Valandraud Vertical Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate, March 1, 2017
Jean‐Luc Thunévin and I share a common past life: both former DJs, masters at the wheels of steel, dance‐floor in the palm of our hands, planning the next series of floor‐fillers like a chess grandmaster plotting his moves. Of course, we both moved on to different things. I took the needle off the record and delved into wine writing. Jean‐Luc became the eminence gris of the vin de garage movement that defined the 1990s. He became a “bad boy” that shook Bordeaux by its starched lapels, challenged preconceptions of what constitutes a great wine, gleefully upsetting the status quo. Deprived of access to propitious vineyard land, he sufficed with the kind of soil that many winemakers look down upon and then assembled his wine using basic equipment.
What distinguished Jean‐Luc was the hubris of his rhetoric and the price of his wine, a wine without a track record. Take a look at the earliest tasting notes in this very publication and you can see Robert Parker’s own disbelief at its asking prices. Yet you also find his intuitive recognition of quality and potential. Jean‐Luc was an arriviste that questioned the supremacy of the hegemony. He ignored reputation and history and impudently asked: so what? He dared rattle the hierarchy that forms Bordeaux's foundation.
Whether or not you are a fan of "vins de garage," the ripples of this movement continue to be felt today, even if the term now seems antiquated. It divided opinion, drawing a line between traditionalists and modernists, some might say between two different tastes in wine. There is some truth in that, but it is too simplistic, too binary. Some of my compatriots opined that Valandraud was excessive, too opulent and garish to be classed as sophisticated Bordeaux, rhetoric frequently just part of an anti‐Parker agenda. However, I rarely found that to be the case. Whilst not every vintage ticked all my boxes, I tasted enough to know that whatever your opinion, this was a Saint Emilion that delivered where it mattered... in the glass.
Last December I attended what to date is the only complete vertical of Valandraud from the debut in 1991 to the most recent vintage in barrel, the 2015. Valandraud complete. The idea came not from Jean‐Luc but wine writer René Gabriel who pointed out to Jean‐Luc that after 25 years, it might be opportune to celebrate and look back over the last quarter‐century. Jean‐Luc was unusually apprehensive. He had not tasted many of the early vintages for a long time. Would they embarrass him and his partner Murielle? But he gradually warmed to the idea, and Jean‐Luc forever the provocateur, decided to go one step further. Instead of simply lining up the bottles he decided to pour each Valandraud against another wine of the same vintage, each pairing served blind.
Now this put a different slant on the tasting. Think of the criticism leveled at Valandraud over the years... Valandraud was style over substance; winemaking not terroir; a decadent wine bereft of longevity; part of a stylistic fad that would fade away and an upstart that laughably believed it could compete with elite Bordeaux châteaux...
Here was a chance to either prove his detractors right or vindicate everything that he has stood for. And so that’s just what Jean‐Luc did last December.
Before I continue, I should state that whatever the intentions of this tasting, it was not to traduce the reputations of the wines against which Valandraud was compared. In fact, when I examine my notes, in particular the off‐vintages, this tasting did as much to reaffirm their status as it did to affirm the reputation of Valandraud. Given that we were confined to a chronological series of vintages with all its inevitable ups and downs, there were one or two disappointing bottles. However, these were outnumbered by the positive showings that might have otherwise been overlooked. I debated whether to separate the two sets of tasting notes, but finally I decided they belong together since that is how the tasting was conducted. Everyone was on a level playing field.
So, 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.
History I first met Jean‐Luc during the 1998 primeurs, not that he will remember me since this was long before I began writing about wine. He is a slim and wiry man without the expanded waistline that some château owners are lumbered with after a lifetime of fine dining. His looks belie his age, born with indefatigable energy that has never diminished. Jean‐Luc has a mischievous, impish face, someone who you can imagine was a right old handful as a kid and he relishes that persona, mining it for his own "Bad Boy" label. On the wall of his office is an insightful pictorial breakdown of Jean‐Luc and his business (you can see it on his blog). In it, Jean‐Luc is described as "hyperactive, tenacious, even stubborn," then "anxious, a hypochondriac," then "entrepreneur, builder." It also shows his mindset with release prices of Valandraud vis‐à‐vis his Saint Emilion "rivals" and a chart of Parker scores over the years.
He speaks in machine‐gun French. Even one of his compatriots once told me that his speech is occasionally difficult to keep up with, like the TGV at full speed. It reflects how his mind works. His partner Murielle is different, more relaxed, perhaps more diffident, always with a smile on her face; their differing personalities complement each other, ying and yang. For many years I have met them both at their winery in the heart of Saint Emilion, a picturesque building with a small garden populated by clucking chickens and a stream trickling right through the middle. His tastings during primeur are always crowded affairs, Jean‐Luc flitting from one group to another and obviously loving the noise and bustle. The number of wines at that tasting is always a reminder of his many consultancies in Bordeaux and elsewhere. So where did this guy come from?
