It was still fairly early in the morning, yet I could already sense the heat of the coming day, outside the comfort of my air-conditioned hire car, as I made my way along the road up to St Emilion. My journey along the smooth, snaking, tarmac surface took me past some familiar famous (and some not-so-famous) châteaux – Gaffelière, Moulin-St-Georges, Ausone and others – before the town finally appeared in front of me. The time of my appointment to meet Jean-Luc Thunevin of Château Valandraud was drawing near, and so at the earliest opportunity I parked up at the side of the road, and before the heat reached skin-crisping levels, struck out on foot for my destination, hoping that I wouldn’t be late.
The astute, Bordeaux-knowledgeable reader will have already detected a glaring inconsistency in my introduction. If you have driven around the peripheries of the St Emilion appellation you will already know that Château Valandraud lies on the very outskirts, near the hamlet of Saint Etienne de Lisse. It sits just 1.5 kilometres from the absolute boundary of the appellation, beyond which lie the vineyards of Castillon, a full 6.5 kilometres from the town of St Emilion itself. So what was I doing strolling (or rather marching – mustn’t be late!) through the streets of St Emilion itself?
The answer to this riddle lies in an understanding of the fragmented and stuttering history of Château Valandraud, and how Jean-Luc Thunevin and his wife Murielle came to be the proprietors of one of most remarkable of all Bordeaux success stories. Because what is today Château Valandraud – its identity is made clear both by engraved gateposts, as well as a traditional metal vineyard marker (pictured below) – was once Château Bel-Air-Ouÿ, a little known St Emilion estate with nothing more than grand cru status. And the wine that today we call Valandraud, sourced largely from the vineyards around the estate, near Saint Etienne de Lisse, started off mostly as the product of a tiny plot of vines close to St Emilion, the fermentations carried out in a garage on the rue Vergnaud, one of the town’s many neat little back streets. Today this garage (a garage in the loosest sense, it has to be said – large workshop with annexes might be more appropriate, although admittedly less catchy) is still kitted out with vats and barrels, and is just one of three fermentation facilities Thunevin owns. So perhaps this was where I was heading on this warm summer morning?
Wrong again, as Thunevin has yet more strings to his bow; as well as his town-centre garage he runs a négociant business, and he also has tenure over L’Essentiel, a wine shop and wine bar, up near the top of the town, on the rue Guadet. And above the shop are the offices of both the négociant he runs, Ets Thunevin, and also Château Valandraud. And it was this wine shop, our pre-arranged meeting place, that was my destination. I entered the shop and waited patiently (no, seriously, I am capable of patience sometimes) while the lone server behind the counter sealed a deal with some customers. Eventually my chance came, and I introduced myself; a quick phone call later and Juan Carlos, one of Jean-Luc’s team appeared. Another minute or two passed and we were joined by Jean-Luc himself. We set off together, first down to the aforementioned garage where it all started, and then out into the vineyards with Jean-Luc at the wheel. Along the way I managed to learn a little of how it all began.