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Bordeaux's Iconoclasts

How a onetime logger and a former nurse's aide infuriated their rivals by launching one of the most celebrated (and controversial) wineries in France, Château de Valandraud.

Almost as soon as Jean-Luc Thunevin began making wine 10 years ago, his competitors in St-Émilion were putting him down. Someone came up with the nickname "Tue-le-Vin"--kill the wine. "What gets them," the 50-year-old Thunevin says, "is that I have a big mouth and I attract a lot of media attention." Indeed, the first time I met him, he was with a TV crew that had been following him around for a week, filming his every encounter for the popular French weekly show Capital. He has since appeared on the nightly news, and this fall he'll be the subject of a report on Envoyé Spécial, the French equivalent of 60 Minutes.

His methods are controversial, but what's beyond dispute is that Château de Valandraud, the groundbreaking St-Émilion domaine he founded with his wife, Murielle Andraud (whose name he gave it), is turning out wines that are not only getting better reviews than those of many nearby blue-chip châteaus but also--and this really rankles the long-established wineries--fetching higher prices.

In the mid-'80s, Thunevin and Andraud--he had been a bank employee and a logger, she a nurse's aide in nearby Libourne--bought a small house in the center of St-Émilion, and Thunevin opened the town's first wine bar. Before long he owned several wine bars and shops and had started a wine-brokerage firm, which now represents some 400 domaines, mostly in Bordeaux. (He has sold the wine bars.) In 1990 he bought a couple of rows of vines on the outskirts of town. The next year he turned out 1,500 bottles; because he had no money for equipment, he'd had the grapes stemmed and pressed by hand, and he stomped them with his own feet to break up the fermenting cap of skins and pips. He did the work in his garage, and thus St-Émilion's vins de garage movement was born.

The following year, 1992, was a mediocre vintage for Bordeaux but not for Valandraud: Its wine scored a respectable 88 (out of a possible 100) from international critic Robert M. Parker, Jr.--higher than most of the Bordeaux châteaus. Michel Bettane, France's leading critic, awarded the wine a coup de coeur in La Revue du Vin de France, and it won a gold medal at the prestigious Foire de Paris. In 1996 Parker reviewed the '94 and '95 vintages, giving Valandraud among the highest scores in Bordeaux, and at a Sotheby's auction, six-bottle lots of '92, '93 and '94 Valandraud sold for $5,285, $6,138 and $6,138 respectively--more than 12-bottle cases of '82 Latour, '86 Lafite-Rothschild and '89 Mouton. Other wineries in the St-Émilion appellation began making Valandraud-inspired wines: La Gomerie from Beau-Séjour Bécot; L'Hermitage; Gracia; Croix de Labrie; Rol Valentin; La Mondotte from Canon-la-Gaffelière.

The Valandraud style is distinctive--plush, warm and spicy, with ripe fruit and no jagged edges. Some observers have called it California-like. Yet when Thunevin and Andraud started out, they knew next to nothing about making wine. They did know what they liked: handcrafted wines like Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf, another boutique St-Émilion wine, and Le Pin, from Pomerol. And they had the wisdom to hire the great consultant Michel Rolland, known for the sumptuous reds he makes from impeccably ripe grapes. (This technique involves some risk; the longer the wait to harvest the grapes, the more chance that rain will ruin them.)

Perhaps most important, the couple had the example of Andraud's parents, professional gardeners who specialize in growing chrysanthemums for All Saints' Day. The expertise it takes to harvest an entire crop of flowers for a single day inspired the labor-intensive work in the vineyard: few chemical treatments; very low yields, owing to severe pruning and bunch thinning (which is why it's so hard to find the wine, except at a few restaurants); aeration of the vines by leaf removal early in the season; and harvesting the grapes as late--that is, as ripe--as possible. After fermentation, the young wine goes into new oak barrels.