“My father was an orphan born in Paris,” Jean‐Luc explained. “My mother was born in Lorraine to a railway worker family. They met in Algeria and got married over there, where I was born [in 1951]. My father was a farmer, although he was not involved in wine. He only dabbled with a vineyard in 1964 when he was back in France on Patiras Island, which faces Margaux and Blaye, though he didn’t drink a lot of wine. My father only drank champagne for great occasions, but otherwise there wasn’t a real alcohol culture [in the family], even though the food was great." Jean‐Luc arrived in Bordeaux in 1984. "I didn’t have any real interest in wine until I started working as a bank clerk at Crédit Agricole, the Dordogne branch near Saint Emilion. There I would meet local winemakers and I started buying and drinking good wines. I took care of the accounts of some employees of the Moueix family and even received a bottle of 1955 Petrus, Murielle’s birth‐year, which we opened with friends. It just blew us away. We discovered a miracle. We understood there were real wines and regular wines.”
Before moving on to their transition into actual winemaking, with my background I had to enquire about his time as a DJ.
“While working at the bank, I was also a DJ on weekends and holidays from 1971 to 1977 during the disco craze. The nightclub was called “Le Takouk” and it was located in Le Pizou in Dordogne. I remember the likes of Alain Vauthier and Jean‐Jacques Moueix amongst others [on the dance‐ floor].”
I look forward to seeing Monsieur Vauthier recreating his Saturday Night Fever dance moves next time I visit Ausone. I know from my own experience that spinning a few records is attractive to the opposite sex (don’t ask me why), but for Jean‐Luc, he was about to meet the love of his life, Murielle Andraud.
“I met Murielle in 1975 on a small 'beach' near a small lake in Villefranche de Lonchat. This is the one and only time I talked to a girl on a beach. I usually met girlfriends at the nightclub or in bars. We got married and stayed married for one year, just enough time to have daughter, Virginie. We were divorced and then got back together in 1983, but did not re‐marry.”
“When I decided to quit being a bank clerk, I bought a house and opened a restaurant‐cum‐wine bar in 1985. It was called “Restaurant Le Tertre” in Saint Emilion and it is still running. Local owners including Alain Vauthier came and he was one of the most influential and encouraging persons. He helped us a great deal. Another important figure was Jacques Luxey, who created a Grand Jury tasting pool. There were a lot of barriers to overcome, mainly the lack of money and not being “du sérail.” [Not an easy expression to translate in English but I guess you could say "part of the club."] But we were hard‐working people and we had luck on our side.”
So plans were hatched for Jean‐Luc and Murielle to change careers and life as winemakers beckoned, albeit on a tiny scale. Small seeds and all that. Just after the harvest in 1989 they scraped together enough money to purchase the 0.6‐hectare “Fongaban” parcel between La Clotte and Pavie‐Macquin. However, things did not get off to an auspicious start.
“We had bought our first parcel in Fongaban near our current home. In 1990 we had the land, but no cellar or money to manage the vinification process. And maybe we had a bit of fear in not being able to do it right.” In the end they had no option but to sell the 1990 fruit to the local cooperative. I wonder if they would do the same knowing that another benevolent vintage would not arrive until 1995. Then again, what options did they have?
Although 1991 is a growing season that many properties would wish to forget given the widespread damage done by the late spring frost, it marked the maiden vintage of Valandraud. The name is a portmanteau: “Val” (valley) and “Andraud”—Murielle’s family name. As I have mentioned, Valandraud was not the first of its kind to essentially create a brand new wine from nothing, its genesis little different to that of say, Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin or François Mitjavile at Le Tertre‐Rôteboeuf. What made Jean‐Luc the figurehead of the “garagistes” was his confidence and outspokenness. To quote the man himself in an interview with Robert Voss in Decanter: “I had to make a noise because I was unknown.” This is true. Jean‐Luc was a former bank clerk whereas the Thienpont family’s roots go back to the 1920s in Bordeaux and the Mitjavile’s were already an established name in the region. The word “garagiste” became synonymous with Jean‐Luc, although in fact the first wine was made in a rented chai next to his house that belonged to the Bécot family, where in fact they made wine during the 1940s.
In 1991 he added a second parcel of 1.2‐hectares called “La Grézolle” in St Sulpice de Faleyrens, the deal going through just before the spring frosts. It was this that stuck in the craw of those that insist that fine wine cannot be made from sandy soils. Nevertheless, irrespective of the propitious nature of this parcel, Jean‐Luc was fastidious from the start: entering the vines to pluck the leaves by hand to enhance aeration and reduce yields, concepts that were still in their infancy in those does but passim now. With no money for equipment, they had to crush and de‐ stem bunches by hand, and used pigeage instead of remontage since it is more cost effective. He also allowed the malolactic fermentation to complete in barrel since he did not have vats, again, a more common practice nowadays.
