Sitting at the large dining table in Le Petit Palais, overlooking the vineyards of Le Pin and the beautifully elegant winery, I stop and contemplate how I ended up spending the 2018 vintage with Jacques and Fiona Thienpont. It slowly sinks in that at last I’m back with blistered and stained hands making wine once again. It has been over 16 years since I last stepped into a winery during vintage and prepared the hoses and pump for the morning remontage and good lord how I had missed the feeling… the aromas and atmosphere are intoxicating - and what a place to work the vintage. Someone or something is smiling on me from above…
It had been over a supper in the North of England that the plan had been born. Talking about my previous experiences and how I longed to be back working the vendange once again, Fiona, perhaps in a throw away comment, suggested that I come down to Pomerol for the 2018 vintage and work with the team at Le Pin. “Pardon!?” I think was my initial response, quickly followed by “OMG, count me in!” with a succession of emails and phone calls over the following months to reinforce my commitment to the unbelievable offer.
Fast forward 10 months and I’m driving up to the house sitting next to the vineyards and unpacking my things as quickly as possible to make sure I was fully established before judgment got the better of them both and I was sent packing back to the UK.
Walking over to the winery on the very first morning I must admit I was massively apprehensive about stepping through the door and trying to blag my way through the first crushing of the first pick of grapes from the younger vines at Le Pin. I did my best to very confidently wander over to the sorting table in the vineyard, nodding approvingly at the workers carefully removing any bunches or berries that did not make the grade before the tractor started its 2 minute journey to the winery doors. Luckily Fiona and Jacques’ second son, William, had stopped in at the winery on his way home from a cycling holiday in Southern France to help with the first day of harvest and I could watch them work the crusher / de-stemmer and pretend to know exactly what I was doing. But in all honesty it did not take long to feel back at home in the winery environment; the ‘winemaking’ bug was as strong as ever and I couldn’t wait for the ferment to kick in and the pump-overs to start.
Picker at Le Pin
Remontage or ‘pump-overs’ are one of the many forms of fermentation management. The fermenting juice is drained from the bottom of the tank, then pumped back over the top of the skins (the ‘cap’) to prevent the skins from drying out. This allows oxygen back into the ferment to keep the yeasts alive and working away at the sugars and also increases the extraction of colour, tannins and flavour from the skins into the fermenting juice below. Every winery has a slightly different time management for remontage, be it 10 minutes twice a day or 30 minutes once a day or 15 minutes three times a day – it is all down to the head winemaker, and their understanding of the vineyard and vintage conditions, to decide on a daily basis exactly what is required.
Opening the door every morning, now that the first fermentation has started, is like walking into aromatic heaven. If you have never experienced the sights and smells of a working winery then it is best described as a sensory overload. It is shame that smell-o-vision is not available as I would love to be able to share that initial hit of fermentation when you open the doors: dark berries and cassis, mixed with a strange, yeasty ‘lovliness’ is something that should be bottled.
I have been extremely lucky and hugely honoured to have spent many hours during this first week in the sole company of both Jacques and Fiona, be it working the hoses and pumps in the winery, driving around their vineyards in St Emilion (l’If) and the Cotes de Castillon (l’Hetre), or wandering around the markets of Libourne to pick up a roast chicken or a couple of dozen oysters for lunch back at Le Petit Palais before heading back to the winery in the late afternoon to set up again for the evening work.
Jacques Thienpont at the oyster stall in Libourne
“Everything that is magical about Le Pin rests in the vineyards” is their philosophy – and the work in the winery is homage to the quality of the fruit coming from the vines surrounding the building. There is no fancy equipment, no chilling machines or areas for pre-fermentation maceration. The winery is probably the neatest and cleanest winery I have ever worked in and the atmosphere and ambience is wonderfully calming. It is a truly special place.
This morning has been spent with the team over at Chateau l’If in St Emilion, working on the sorting table as the first bunches arrive for the 2018 harvest. With Fiona on the other side of the conveyor and a pair of snips in my hands, we chat about the property, the changes they have made in the vineyards and the true potential of the wines to be made at the estate. NB if you are not on the waiting list to secure a case of l’If when released every year my advice is ‘sort it out’ – the wine are fabulous already but this is only the 7th year of the Thienponts controlling the estate; and with their comprehensive replanting program amongst other changes in the vineyard, this property it is only just beginning to show its true class. The wines will only get better and better.
Sorting Table at L'If
L’Hetre is the latest project from Jacques and Fiona – with Jacques’ nephew Maxime moving from Labegorce Zede in Margaux to become a Director of the project and wine maker. It is situated in the Cotes de Castillon and very reasonably priced (albeit sold out) with the thinking being that those that seek out the wine in the early years will be massively rewarded in terms of price / value ratio, and that the market will slowly set the price of the wines moving forward. There’s one other treat for the real wine geeks, and something that will drive someone like me crazy: below is a picture of the only three barrels of L’Hetre Blanc 2018, the first white wine to bemade by the Thienponts. Sadly it is only for in-house entertaining and family consumption. (I did insist on a taste… it had only just started fermenting so I can’t derive much from it - but at least I can lay claim to being the first non-family member to sample this new project).
Three Barrels of L'Hetre Blanc
For the next 2-3 weeks I will send through regular updates on the winery, vintage, people and life at Le Pin, Chateau l’If and l’Hetre and try and convey just how lucky I am to be in the company of two of the nicest, most generous and honest people I know in the wine industry. A very special experience indeed.