Bordeaux is full of Chateau owners and families who have been born not just into wine, but some of the best places in the world to make it. Not Jean-Luc Thunevin. His success in Bordeaux has come through all his own work, starting as a garagiste winemaker, before developing Chateau Valandraud from half a hectare of land into a first classified growth of Saint Emilion. Richard Siddle talks to him about his extraordinary life that has taken him from his home land of Algeria to become one of Bordeaux and France’s most celebrated winemakers and influential producers.
Jean-Luc Thunevin and his wife Murielle Andraud have become one of Bordeaux’s most formidable and respected wine producers, whose combined passion to make better wines every year drives them on harvest after harvest at Château Valandraud.
Château Valandraud simply would not exist if it was not for Jean-Luc Thunevin and Murielle Andraud. This is not an estate that has been passed down through the generations. It was started in 1991 when the couple bought was then just 0.6 hectares of land in the Fongaban Valley, in the Pavie Macquin and La Clotte Neighbourhood.
The property’s name is all of their own making – being a combination of the place – the ‘Val’ – and ‘Andraud’, Murielle’s family name which dates back to 1459 in Saint Emilion.
As well as the soils, the terroir, the climate and the grapes, Château Valandraud has been built on what it calls: 34% expertise; 33% audacity and being willing to walk to its own beat, despite all the outside noise; and 33% love.
It is the personality that Thunevin and Andraud have been able to bring to the estate and their wines that have made them far more renown and influential than the now near nine hectares of prime Saint Emilion land they own in the Saint Etienne de Lisse.
Vineyards that produce a wide range of varietals – including Merlot 65 %, Cabernet Franc 25%, Cabernet Sauvignon 5%, Malbec 4%, and Carmenère 1% – where the emphasis is all about producing wines with “harmonious complexity”, with “depth and intensity”, but also their “display of fruit, freshness, velvety texture and finesse”.
“Each vintage is the sum of all the dedication and hard work done by a whole team to offer you the best of its abilities,” is how the Château Valandraud website introduces its wines.
The fact Thunevin and Andraud came from outside the Bordeaux establishment certainly helped attract attention, but they still had to make wines worthy of that attention. As Neal Martin, acclaimed Bordeaux wine critic, once wrote: “This is the story of how one man and let’s not forget, one woman, changed the face of Bordeaux. It is a story with humble beginnings.”
It was as the so called leader or “Godfather” of what was seen as a “garagiste” movement of small Right Bank producers in the 1990s that first brought Thunevin to Bordeaux and the wider wine trade’s attention. The first wines he produced were fermented in a garage next door to his house in Saint Emilion.
But as he was not hampered by the past or the traditions of winemaking that the rest of Bordeaux was following, he was able to plough his own future and introduce new techniques that were to go on to be followed and spread across the rest of this world famous wine region.
As Wine Spectator puts it: “Jean Luc Thunevin lit a fire under” Bordeaux’s top producers. A fact that Jean Michel Cazes, from Chateau Lynch Bages, is only happy to confirm: “He woke us up and helped revolutionise Bordeaux.”
So how does Thunevin look back on his own career? Here he explains in his own words just what Bordeaux has meant to him and what impact he hopes he has had.
How would you describe yourself as a winemaker and wine producer?
Neither, I am only the boss.
What did you set out to do from the beginning to be different and make your mark in winemaking?
Our beginnings were humble, we did ourselves a lot by hand. Now we have a staff of 50. It has been through a long time of experiments that we have been able to change from being manual workers to heading up a small company selling luxury wines.
How satisfied are you in that you have been able to achieve that?
I can best be defined as someone who “wants to do better” or “wants to go higher, but is stressed”. Optimism and determination are my two life mottos.
What do you look back on in your career as being your biggest achievements?
That has to be creating Valandraud. We have been able to go from producing garage wine to becoming a first classified growth of Saint Emilion. But we are still hoping and thriving for more.
Do you have any outstanding ambitions?
I want to keep Valandraud’s classification as a first classified growth, and to be a part of the next classification (the A status), thus proving that Saint Emilion is a magical place to make wine.
You also had to build your career and reputation outside the classic Bordeaux classifications – how hard was that?
