Le Pin doesn’t really do events. I guess it doesn’t need to. This tiny 2.7-hectare property produces on average 600 cases each year and the wines are instantly snapped up on release by collectors lucky enough to be privy to the merchants’ miniscule supply.
But the team at Vinfolio’s sister company FINE+RARE, after much searching, collated an extraordinary collection of Le Pin bottlings (some coming from Thienpont’s own personal cellar) right back to the inaugural 1979 vintage. The tasting consisted of 12 vintages of Le Pin, as well as three vintages from L’If, Thienpont’s relatively new project in neighboring Saint-Emilion. We also persuaded Thienpont to come to London and share Le Pin’s fascinating story from the beginning.
The setting was perfect for such an intimate event. With just a handful of guests alongside Jacques Thienpont and Diana Berrouet Garcia (MD of Domaines Jacques Thienpont), the dinner took place in Claridges’ L’Epicerie restaurant. L’Epicerie, which seats just 14 guests, is set within Claridges’ hallowed kitchens. It meant the guests could watch the chefs at work and discuss with them why they paired certain dishes with certain vintages. In hindsight, it was amazing just how versatile the Le Pin wines turned out to be. The younger vintages paired beautifully with poached lobster, fois gras terrine, black truffle and artichoke. The older vintages worked just as well with beef fillet and aged cheeses. But, however well the food worked, everyone was there to taste Le Pin.
Le Pin needs little introduction. The youngest of all the Right Bank icons, it became an almost overnight success thanks to the critical acclaim of the property’s fourth vintage in 1982. Combined with its tiny production levels and an ever-expanding collectors’ market, Le Pin became the ultimate wine collectible – and the market price of this tiny estate quickly rose to stratospheric levels.
Such are its size and popularity that it is rare to taste one bottle of Le Pin, let alone 12 vintages back-to-back. I’ve been lucky enough to taste the wine en primeur over the years, so I had some idea of what to expect, but it’s only at maturity that this extraordinary wine’s vivid personality really comes to life.
The elusive address has humble beginnings. From the 1920s to the late 1970s, the land was owned by the Loubie family. During this time, the wine was made by a contract-winemaker based in Lalande de Pomerol and was sold with little fanfare.
In 1979, Jacques Thienpont jumped at the chance to purchase the property when it came up sale, privy to the extraordinary terroir of the site, located next to his uncle Gérard’s esteemed Pomerol estate Vieux Château Certan. Thienpont named his new acquisition after a single pine tree that shaded the property. Over the years, he gradually expanded the vineyard to 2.7 hectares by purchasing slivers of land from adjacent producers.
It’s hard to imagine that a wine of such prestige came from what was – in the early days – a very basic operation. The project and space were so small that there was little flexibility when it came to vinification. Everything was done by hand and malolactic fermentation took place in barrel because Thienpont had nowhere else to store the wines (although this eventually set the trend for modern winemaking). In time, the Belgian vigneron made improvements in the winery and vineyard, including replanting a significant part of the land with new Merlot clones and re-trellising the vines. Now, 40 years later, Thienpont is as hands-on as ever, insisting he is involved in every stage of winemaking.
Wine experts consider Le Pin’s key advantage to be its unique terroir and soil composition. With sandy gravel topsoil on a pocket of gravel which runs five to 10 meters deep, the vineyard has perfect drainage. As it’s south-facing, it is a warmer site and that gives the vineyard great benefits, particularly in poorer, cooler vintages. It is notably different from surrounding vineyards. The vineyard contains a high proportion of iron oxide, aka “crasse de fer”, which Jacques Thienpont attributes to the soil’s fantastic drainage and feels helps Le Pin perform well in wetter vintages.
There are a few odd Cabernet Franc vines in the vineyard at Le Pin, but the wine is 100% Merlot. A significant portion (40%) of the vineyards were replanted in the late 1970s, and replanting has continued under Thienpont’s ownership. In fine wine terms the average age of the vineyards is relatively young. The fact that Le Pin can already produce such incredible wines suggests the future looks bright for the property.
The property produces low volumes but with great consistency, with the wine always expressing a beautiful integration of tannins, wonderful depth and detail. It also ages beautifully, as this stunning line-up showcased so well. Tasting a younger vintage (2018) earlier in the day, it became apparent how versatile Le Pin is. Despite its youth, the 2018 is drinking beautifully right now. Berrouet Garcia believes it is one of Le Pin’s trump cards – it just performs so well at any time, in its youth, at full maturity and any time in between, such is its openness and versatility.