Little was made of the debut release. The frost had put pay to a decent quantity and just 1,280 bottles were produced, plus 600 bottles of Rosé that was given away to friends. Even in this publication, the 1991 Valandraud garnered just 83 points, though given the context of the growing season and the rudimentary state of the winery, it should not be considered an outright failure, notwithstanding how well the 1991 showed after 25 years. At this time they had the invaluable assistance of Alain Vauthier, who at the time was battling to gain complete control of Ausone. I suspect that he was only too willing to take his mind off matters by assisting his old friend. And it was Alain that seemed to instill the hands‐on artisan approach that Jean‐Luc and Murielle immediately adopted...
“Working by hand was Alain Vauthier’s idea,” Jean‐Luc told me. “The grapes were put in the vats by gravity as we had no pump and then Alain lent us his pump from Moulin Saint Georges. We worked this way from 1991 to 1995. Then we had enough money to buy machinery thanks to the good sales of 1995.”
It is interesting just to observe the release prices of Valandraud in these early years. The sophomore 1992 was pitched at 20 euros, expensive for the time, an equal to that of Cheval Blanc. The first leap comes not in 1995 but in 1996 to 73 euros, then breaking the 100 euro barrier with the 1999.
“There was twice as much personnel in our cellars than in the vineyard. Murielle was also managing lunch for everyone every day and also dinner for the friends who were here to help. Old Moroccan ladies or old ladies from Dordogne came to help make the “gerbaude” [the dinner traditionally held at the end of the Bordeaux harvest]. They were really spent after all this work. What a great bunch of memories, great times and laughs, young men and women were batting lashes to each other and the oldest always had funny anecdotes to tell. It was a dream.”
Murielle and Jean‐Luc hands on in the winery. This would have been one of the first vintages of Valandraud although they could not remember exactly which one.
Jean‐Luc told me that the depleted crop in 1991, coupled with the sale in bulk of their 1990 fruit, almost left him bankrupt. However, they had survived...just. The subsequent rise of Valandraud and of Jean‐Luc Thunévin's reputation as the “bad boy” of Bordeaux was rapid. He considers the 1992 to be their first “real” harvest when they produced 4,500 bottles, much larger than the previous year. Of course, the enthusiasm from Robert Parker ignited demand, yet the wine raised the hackles of cognoscenti who refused to accept the notion of a great wine made from vines planted in sandy soils, a wine with no track record, supposedly “pumped up” by late picking and lavished in 200% new oak. However, there was an audience for that style and despite release prices increasing in response to that demand, the wine sold out. Naturally it inspired others to follow and it lead to the rise of wines such as Gracia, Croix de Labrie and Le Dôme. In parallel with this movement, Jean‐Luc established a négoçiant business and began to offer consultancy elsewhere. Yet Valandraud remained the focal point.
Developments in terms of viticulture, vinfication and personnel are detailed later. Perhaps one controversy that should be mentioned is his use of plastic sheeting to protect his vineyard. Together with Gérard Perse, they had heard of its use and investigated vineyards that might be using the technique. Of course, it had to be undercover so they entered those parcels at night, eventually finding one parcel in Pomerol whereby the grapes tasted more concentrated than other parcels.
“We tried to get some sheets to cover the earth prior to the harvest,” Jean‐Luc remembers. “Then one technician in the Rolland team gave me the name of Daniel Saint Seuvin, who used this technique to grow vegetables and might help them to get the sheets and assist with their installation. I asked the INAO for an authorization to test this technique in 1998 and launched a one‐month trial in order to fight any spring frost. It worked well. A second trial was made in 1999 to fight the excessive rain, using them three weeks before the harvest. Again, it was a success. I continued with his experiment in 2000 even if the INAO had decided to withdraw its AOC status to the two parcels where the tests were being done: in La Grézolle for Valandraud and Badon for Clos Badon. This story brought a lot of media coverage. Stephen Browett is the one who had the idea to make a vin de table that we called “L’Interdit de...” [when I asked Stephen he recalls citing the Super‐Tuscan movement as having no qualms about being labeled vino da tavola]. I stopped experimenting with sheets as I wanted to keep his relations cordial with INAO and the Saint Emilion syndicate, as my mind was set on the next classifications.”
In the vineyard at Valandraud. The Vineyard Perhaps what is confusing is that Valandraud could be viewed as a brand name, at least in its early years. That is nothing new. Le Bon Pasteur was exactly the same many years before and people forget that even First Growths can add and subtract parcels of vineyard within appellation boundaries without changing their name. The accruing of parcels over a number of years is quite complicated so I appreciate that Jean‐Luc broke down the acquisitions.
