The non-conformist With his disdain for over-regulation, Jean-Luc Thunevin has ruffled feathers among the Bordelais, but his modern approach to winemaking with his vins de garage has also won him many fans, says Roger Voss

With his disdain for over-regulation, Jean-Luc Thunevin has ruffled feathers among the Bordelais, but his modern approach to winemaking with his vins de garage has also won him many fans, says Roger Voss.

Jean-Luc Thunevin sits at a desk piled high with papers, price lists, appointment diaries and a phone. At the back of the small office above his ultra-modern L’Essentiel wine bar in St-Emilion, this is a comparative oasis of calm.

Across the room, his six staff handle phone calls, take orders. To one side is a tiny tasting bench, the only sign that this small, crowded space is the hub of a multi-million pound wine business.

It is the lull before the frenzy of en primeur. A year ago, as the 2005s were being tasted, the excitement and craziness were palpable. Now, in 2007, as the tastings of 2006 are starting, it is more ordered, measured. ‘The prices for 2005 were crazy,’ Thunevin says. ‘Everybody went mad. And yet 70% of the wine is already sold, everybody had to have it. But in 2006, prices are sure to fall – although they will be higher than 2004, and probably higher than 2001. It’s a good vintage, but not exceptional.’

Dressed in jeans and an open-necked check shirt, 57-year-old Thunevin hardly looks the part of the Bordeaux négociant and château owner. He still seems to be an outsider, a rebel in a trade that remains conservative and traditional, where you have either owned your land for several generations or you work for the insurance company that owns the château. For a former bank clerk born in Algeria to make it good in this society rankles.

Is that why he continues to upset the establishment? Why his Château Valandraud, widely tipped to join the ranks of St-Emilion’s grands crus classés in 2006, failed to make the cut?

Thunevin is fatalistic about the decision. ‘The commission wouldn’t discuss it with me, they just told me,’ he says, his usual grin all but gone. All the pundits had reckoned that Valandraud, the original garage-wine-turned-respectable-property, would make it to the list of classed growths. ‘The classement is there to aid wine drinkers, it should recognise the best wines. Tasting is the basis of the classement, but they forgot that. And the premiers crus don’t want me to be on the same level as them.’

Perhaps, he speculates, it is because Valandraud is modern, ‘but in my view, it is not that. I think it is because of the terroir. I don’t have only great terroir, but that’s true of other châteaux as well.’

One might imagine him to have enjoyed the classification’s subsequent suspension (see p8), yet he is scornful of those châteaux, demoted in 2006, whose court proceedings have led to the decision. ‘They are bad losers.The St-Emilion classification in 2006 was organised in just the same way as 1996 and 1986, and there were no challenges then. The parameters were clearly set out. What they have done just detracts from the classification which they claim to take so seriously.’

One-man band leader

Thunevin is the godfather of the garagiste movement. Small parcels of land in St-Emilion were set aside and given an intensive treatment of low yields, 200% new wood, often extra extraction. The wines were marketed under smart labels and smart names at high prices. They set St-Emilion buzzing in the 1990s. And Thunevin, through his négociant business and his acumen for publicity, orchestrated much of this buzz, and sold the wines.

He wasn’t the first on the Right Bank to make what came to be known as garage wines; Jacques Thienpont did it with Le Pin, François Mitjaville with Tertre Roteboeuf. ‘But they were part of established families and did it quietly. I had to make a noise because I was unknown.’ Many of the wines were good, some very good. They included Gracia, L’Apogée du Château Jacques Blanc, Château Croix de Labrie, Château Griffe Cap d’Or, all in St-Emilion and its satellites, and Marojallia in Margaux. And they include Thunevin’s own original garage wine, Valandraud. ‘Honestly,’ he says, ‘it never was a garage. I borrowed an old chai next to my house which belonged to Monsieur Bécot [owner of Beauséjour-Bécot].’