With a couple years in bottle, the 2018 really expresses a signature trait of Le Pin, a trait that through the tasting is so distinctive and emanates from almost every vintage – a trademark tannin texture and mouthfeel. The best way I can explain it is as if the tannins are totally spherical in the mouth. There are no edges, you can feel they are there by their density on the palate. They are the “dark matter” equivalent of tannin – they are there but you just can’t feel them.
Before the Le Pin vertical, guests were introduced to Jacques Thienpont’s Saint-Emilion estate, L’If. Thienpont’s first vintage from this young estate was 2010 and the wines are the perfect antithesis to Le Pin. Whereas Le Pin is voluptuous and opulent, L’If is stricter, more linear and has amazing energy. Thienpont has fallen in love with the limestone soils of Saint-Emilion. While still similar in climate to Pomerol (warm and sunny) the limestone soils in Saint-Emilion keep freshness in the wine and importantly, in winemaking terms, the pH low.
Whereas Le Pin’s opulent levels of ripeness and high pH (due to the soils) can sometimes have problems with fermentations getting stuck (so much so from 2015 onwards that Le Pin has been fermented using a special commercial yeast that avoids this problem), L’If’s limestone soils mean they can push ripeness levels and never lose freshness. Like Le Pin, tasting through the vintages of L’If there is a strong character trait across the vintages – a vibrant energy that is just so expansive on the palate. The 2015, 2013 and 2012 all express distinct vintage traits too, the 2015 the most powerful, the 2013 lighter but beautifully clean and vertical, while the 2012 is soft and juicy with lovely floral delicacy.
Le Pin’s roundness and silk-like texture is such a lovely contrast to L’If and tasting them side by side only accentuates how different in style these two wines from Jacques Thienpont are.
The vertical of Le Pin starts with two legendary vintages – the 2010 and 2009. Strangely, the 2009 throws a lot of sediment, something not found in the other wines. It is hugely concentrated and opulent. Pushing the levels of ripeness, there is a touch of VA, but it doesn’t diminish the wine at all. Despite the richness and ripeness, it is very much on the red fruit spectrum– but the 2010 was even better. It has an electricity to it that adds another level of excitement to the dense, rich fruit and smoky tones. This electric energy was also present in my wine of the night – the 2001. This wine is so elegant and refined, and is in its perfect drinking window today, the light tertiary notes complement the exquisitely pure, fresh fruit. But it’s the clenched tautness to the wine and that extra burst of energy that makes it so special and surpasses even the hugely anticipated 2000. This too has the tension, the sinewy tannins, the textbook spherical mouthfeel but the tertiary development is more advanced than the 2001.
The 2008 was also a highlight for me. It had all the classic Pomerol hallmarks, the irony-minerality and opulent fruit. It was also impressively structured while remaining heavenly soft. It was perhaps the vintage that showed off this contrast best, but it was a trait running throughout. The 2007 was lighter, earthier even with a touch of menthol and shorter on the palate but still delightful. The 2006 for me also outshone the “better” vintage of 2005. The density of the 2006 is just so impressive. If anything, the 2005 tasted the least like Le Pin. It had an almost Cabernet-esque feel, more structured, more extracted and, in that sense, felt like the odd one out in the tasting.
The 1996 was fully developed with lovely tertiary notes and dried fruit flavors. But the spherical mouthfeel clearly synonymous with Le Pin was very much intact and there was still plenty of tension and a very long finish. The 1990 was a revelation, so light on its feet – almost Pinot Noir-like in its daintiness and purity. It had a lovely freshness still, despite the concentration from this warm vintage. Again, it is still spherical in character, with lovely mature Claret flavors.
The 1983 was slightly unclean on corking, perhaps unsurprisingly, but this blew off in the glass. It was fully mature, dominated by tertiary flavors, but the tannins interestingly were less dried out than the 1996. Finally, the inaugural 1979 vintage. Amazingly, this first vintage already has the Le Pin DNA on the palate. The spherical mouthfeel was there. It is a remarkably clean bottle considering the age. It tasted more youthful than the 1983 alongside and still had fresh fruit characters and more tertiary notes. The spherical tannins are beautifully integrated. What a wine and what condition! It’s quite incredible.
There were clear takeaways from the tasting. Firstly, Le Pin’s consistency was self-evident, performing year-in, year-out. Secondly, the DNA of Le Pin was distinct throughout the flight (bar the 2005) both in youth and at full maturity. Also, it is clear that its character, its distinctness exists right back to its humble beginnings. Le Pin is a special wine, a rare treat, but not just a wine for the well-initiated. Such is its openness, elegance and dare I say easiness, Le Pin turns out to be the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Interested in joining us for future events? Vinfolio will soon host special tastings and dinners stateside. Sign up here to be the first to know when dates are announced. In the meantime, browse all current Le Pin listings or read more Editorial