If we take 1991 as our starting point, Jean‐Luc and Murielle own 1.8‐hectares in total: 0.6‐ hectares in Fongabon bought in 1989 and 1.2‐hectares in St. Sulpice de Faleyrens acquired in 1991. In 1994 they purchased 0.60‐hectares close to Monbousquet – Belle Assise known as Plaisance, which Jean‐Luc described as a “real gem of terroir.” In 1995 these were augmented by two fermage agreements with Despagnet and Les Bigaroux. In 1998 came the significant purchase of Clos Badon, some 6.5‐hectares located between Pavie and the Route Nationale, not far from Canon‐la‐Gaffelière. Some of its fruit was used for Valandraud, for example, half the Cabernet Franc in the 1998 Valandraud. In 1999 they purchased Bel Air Ouÿ in Saint Etienne de Lisse and from the 2000 vintage a majority of Valandraud originated from this vineyard. It marked quite a significant change even if it remained with the Saint Emilion appellation since it occupied a very different terroir, clay‐limestone soils that Jean‐Luc and Murielle say they took time to fully understand.
In the Saint Emilion re‐classification in 2006, many expected Valandraud to be included as a classed growth. It was shunned. The lack of recognition must have irked Jean‐Luc although perhaps there is part of him that relished being the rebel with a cause. At least unlike the 1855 Classification on the Left Bank, there is another chance and that transpired in 2012 when they classified the 8.88‐hectares of Bel Air Ouÿ plus parcels that touched the initial property. Valandraud was now Premier Grand Cru Classé B. But it was not all good news. “They rejected the Fongaban parcel, the Plaisance and Grézolle parcels too, even if they were fully used for Valandraud from 1991 to 1999.” Henceforth the parcels that were the source of Valandraud during the 1990s are used for the second label Virginie de Valandraud, which was introduced in 1992, as well as other cuvées such as Axelle de Valandraud. The grape variety composition has therefore been somewhat fluid (I have included assemblage details in the tasting notes where available) though currently there is 80% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec and 1% Carmenère.
Winemaking As I have already mentioned, Jean‐Luc started his venture with Murielle Andraud. Along the way, they appointed Jean‐Philippe Fort in 2000 as a consultant and he was present at this tasting. I asked how they had split their responsibilities over the years.
“Whenever I am traveling at harvest time, Murielle steps in and she is in complete charge of the whites with our oenologist Athanase Fakorellis and our technical team. She is the one who managed Valandraud for the vintages 2008, 2009 and 2010 when I decided to step down from harvest operations and vinification. The difficult birth of the 2004 reduced them to tears. I slowly came back to managing the harvest operations in 2011.”
“As far as the vineyard is concerned the goals remain the same,” Jean‐Luc remarked. “Producing the best possible grapes: de‐leafing, green harvesting, pruning and a campaign of new plantations with a high density pattern. In Saint Emilion the density is usually 6,500 vines per hectare but we are at 8,400 vines per hectare.”
I did ask Jean‐Luc about whether he utilizes micro‐oxygenation.
“I was not a believer of this process but it was nevertheless used in non‐mature vintages, such as 1997 or in case of a cold year such as in 2001 or 2004. We stopped using it in 2004. Maybe it was too difficult for me to endorse a method invented by someone else.”
Continuing with his explanation of the vinification, Jean‐Luc explained: “We are still using 100% new oak for Valandraud and the Virginie de Valandraud, even for the Rosé that we made in 1991. There were some trials of using 200% new oak in 1994 and 1995. It was an idea of Michel Bettane and his Burgundy friend Dominique Laurent. For 7 or 8 years we have been using a “Tribaie” to sort the grapes and our latest buy is a “Qualibaie,” which sorts the grapes by size and nixes the biggest ones, which are less tasty.” Everything is matured in 100% Austrian new oak and even the 2011 Valandraud spent 30 months in wood. The wines are bottled without fining or filtration. The Wines Flight 1: The first series focused on the first five vintages of Valandraud, from the debut 1991 to the 1995. The 1991 Valandraud was not born in an auspicious year, infamous for the devastating frosts and challenging growing season. Yet it must have come as some relief for Jean‐Luc and Murielle because at least unlike in 1990 they could bottle their first wine. At least they had arrived. I had never tasted this now rare maiden vintage but I must confess, I was impressed how well it had aged. Indeed, the first few pairs immediately quashed the notion that Valandraud cannot mature as well as the most historic Bordeaux estates even when the growing season is problematic. No, the 1991 is not the greatest Saint Emilion on the planet, yet it still offers pleasure on the nose even if it is beginning to dry on the palate. It was poured next to the 1991 Château Margaux. I have only tasted this once before but again, I was surprised how well it showed in the context of the vintage and actually scored it higher than the Valandraud. Both wines deserve commendation for ignoring the reputation of the vintage, both pertinent reminders that even derided vintages have something to offer, if not immediately so. Countless times have I encountered an off‐vintage bottle scurried away and forgotten about, poured for curiosity purposes years later and going on to surprise with its freshness and drinkability. This theme continued with the next pair. The 1992 Valandraud was better than the 1991 thanks to more fruit and better balance, another reputation‐defying wine from Jean‐Luc that would surpass many others this vintage. And like the 1991 Margaux, the 1992 Château l’Eglise‐Clinet from Denis Durantou scotched the notion that Pomerol could not only produce good wine, but a wine that after 24‐years continues to give pleasure. I would put the Saint Emilion and Pomerol on par with each other at this stage and again, both surpassed expectations.
