….
In the meantime, we can at least share our conversation with Guillaume Thienpont — an inspiring young man, as is his family, who have survived the ups and downs of winemaking for decades.
Our Conversation with Guillaume Thienpont
When your father is considered one of the most brilliant winemakers in the world and your cousin makes one of the most sought-after wines on the planet, while several other cousins make highly-regarded wine as well…. you might think twice about taking on a vineyard. For many, the family dynamics might be overwhelming.
Fortunately, that’s not even remotely the case with Guillaume Thienpont. This is a man who has eagerly seized his destiny. His father, of course, is Alexandre Thienpont, proprietor of Vieux Château Certan, while his cousin Jacques Thienpont owns the mythical Château Le Pin.
The family is originally from Belgium, and have been involved with wine for decades. There’s no doubt that the Thienpont DNA is incontrovertibly stamped with fermented grapes.
Georges Thienpont was one of the first family members to settle in Bordeaux. A négociant, he also owned Château Troplong Mondot in Saint-Émilion. He later purchased Vieux Château Certan in 1924. Unfortunately, a few years later, economic depression and poor weather made for precarious times in Bordeaux. During three horrific years — 1931, 1932, 1933 — Vieux Château Certan produced nothing. Devastated, Georges Thienpont was forced to choose between properties. He sold Château Troplong Mondot and kept the vineyards of Vieux Château Certan.
“It must have been incredibly tough. But he made the right decision,” Guillaume remarks confidently, as we discuss his Great-Great Grandfather’s predicament. “The terroir here is really special. The iron deposit or “Crasse de Fer” (Blue Clay) as we say, is particularly unique to this area of Pomerol.”
“How old were you when you began helping out at the Château?” we ask.
“For as long as I can remember,” he laughs. “I always loved following my Dad around. Obviously I was learning about winemaking, but I didn’t think about it. I just enjoyed spending time with him.”
Alexandre Thienpont, Guillaume’s dad, began managing VCC full time in 1985. He worked tirelessly to replant vineyards and renovate the winemaking facilities. He also implemented green harvesting and reduced yields. Later, he even created a second wine – La Gravette de Certan. Eventually, Vieux Château Certan became one of the most respected estates in Pomerol. Many feel VCC is on a par with their renowned neighbor, Pétrus.
Guillaume graduated from Bordeaux University with degrees in agricultural engineering and enology. From there, he spent time at some of the top vineyards in the world: Ornellaia in Tuscany, Château Margaux in Bordeaux, Domaine Jean Grivot in Burgundy and Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley. Back at home, in 2011, he began to officially partner with his father.
This past fall, we were lucky enough to taste with both Guillaume and Alexandre. Hearing the back story on the vintages we sampled and listening to the two talented winemakers discuss their craft was a remarkable experience. We were struck too by the many similarities between father and son. Not only do they look alike and use the same gestures, but both men are soft-spoken and unpretentious. Their quiet reserve, however, belies a quick wit and impish sense of humor — the Thienponts love to share humorous anecdotes and quips.
A few weeks ago, we sat down and chatted extensively with Guillaume about Vieux Château Certan, his other projects and the future of Bordeaux.
You spent time at some very prestigious properties before returning home to help manage VCC. What did you find most useful during that period?
It was all a great experience for me. Seeing how wine is made around the world in very different climates was invaluable. Napa, Tuscany and Australia, of course, are much warmer than Bordeaux and I felt it was a glimpse of our future, as we work to deal with global warming. I was impressed with the precision and attention to details I observed. I guess I also learned what not to do in certain situations.
What did you see that you thought was not so appropriate?
I don’t want to elaborate too much about that, but I made my own critique and that is what I believe is very important when you are experiencing ouside of your “garden.” (We try to pull a bit more from him — but Guillaume is very discreet!)
What I believe, is that a winemaker’s primary job is to care for what nature provides — to keep the vineyards as untouched as possible. At VCC we have exceptional terroir and old vines. We respect what we have here. I don’t want anything to be spoiled because of something I do. On the other hand, we always strive to improve the precise vineyard management by gathering accurate information that helps with the decision-making. Then, the work by itself is very much manual because it is still the softest and most respectful to the vines.
Watch this brief video to hear Guillaume Thienpont explain the origin of the rose-colored cap that makes the VCC bottle so distinctive.
Currently how do you and your father split up the responsibilities and workload for VCC?
My dad knows every inch of this property and its history. He has the long view. So, generally he manages the estate. During harvest he’s outside with the team, then my job is mostly in the cellar. I enjoy experiencing other techniques and I like adapting new approaches. In that way, we compliment each other really well.
Do both you and your father blend the wines?
Yes. Again, we’re very compatible. And I have great respect for his knowledge of the history of the property and his vision. On those occasions where we might not agree, I defer to his insight and experience.
Speaking of your interest in “precise winemaking” , you recently set up a lab. How’s that going?
The lab has made a big difference for us in many areas. We’ve made a number of improvements based on our findings. Also, we take fewer risks because we’re informed more quickly and then we can act more accurately. And, since I run the tests myself and work up the analysis, I’m confident of the results.
During harvest we can verify how the blocks are ripening in addition to tasting the berries daily and observing the evolution of the vineyards. The lab takes out the guess work. We’re more accurate when picking the fruit. We know when we can wait a bit more, or push a little more. We’ve also developed remote sensing techniques in the vineyard, again, to improve the precision of our manual work. In the end, all of that extra-information gives us more flexibility and precision for the good of the wine.
So how was the 2019 harvest?
