A Visit with Jean-Luc Thunevin, Revolutionary Turned Establishment, at Château Valandraud

It was a mob scene when I arrived at Château Valandraud. Two huge coaches had just disgorged a huge group of visitors from Pernod-Ricard. There could scarcely be a greater contrast between Jean-Luc Thunevin’s new winery and the beginning, when the first vintage was made in his garage. A couple of miles to the east of the village of St. Emilion, there is now a building that from the road looks like a château, surrounded by 9 ha of vines. Behind the château is an ultramodern cuverie, all glass and wood, very light and airy, but its size is not obvious until you walk round the side of the building.  Running along from the cuverie is a hidden barrel room. It’s hidden because you can’t see it at all from the approach, but when you walk around the back, it’s curved into a circular arc nestled into the hillside, with a living roof on top that to all intents and purposes is part of the landscape. Jena-Luc is very proud that it’s light and spacious inside, but very eco-friendly. The completely new facilities were completed three years ago.

The new cuverie is all glass, steel, and wood, very light and airy

Inside, double vats line each side of the hall, some are stainless steel, others have an oak vat balanced on top of a stainless steel vat. Jean-Luc’s references as we walk around are to other grand châteaux. Gesturing to the arrangement of vats, he says with a grin, “the model was haut Brion.” Then as we enter the barrel room, he says, “the model was Cheval Blanc,” a reference to its ultra-modern winery with a living roof. When asked about the vineyards, Jean-Luc says that all 9 ha are around the château, “for the moment.” Altogether he now has about 60 ha with other properties in Bordeaux, including 40 ha in St. Emilion.

The new barrel room is part of the hillside with a living roof.

We start the tasting with the white, which started in 2003, and comes from a small block just below the château. It’s a third each of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Sémillon. Production is about 4,000 bottles per year. It ages in 100% new oak; Jean-Luc seems slightly surprised at the question about new oak, as though there couldn’t any doubt that all the wines at Valandraud use 100% new oak. He draws some parallels with Haut Brion and Pavillon de Château Margaux. “It’s a produit de luxe,” he says. It’s quite fresh and lively, but has 15.5% alcohol. When asked about the implications of climate change for increasing alcohol, Jean-Luc is unperturbed. “Global warming has been good for Bordeaux, wine has to have alcohol,” he says. “Grenache from Châteauneuf du Pape has 16% alcohol and it’s very good wine.” When we taste Valandraud itself, the alcohol level is 14.5%, and Jean-Luc says, “14.5% is the minimum now, it’s not a problem because the natural acidity is good.” There’s a second wine in both red and white, now called Virginie, and here there seems to be a slightly different view of ripeness because the Virgine Blanc comes in at 13.5% alcohol.

Valandraud looked like a conventional chateau before the new cuverie was built

“What vintage of Valandraud would you like to taste,” he asks. I suggest whatever vintage he thinks best shows the typicity of Valandraud. He looks a bit quizzical at this, as if to question whether any single vintage can sufficiently demonstrate typicity, but returns with the 2012. This was the first vintage of Valandraud’s classification as a premier grand cru classé. “The calcareous terroir gives the it richness and acidity,” he says. It’s a mature hue, but still densely colored, and the fruits have certainly matured. Tannins are resolving, but the palate hasn’t reached a tertiary stage yet, and it shows a nice restraint, not at all flashy as the criticism of early garage wines might have led you to expect. In fact, blind I’d have guessed at a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc than the actual 15%, as it has more structure than I would expect of 85% Merlot. Has the wine changed now it’s made from specific terroir at the château, I asked. “It’s still artisanal,” is the answer, “there’s lots of selection, malolactic fermentation in barrique, etc. With the gravity feed winery, it’s more precise.” (Jean-Luc hasn’t changed either: he still has that wicked sense of the jugular.)

The vintage brings up the issue of the St. Emilion classification, a huge controversy in the appellation today, as several important châteaux have announced they will not participate in this year’s revision of classification. “Me, the revolutionary, I’m all for the classification,” Jean-Luc says with a wicked grin. He believes in the basis for classification—“90% is the quality of the wine”—because it brings competitions, and he rattles off the names of a number of château who are improving their game in order to try for promotion to a higher category of classification. “Look at all the talent we have in St. Emilion,” he says. “They all want to be premier grand cru classé.”

Tasting Notes

Château Valandraud, 2012
Merlot 88%; Cabernet Franc 12%
Dark appearance, still intense, but with orange hues showing age. Palate shows mature black fruits with some herbal overtones, tannins resolving to leave a supple impression. Overall quite restrained, not at all flashy, good supporting acidity, just a little dryness still showing on the finish where the herbal impressions intensify retronasally. 14.5% 92 Drink now-2028.

Blanc de Valandraud, 2019
Sauvignon Blanc 33%; Sémillon 33%; Sauvignon Gris 33%
Nose shows some light citrus, following to palate with a hint of bitterness at the end. New oak shows as texture and hints of smoke. Alcohol brings a touch of heat to the finish. Palate is fresh and lively. 15.5% 90 Drink now-2028.

Blanc de Valandraud, 2016 
A rich but measured impression. Nose is quite reserved but not quite herbal. Semillon seems more obvious on the palate than Sauvignon Blanc, which has been toned down by the oak. Alcohol does taste high, but feels more around 14% than the actual level. It contributes to the sense of richness but also adds a touch of heat and bitterness to the finish. The wine stays firnmly in the stone fruit spectrum and develops greater complexity as it opens on the glass. 15.5%  92 Drink -2026
Sauvignon Blanc 30%, Sémillon 50%, Sauvignon Gris 20%

Virginie de Valandraud Blanc, 2016

A fresher impression than the Blanc de Valandraud, crisp but not too aggressive. Some texture develops in the glass t ooffset the citrus palate. It’s a less “serious” wine than the Valandraud Blanc but good, and still going strong after six years with no signs of tiring.Château Valandraud, 2012

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