This approach is, as Thunevin puts it, "haute couture," involving the kind of detail work that not every domaine can afford, and it peeved competitors. "They said, 'Valandraud can do the kinds of things they do because they're so small,'" Thunevin recalls. "'Their vineyards are no good. It can't last.' And we've proved them wrong about everything! Not only have we lasted, the practices we've initiated--or, rather, resuscitated, because they had been common techniques but had disappeared--are spreading."

They're no longer small, either. Thunevin and Andraud now own 20 hectares (about 50 acres) in St-Émilion, and they're expanding into other parts of Bordeaux and beyond: They've just bought a hectare in Maury, in Languedoc near the Spanish border. They're also in charge of viticulture and winemaking for about a dozen additional châteaus in Bordeaux, including such highly regarded properties as Marojallia in Margaux, as well as two hectares in St-Estèphe.

What really put local noses out of joint, though, had more to do with social than with viticultural classes. Not so long ago, people like Thunevin and Andraud would have worked for one of the grand châteaus, not for themselves. And even if they'd had the temerity to make their own wine, they wouldn't have dared charge higher prices than the grand châteaus did. (In the wake of some of the most famous châteaus' spectacular price hikes for their 2000s, though, Thunevin notes that Valandraud isn't the most costly. Cases of the still-unreleased 2000 Valandraud are reportedly selling in New York for $2,700; Latour and Mouton for $3,000; La Mondotte, a garagiste wine from Canon-la-Gaffelière, for $4,500; and Château Cheval Blanc, which received Parker's highest 2000 score, for $1,200 a bottle.)

Thunevin is still courting controversy. This year a percentage of his wine--as well as part of the production of two other châteaus, including Michel Rolland's Fontenil--was "declassified" by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, or INAO. As an experiment, the winemakers had spread plastic sheeting between their vine rows from mid-August to mid-September, the idea being that if it rained heavily during this critical period, the sheeting might prevent water from reaching the vines' roots, swelling the grapes (which dilutes the juice) and possibly spreading vine maladies. The INAO considers the practice an alteration of the terroir, and so now the wines, despite their pedigree and their true superiority, can be sold only as lowly vin de table. It should be added that this slight hasn't affected either their reception or their prices.

When I visited Château de Valandraud this past spring, on the eve of the annual marathon tasting of the newest Bordeaux, Thunevin's tasting room was as crowded as the subway at rush hour. The counter was filled with his wines and those of the wineries his brokerage firm represents, and the tasters included a slew of boldface wine names, including Alain Vauthier of nearby Château Ausone and Philippe Porcheron of Marojallia.

Vauthier and Porcheron were also among the guests at a casual dinner Thunevin and Andraud threw in their spacious living-dining room, with an anything-but-casual (in fact, a truly dizzying) variety of wines. Andraud made a delicious leek soup (soup, she says, is the best thing for reviving palates weary from tasting wine) and succulent, garlicky shrimp. The couple opened their personal cellar to their guests, and after three exceptional white wines from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, we drank no fewer than six reds with the main course (a delicious dish of veal, potatoes--from Andraud's father's garden--and smoky morels in a luscious cream sauce) and three with dessert (a rich chocolate cake and an even richer crème caramel). I got to sample four Thunevin wines, including the 1999 Marojallia and the gorgeous 1999 Valandraud; I also had the lip-smacking Château Ausone '95 and the rare 1990 Château d'Arche Sauternes.

After dinner we drove to the Valandraud cellars to taste Thunevin's 2000. The wine was deep, rich and potent,with the juicy flavor you get when you bite into a piece of ripe fruit. Young Bordeaux, largely because of their tannins, are famously difficult to drink, but there wasn't an ounce of aggressiveness in this one; I'd have been happy to have had it that night with dinner. It's sometimes said that Thunevin's wines won't age, but I'd be willing to place money on the 2000. I'll have to devote some time to tracking it down, though. It's just about all sold out.

Jacqueline Friedrich is the author of the award-winning A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire.

Published October 2001
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