The next pair ramped up the intrigue, pitting a First Growth against Valandraud in only its third vintage. And 1993? It is not my favourite Bordeaux vintage by a long way. I find the wines austere and raw with a few notable exceptions (for example, 1993 Palmer). Perhaps this tilted favour away from the Left Bank to the Right Bank? The 1993 Lafite‐Rothschild is a wine that I have only tasted a couple of times before and it has never appealed to me, a disappointment even in the context of the vintage. This just felt austere and lacked body, the substance one expects from a First Growth. Here, the 1993 Valandraud had much more to offer, an intriguing dark chocolate‐tinged bouquet and considerable density on the palate, cracked peppercorns on the finish. I was deeply impressed by the showing of this wine and as I comment in my note, how many 1993s in Bordeaux have aged with such style? The 1994 Valandraud also put in a very creditable performance, quite Saint Julien‐like in style on the nose with abundant freshness towards the finish, if probably approaching the end of its drinking plateau. This was paired with the 1994 Le Pin, which you could argue was the first of the “garagistes” (even if Jacques loathes that term!). Now, this was a great success for Jacques Thienpont, one whereby his Pomerol jewel transcended the growing season to produce one of its standouts. No change here. As good as Valandraud was, it was put in its place by a great Pomerol that even after 22‐years shows no signs of reaching the end of its drinking plateau. Here, both properties produced excellent 1994s although here I opted for the Le Pin over the Valandraud.
Next, two magnificent Saint Emilions from the 1995 vintage. I feel that the 1995 Valandraud is the first that really ratchets up the quality to a new level. Yes, the previous wines had transcended expectations, yet Jean‐Luc and Murielle produced a wine that deserves applause because of its intrinsic qualities. Yes, there is a sense of hedonism on the bouquet with its kirsch and red plum scents, yet everything here is beautifully controlled and what marks this out is the edginess that lends tension and nervosité on the finish. Bear in mind that this was matured in 200% new oak! At just over two decades it is perhaps at the height of its powers. However I don’t want readers to overlook its "opposition." I had never encountered the 1995 Beauséjour Bécot before, but what a wine! It was almost the perfect foil for the Valandraud: precise on intense on the nose, exquisite balance on the palate with a long and persistent finish. Doubtlessly overlooked by many, this is an outstanding contribution from what I feel is an estate that is underestimated.
Looking over a lifetime of winemaking.
Flight 2: Back down to earth. The 1996 vintage favoured the Left Bank since Cabernet‐driven wines could benefit from warm and dry conditions in October. The 1996 Valandraud is certainly not a poor wine but it is the weakest since the debut vintage, here outclassed by the superior 1996 Latour, even if I maintain that despite adulation, it does not fulfill its full potential, Frédéric Engerer yet to implement all his measures to improve quality. It is a very capable Latour, no question, but when you rack it alongside the 1982, 2000 or 2010 then it is not in the same tier. The following year is notorious for being the mediocre vintage that was not recognized by Bordeaux château. The reputation was tarnished not so much by the quality of wines, which are often better than anticipated, rather by the prices that were initially demanded (and I write this as someone who joyfully mopped up unsold cases in their hundreds in the late‐90s.) The 1997 Valandraud is workmanlike. It remains fresh and balanced after two decades, actually improved in the glass despite never achieving anything close successes before or after. Drink soon if you are holding onto bottles, as the wine will not improve. It was paired with the 1997 Lafite‐ Rothschild, which was the strongest of the First Growths in its youth but has since appeared to run out of steam. I had not tasted it for several years and it seems to have lost some of its youthful vigor and felt foursquare, a bit dour on the finish.
The 1998 Valandraud restores order, a fecund Right Bank vintage that produced some real gems, often quite hedonistic in style. Jean‐Luc and Murielle’s Saint Emilion is no exception on the nose, although curiously the palate demonstrated a minty vein that almost duped you into thinking Pauillac (although the tannic structure is totally different). It was their best wine to date, vying with the 1995. Meanwhile, down on the côte, Gérard Perse had purchased Château Pavie and that would have provided us with a fascinating comparison had Pavie not turned out to be completely oxidized. (Insert sad emoji here). Alas, it turned out to be not the only faulty bottle of the tasting, evidenced by the opened but untouched Harlan Estate. Moving on to the 1999s, what I look back as a “useful” vintage, nothing glitzy or headline grabbing, rather wines that if chosen correctly can represent great value. Case in point the two wines poured here: a very commendable pre‐Dhalluin 1999 Mouton‐Rothschild that is drinking beautifully now, classic with
cedar and tobacco notes, nothing ambitious yet better than the wines produced at the beginning of that decade. The 1999 Valandraud is also a worthy contribution to the vintage: fruitier than the Pauillac on the dark cherry and blackcurrant scented bouquet with hints of seaweed, the palate caressing in the mouth with commendable depth if not the complexity of a top vintage.
