A Visit to Jean Luc Thunevin: the Bad Boy of St. Emilion Explains his Philosophy

My visit to Jean Luc got off to an interesting start when I explained that I was writing a book called The Wines of Modern France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers. He looked slightly quizzical. “You don’t believe that France can be modern,” I asked, as that’s a wry response that has been made by other producers in France. “The title of your book seems curious to me because even the classic are modern now,” he explained. “I give you an example,” he continued. “Le Pin: is it a modern wine or a classic? It’s not a garage wine but it inspired me.” Then another example: “It’s not so easy to find a classic wine: Léoville Barton? But it’s also a modern wine.” Then a little more argumentative: “the image of modern wine is new oak. But then Mouton 1947 was a modern wine.”

True to the French tradition, Jean Luc then asked what is the philosophy of modernity. “The success of modernity is to be able to have a product that pleases the clients,” he concluded. “What’s a wine that’s a has-been? It’s one that doesn’t please the clients.” I argued that Valandraud was a modern wine that altered the paradigm by introducing changes that many others followed, first in St. Emilion and then elsewhere. Jean Luc agreed at least that he is a modernist. “I’m modern, I was the first garagiste. We protected the fruits, took precautions against oxidation, introduced green harvest, leaf pulling. Everyone does it now.”

“The first wine that I loved was Pétrus. Then Le Pin was my inspiration,” he explained, “I wanted to make a wine like Le Pin, hedonistic and sexy, soft and chic.” This seemed to be an argument for instant gratification, so I asked about the importance of ageability. “Ageability is a big obligation of Bordeaux,” he agreed, “everyone wants wine that can age because of Bordeaux. But happily we can now make wines that are good now and age well. When I started people said Valandraud would not last more than ten years, but now it has lasted thirty years.” Later he proved his point by pulling out a 2002 Valandraud for tasting. “I give you this because it’s easy to make a sexy wine in a good year, but this was a difficult year.” The wine was delicious, just on the tipping point into tertiary development. I asked how long Jean Luc thinks it will last. “It’s a baby, it’s just beginning to develop,” he said. “The 1992 is still good and we didn’t have the same techniques then, for example, sorting,” he explained.

I thought I might provoke an interesting response by asking whether garage wines are finished. “As a phenomenon, that’s sure. But not as a niche. And there are garagistes in other places, Spain for example. But anyway, it’s not the phenomenon of garage wines, it’s the phenomenon of expensive wines.” Of course, Valandraud has now come a long way from its origins as a garage wine: it’s now a St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. Doesn’t the latest reclassification in St. Emilion show a big change in attitude, I asked. “You have a point,” Jean Luc agreed. “It’s hard for people to accept that success can depend on a person and (just) on the terroir. But it’s only fifty years since the first classification. At that time it was incredible to believe that St. Emilion would be ready for reclassification in ten years…Angelus’s promotion is due to Hubert de Bouard’s talent… If Cheval Blanc hadn’t had good proprietors, it wouldn’t have become a Premier Grand Cru Classé.”

As you might expect from the first garagiste, Jen Luc has some reservations about terroir. “People don’t understand what is good terroir. They confuse aesthetics with reality. I give you the example of Chateau Rayas—the soil is sandy… It’s (only) necessary that the soil isn’t bad, not too dry, not too wet. You have to have good berries.”

Jean Luc has a strong sense of independence, but for all his success, no pretension. We met above the l’Essential wine shop in his tiny office, where Jean Luc has a desk at one end and his assistants are grouped at the other end. “There’s a glass ceiling in the Médoc, he said, “I could get nowhere, but in St. Emilion the door was open. I sell my wine in my boutique, I don’t need negociants, I don’t need to export, I have autonomy.” Then we went down to the wine shop and tasted the 2011 Valandraud—“this was an austere year in Bordeaux, the problem for me was to make a sexy wine”—followed by the 2002. Jean Luc sent the shop manager up to the office to collect the staff, who came down to try the 2002. It was a good end to the day, with appreciative murmurs all round.

Advertisements

St. Emilion Proprietors are Revolutionizing The Satellite Areas: Bargains from Castillon and Lalande de Pomerol

Today I visited three Premier Grand Cru Classés in St. Emilion: Chateaux Angelus, Beauséjour Bécot, and Canon la Gaffelière. The feel of the visits could not be more different, the wines all have their own distinct styles, but all three share the fact that they have expanded out of St. Emilion into neighboring areas, the first into Lalande de Pomerol to the west, the other two into Côtes de Castillon, just on the northeast border of St. Emilion.

Don’t be put off by the name. Côtes de Quelquechose almost always indicates an appellation of secondary importance to Quelquechose. “It would have been much better simply to call the appellation Castillon,” argues Stephan von Neipperg at Chateau Canon La Gaffelière. But the best part of the Côtes de Castillon, at St. Philippe d’Aiguille, has a limestone plateau that isn’t dissimilar to the far more famous limestone plateau where most of the Premier Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion are located. Granted this doesn’t extend all over Côtes de Castillon—but the famous limestone plateau doesn’t extend over all St. Emilion either.

The cost of land in St. Emilion is now prohibitive: proprietors say that it’s but impossible to extend their vineyards. That’s part of the driving force for going out to Côtes de Castillon. Stephan von Neipperg was one of the first. “When I took over Chateau d’Aiguilhe in 1999,” he recollects, “we preserved 27 ha of old vines, and we replaced 15 ha of poor plantings of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The problem was economics, people went for quantity, but now they are recognizing the potential of the limestone plateau.” It’s no coincidence that the best wines in Castillon are made by people from St. Emilion: with a keen eye based on their experience in St. Emilion, they have bought vineyards on the best terroir. Juliette Bécot is extremely conscious of running a family estate—“it used to be very common, but now it’s more and more rare” —she says, but felt when she started out that she wanted to have her own voice, so established Joanin Bécot in Castillon in 2001.

