Wednesday, March 5, 2008


I found in the online archives of the French magazine L'express, an article on Valandraud published in 1997 !

08/14/1997 L'Express n° 2406

Wines: The maverick from Bordeaux
by Georges Dupuy

With his Saint-Emilion, Château- de-Valandraud, Jean-Luc Thunevin shakes the Grand Crus hierarchy. And lots of habits.

Bordeaux hides well its game. The order seemed to be set for eternity between the 200 top and middle brass within the group of classified growths and the plethora of rank and file of small to middle producers. However, as it is custom in a good middle-class family, the vineyards have their lot of ungrateful children, of marginal forerunners and mavericks. Such as Jean-Luc Thunevin, on the right bank of the Garonne.

While his wine, the Chateau de Valandraud, colored and structured from Saint Emilion, with aromas of ripe fruits, if not jam, still unknown to consumers, was released as future at the same price as top crus, such as the popular ones of the time… However, the 1996 vintage is now fetching 480 F per bottle, 255 F more than Château Angélus, one of the stars of this area, recently promoted to 1st Grand Cru Classé! Already in Medoc, on the other side of the Garonne, the Grand Cru owners gasped when, in Saint Julien, Michel Delon released 40% of his superb 1996 Léoville-Las-Cazes at 380 F. “I am not competing with the great Châteaux”, comments Thunevin, lucid and modest. Too much, perhaps. In September 1996, Valandraud was sold, at Christies, for 2500 F per bottle. More than Petrus. This year, ten days after being released, it was already worth 1500 F, and was reselling for almost 2000 F.

Besides his name, nothing predisposed Thunevin, son of Pieds-Noir (French immigrants from North Africa), to become the troublemaker in Bordeaux. Far from the 85 hectares of Lynch-Bages, Valandraud’s surface is modest: 2.5 hectares. The property only exists since 1989. In his previous lives, Thunevin was a lumberjack, bank employee and second-hand dealer, before starting two wine bars in Saint Emilion.

“I was not born with a wine tasting cup in my mouth” explains Thunevin. He acknowledges having major influences, especially barrel fermentation he borrowed from Château le Pin, a mythical Pomerol: 1.2 hectare, with a production of 3000 bottles almost all exported. For the rest, Thunevin had a few ideas of his own, tested with his childhood friend Alain Vauthier, young owner of Ausone. The unshakeable bond with the co-prince of Saint Emilion (with Cheval Blanc) and the organic tendency believing that plants feel the human aura, bothers a few people. A broker said that: “he is crazy!”
Too much wine kills wine.

In fact, the secret for this ex disc-jockey, helped today by Michel Rolland, the pope of Bordeaux Oenologist, is perhaps to do the opposite from others. He uses a high temperature, short maceration and a very long aging time in barrels, which preserves the structure of the wine as well as the full colors of the grapes. As far as innovations are concerned, he seems to go back to old methods, like stirring of the lies and vinification in wooden vats: “I use techniques which make my wine more authentic, I follow no trends”.

This ecumenical has a certain sacred belief : Too much wine, kills wine. So, from April until September, the Thunevins – father, mother and daughter – patrol the vineyards to disbud, prune, thin out and harvest green, only keeping one out of 3 or 4 bunches.
In addition, when local winemakers produce 58 hectoliters per hectare, Valandraud, only 35. At the beginning, mother nature was not cooperative: in 1991, frost destroyed his harvest. Courageous: “I didn’t care of not surviving, I wanted to make the best wine in Bordeaux”
Maybe, he is crazy… However, Robert Parker, the American guru from the Wine Advocate, who calls the shots in Bordeaux, and Stephen Tanzer, his competition from the International Wine Cellar, agree: Thunevin produced in 1995 and 1996, wine worthy of the greatest Bordeaux. The first year, Archibald Johnston, heir to a long line of Bordeaux wine merchants told him : “You are funny. I will take your wine, but I don’t know who I will sell it too”. The answer is now a fact: Americans, British, Japanese, Taiwanese, but also top French restaurants.

« Half of my customers are speculators », Thunevin remarks, who sells his wine at around 1000 F per bottle, for a cost which runs between 80 and 100 F. The money earned from this success will help expend the house and the cellar, and buy an extra hectare in a nice terroir.

The ex-bank teller from Credit Agricole doesn’t have wild ambitions. His greatest glory could be for having learned. Beginners followed his path, like the owners of Rol-Valentin, as well as established properties. The Becots, from Beau-Séjour-Bécot, also produced in 1996, 9000 bottles on the 2.5 hectares of their property of La Gomerie. Beyond this, his methods have an impact. “That you like me or not, still I woke something up”, says Thunevin. Christophe Reboulse-Salze, in charge at CVBG, one of Valandraud’s top customers notes : “Thunevin shook things around, but the prices he commends show that it is worth it”. What does it matter, a chateau owner says in a disdainful tone, with his little cellar: Oh yes, Valandraud, this little garage wine!” After all, Steve Jobs, the founder of modern micro-computers, also started that way.

© L'Express 2007

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