This flight finished with two majestic millennial wines, perhaps here demonstrating the advantage of re‐examining the wine in the glass over a period of time. For sure, the 2000 Valandraud is a superb Saint Emilion, intense and powerful on the nose, seamlessly embroidered new oak and a tangible sense of energy flowing from start to finish. In fact, it was on par with the 2000 Léoville Las‐Cases for the first 10 minutes. But hold the front page. Watch the Saint Julien take off with aeration. It was as if Jean‐Hubert’s wine had decided to run at a slower pace for the first lap of the track and then switch on the afterburners for the second as it soared skyward. When I re‐inspected the wines after an hour, the Las‐Cases was in full bloom, to wit, a brilliant wine for the vintage that put a gap between itself and the Saint Emilion.
Flight 3: The 2001 Valandraud is a very worthy follow‐up to the 2000. This is the first vintage where I discerned mineralité, which must surely from the addition of calcareous soils in Bel Air Ouÿ that had been acquired in 1999. It lends the wine another dimension that perhaps it did not possess in previous vintage: more nervosité, a little more “race." At 15 years of age it is just beginning to peak though I can see it remaining at its plateau for at least a decade. This is actually paired with the 2001 Opus One from California that put in an excellent showing. The 2002 pairing reflected my view of the vintage, insofar that is has always come across as “not bad” and “a bit dull.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either the 2002 Valandraud or 2002 Mouton‐Rothschild, other than I feel that the latter shone more brightly in its youth. There was something workmanlike about both bottles, nothing terrible, but neither cajoled you back for another sip. That said both were superior to the 2003s, a growing season that produced that were flattering in their youth, but seems to be fatiguing quickly as they pass ten years in bottle unless you travel up to the northern reaches of the Médoc. Jean‐Luc poured the 2003 Valandraud for me last year and sorry to disappoint him, but this second bottle did nothing to convince me that this was best enjoyed in its first few years. As expected the 2003 Château Margaux was far better, the Cabernet Sauvignon more able to exploit the merciless heat of the summer. The Saint Emilion face‐off between the 2004 Valandraud and 2004 Cheval Blanc was an even match. The latter was clearly more classic in style, the former ordained with more weight and girth, but perhaps with a more sensual and pleasurable finish. Like so many of the 2002s, it is just a growing season that did not spawn numerous exciting wines with big personalities and both are totemic of that. The comparison between the 2005 Valandraud and 2005 Larcis‐Ducasse was the most enticing due to the stylistic similarities. Unfortunately, the latter was clearly oxidized. Still, the 2005 Valandraud was outstanding: precise, complex with fine mineralité, hints of the sea lapping against the aromatics with an intense and harmonious finish.
Flight 4: The following flight finally allowed us to compare two Saint Emilions side‐by‐side. The 2006 Valandraud is probably always going to be in the shadow of the previous vintage although it remains a supple, well balanced and quite “mellow” wine. In some ways, the 2006 Troplong‐ Mondot is cut from a similar cloth, although for me it just had the edge with more complexity showing through on the finish. The real surprise, or surprises, lay in the following flight. The 2007s are not highly regarded however, I found much to admire in the 2007 Pape‐Clement. It has always been a very good Pessac‐Léognan from a difficult vintage. Now after a decade it has attained harmony and a sense of joie‐de‐vivre that almost catches you off guard. It is the kind of wine that you would probably consume far too quickly for you own good and miss its attributes. The 2007 Valandraud is an outstanding Saint Emilion that ignores the reputation of the growing season and turned out to be one of the highlights of the decade. It is just a beautifully crafted wine, quite succinct and detailed, seamless in texture and pure delight to drink. Up steps the 2008 Valandraud and what a fantastic wine this is turning out to be. Such vigour and complexity on the nose, this is a wine that demands and deserves attention, seamless on its satin‐texture palate with sufficient substance to suggest that it will mature over the next two or three decades. Up struts the 2008 Trotanoy not to be outdone and what you have are two exemplary wines from Saint Emilion and Pomerol, each true to their signature styles, the Trotanoy more muscular and structured, as you would expect, but blessed with wonderful precision and focus on the finish. Maybe the Pomerol might be the long‐term bet but at this precise moment, these two great wines are neck and neck.
No surprises that the 2009 Valandraud was utterly seductive, decadent but not overbearing, stuffed full of sweet fruit from both the red and black side of the spectrum, although compared to the 2008 you worry that it flirts with being cloying on the finish. It just pulls back in time. The 2009 Pontet Canet vindicated its plaudits with a fabulous showing. It is an incredibly powerful Pauillac so you could argue that it might lack refinement, but that would be overlooking the beguiling purity and multi‐faceted nature of this wine. Is it a perfect wine? Well, let’s just say that the next flight answered that question by placing it in context. The 2010 Lafleur was the wine of the entire tasting. I have consistently rated this highly, but I was knocked sideways how this is evolving in bottle, perhaps reminiscent of the might 2000 Lafleur. Every moment in the glass it seemed to gain more precision, rev up the horsepower, unveil a new facet that left both René Gabriel and I stunned. The 2010 Valandraud is an absolute belter, no question about that, however it was left in the wake of the Pomerol in this pairing. The Valandraud was fiery and a bit obstreperous compared to the 2009 but you have to stand back and admire its volume and intensity, perhaps the most structured Valandraud that Jean‐Luc and Murielle have made to date.
