HTCity Sunday, 10 November 2002
A Whiff Of Bordeaux's Wine Aristocracy
Sourish Bhattacharyya

In the city's small yet growing circle of connoisseurs of the heady stuff, there's a certain buzz about the visit of Alexandre Thienpont, the man who owns Vieux Chateau Certan, a Bordeaux label whose 2000 vintage was included in Wine Spectator's definitive list of 22 elite wines with 'classic potential'. Bordeaux, as we know, is the Mecca of wine-making (sorry for the blasphemous metaphor!) and Wine Spectator is a very respected name in the business of speciality magazines dedicated to liquid pleasures, but Thienpont, who belongs to a Belgian family that has been in the wine business since 1842, is one man who wears his laurels lightly.

I met Thienpont in Pomerol, home to two of the world's most expensive (and treasured) wines, including Le Pin (he co-owns it with his cousin) and Petrus, earlier in the year on an unusually warm April day at his sprawling mansion, which, thanks to archane French property laws, he can only use as an office. I asked the lanky man with an inviting smile the net worth of his 35-acre chateau dating back to the 1500s, which his grandfather, a Belgian banker, purchased in 1924, and he replied with typical French understatement: "Some of my neighbours have sold portions of their chateaus at US$1 million a hectare." Saying this, he got back to asking me about the opportunities India has to offer to a man whose passion is gliding.

That should give you an idea what the Bordeaux wine aristocracy is all about. And why billionaires, from Bernard Arnault of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy to the ailing Fiat's ailing patriarch, Gianni Agnelli, are also owners of top Bordeaux chateaux. Thienpont may be coy about his wealth, but Vieux Chateau Certan, a robust red wine described by an ecstatic Wine Spectator as "a source of outstanding Pomerol for 50 years," is only one of six Bordeaux estates his family owns.

With his quiet sense of humour, Thienpont told me his grandfather Georges had bought Vieux Chateau Certan as pastureland for his horses. But the Bordeaux summer was too hot for the Belgian horses and they died, but that was just the first of the many tragedies to hit the family. Thienpont remembers how the only time his grandfather Georges was seen crying was when he sold off his Bordeaux home after his bank went bust following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Georges had also wanted to sell off Vieux Chateau Certan, but he found no takers for it - today, it's prized property: The Daily Telegraph's critic, Robert Joseph, calls the wine "exquisite" in his extremely handy guide, French Wines; more recently, its 2000 vintage was in the Top 10 list of Evening Standard's Andrew Jefford.

Vieux Chateau Certan's fate has swung between bounteous crops and battles lost against frost and mildew, the last big calamity being the frost of 24 April 1991, which destroyed the year's crop. But over the years, the Thienponts have developed the wine's signature style by skillfully blending the more traditional Merlot with the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon and the more stylish Cabernet Franc.

They've also succeeded in limiting the yield of grapes per vine to 800 gms, working on the philosophy that the fewer bunches of grapes a vine sustains, the more wholesome is the juice that the fruit produces. As one Bordeaux wine-maker had told me, "In the same way as a mother can suckle only one baby at a time to ensure maximum nutrition for the newborn, a vine produces the best bunches of grapes only when it has to feed three or four of them."

The French treat their grapes like babies and their wines like jewels, and the Thieponts, who treasure their Belgian roots, have made it their business to keep this tradition alive. Not surprisingly, Pomerol is now very much on the international wine map, which is a dramatic turnaround for a region that wasn't considered important enough to be included in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. The ranking continues to defines the wine trade, but an exception is invariably made for Vieux Chateau Certan and, of course, its pricier cousin, Le Pin.




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