I would not describe it has a hardship. I am a ‘pied noir’ – a Frenchman born in Algeria – who was uprooted from my home to be sent to the same private schools in France that the children of the châteaux owners go to. Bordeaux hasn’t been too harsh on me, even when I woke it up a little. But everything I have done has always been with humility.
Had it given you an opportunity to be a little different and to show your personality and independence more in what you do?
In a way, yes. I have learned a lot from my friend, Jacques Luxey, who was coaching business executives in the 1980’s. He says a lot of business success comes down to ‘knowhow’ and knowing how to let people know what you know. We are not just selling a product, a bottle of wine, we are selling them something that is unique, that is different.
How important was it for you to get first class classification status in 2012?
It was certainly an ego boost. It also helped us become known around the world, has given us greater status in Bordeaux and greatly raised the value of my estate
What impact has it had on you and the overall business?
It has given me a new partner, has helped to write off all my debts and given me a kind of serenity that I did not have before.
You are still looking to get 1st classification recognition for Saint Emilion premier cru A – how is that going and what impact will that have you and your business?
You can submit an application for the ‘A’ classification, but without any knowledge of the rules on how to get it. It is granted by the INAO commission on its own terms.
Having the ‘A’ classification would consolidate an iconic status for the property and would be the true proof that all our hard work has been rewarded.
You have been described as being the “godfather of the garagiste movement in St Emilion “ – .do you like that description and what do you think it means and personifies about you?
I wear this ‘title’ with pride. Michel Bettane and Robert Parker both dubbed me the first wine garagiste, a nod to the Silicon Valley wizards. This is where my roots lay and I take a great pleasure to remind some people, who would like to forget, where I come from.
You have built an international acclaim and reputation for Right Bank wines – what do you think have been the big changes and developments in the styles of wine being made in the Right Bank?
The Right Bank (and Bordeaux as a whole) realised that a vineyard must be considered and treated like a garden. Saint Emilion has incredible terroirs and insanely competitive winemakers working to produce as many great wines as possible, with great purity, ambition and seduction.
How do they compare now to when you first started making wine?
The wines have shifted from being too concentrated, often with a heavy wood presence, to more delicate wines that are made using refined oak, have a great feshness to them, are made from a perfectly ripe fruit.
You have now acquired a number of different properties and estates – how do you decide what estates to buy and what do you hope they can all achieve?
Our purchases over the years have been guided by the shape of our finances, and when we could work on our AOC crushes. We now have Clos du Beau Père in Pomerol, and the great terroirs of Saint Etienne de Lisse – the home of Valandraud
Then we have been able to explore our curiosity with our Roussillon estate, Domaine Thunevin-Calvet and our experiments in Bordeaux with Bad Boy Chardonnay and our Syrah cuvées
What is the thinking behind the Bay Boy wine range – what are your main markets for that brand?
We saw Bad Boy as being an introduction to unorthodox qualitative Bordeaux AOC wines. Our main markets are now in South Korea, Thailand, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, China.
Are you looking to introduce other similar exclusive brands?
No, as we are already working on sister brands such as Bad Girl, Baby Bad Boy, or the Gold version of Bad Boy
What are your main export markets and how have they developed over the years?
Our main market is in Japan, where Valandraud is a kind of icon and is nicknamed the “Cinderella Wine”. Then we enjoy strong sales in the US, thanks to the constant support of wine critics such as The Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni, Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Spectator and more. We also have a good presence in Thailand, Brazil, and South Korea.
How is the UK as an export market and what are your hopes and ambitions to grow sales in the UK?
We have started to work with good strong well placed and motivated distributors over the last couple of years, as well as more well known brokers.
Chateau Valandraud: key facts and figures
- First vintage was in 1991
- Chateau Valandraud’s annual production is around 38,000 bottles versus 1272 in 1991.
- It became a Saint Emilion first growth in 2012.
Thunevin company : key facts and figures
- Its annual turnover is between €12m to €15m.
- It now owns a number of other properties, totalling 600,000 bottles a year, across 247 acres.
- It co-owns a property in Roussillon with Jean Roger Calvet called Domaine Thunevin Calvet.
- To find out more go to Chateau Valandraud’s main website here.