On the Trail

The Bad Boy of St. Emilion

David Driscoll

In the middle of St. Emilion, down an old staircase and past a few ancient dwellings, sits the office of Jean Luc Thunevin, the renowned Bordeaux negociant and head of Château Valandraud—originally one of the smallest properties in the region at just 1.5 acres. What Valandraud lacks in size, however, it makes up for in notoriety and concentration. Today Thunevin is considered one of the godfathers of the modern garagiste movement, an operation in the 1990s that saw tiny producers take small parcels of land and make big, rich, and powerful wines from them. Le Pin and Tertre Roteboeuf were among the first, extremely small production wines made in small farmhouses (or, yes, sometimes garages), that grabbed the attention of big-name critics at that time and scored big, big points as a result. Thunevin started with Valandraud's first vintage in 1991 and in 1995 Parker scored it higher than Petrus. By the time the new millennium hit, Jean Luc was buying more property, encouraging other winemakers to follow suit, and acting as a negotiant on their behalf. 

Today Thunevin is still known for his outspoken opinions and controversial approach towards winemaking, maintaining his estranged status over the years. He has a wine called the Mauvais Garçon, or "Bad Boy" in English, that pokes fun at this image with a cartoon depiction of a black sheep leading the way towards a garage. That being said, his Valandraud wines are no laughing matter among  Bordeaux aficionados, continually ranked among the best in the region by the most prestigious of publications. We had an appointment this past April to meet Xavier Serin, the export manager for Jean Luc who handles all the negociant business, and taste the new 2015 vintages as part of our trip to St. Emilion. True to form, we entered through the garage! 

We had been hearing the hype around the 2015 Valandraud, which today sits on roughly eleven acres near Pavie-Macquin. James Suckling had already called it the greatest Valandraud ever and even the normally-reserved Neal Martin was gushing. The wine rich, lush, full-bodied, and concentrated with cassis and crushed violets. It's a fleshy and powerful merlot-based St. Emilion wine that offers extreme drinkability even in its youth. We were all impressed by its precision and its balance in the face of all that fruit. While the garagiste movement has since died down and the world is once again enthralled with old-world tradition, the foundation for many of these once-small estates has already been laid. Valandraud is much more of an established name than an outlier these days, bolstered by twenty-five years of success. The 2015 is just another feather in Jean Luc's cap. Success is always the great integrator.

-David Driscoll