Now famous for the renovation of Chateau Angelus, with its famous modern bell tower—both God Save the Queen and The Star Spangled Banner were played on the bells when we arrived, as I am British but came from New York—Hubert de Boüard consults for around 60 chateaux as well as running Angelus. He also created Fleur de Boüard, in Lalande de Pomerol, where in addition to the eponymous wine he produces a super-cuvée, Le Plus de Boüard, by selection of the best lots. Even from a single trie in the vineyard, some grapes are selected for Plus rather than Fleur. Plus spends 33 months maturing in oak—longer even than Angelus.

The common feature of all these—let’s call them the satellite wines—is that they are made with the same care and attention as the grand vin in St. Emilion, relying on similar expertise, but are available at lower price. Sound familiar? That’s the old argument for second wines. But whereas the second wines are always marked by that feeling that they weren’t good enough to make it into the grand vin, the satellite wines represent the best their terroir can produce. It’s an interesting trade off, that can pay off handsomely when the terroir is right.

The satellite wines come from different chateaus from their proprietors’ main chateaus, but show an interesting stylistic relationship with the grand chateaus.  Fleur de Bouard is the plushest; Chateau d’Aiguilhes is the most structured (Domaine de l’A, from oenologist Stéphane Derenoncourt, where I have a visit planned for later in the week, shows similar character but is more aggressive), Joanin Becot is the lightest and most approachable. In a blind tasting, they would be difficult to distinguish from St. Emilion at the level of the Grand Cru Classé. Perhaps Fleur de Boüard has more of the richness of Pomerol. These are all very good wines by any measure, and by and large, I prefer them to the second wines from the corresponding chateau in St. Emilion. The only thing these wines can’t compete on with St. Emilion is price.

Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion

A tasting organized by the Grand Cru Classés of St. Emilion turned out to be a striking demonstration of the power of the oenologue. The 64 Grand Cru Classés are the starting level of the classification, below the 18 Premier Grand Cru Classés (according to the reclassification of 2012).  Half of the Grand Cru Classés were represented at the tasting, showing their 2009 and 2010 vintages.

While many of the wines conformed to the general reputation of the vintages – 2009 for lush, more forward fruits, but 2010 more reserved and structured – there were enough where the 2010 was more open than the 2009 to make generalization difficult. The most striking feature of the tasting was not the difference between vintages or variety between chateaux, but the general similarity. If there’s a model for the Grand Cru Classés today, it’s for furry tannins behind soft black fruits: the very model of micro-oxygenation, you might think. (I have no idea how many of these wines actually used micro-oxygenation, but the overall impression from this tasting was that it might be epidemic in St. Emilion.)

On the subject of style, alcohol levels were high, just a touch higher in 2010 (average 14.6%) than in 2009 (average 14.3%). A more revealing comparison is that some wines in 2010 were as high as 15.5%, and almost half were 15% or greater, whereas the highest wines in 2009 were 15%. In all fairness, the alcohol was well integrated and did not stick out, but the level gave me pause for thought about the staying power of the wines. I was also extremely surprised to discover that some wines had levels of residual sugar that were almost detectable (around 3g/l: the level of detection for most people is around 4 g/l, and most red wines usually have only around 1 g/l). Sometimes I got a faint impression of saccharine on the finish, but this seems to have been due to ripeness of fruits, because it never correlated with the level of residual sugar.

The similarities among the wines are less surprising when you realize that more than half were made with the same winemaking philosophy. To be more precise, Michael Rolland was the consulting oenologue for 40% of chateaux, and Jean Philippe Fort of Laboratoire Rolland for another 20%: there was scarcely a single chateau left without a consulting oenologist. (What happened to the old proprietor-winemakers?)

So I thought I would see whether I could detect the hand of the oenologist directly, and I organized my tasting in terms of oenologists, tasting all the chateaux from each oenologue in succession to see whether similarity of style was obvious. I think it is a fair criticism that the style of the wines tends to be a bit “international,” but there did not seem to be enough homogeneity among the wines of any one oenologue to validate the view that they impose a common style. Every oenologue had some wines that were lush, but at least one that showed a more restrained fruit impression, sometimes with an almost savory sensation. It would have been difficult to identify the oenologue in a blind tasting. Perhaps the wines for which Hubert de Boüard was the consulting oenologist tended to be the most refined. If there is a marker for Michel Rolland’s style, perhaps it is the sweetness of the smooth tannins. Rolland’s focus on ripeness is shown also by the fact that in both vintages, the wines on which he was a consultant showed higher alcohol than the average.

There were direct impressions of overripe fruits on only a couple of wines. I did not get much sense of anything but Merlot in most of these wines (the average Merlot is 75%); the dominance of those soft Merlot fruits tended to give a somewhat monotonic impression. Overall I was disappointed: there was too much sameness and not enough character to the wines. They seemed more at a level equivalent to the Cru Bourgeois of the left bank than to the classed growths of the Médoc. Perhaps flavor variety will develop as the wines mature, but my impression is that the wines are more likely to simplify into sweet fruits. Perhaps this is due to the combination of grape variety and the ripeness of the vintages rather than oenologues’ choices. But I was left with the feeling that the monotonic fruit character and high alcohol would make a bottle tire over dinner.