Bordeaux: Calling Time on Garage Wine
- Friday 11 April 2008
Back in May the unthinkable happened. The bad boy of St-Emilion, Jean-Luc Thunevin, owner of Château Valandraud and godfather of the garagistes, was welcomed as an honorary member of the venerable Left Bank association, the Commanderie du Bontemps du Médoc et Graves, Sauternes et Barsac. ‘He woke us up and helped revolutionise Bordeaux,’ said the order’s grand maître, Jean- Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages. A blessing from the establishment at last, but is the bell already tolling on the demise of garage wines?
The garage movement was very much a product of the 1990s, and reached its zenith in the latter part of the decade. It was launched, unofficially, in 1991 with the first vintage of Château Valandraud. ‘We had a plot of Merlot, limited finance and virtually no equipment, but wanted to make the best wine possible in a modern style using wines like Le Pin, Tertre-Rôteboeuf, Haut-Marbuzet and Fleur de Gay, which we admired, as our reference,’ recounts Thunevin. The wine was made in a tiny lock-up, latterly a tradesman’s workshop, abutting Jean-Luc and Muriel Thunevin’s house in St-Emilion. The volume was negligible (100 cases): not only had frost ravaged the vineyard, but the Thunevins had green harvested to select the best of what remained. Destemming was carried out by hand as they didn’t have a machine and the grape cap was punched down by hand during fermentation as there was no pump for pumping over. Money, however, was spent on a handful of new oak barrels for the malolactic fermentation and ageing, the inspiration being the ‘sexy’ feel this technique gave to the model wines of Le Pin. The precepts for a garage wine had been laid: viticultural precision, low yield, small-volume, tailormade winemaking, new oak and the absence, at least initially, of terroir. The coining of the term ‘garage’ implied a limited output and a ‘where needs must’ approach to production. The 1991 received a favourable review from French wine critic Michel Bettane, but it was the 1992 that really started tongues wagging. The volume increased to 375 cases and in another awkward vintage there was praise again from Bettane and a decent, though not ecstatic, note from Robert Parker. More than that, though, Thunevin sold Valandraud for the same price as Lafite, Margaux and Mouton (€19.80 prix de sortie on the Place de Bordeaux).
The cost of production compelled the price, making the first three years economically rocky. But by 1994 speculation had entered the equation. Could this be the Le Pin of St-Emilion? Media attention and growing demand, particularly from the US, caused the price to rise, outstripping the first growths. By 1997 Thunevin was making a handsome return. Initially there had only been Thunevin and his friend Michel Puzio of Château Croix de Labrie but from 1994, new garagistes started to appear on the scene, including Château Rol Valentin (1994), La Gomerie (1995), La Mondotte, Le Dôme, Clos Dubreuil (1996), Gracia, L’Hermitage (1997), Péby-Faugères (1998) and Magrez Fombrauge (2000). St- Emilion, with its profusion of isolated parcels (and esteemed name) was, and still is, the source of these wines.
Riding the wave
Some refute the term garagiste but all, without exception, will admit to being caught up in the spiral of speculation. ‘The 1996 La Mondotte sold surprisingly quickly, with the release price multiplying 10 times over on the open market,’ says Stephan von Neipperg. ‘So the following year I went higher.’ ‘We’d originally planned to sell the first vintage of La Gomerie for 35F, but with positive notes from Stephen Tanzer and Parker we upped the price to 100F,’ recalls Gérard Bécot. These new-wave wines – Merlot-led, rich, ripe and punchy in style – became the flavour of the moment, their scarcity driving prices. Robert Parker’s enthusiasm and media coverage helped fan the flames but the demand was there – and more so as buyers stayed the course to guarantee allocations for the magical 2000 vintage. The market was guaranteed until then. Post-2000 the story is a little different. There’s still an element of speculation, but only in strong vintages like 2005 and for the half dozen wines that have established themselves as solid brands (the likes of Valandraud and La Mondotte). Prices for these yo-yo with the vintage (the prix de sortie for Valandraud 2005 was €165, but €75 for the 2004), as does the success of the campaign.
