‘Why has it taken you 15 years to cone and see me?’ Jean-Luc Thunevin almost shouted at me across the dining table. He wasn’t angry, just bemused because he thought we’d got so much in common. We’d be talking about breaking down the barriers in Bordeaux, about preaching the meritocratic gospel that everyone should have a right to try and produce something special if they wanted to and prepare to bust a gut in doing so, despite the fact that they might have no money and no fable ancient plots of vines. And we’d be talking about the pleasure principle. He was mourning the fact that people don’t drink his beloved Valandraud, they just taste it then endlessly and aridly dissect it. And finally they mark it out of 100. Why don’t they drink it? ‘Either you like the wine or you don’t like the wine,’ he said, ‘all the rest is just blah, blah, blah.’ (I didn’t know the French used this phrase – it sounded wonderfully dismissive in his broad French accent.)
And I had to wonder, why hadn’t I come to see this friendly, effusive iconoclast, the creator of the radical, revolutionary wine movement known as Les Garagistes? I decided the reason was that I was rather frightened by the changes they were bringing about in a landscape I loved for its familiarity rather than for its acrid fumes of class warfare. I didn’t trust this garagiste movement. So I spent quite a bit of time reading about the men and women and their wines, and hardly went out of my way to taste them, let alone buy them and drink them. And the astronomical prices they achieved made me deeply suspicious of the producers' motives.
But Jean-Luc explained that it was imperative to charge a high price to justify the toil and commitment. When you start with nothing, and can produce a couple of thousand bottles, you have to charge a high price. The trick is to make a wine worth the money. And that's the secret of the true garagiste. The true garagiste is someone like Thunevin who started with no money to buy decent vines or smart equipment, no background in vineyards, just a belief that if you sacrifice yourself to whatever vines you have managed to scrape together, reduce their yield by half, care for them one by one, pick the grapes as ripe as possible – almost riper than you dare, and if necessary berry by berry – if you then take them to your shed or shack – and in his case his actual garage squeezed into a backstreet on the lower side of St-Émilion – and you buy the best barrels you can and continue to commit yourself totally to fermenting and maturing the wine, never cutting corners and always ruthlessly removing portions of wine you think don't reflect your passion – if you do all this, the flame of the garagiste is clearly alight in you and you can make a great wine no one has ever heard of before. If you then attract the attention of the merchants and press and demand an exorbitant price, which the market pays, you have proved that the old order can be broken and a new meritocracy can take its place. Just as happens in California or Australia, but up until now had never happened here.
Not all garagistes are like Thunevin. Some are; like Michel Gracia, the local stonemason with his impressive Ch. Gracia. Others are like Comte Stephan von Neipperg, owner of Classed Growth Canon-la-Gaffelière, who was refused permission to include a small new plot of excellent land in his Classed Growth property and so built himself a winery and followed all the vigorous demands of the garagiste approach to produce his thrilling micro-cru La Mondotte – unclassified but much expensive than Canon-la-Gaffelière. And there are others like Bernard Magrez who slices off one little amphitheatre of particularly favoured vineyard in his main property and turns it into a dense, powerful micro-cru, as he has done with Magrez-Fombrauge and Ch. Fombrauge.
Maybe these guys aren't imbued with the spirit of the garage since came from a privileged or moneyed background, but they took up the cudgels, albeit in their own interests, after the garagistes like Thunevin, or Jonathan Maltus at Ch. Teyssier had led the way. And eventually, as Jean-Luc says, the revolution had to come from the little people, because had nothing to lose. World famous wines wouldn't put their reputation on the line. And now? 'Well, what we do and what Ch. Latour does is not that different, but they have every possible technical aid. I just myself and my wife.’
Jean-Luc Thunevin is the revolutionary spirit who Sparked the whole garagiste movement which has had such a galvanizing effect on Bordeaux giving producers all over the region, however faintly regarded, the confidence to say – ‘if I want to make a great and I am really prepared to commit myself, then I can'. On recent visits, I've tasted outstanding wines from Blaye, Bourg, Castillon, the Premières Côtes and Entre-Deux Mers which owe their existence to Thunevin. Ch. Valandraud was his first venture – and thats the original vineyard below, 0.6ha (1.5 acres) of St-Émilion land he freely admits was a bit ropey, sitting as it does next to the communal vegetable allotments, but it was all I could afford. Valandraud is much bigger now, with far better land providing most of the grapes. But this cold, drab little patch of vines is where the garagiste revolution was born
Excerpt from Bordeaux by Oz Clarke, page 202 & 203, published by Pavilion Books