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Pages in the Photo Album: Vieux Château Certan 1928-2013
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 23, 2022
One of the presumptions about Bordeaux proprietors is that they have tasted every single vintage of their own wine back to the Middle Ages. I’m often surprised how many winemakers possess relatively little experience of back vintages through no fault of their own. Over the last century, Bordeaux properties have constantly changed hands. What does the seller do before handing over the keys? Why, they invite their mates around to pillage the cellar, and if feeling generous, leave a few scraps for the new owners. That might sound selfish, but then again, they were the ones that made the wine, so why should they not enjoy the fruits of their labour? Many châteaux have depleted library reserves, even vintages just a few of decades old, as evidenced by the fact that on several occasions I’ve been poured wines from magnum because every single last bottle has been sold. Of course, there are exceptions, such as those properties that remained under constant family ownership that prudently set aside part of their stock for future generations. However, in bygone times, even the most famous estates were simply trying to stay afloat and had to sell every last bottle nature bestowed.
Therefore, when a collector organises a vertical retrospective, I am always pleased to see proprietors participating. Everyone wins. We can glean their insight, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Winemakers are afforded a historical overview and often taste vintages they rarely experience or have never tasted themselves. For them, it must be like turning the pages of a family photo album, reminiscing about vintages they remember, some they’d rather forget and those undertaken by their ancestors. When Jordi Oriols-Gil organised a sensational line-up of Vieux Château Certan in London, I suggested inviting Alexandre Thienpont. Sure, he has tasted numerable ancient vintages. But, as with many Pomerol châteaux, older bottles of VCC are scarce despite the estate remaining under the guardianship of Thienpont’s father and grandfather since 1924. As I said, they had to sell practically the entire crop to get by, so Alexandre Thienpont is not sitting atop a huge stash of 1945s or 1947s. For this occasion, he flew over, especially to attend the tasting, back in January 2020 when COVID was a strange disease far away that would sort out within a couple of weeks. Around a dozen fully paid-up VCC-lovers gathered at La Trompette, one of the capital’s finest restaurants, to taste over 25 vintages back to 1928, including one or two that I am unacquainted with. Before I tackle the wines, a bit of background.
I am not going to dwell too much on the history of Vieux Château Certan, partly because I have delved into this backstory in my Pomerol tome (No, I still don’t own any copies, and yes, I will eventually write a second edition) as well as subsequent articles. But allow me to adumbrate its formation.
The genesis of Vieux Château Certan lies with the Sertan estate in the 18th century; the etymology deriving from the word for “desert”, an inference that the land was hard to farm. The estate passed into the hands of the Demay family until 1858, when it was sold to Parisian Charles de Bosquet. The Demays held on to a parcel that begat neighbouring Certan-de-May. Early editions of Féret maintained VCC’s wines in high esteem and ranked the property above Petrus and Trotanoy. Nineteen twenty-four was its pivotal year when Vieux Château Certan was acquired by Georges Thienpont, a Belgian merchant from Etikhove. Thienpont had already bought Troplong Mondot three years earlier. In 1923, two Pomerol estates were up for sale: Vieux Château Certan and Château Taillefer. One must remember that Pomerol was not the highly-regarded appellation it is today. When Thienpont and Antoine Moueix, brother of Jean-Pierre Moueix, entered the notary’s office in Libourne, Moueix was asked to speak first. He declared that he wanted to buy Taillefer since it was closer to the railway station, allowing Thienpont to pick up Vieux Château Certan. You might assume that Thienpont would be elated by his acquisition; however, within several years he suffered three consecutive vintages of no crop to sell, 1931, 1932 and 1933, and no means to support his family, which forced him to relinquish Troplong Mondot in 1935.
Georges Thienpont managed to survive the Depression and the privations of the Second World War. During this period, the vineyard comprised of around 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec, the latter commonplace in Pomerol. What followed was a series of otherworldly post-war period wines, pinnacles of 20th century Bordeaux: 1945, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1953. In my opinion, these wines represent one of the greatest runs of any estate, as I discovered in 2009 when I drank all of them in Los Angeles in one of the greatest flights ever assembled. How did Thienpont accomplish this with such rudimentary means at his disposal? Part of the crop would have completed its alcoholic fermentation in barrel because the chai was too small! Asking Alexandre Thienpont, he told me that it was a mixture of experience, serendipity and intuition. Georges Thienpont’s “winging it” resulted in accidents that yielded unforeseen positive results.