Overall, though, there’s definitely been a softening of price. ‘Garage wines are clearly not as fashionable as they once were and one of the reasons is that they’ve not proved a good investment, as prices have come down from what people originally paid,’ says Stephen Browett of London broker Farr Vintners. On the Place de Bordeaux, the status quo has been re-established with the classified growths again in the ascendancy. Other changes have also come about. Stylistically garage wine is still rich, dark and opulent but this can vary from the ultra-modern, like Péby-Faugères (big, black, powerful, concentrated), to wines like Rol Valentin and Gracia, that have more restraint. ‘In the early years we went for over-ripe grapes and plenty of extraction, but now we’re harvesting a touch earlier and looking for more finesse,’ says Michel Gracia, owner of the eponymous brand. The size, structure and output of a number of the garagistes has also changed. Gracia has doubled in size to 3ha (hectares) and added a second label, Les Angelots de Gracia, produced from another plot of just over a hectare. Château Rol Valentin has gone from 2ha to 7.5ha, with an improved terroir. And Jonathan Maltus has not only expanded Le Dôme (now 2.85ha), but added three other singlevineyard wines, producing a combined total of some 1,900 cases. The most radical example, though, is Thunevin and his wine Valandraud. From just under 2ha in 1991 he now has a total of 20ha dotted around the appellation. Of these, an emblematic parcel of vines in the lieu-dit Fongaban, close to the town of St-Emilion, is the only component to be consistently used in Valandraud since the early days. The rest is now mainly sourced from an 8ha property of clay-limestone soils at St- Etienne-de-Lisse, Bel-Air-Oüy, which, with a view to classification in 2016, is being groomed as the official base of Château Valandraud. The winery, too, now has nothing makeshift about it. The equipment is modern and state-of-the-art and, of course, includes a destemming machine and plenty of pumps as well as a vibrating sorting table, stainless steel tanks and more than a handful of new oak barrels. All told, current production of Valandraud is now up to 1,250 cases with another 1,000–2,000 cases of the second label Virginie de Valandraud.
Prices and demand down, with their cult status in decline – to the extent that some believe garage wines now have an establishment profile – it seems that the garagistes have had their day. And yet… Clearly the fervour of the 1990s is a thing of the past, but the majority of the wines are still around, with other micro-cuvées added to the roll. Robert Parker listed nearly 30 in his pick of top 150 wines from the 2006 vintage, including a good half dozen from Bernard Magrez alone. The major problem is not quality (given their accepted style), but marketing and selling these unknown wines. The volumes are too small for brand building, hence the importance of the Parker points. For others there remains the problem of developing personalised distribution, in which case the wines may be less familiar on the open market. Clos Dubreuil (3.5ha) is now owned by Benôit Trocard and sells through the family négociant business in France, and to Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Château La Croisille (1.5ha) was a semifinalist this year in the fifth edition of the St-Emilion Grand Cru Challenge (a competition whose previous winners include Valandraud, Rol Valentin and La Gomerie) and despite a lack of notoriety, sells through markets created by its Dutch owner, négociant Jacques de Schepper. Jean-Frâncois Julien received a good Parker score for La Fleur Morange (1.5ha, first vintage 1999) in 2005, but this has not been the case every year. However, he has successfully established distribution in the UK, US, Denmark and Japan, and, was clearly inspired by the garagistes. ‘I had a parcel of old vines at St-Pey d’Armens in St-Emilion and wanted to make a wine of the highest quality that could compete with the best in Bordeaux.’ These are sentiments echoed by Bertrand Bourdil, technical director of the St-Emilion cooperative (Union de Producteurs de St-Emilion) and previously an oenologist at first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild. In 2006 he fulfilled a long-time dream to make his own wine producing a new, as yet unnamed, cuvée from 2ha in St-Emilion. The garage movement of the 1990s is over but the spirit clearly lives on.