Monday marked The Grand Crew’s first visit to Saint-Emilion and oh what a visit it was! I met with Jean Luc Thunevin, owner of Château Valandraud, and Michel Gracia, owner of Château Gracia. Both men are internationally revered garagistes and share one clear common quest—to make the best quality and most pure Saint Emilion Grand Cru money can buy.
Within 5 minutes of meeting Jean Luc it was clear what type of a person he is. He is genuinely charismatic, cares deeply about his 45 employees, has an endless sense of humor and laidback attitude, and is involved in everything. He’s a proprietor, négociant, and celebrity wine consultant, working side-by-side the likes of Michel Rolland (oh yeah, and he’s also a fellow blogger). It’s no wonder that while taking a stroll through Saint-Emilion, it appeared that Jean Luc knew everyone. He’s also completely unaffected by any criticism that may trickle down from the Bordeaux aristocracy, which is not used to competing against an estate with less than two decades under its belt. In a tongue and cheek way, the nickname “Bad Boy”, bestowed upon Jean Luc by Robert Parker, fits him well. This is a man that anyone interested in working in the wine industry should meet.
Jean Luc, an Algerian immigrant, started his life in wine as a wine merchant and restaurant owner in Saint-Emilion. In 1989 Jean Luc figured that there was no reason he couldn’t start making his own wine, and so he and his wife, Murielle Andraud, purchased a tiny plot of vines, .6 hectares to be exact, in Saint-Emilion. By 1991 Chateau Valandraud bottled its first vintage. The estate quickly became a force to be reckoned with, producing high quality and powerful wines during the difficult 1992, 1993, and 1994 vintages. It was all uphill from there as Jean Luc slowly but surely acquired more vines and grew his consulting network. Today Thunevin is attached in one way shape or form (proprietor, consultant, or négociant) to over 20 labels, and his Château Valandraud is listed in Robert Parker’s “The World’s Greatest Wine Estates”.
Château Valandraud and company currently manage 24 hectares of vines in Saint-Emilion (Jean Luc owns more vines throughout other regions of France). The annual production of Valandraud is around 12,000-15,000 bottles. The second label, Virginie de Valandraud, pumps out around 30,000 bottles. Calvet-Constance, a Roussillon Vin de Pays d’Oc, completely separate from the 24 hectares in Saint-Emilion, has the largest production with 130,000 bottles. The grape varietals (Saint-Emilion only) are broken down into 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 2.5% Malbec, and 2.5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Valandraud is a true garagiste winery, focused on organic farming and attention to detail all the way through to the bottling. All grapes are harvested by hand and a uniquely Burgundian style is implemented throughout the vinification. The grapes go through a cold maceration, encounter 100% malolactic fermentation in barrel, and the resulting wine is aged on the lees. Additionally, closing the Burgundian loop, Jean Luc utilizes both pumping-over and pigéage throughout the maceration. In fact, Jean Luc was one of the first to re-implement the pigéage technique, and today he has many followers. To steal a quote from Robert Parker, “Bordeaux’s leading revolutionary (…) Thunevin has inspired an entire new generation of young vignerons to produce wine of higher and higher quality. For this, all of Bordeaux has benefitted enormously.”
The majority of my discussion with Jean Luc centered on the business end of the wine industry, not viticulture and winemaking. After all, Jean Luc pays Michel Rolland for the key decisions of vinification, which is not to say that Jean Luc isn’t known for having a strong palate and a keen sense of winemaking methods and techniques. But at the end of the day, Jean Luc’s success and near celebrity status is largely a result of his strength as a business man. He’s mastered the wine trade and the majority of the consulting he does is on the business end of the industry. Regarding his business philosophy it can be most quickly summed up with an old dictum he repeated to me in French… “on ne vend pas un produit, on vend difference.” Quickly translated, “we don’t sell a product, we sell difference”. This won’t come to any surprise to anyone who’s been successful in business. If your product has no unique selling point, then it’s just like any other. From day one, Jean Luc has strived to produce a wine with distinction and expression, unlike any other in Bordeaux.
However, even such a successful business man as Jean Luc isn’t immune to an international economic crisis. I asked him about his en primeur sales, pre and post crisis. He noted that up through the 2005 vintage, 90 per cent of the Chateau Valandraud, priced between $150 and $400 USD, sold en primeur. From 2006 to 2008, only 50 percent was sold en primeur. For any United States residents interested in getting their hands on whatever’s left over, Heidelberg, a large beer and fine wine importer out of Ohio and Kentucky, distributes Valandraud.
