The weather last week continued to be slightly warmer than hoped; and yet the possibility of some rain hitting the vineyards meant the decision was made to hold off picking until the following Monday (24th Sept) or Tuesday (25th Sept) with the hope that the rain would come over the weekend to add a little moisture back into the slightly stressed vines and refresh the grapes to perfection. Rain dances completed on the Thursday evening, we awoke to cloudy conditions and light drizzle on the Friday morning. We only had 3-5mm but it was very welcome and justified the choice to hold off picking until Tuesday. The weather remained warm, but most importantly the early evenings and overnight temperatures began to drop and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings were wonderfully fresh and cool with the days sunny and without a hint of cloud or rain. Hang time, too often a phrase incorrectly associated with over-ripeness, delivers something magical to the grapes under the right conditions: cool to cold nights and warmish (20 degrees) days will allow the grapes to ripen slowly, building both flavonoids and colour pigments in the skins while also allowing the natural tannins to mature creating soft and elegant wines. Thus the tannins are never harsh, but provide plenty of structure and backbone to allow the wines to age effortlessly.
Harvest at Le Pin
Tuesday – harvest day – and with the sorting tables installed in the vineyards and experienced teams sorting as they pick, the grapes arrive at the winery in perfect condition – lovely healthy berries, with tight bunches and thick skins. Both Fiona and Jacques are extremely pleased with the results with the only small negative comment being the slightly-smaller-than-desired volume of juice within the berries. It should be a concentrated and powerful vintage across the Right Bank as a whole – but this never appears to have a massive impact on the wines at Le Pin. Therefore our work in the cellars on the fermentation and cap management is all targeted at extremely gentle extraction, maintaining the natural complexity of flavours coming from the vineyard. I cannot go into much more detail (I very sensibly signed an NDA prior to starting work with the Thienponts!) but their mantra remains the same – ‘let the vineyard talk and we will translate’.
Sorting Table in the Vineyard
Picking also kicked in at their St Emilion property Chateau l’If, a charming and beautifully basic winery, and again all around the sorting table were very happy faces – the grapes looked in immaculate condition. I say ‘basic winery’ because here as at Le Pin, the Thienponts’ wine making philosophy is simple: the better the fruit, the less you need to be involved, and thus the better the wine. Once the fruit is processed and into the tanks it is left for a few hours prior to the first pump over to mix the juice and skins a little, before being rested overnight. Tests are then taken in the morning to assess the breakdown of the fruit before plans are made for fermentation. These plans are not set in stone in any of the properties – constant tasting and analysis creates a picture of how the ferments are developing and from these subtle changes work in the winery is dictated.
First sample colour
Jacques taking samples
We have been mixing both closed and open (rack and returns) pump-overs for each of the four ‘cooking ferments’ at le Pin during the week, depending on the situation each day: aromas and temperature of the ferments, speed of the conversion of sugars into alcohol, extraction rates and development of tannins are all taken into account 2-3 times day to help Jacques make the call as we set up the equipment. One thing that happens after any work within the winery is industrial cleaning of all the tanks that are full and bubbling away as well as all the equipment used 2 or 3 times a day. It has to be one of the most important, yet simple, improvements in wineries around the world – simple hygiene and washing down the surfaces.
Luckily during the downtimes in the winery work I have been able to drop into the neighbours around us here at le Pin – and I must give massive thanks to both Fiona and Jacques for opening a few doors and organizing a few visits, as with their endorsement I’m sure I have been given access beyond the norm…
Alain Vauthier, proprietor of Ausone, spent a few hours with us on Saturday morning, starting with a look around the vineyards in front of the winery tucked away on the edge of St Emilion. He was extremely happy with the quality of the fruit on the vines and he too has taken the decision to allow the grapes to keep hanging for a few extra days in these perfect conditions. After checking on the vines it was into the winery to explain the philosophy and methods employed at Ausone and how these differed to Le Pin – highlighting his key development of ‘cold storage’ movable vats. These allow him to pick parcels over several days from the same block of fruit, using virtually vine-by-vine selection, but still ferment the parcels as complete blocks. These vats are then picked up by forklifts allowing the fruits and must to be dropped into the fermentation vats with use of pumps. Alain then outlined the fermentation and post-fermentation methods at Ausone and how the differences in soil between Le Pin and Ausone allowed him to extend the post fermentation maceration to 3-4 weeks without worry or concern over over-extraction of tannins. He then demonstrated this by pouring his current ‘breakfast vintage’ 2007 before taking us into the barrel cellars and pinching a few glasses of the magnificent 2017 from the new barrels the wine is currently resting in. I must admit that Ausone for breakfast might catch on…
Alain and Jacques
Sylvie and Jacques Guinaudeau, the current custodians of the magical Lafleur, were sitting out in the sun with a post lunch coffee as we arrived to look around the newly finished building works at the chateau – and I have to say it looks magnificent. Before going into more detail, we started with a look around the vineyards, as they – like Le Pin, VCC and Ausone – had also held off picking the majority of the vines to allow that extra few days of flavour development, tannin maturity and phenolic ripeness. I have to say that they have some of the best looking fruit in the area; if you wanted to take a picture of perfection in a bunch look no further. They have very kindly asked me to drop in later this week once the ferments start and they are working properly in the winery to have a look around and spend some time with them, so more of that later. But once again, the simplicity and ‘basic’ nature of their new cellars highlights that the work in vineyards and the soil under their vines means that the final few weeks of the growing season and the actual processing of the fruit and managing the ferments is the easiest time of the year for them. This vintage is looking absolutely amazing with talk of 1990, 2009 and 2016 being lauded around the wineries. I think it is way to early to make comment and that will have to wait until the annual BI trip down to taste the wines in April next year.
New cellars at Lafleur
We have been joined for a week or so by Fiona and Jacques’ two sons, Georges and William Thienpont, and it is brilliant to see them so involved and enthusiastic about the three estates now under family control; they are willingly working the vintage at full tilt. From the picking to the sorting, to the pump overs and the cleaning they both get heavily involved and talk with passion and respect for the legacy being built here. Both will head off and gain life experience in other industries and work placements, but chatting to Georges at the sorting table of l’If yesterday he commented that whilst it was massively important to head out and experience life and other working challenges he found it hard at times to leave the vineyards and the wineries when he had to head back to study. I even caught him checking over the work Fiona had just completed at Chateau l’If, much to the amusement of Jacques.
Father and son at work
With final picking booked in for tomorrow morning and the four current ferments slowing down and approaching their completion, in the next few days we will be moving on in wine making terms as we start to ‘dig-out’ the ferments (lord help my back), pressing the fermented skins to extract a little vat of mixing option for Jacques to add some extra weight and depth to any cuvees that might require it, and also filling the brand new oak barrels that have been arriving in the winery over the last few days for the start of the malolactic fermentation. Then there will be the great cleaning of the winery to signify the end of the harvest… so more to follow.
After a hard day in the winery...