The first vintage of Valandraud was 1991. Not a great year, admits Thunevin. ‘We started working with Alain Vauthier, who wasn’t yet in control of Ausone. Because we had no money, we did things simply. We did the malo in the barrel and we had new barrels because I prefer the taste. We green harvested because my wife is a gardener and understands the need to cut yields.’ It was called Valandraud, after his wife, Murielle, whose surname is Andraud.

Valandraud was a hit from the start. The vines, on a tiny parcel of less than a hectare, were old, 30–40 years, but had no classification apart from St-Emilion. The secret was in low yields, harvesting by hand, hand de-stemming, the use of new wood and extraction. The 1991 wine was reviewed by Robert Parker, given an 83, and sold. The 1992 gained 88 points, and as the ratings crept up, so did the price. Just as significantly, Valandraud also received the plaudits of French critic Michel Bettane. The 2005 got 93–96 Parker points and sold for £150 a bottle.

Thunevin bought more land and set up a négociant business, encouraging other growers to create their own vins de garage on particularly propitious parcels of land. And with his marketing nous, he sold these wines at prices that sometimes outstripped the established classed growths. In so doing he both encouraged smaller growers and spurred more enterprising St-Emilion bigwigs to look into the idea. And so La Mondotte from Stephan von Neipperg of Canon la Gaffelière, and La Gomerie from the Bécot family of Beauséjour-Bécot, were born.

The garage movement hasn’t died, he insists, it has changed. ‘Some garage wines were only as good as the last Parker rating. And they suffered because they became too expensive. It was the same with the Supertuscans. But the best have survived and still have a following. In good vintages, like 2005, they do well.’

He’s still thinking ahead. He writes a blog in which he gives often trenchant opinions. He sometimes seems to court controversy, as when he laid plastic sheeting on the ground of one of his vineyards to stop rain and weeds towards harvest time. For two years, the authorities gave this experiment a nod. But the third year, in 2000, they banned its use. Did that stop Thunevin? Not a bit. He accepted the demotion of that parcel of vines to table wine status and created L’Interdit de Clos Badon for the 2000 vintage, a wine that sold both because it was attractive in its own right and, of course, because of the publicity its ban attracted.

We move to lunch at his modern house, inside the shell of an old building, in the heart of St-Emilion. Murielle has been cooking for us. Her job is running the vineyard side of the business, leaving Jean-Luc to run the négociant part of the empire.

We talk about modernism in wine, the modern movement and Thunevin’s place in it. ‘We make wines that are concentrated, but they are wines of terroir. We weren’t the first modernists in Bordeaux though. Christian Moueix and Jean-Michel Cazes were modernists before the rest. I am part of that modernism.’

With lunch, we drink Thunevin’s latest creation, Présidial, a branded Bordeaux. ‘We’ve already sold 20,000 bottles in Australia – they wanted something a little more complex.’ The 2004 is a ripe, fruity wine that joins his other recent successes, two wines from Roussillon called Hugo and Constance, which he has created with Jean-Roger Calvet, of the Calvet négociant family.

He wishes Bordeaux could get its act together. ‘The rest of the world can do so much, yet in Bordeaux our hands are tied with all this regulation.’ With global warming, bad Bordeaux vintages don’t happen, ‘but we can’t seem to take advantage of it, except at the top level where the wines sell easily. We should be able to spread that down the scale. Top classed growths are 1,000% more expensive than basic Bordeaux. It’s wrong.’

Such opinions will always keep the man a controversial figure. But as vineyard owner, négociant or consultant, Jean-Luc Thunevin is now a major force in the global wine world. Whether the St-Emilion establishment likes it or not.

Thunevin at a glance

Born: Mascara (Algeria), 1951

Education: BEPC and bank training

Family: married with one daughter and two grandchildren

Dream vineyard: the one he is creating in Maury, Roussillon

He says: ‘Although I’m a hypochondriac, I’m also an optimist, and I only get pleasure from creating riches and jobs.’

They say: ‘He has been very influential in the search for suave, concentrated wines emphasising maturity of tannins rather than a balance of fruit and tannin. For me they lack charm, but they gain Parker points.’ Patrick Valette, wine consultant

Written by Roger Voss