I sat down with François Thienpont here at my office the other day. Thienpont comes from one of those big Bordeaux families with a long history in the business—the Thienponts started a négociant business in their native Belgium back in 1842 and today François, along with his brother and cousins, are the third generation to run estates in Bordeaux. The portfolio is impressive.
François’ brother Nicolas handles Château Pavie-Macquin in St.-Emilion, as well as Château Larcis-Ducasse, Château Berliquet, Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse, a new property called l’If and the value Château Puygueraud in Côtes de Francs. Cousins Alexandre and Jacques handle two Pomerol properties you may have heard of, Vieux-Château-Certan and Château Le Pin. François himself has his own négociant company, Wings, which handles primarily classified Médocs.
But despite the high-profile properties and blue blood lineage, François Thienpont is involved with the "other" side of Bordeaux—the side that struggles for recognition these days.
In 2003, working with consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, Thienpont started a consulting company called Terra Burdigala. The idea was to connect with smaller properties in the outer lying appellations—Bordeaux Supérieur, for example—where good terroir could be found, but quality was sometimes lacking. [Note: For more on Derenoncourt, stay tuned for my colleague Mitch Frank's profile in the upcoming Nov. 30 issue of Wine Spectator.]
“The problem with the satellite appellations is the consistency can really go up and down from good years to bad,” said Thienpont. “And sometimes the technical expertise, in the vineyards and winery, isn’t there.”
So far, the business has connected with seven estates, which Thienpont helps guide from viticulture through bottling. The wines are labeled with the Terra Burdigala brand name as well as the name of the estate and most retail for $25 or less. It’s a price point that Thienpont sees as critical to the success of Bordeaux as a whole, as the rich have gotten richer, leaving the rest of the region behind.
“When you see a price for one bottle of a first-growth is the same as for one tonneaux of a generic Bordeaux in bulk, you just shake your head,” said the soft-spoken Thienpont. “Sure, that’s the way of the world on one hand. But we need to reconnect the other wines of Bordeaux with the generation today. There are Bordeaux that are meant to just be drunk.”
Thienpont has seen the competition from Argentina, Australia, California and elsewhere elbow the "other" wines of Bordeaux out of the mind’s eye of today’s generation of wine drinker. With the quality of the 2008 and ’09 wines in the pipeline, as well as what looks to be another strong harvest in 2010, Thienpont thinks the timing is right to make that reconnection.
“Right now is a big opportunity,” he said, matter-of-factly.
There are two cuvées from Château Manoir du Gravoux, the regular bottling and a parcel selection called La Violette, from a plot of mostly old-vine Merlot planted in 1958. Thienpont and Derenoncourt realized its potential after they began fermenting parcels separately, which hadn’t been done at the estate before.
“That’s what I mean about the expertise sometimes isn’t there. Things like that are done de riguer in classified estates, but outside, because there isn’t the investment and they can’t get the price for their wines, they just tend to do everything together, in the easiest way. That’s now how you make good wine,” said Thienpont.
Thienpont also started working with the new generation at the Roc de Jean Lys estate, just a few miles to the south of Manoir du Gravoux. Roc de Jean Lys is a property that had historically sold the grapes off to the local co-op. In their first vintage working together, 2003, Thienpont had the vigneron waiting two extra weeks to pick, long after all his neighbors had finished with their harvest.
“The son was getting so much pressure from the father and his neighbors to pick. We kept telling him, sugar is one thing but you need to forget the analysis and wait for phenolic ripeness, which you can taste,” said Thienpont.
The vigneron toughed it out and followed Thienpont’s advice; today the estate continues to pull back more of its parcels from the co-op for its own production, and the son who was nervous about waiting to pick now spends more time working in the vineyards.
“We’ve gotten rid of bags of artificial tannins and things like that. What we want done may take six hours in the vineyard instead of two hours. So yes, there’s a cost, but it’s a different cost. And you see it in the wine. It’s not hard and rustic from too much oak hiding underripe grapes. Instead it’s a ripe, balanced wine ideal for drinking now, with food,” said Thienpont.
Imagine that. Balanced, food-friendly Bordeaux for $25 or less per bottle. Thienpont may just be on to something there …
[Note: As always, reviews of the wines, based on formal blind tastings, will appear in the near future.]
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Doug Daniell — Ontario/Canada — October 22, 2010 4:01pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — October 22, 2010 4:14pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — October 22, 2010 10:18pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — October 22, 2010 10:34pm ET
Marc Robillard — Montreal,Canada — October 26, 2010 7:39pm ET
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