Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-07-09
Although the famous “garage wines” that made Jean-Luc and Murielle Thunevin’s fortune are destined for an international elite, their second Saint-Émilion Grand Cru “Virginie de Valandraud” is, on the other hand, a little gem that everyone can afford.
“Making a great wine is not an everyday thing: it requires a lot of work, investment and thought, when one could be content with producing the year’s wine without thinking twice about it…” Jean-Luc Thunevin
In Saint-Émilion, Jean-Luc Thunevin is an exceptional character that you have to meet at least once in a lifetime... The mere mention of his name unleashes strong emotions here, crystallises resentment, exacerbates jealousies and plunges you into the most Balzacian and terrifying reaches of the world of wine…
Indeed, Jean-Luc Thunevin is not an “heir” but an “upstart”, a self-made man who started out with nothing and achieved glory without failing to hurt the pride of the Saint-Émilion “aristocrats” in the process. Born in Mascara, Algeria, in 1951, Jean-Luc wanted to work in Africa. He was in turn a lumberjack, disc jockey, and bank clerk at the Crédit Agricole… Although his setting up in Saint-Émilion in 1984 was by chance (he opened a little secondhand shop here, and then a wine bar), his love of wine has always been deep-seated: “Even when we were broke, my wife and I treated ourselves to vintage wines – it was our luxury and our extravagance.”
The adventure of this 57-year-old teenager really began in 1989, when he decided to purchase a tiny parcel of vines (0.6 hectares) in the small valley of Saint-Émilion, between Château Pavie Macquin and Château La Clotte. Without a penny in their pocket, Jean-Luc and his wife Murielle at first sold their harvest to a local cooperative.
In 1990, however, they decided to create their own “château” (an old 16th century hen house) that they christened Château Valandraud. To limit costs, they took pains to do everything themselves, working their parcel of land with a pick, pruning, ploughing, thinning out the leaves on each vine plant and sorting the ripe bunches grape by grape… With their two or three new barrels stored in their garage, they matured and vinified their wine like new parents. Everyone knows what happened next. Dubbed “garage wines” by the Anglo-Saxon press, the wines of Château Valandraud, which stand out for their exceptional concentration, met with staggering success and, in 1995, became the most expensive wines in the world (more expensive than Romanée-Conti wines)!
“To start with, a real garage wine producer is one who has no other option than to make the best wine possible because he has no money, no big vineyard and he has to live from the sale of his 3,000 bottles... But I was also lucky enough to have Murielle, who has a fantastic nose for wine: without her, Château Valandraud would not be what it is today!”
Although Jean-Luc Thunevin is the prototype of the American dream à la française, his success has not been purely individual in the sense that, through contagion, he has forced the old families of Saint-Émilion to take a new look at themselves and improve the average quality of their wines. Above all, his career has inspired many other adventurers who, following his lead, have in turn attempted to produce great “modern” wines (such as Michel Puzio of Château Croix de Labrie and Dominique Decoster of Château Fleur Cardinale).
Let’s be frank: it’s not easy to write about such a character (say “Valandraud” in one of the numerous trendy organic places in Paris and the door will be shut in your face!). For my part, I appreciated the generosity and humanity of this exceptional couple.
At over 300 euros (£240) a bottle, the wines of Château Valandraud enable an international elite to buy social status. But for 40 euros (about £32), the “Virginie de Valandraud” (Virginie is the name of their daughter) is a fine “vin de plaisir” that deserves respect! All freshness and fruit (blackcurrant, plum, violet), this Saint-Émilion Grand Cru is sourced from the same parcels as the Château Valandraud (70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc). Its yields are also very low (30 hectolitres per hectare) and its keeping potential is over 20 years. It is elegant, straightforward and mineral on the palate, with a perfectly integrated woodiness. A wine that is accessible in every sense of the word.
6, rue Guadet
33330 Saint-Emilion, France
Tél. : (+33) 05 57 55 09 13