Flight 5: We commenced the final flight of most recent vintages with the 2011 Valandraud: quite a bold wine that one could argue struggles to overcome the limitations of an average growing season. Perhaps this was one where the comparison with a First Growth came unstuck because even though the 2011 Haut‐Brion is not a top‐rank wine from this estate, it undoubtedly has the upper hand. For all its limitations, its class and pedigree struck you, shrugging off the shackles of the vintage, leaving you in no doubt that you were in the presence of a serious cru. It just needs a couple more years in bottle to fully assimilate the oak and then it will give two decades of pleasure. It is now becoming clear that there is bifurcation between the 2011 and 2012 Bordeaux and the next pair proved that with two superb Saint Emilion wines. Both the 2012 Valandraud and 2012 Angélus delivered this year. I adored the mineral tension that lies beneath the opulent veneer of Jean‐Luc’s wine: the energy and frisson that urged you back for another sip (and another). Meanwhile, the Angélus conveys the same energy, satin‐like in texture, more primal than the Valandraud, perhaps with a trick up its sleeve for those with the nous to afford it a decade in bottle. The Valandraud edged it, but only by a point, and both come highly recommended. The 2013 vintage is fairly derided although to shun every wine is foolish. Case in point, the 2013 Ducru Beaucaillou. Bruno Borie and his team produced a very fine Saint Julien that I would happily serve blind and ask that person to guess the season. I scored this higher than the 2013 Valandraud, though likewise it is not a Saint Emilion that should be dismissed. As I comment in my note, there are 2013s that offer drinking pleasure and if a wine achieves that, then price notwithstanding, it has essentially done its job. It is when wines are green or under‐ ripe or unbalanced that you can start throwing stones. The final pair was the only one to include two of Jean‐Luc’s wines. In the red corner the 2014 Valandraud and in the blue corner, the 2014 Le Clos de Beau‐Père, his much lesser known Pomerol vineyard. There are similarities in that the latter comes from sandier soils in the less reputed sector of the appellation but hey, Jean‐Luc has been here before when he started Valandraud. Sometimes I feel that Jean‐Luc can over‐extract his Pomerol a little, but here it showed better than out of barrel and was a very pleasant surprise, armed with fine salinity towards the finish. That said, the Valandraud is the better wine: precise, detailed and crystalline. Fulfilling the potential is showed from barrel, this is a beautiful Saint Emilion destined to bestow 20+ years of pleasure. Final Thoughts If the aim of Jean‐Luc was to disprove cynics that have scorned Valandraud over the years, then job done. This was not the first time that I have tasted Valandraud blind and this retrospective merely galvanized my belief that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with Saint Emilion's finest. When firing on all cylinders Valandraud delivers the complexity, precision, sophistication and personality of the appellation's best.
That does not infer that it is infallible.
It is not a wine that can effortlessly brush off any obstacles thrown in the path of a growing season. A cursory glance at my scores shows that irrespective of the efforts invested in both vineyard and winery, Valandraud ultimately reflects the vagaries of growing season (whether a wine has a moral obligation to do so is an entirely different aesthetic argument). In a nutshell, the quality of Valandraud goes up and down like any other. Certainly in the early years, Jean‐Luc strived to compensate through human intervention, for example by lavish application of new oak, micro‐oxygenation or most notoriously, his use of plastic sheeting. I can empathise with such radical measures. Your beloved wine is cold‐shouldered by your peers and such rebuke and ostracism must have motivated Jean‐Luc to prove them wrong. That said, I feel that since 2005 he has eased off a little, at liberty to take his foot off the gas. That does not infer he cares any less about quality. Instead, following his acquisition of Bel Air Ouÿ he can now allow his vineyard to do the legwork, provide the bedrock of excellence so that winemaker interference can potentially compromise rather than meliorate quality. And since 2012, when he finally achieved official recognition by in the INAO's belated classification as Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”, I suspect this seal of approval engendered a more contented Jean‐Luc Thunévin, even if that drive is undiminished and he remains as indefatigable as ever.
This tasting was the catalyst for a raft of discussion points. What might have originally been intended as a straightforward examination of Valandraud manifested inquiries into the definition and influence of terroir; the relevance of hierarchy and history; the role of winemaking vis‐à‐vis viticulture and even the politics behind the appellation status.