It was a pretty dry year, but we were saved by rain just at the right moment. The rain helped with maturation and to add balance and freshness. I think with this vintage, we’re back to Bordeaux and that feels good! By that, I mean the wines are more elegant and complex. They are multidimensional. Even if it is a bit early to say, I could prefer 2019 to the last vintage. For me, the 2018 weather pattern was a little extreme and that was unusual for Bordeaux. I like when the weather allows for the most complex wine style.
What about 2017? After the frost, critics and collectors seemed to write off the whole vintage.
The early part of the season was very difficult for some properties. We had no frost here at VCC, thanks to our location on the plateau of Pomerol. But we were only 0.5°C from frost damages. Mostly we noticed that the berries developed early and were quite concentrated. But there was a lot of freshness. Personally, I believe that 2017 will be superb in six or seven years. It’s a long-keeping wine. You’ll see — 2017 will be a rediscovery. (NOTE: Guillaume didn’t have to wait too long for a rediscovery. In-bottle ratings just released for 2017 VCC were outstanding: Jeb Dunnuck wrote that the 2017 VCC is “possibly the wine of the vintage” and awarded a 98-point rating. Other scores were also the highest given in the vintage: Antonio Galloni-98, Wine Spectator-98, James Suckling-98, Wine Enthusiast-96. Meanwhile the 2017 Le Pin garnered top ratings as well: Wine Spectator-98, Suckling-97)
You mentioned that you were replanting several parcels with Cabernet Franc because of concerns about Merlot and global warming. Could you elaborate? We realize too that there is a history of high Cabernet Franc blends at VCC — 2003 had 80%, for example.
It’s impossible to deny global warming. It seems as if each summer is hotter and drier. We can replace Merlot with Cabernet Franc, but even more worrisome is that we’re noticing the new vines don’t seem to be as strong as they were in the past. Because it’s so warm and dry now, they’re just not as vigorous.
Do you think irrigation might be allowed in the future?
No, no — I don’t think irrigation is the answer. My time in “New World” vineyards was really valuable in that regard. You don’t want the vines to become dependent on irrigation. In our situation, dry farming is so far the only way for the vines to have healthy, strong root systems. I think the best solution, among others, could be more drought adapted root stocks– vines adapted to grow to these conditions. Either that, or maybe in the future we’ll buy property in Scotland. I’m joking, of course — there are plenty of experiments going on at this moment to develop more drought-adapted techniques. We’ll have something at some point.
You’re involved in a number of projects currently. In addition to your responsibilities at VCC, you help manage Le Pin, make L’Étoile in Lalande-de-Pomerol and you’ve taken over the technical management at Château Guillot Clauzel.
At Le Pin, my father and I co-manage the property with my cousin Jacques Thienpont. Other than VCC, I probably spend more time there because it’s the next largest of all the properties.
In Lalande-de-Pomerol, the wines are often over-extracted and over-oaked. So at L’Étoile my Uncle François Thienpont and I are basically trying to make wines we ourselves would like to drink — kind of our hobby.
Château Guillot Clauzel is up and coming. I think it has great potential. The property has good exposure and the vines are from the 60‘s. I just released the first vintage in the 2018 Primeurs and the ratings were pretty good. (NOTE: The ratings in fact were excellent. Suckling: 95-96, Wine Advocate: 92-94, Galloni: 90-93)
How do you balance your time to manage all this?
What do you mean? I’m not sure I understand the question. I’m making wine. That’s what I do. And I find it extremely satisfying.
Good answer! What else would we have expected from a 6th generation winemaker. Guillaume has a spectacular family legacy and big shoes to fill someday — but he’s passionate, smart, well prepared and at over 6’ 3” tall, he seems built for the part.
We’re pleased to offer a selection of these superb wines:
Vieux Château Certan
1999. $189.99. 1 bottle
2002. $169.99. 2 bottles
2003. $199.99. 1 bottle
2004. $179.99. 1 bottle
2007. $174.99. 2 bottles
2013. $159.99. 11 bottles.
2016. NM-100 AG-100 RP-100 JD-100 JS-99. $329.99. 16 bottles
2017. JD-98 WS-98 JS-98. $219.99. 51 bottles
More outstanding wines from the Pomerol appellation:
2009. RP-100. $299.99. 5 bottles
2010. JS-97 RP-96+ $149.99. 15 bottles
2013. $79.99. 12 bottles
2014. $75.99. 27 bottles
2015. JS-99 DC-98. $129.99. 12 bottles
2016. JD-99. RP-97. $99.99. 12 bottles
2016 Fleur de Clinet. $44.99. 44 bottles
2016 Pomerol by Clinet. $39.99. 28 bottles
2018 Ronan by Clinet Blanc. $13.99. 60 bottles
2015 Ronan by Clinet Rouge. $12.99. 47 bottles
Additional Highly-Rated Pomerols
2003 Château Lafleur. WS-97. $855.99. 4 bottles
2008 ChâteauLe Gay. $109.99. 14 bottles
2009 Château Nenin. $79.99. 12 bottles
2010 Château Croix de Gay. $54.99. 24 bottles
2012 Château la Fleur de Gay. $79.99. 12 bottles
2015 Château Petit Village. JS-96. $79.99. 10 bottles
2015 Château La Conseillante. JD-98 AG-97 RP-96+ $178.99. 12 bottles
2015 Château L’Evangile. JS-100 JD-99 RP-97. $213.99. 18 bottles
2016 Château La Violette. JD-97 RP-97. $298.99. 12 bottles