The chateau and cellar
In 1947, Georges Thienpont’s son, Léon, joined his father to manage the estate together with his brother Georges Jr. Léon Thienpont introduced château-bottling for the entire crop in the 1950s. Léon’s son, Alexandre was born in 1951. The family did not live at Vieux Château Certan but at Château Puygueraud in the Côtes de Francs, though the young Thienponts helped around the winery and were paid five francs per day to help during the bottling. In 1957, they finally constructed a new chai, and five years later, Léon moved his family to live at the previously uninhabited Pomerol château that now had seven children under its roof. Stainless-steel and an ageing cellar were introduced in the early Seventies, though that decade was plagued by a succession of poor vintages.
Alexandre Thienpont married in 1979 and was invited by his cousin Jacques to live at a small farmhouse that had a few rows of vines itself, an unknown Pomerol cru that debuted that same year called Le Pin. After stints at J-P Moueix, then at La Gaffelière, Thienpont started working at Vieux Château Certan as his father was beginning to ail. He felt that if he was going to change the modus operandi, he would have to do it within the first 100 days, so one of his first moves was to introduce crop thinning. Upon surveying the earth turning green with discarded bunches, the horrified father asked his son if he knew what he was doing. Alexandre Thienpont introduced other changes at the estate, for example, he got rid of the ancient wooden vats in 1988 and incepted a second label. Throughout the Nineties, Vieux Château Certan reclaimed its position as one of Pomerol’s finest wines, distinguished by its pink capsule that Thienpont’s grandfather initiated in order to make bottles stand out.
Just over 20 years ago, before I began writing, I started visiting Vieux Château Certan myself. Alexandre Thienpont is one of the most congenial men of Bordeaux and was seen as a kind of bulwark against so-called “Parkerisation” of the Right Bank, upholding traditional values and tenets of winemaking, a man not inclined to follow fads. To quote a paragraph on his own website: “It’s my conviction that the best wines are those that are the most natural ones – wines that are subject to as little technical intervention as possible. They should be the most genuine and faithful expression of what nature has given us.”
Alexandre Thienpont often seems quite reserved, atypically for Bordeaux – not a natural salesman, preferring to let his wines do the talking. But, once you get to know him, he is as passionate and dedicated a winemaker as you will ever find. He speaks with almost breathless excitement when discussing viticulture and winemaking. After experiences in Napa, Burgundy and Italy, Guillaume Thienpont joined his father in 2014, making him the fourth generation to take the reins. He has given VCC a sense of impetus, and as my own scores attest, the father-and-son team are overseeing wines that their ancestors would be proud of.
Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan
The vineyard covers 14-hectares in a single block with illustrious neighbours: Petrus, La Conseillante, l’Évangile, Petit-Village and Certan-de-May. The current vineyard is comprised of 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon; the latter is unusual for Pomerol, even though La Conseillante and l’Évangile recently planted their own rows to combat global warming and add another colour to their palette. There are also a few surviving Malbec vines dotted here and there. Amongst the 23 plots, the Cabernets tend to occupy more gravelly parcels, while Merlot is on slightly sandier reaches. Alexandre Thienpont sees vine age as a key and believes that they must reach 20 to 25-years before the fruit is worthy of the Grand Vin. The oldest vines are around 80-years old. During harvest the Thienponts use the same team of pickers from Libourne for Le Pin and Vieux Château Certan. Harvesting late is never a goal. Much of the sorting is done in the vineyard and then again at the winery reception, as I have witnessed myself on several occasions (Thienpont always recognizable in a big floppy straw hat.)
In terms of winemaking, there is no cold pre-soak, Alexandre Thienpont allowing the alcoholic fermentation to build spontaneously using natural yeast in his 21 large oak and stainless-steel vats that range from 40 to 125-hectolitres in size. The winery was overhauled in 2003 to introduce air-conditioning and temperature-control (I remember Alexandre Thienpont showing me around for the first time, almost embarrassed by his fancy new facility). The barrels come mainly from the Seguin Moreau cooperage with roughly 20% from Sylvain. Approximately 4,000 cases are produced each year with about 1,500 cases of the second wine, La Gravette de Certan.
The key to understanding VCC is the interplay between the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. Whenever I visit to taste the new vintage, the key point that Alexander Thienpont will make is the percentage of Cabernet Franc as it has such a bearing on the final wine. A priori, the style of VCC can change according to the growing season. It’s always the same person, but you find it in different moods. That makes it fairly unique in Pomerol, because most properties are Merlot-dominated, Cabernet Franc playing a more peripheral role, whereas at VCC it is more central, if not to the same extent as say Lafleur. I must confess that personally, I have found that the greatest vintages contain higher amounts of Cabernet Franc. The combination with Merlot creates wines that are more than a sum of their two parts. That is essentially the magic of Vieux Château Certan.