Let us first define terroir as the natural attributes of a vineyard that excludes human intervention. So we are talking about the lay of the land, its natural fixture and fittings: the orientation, density, pruning and age of the vines, the soil, the geology and so forth. Valandraud was born from humble terroir insofar that it occupied land that many incumbent growers looked down upon. Yet initial vintages debunk the idea that modest terroir cannot create high‐quality wine, moreover, wine imbued with longevity. Those early 1990s vintages are chugging along nicely after a quarter‐century. An alternative view might be that Jean‐Luc compensated for any shortcomings in terroir through his intervention, through sheer will of force. Essentially he just tried harder than almost anyone else. That was the key, wasn't it? I put the question of whether terroir has any relevance to the bad boy himself.
“Now that is a good question. Keep in mind that Michel Bettane invented the word “terroiriste”, which is often used as an excuse for a lack of good work or a lack of talent. Rayas is made on sandy soils. What does it say about Châteauneuf‐du‐Pape? What general conclusion can be made about the various different Saint Emilion’s terroirs? What is there to think about people saying that the Fongaban parcel is only good to grow vegetables when you know that our 1991 to 1994 were made from the grapes grown there? Its production is still worthy of a First Classified Growth. In Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens, thank God there is Monbousquet, which proved that very good wine can be produced there, as did Jonathan Maltus and others. That’s where our Virginie de Valandraud is produced and the 2016 l’Interdit de Valandraud. The idea of terroir can only be understood if it includes the owners’ work. The quality of 2014 Clos du Beau Père is a good example. Anyway, wines have different identities: if produced on clay‐limestone soils then the wines show more freshness and suspected to be far from the so‐called ‘Parker’s taste.’”
One important aspect that is often overlooked is that a large proportion of Valandraud now comes from a different terroir to those vintages in the 1990s. Without being cognizant of that fact at the time of tasting, I did find a subtle shift in style upon the addition of Bel Air Ouÿ. I noticed that mineralité and tension became more evident following its purchase, perfectly logical since Bel Air Ouÿ's argilo‐calcaire soils ineluctably shape the wine, ostensibly lend another dimension to an already very well made Saint Emilion. It renders Valandraud more intriguing and complex however, there is a constant, that is to say the sheer pleasure it is resolves to give every vintage, come rain or shine. To employ an analogy that Jean‐Luc might relate to, let's call the first wines "disco classics", Chic or prime Bee Gees. Some might look down upon those songs, but the fact is, everybody loved them (just like Valandaud.) Later vintages are less disco and more...gospel. They offer a more spiritual element, intellectual rigour in tandem with pleasure.
This blind tasting implies that Valandraud is equal to Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” then doesn’t that qualify the estate for at least serious consideration for promotion? Furthermore does Valandraud discredit the entire notion of the hierarchy that Bordeaux is based upon, whether it is the 1855 or the Saint Emilion Classification? Strip off the label and place the bottles on the correct rungs of the ladder is an exercise that sends shudders up the spines of the Bordelais because it questions its rigid tiered structure, the inter‐relationship of estates, how they perceive each other. Or does Valandraud need a longer track record, not 25 but 50 or even 100‐years? The argument against that would be that whilst newly promoted Angélus has been producing excellent wines since 1985, prior to this, the wines were rather ordinary. There is a human factor, namely one Hubert de Bouard. Likewise you could argue that a growth so dependent upon a single man should not be a criteria for promotion. If Jean‐Luc decided to go back to banking of spinning disco classics, whither Valandraud? Maybe if I was penning this article in the mid‐1990s, but not nowadays because Valandraud has become more than just Jean‐Luc and Murielle.
The higher up you are, the more you have to lose and vice versa. When Jean‐Luc incepted Valandraud he had virtually nothing to lose in terms of reputation. A former bank clerk producing a tiny amount of wine from sandy soils. So what? You could argue that his success affirms the importance of publications such as this, the role of a single‐minded critic who can pluck an obscure wine and shine a spotlight on a name worthy of attention. There is no question that such third‐party endorsement was a key part of Valandraud’s ascent, so crucial in those early days. It proved that the acclaim from Robert Parker, not to mention Michel Bettane and Jacques Luxey, was on the money, both literally and figuratively. But the fundamental point is that the wine must deliver.
The manner in which Murielle and Jean‐Luc took on the establishment and changed from a cult Saint Emilion to what many now see as part of the mainstream is remarkable. For sure, Jean‐Luc has rubbed people's noses the wrong way, all with a elfin‐like grin on his face. Doubtless many entrenched families in the region will never accept him or his wines. But history doesn't taste of anything and does not implicitly render one wine superior to another. I suspect there are some reading this piece who might question my tasting ability. How could Valandraud occasionally surpass a First Growth or an estate with decades of history? To that, I would reply, go ahead and do it. Go compare them blind.
In the meantime Jean‐Luc and Murielle will keep expanding their small empire of wines with Valandraud at its heart. The dancefloor's loss with Saint Emilion's gain when Jean‐Luc decided to switch careers, but maybe he can be persuaded back behind the decks just one time to celebrate Valandraud's 30th vintage?
(My sincere thanks to Jean‐Luc and his team for inviting me to this tasting in Saint Emilion, especially for all the additional background information provided in researching this article.)