An immodestly brilliant Pomerol…
The first test of a truly great man is his humility,” asserted the English art critic and social theorist John Ruskin, whose contemporaries were unlikely to have accused him of possessing an undue measure of this virtue. Hardly a subject existed on which Ruskin did not hold an opinion that could fill at least half a dozen treatises, and his essays on architecture, botany, zoology, poetry, and philosophy were followed by several more in which he offers his own blueprint for the ideal society. The immodesty of his own intellect, however, does not invalidate his observation, which neatly describes a contemporary gentleman of considerable—if more specialized—accomplishments: Alexandre Thienpont, the present steward of one of France’s most remarkable plots of land, Vieux Château Certan. “This is my house of work,” says Thienpont of the elegant, wisteria-clad 18th-century stone château in Pomerol that forms the centerpiece of the 40 meticulous acres that his grandfather, the Belgian wine merchant Georges Thienpont, purchased in 1924. “It is my office, mon bureau.”
Such comments come as close to a boast as one is likely to hear from the lips of Thienpont, who worked on the property as a child and apprenticed at other wineries in Bordeaux before assuming the role of director at VCC in 1985. Although he is largely credited with restoring the estate to its peak potential after a decline in quality during the 1980s (a period when his father, Léon, suffered a serious illness), he nevertheless remains dismissive of his own contributions. “I am being rewarded by the efforts of earlier generations,” he says. “The vineyards do the work.”
Composed of varying proportions of heavy clay and gravel, the soil of VCC resides in one of oenology’s more exclusive neighborhoods. Situated on a plateau at the center of Pomerol, the estate borders Château l’Évangile, Château Pétrus, and Château la Conseillante; across the road, where the Saint-Émilion region begins, stand the outlying vines of Château Cheval Blanc. Yet these distinguished properties might just as readily bask in their proximity to VCC, which has produced one of the greatest Pomerols since the mid-19th century; in fact, until Pétrus garnered attention after winning a gold medal at the 1878 Paris exposition, VCC’s preeminence went unchallenged.
Throughout his tenure, Thienpont has upheld this imposing standard. His implementation of green harvests to reduce yields, rigorous de-stemming, and temperature controls on the winery’s oak vats has added high polish to the natural beauty of the estate’s terroir. Among the extraordinary vintages for which he is personally responsible are the precisely balanced wines from 1986, 1988, and 1998, as well as the richer renditions of 2000 and 2005. However, his most astounding achievement may be the trinity that emerged in 2008, 2009, and 2010—three quite different yet matchless wines reputed to rival the legendary ones produced in 1947, 1948, and 1949. The 2010 vintage stands out as nearly perfect: Composed of 86 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc, and 6 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine flaunts its unusually deep purple color, beneath which linger basso profundo notes of blueberry, black cherry, black plum, chocolate, allspice, and dusky traces of turmeric and cardamom. The exquisite texture glazes the palate. “2010 is a combination between nature and the experience and years of work behind me,” notes Thienpont. “It is mainly Merlot juice, and that vintage was excellent for Merlot. Everything went well until the harvest—no excesses. It was an academic year,” he adds, eschewing any praise for himself. “The greatest credit for me is to be recognized maybe as a good professional.”
Vieux Château Certan, www.vieuxchateaucertan.com