I advise readers to peruse the tasting notes at their leisure. I have included all the notes from this vertical, supplemented by others from my Pomerol tome, making a total of 40 vintages. Not a bad overview.
Though I am very familiar with VCC, I always discover something new about this Pomerol, a hidden facet. Part of its attraction is an enigmatic element. On this occasion, I had to revise my view towards its performances in the early-Sixties. Though respected, this period is not as revered as the immediate post-war era. However, I was bewitched by the trio of 1961, 1962 and 1964 Vieux-Château-Certan. The 1961 is the best example that I have encountered, a vintage where Léon Thienpont lost one-third of his crop to spring frost. The nose is ethereal; Alexandre Thienpont is surprised by this bottle’s complexity and precocity. The palate is exquisitely balanced with a Cabernet-driven finish that you want to put in your pocket and take home. The 1962 acquits itself admirably, whilst the 1964 has lost some of its youthful exuberance that it showed 10-15 years back, structured and sapid. Still a marvellous addition to the canon of great 1964 Pomerols. These rather over-shadow the 1967 Vieux-Château-Certan. I had never tasted this vintage, renowned for its Pomerols, though it left me indifferent, perhaps indicative of a château that was beginning to lose its mojo?
The Seventies has always been a rather maligned decade. Léon Thienpont, Alexandre’s father, like many, was seduced by salesmens’ patter when they offered chemical herbicides and fertilizers to counter the succession of challenging growing seasons. The wines suffered as a result. The 1971 and 1975 Vieux Château Certan still have something to offer, even if they do not show the complexity and nuance of the finest vintages in the previous two decades. I find the 1976 rather charmless, and the 1978 austere and excessively acidic; Thienpont remarked that he remembered the harvest being undertaken a week earlier than it should have. The Eighties saw some improvement over the previous decade, particularly at the end of the decade, when changes implemented by Thienpont began to yield results, not least on the 1989 and 1990. I usually prefer the former, though comparing them side-by-side, I enjoy the sensuality and gamey quality of the latter.
Amongst more recent vintages, the 2004 Vieux Château Certan is a gem and surpasses many Right Bank wines, the key to its success: the 30% of Cabernet Franc. I have always been a strong supporter of the 2006, though a bottle encountered at Geodhuis’s pre-dinner tasting their charity event at the Savoy, left me rather perplexed by its lack of precision. I wonder whether it will fulfil the potential that it showed in its youth?
The older vintages were a privilege to drink. I had never met the 1957 Vieux Château Certan but it presents well, with a discrete but precise bouquet, a beguiling tart palate that just shows a little hardness on the finish – completely forgivable. The 1945 Vieux Château Certan is the highlight, the third bottle that has graced my palate (I am certain I will pay for it in the afterlife.) With bottles of such antiquity, there was inevitably some trepidation. There was no need to worry – this was the real deal. It is difficult to translate the aromatics into words, which is always a problem when that is what you’re paid to do, but it brought tears of joy. The palate has retained so much intensity and precision, powerful and utterly profound. If you want to know what a 100-point wine tastes like, try this.
This last flight was flanked by a couple of war veterans that I had never tasted before. We were not sure about the authenticity of the 1942 Vieux Château Certan, so I leave a question mark against my score. However, the 1943 Vieux Château Certan was genuine, a little woody on the nose (not unexpected as many wines made during the war spent too long in barrel as châteaux were deprived of a market) with a touch of powdered chocolate on the rustic palate. Finally, there was the 1928 Vieux Château Certan, the fourth bottle I have tasted, a stunning Pomerol that is only now just beginning to dim with age. Alexandre Thienpont remarked that in recent years its degradation has accelerated, but it is declining from a very high peak.
This was an exceptional decade-spanning vertical that told the story of one of Pomerol’s most cherished wines. VCC is not faultless. It has suffered periods when quality went off the boil. Yet, these were more than compensated by two golden eras: from the mid-Forties to the mid-Sixties and then over the last two decades. Having visited over many years, I always experience a buzz of excitement when walking past its wisteria-clad façade to be greeted by Alexandre Thienpont or increasingly in recent years, Guillaume. There is a simplicity about how this Pomerol estate is run, devoid of airs and graces. Alexandre Thienpont seemed to have no regrets flying over to join the tasting and in hindsight, it was perhaps one of the last chances he had, since France went into lockdown within several weeks. That is always the lesson with vertical tastings like this – they simply don’t come around very often. But you always come away with a deeper understanding and grateful tastebuds.
Thanks to Jordi Oriols-Gil for organizing this exceptional dinner and tasting.
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