As is mentioned in the title, and briefly at the beginning of this post, I also met with Michel Gracia, owner of the garagiste Saint Emilion Grand Cru winery, Château Gracia. Michel runs a tiny estate of 4 hectares; however, his wines are by no means tiny. This visit was completely impromptu. As Jean Luc and I were leaving his wine shop, L’Essentiel, to walk over to his “garage”, he spotted two individuals sitting on a bench, just outside of the shop. Jean Luc hollered over at them, making some humoristic Jean Luc-esque remark. Honestly, I had no idea who they were, because to a foreigner’s eye, they appeared to be just ordinary town folk, enjoying a beautiful day in Saint-Emilion. However, the older gentleman was Michel Gracia and the younger gentleman was an aspiring winemaker, whose name escapes me. Anyways, I quickly discovered who Michel Gracia was and low and behold I found myself in the midst of a conversation with two of the most influential garagistes in Saint Emilion. Unfortunately, I don’t have much information on Michel’s winery. It’s quite young, founded in 1997. Similar to Jean Luc, Michel is a first generation immigrant, originating from Spain. Also similar to Jean Luc, Michel has a killer personality and an endless air of authenticity and passion for making quality wine. After less then a decade since his first crush, Michel was already recognized by Robert Parker as one of the twenty best wine estates in France in 2006. So after checking out Jean Luc’s winery, we stopped by Michel’s “garage” to taste some wine from the barrel. Michel’s wines are expressive and lively, granted I only tasted one finished wine, and the rest were single varietals, awaiting the assemblage. But for 30€ to 60€ at wholesale, considering that this wine stands side by side any top growth Grand Cru, this is a wine to get your hands on.
Below are my day’s tasting notes …
2000 Château Bel-Air-Ouÿ, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Tasting Notes: Very fresh red fruits on the nose with notes of subtle oak and minerality. Medium to full-bodied in the mouth with medium tannins and god acidity. There are flavors of black cherries with chocolate lingering on the finish.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 88)
Price: $20 @ Wine Spectator on release
2005 Château Bel-Air-Ouÿ, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Tasting Notes: A very pleasant nose, showing nice fresh fruit. There’s good acidity in the mouth and although currently the oak is too pronounced, this wine is young and judging on the 2000, the oak with mellow out in the next 2-5 years.
Rating: 14/20 (WS 88)
Price: ~17€ @ Snooth
2001 Clos Badon, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Tasting Notes: A complex nose with notes of game, earth, musk, and black fruits. The acidity is strong in the mouth, yet balanced, with flavors of chocolate, oak, and cassis.
Rating: 14/20 (WS 84)
Price: 25€ @ Snooth
2005 Virginie de Valandraud, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Tasting Notes: A fresh, elegant, and soft nose with notes of crème de cassis and raspberry. A dry mouth with a good, balanced acidity, and marked tannins that should open up over time. There are pronounced flavors of blackberries and plum.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 88)
Price: $62 @ Wine Spectator on release
2001 Château Valandraud, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Tasting Notes: A beautifully concentrated and strong nose, expressing overall fruitiness, raspberry notes, and a creamy overtone. Great balance and acidity in the mouth, this wine is full-bodied and shows complex flavors of herbs, minerals, cherries, cherry jam, currant, and oak. This wine is already excellent and will surely get even better over the next 5 to 10 years.
Rating: 17/20 (RP 94)
Price: $150 @ Wine Spectator on release
2007 Les Angelots de Gracia
St-Emilion Grand Cru
Blend: 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc
Tasting Notes: (tasted in stainless steel vat, ready for bottling) A very fresh nose, still alive, with notes of cassis. Silky sweet tannins in the mouth with powerfully expressed flavors of chocolate, blackberries, and black cherries.
Price: 30€ wholesale
2008 Les Angelots de Gracia, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Blend: 100% Merlot
Tasting Notes: (tasted in barrel, prior to blending) A little tight on the nose, showing notes of game and earth. With wine is acidic and rich with medium tannins. Plum is pronounced through the palate, along with sour cherries, cocoa, sweet berries and an overall candy-esque mid-palate to finish.
2008 Château Gracia, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Blend: 100% Merlot
Tasting Notes: (tasted in barrel, prior to blending) Light spice and sweetness on the nose with notes of oak, licorice, and graphite. There is a good balance and acidity in the mouth with flavors of cherries and espresso.
2008 Château Gracia, St-Emilion Grand Cru
Blend: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Tasting Notes: (tasted in barrel, prior to blending) A tighter nose with aromas of oak, black fruits, cherry, and leather. Good balance and a vibrant acidity in the mouth with slightly overly bitter tannins, a thick and jammy texture, and blackberry notes.