Earlier this month, as this year’s Bordeaux en primeur campaign for the 2023 vintage petered out, 11 of us wine writers sat in a handsome manor house in the Flemish village of Etikhove tasting our way back to the vintage exactly a century older, 1923, of one of the most famous Pomerols.

We were celebrating the centenary of the acquisition of Vieux Château Certan by the Thienpont family, Belgian wine merchants. They have been supplying Belgium with fine wine since 1842 from extensive cellars beneath the house, bottling many of them there too.

With a barbecue supper after the two-day tasting, the four of us tasters left were served a 1935 Richebourg bottled in those cellars. On the label, which is dominated by a rather fine drawing of the vine-covered house, the name Georges Thienpont is considerably bigger than that of the supplier, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

The 1923 vintage of Vieux Château Certan, still going strong a hundred years later, was so charming that Georges Thienpont was persuaded by his wife to buy the estate in 1924, having acquired Ch Troplong Mondot in the next-door appellation St-Émilion three years earlier. These two appellations on the right bank of the Gironde had nothing like the réclame of left bank appellations such as Margaux and Pauillac until the late 20th century, and in the 1930s in the aftermath of the financial crash, Georges sold Troplong Mondot.

It was only in the 1950s that the British merchants Averys and Harveys tried to persuade their customers that right bank wines were not beyond the pale. My FT predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell was not convinced. He always viewed even Petrus, the most revered Pomerol and usually all-Merlot, as something of a parvenu.

Vieux Château Certan has 14 hectares of vines and a highly distinctive varietal make-up, with much more Cabernet, both fragrant Cabernet Franc and some of the tannic left-bank Cabernet Sauvignon, and less sweet Merlot than most Pomerols.

VCC, as it is widely known, was long considered a serious contender for second-best Pomerol, and in the 1980s the Thienponts came to challenge the supremacy of Petrus in the form of an even rarer wine called Le Pin, created by Jacques Thienpont in 1979 from a tiny plot of Merlot along the road from VCC. Le Pin has been in such demand, fetching thousands of pounds a bottle, that over the years it has been transformed from being made behind a family laundry room to having its own smart modern premises.

The family have since spread their wings on the right bank, establishing L’If in neighbouring St-Émilion and L’Hêtre in up-and-coming Castillon a little further east, each run by a member of the current generation of Thienponts. Ch Puygueraud in Francs nearby has long been in this extensive, male-dominated family.

VCC remains the domain of Jacques’ cousin Alexandre, who made the wine between 1986 and 2011, succeeded by his well-travelled wine­maker son Guillaume. Jacques and his wife Fiona Morrison, a Master of Wine, meanwhile commute between Pomerol and Etikhove, running both Le Pin and the family’s Belgian wine business. It was their idea to celebrate the centenary.

Alexandre, always more reticent, eventually decided to join the party, as did Roy Richards who, as co-founder of UK wine importer Richards Walford, had been importing and drinking the Thienponts’ wines since the early years of Le Pin when his business partner Mark Walford met Jacques’ and Alexandre’s uncle, Gérard Thienpont, then running the Belgian wine business, in a restaurant in the Loire. Richards subsequently enjoyed many a bibulous dinner at Etikhove with Gérard until his death in 1995, and so had intimate knowledge of many of the glorious vintages served at the centenary celebration.

Almost all the bottles we tasted had been kept throughout their long lives in the Etikhove cellars, so authenticity and storage conditions were never in question, a rarity in today’s fine-wine world.

Virtually all the bottles were in excellent condition. We had to abandon both bottles of 1986 because of cork taint. Our bottles of 1952 and 1959 were disappointing and the 1925, 1936, 1958, all notoriously poor vintages, were showing their age. But, to the delight of some of us, VCC produced outstanding wine in other vintages with a less-than-stunning reputation such as 2017, 2011, 2002, 1987, 1942, 1940 and even that 1923.

Quite apart from its heavy Cabernet influence, refreshingly long-lived VCC is distinguished by its impressively old vines, some planted as long ago as 1932, whose deep roots have helped them withstand the recent onslaught of drought. And Alexandre, responsible for winemaking during the era when his neighbours seemed to be chasing ripeness at the expense of subtlety, withstood that trend, thereby almost certainly prolonging his wines’ lives. He confessed at the tasting, “I felt I was labouring in the desert during the blockbuster era.”

Summing up the tasting, our host, the usually taciturn Jacques, surprised and relieved there were so few disappointments among the 57 vintages tasted, became quite emotional, describing the event as an extremely rare opportunity to examine the legacy of a single family and a single property over 100 years. His son Georges helped serve the wines with Jacques’ nephew Alexander De Raeymaeker, and is expected to take over Le Pin eventually, once he has completed his oenology degree in Adelaide. He is already practising on his own Chardonnay vineyard there, so the future seems assured.

Exceptional VCCs

I have included only those from this century that I scored at least 18 out of 20

  • 2020 (14.5%)
    £388 Hedonism

  • 2019 (14.5%)
    £335 Mumbles

  • 2017 (14.5%)
    £245 Nemo, £249 Mumbles, £250 BBC Good Food Wine Club

  • 2016 (14.5%)
    £390 Nemo

  • 2015 (15%)
    £320 Huntsworth Wine Co

  • 2012 (14%)
    £190 Nemo

  • 2011 (13.5%)
    £180 Nemo, a bargain

  • 2010 (14.5%)
    £410 Nemo, £425 The Perfect Bottle

  • 2009 (14%)
    £299 The Perfect Bottle, a relative bargain

  • 2006 (13.5%)
    £210 Frazier’s

  • 2005 (13.5%)
    £279 The Perfect Bottle, £290 Nemo

  • 2002 (13.5%)
    £164.95 T Wright, a bargain

  • 2001 (13%)
    £390 Brunswick Fine Wines

Tasting notes, scores and suggested drink dates on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. International stockists on Wine-searcher.com

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