In 1991, Jean-Luc Thunevin made the first vintage of Valandraud. In the workshop next to his house, he produced just 100 cases of wine from tiny yields, de-stemming and punching it down by hand and ageing it in 100% new French oak. Although it didn’t have a name yet, the garagiste movement had been born.
As the Super Tuscans had in Italy, these maverick bottlings, operating outside the official classification, rocked the world of wine – especially in the conservative heartland of Bordeaux. At the same time, the likes of Harlan and Colgin were starting to prove the power of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. Meanwhile on the East Coast, a lawyer called Robert Parker had already gathered a loyal following for his newsletter, offering independent advice and a novel scoring system. The internet was just getting started. Everything in the world of wine was changing.
“In the 1990s there was formidable energy and consumers who were ready to accept something new,” says Thunevin. But the Bordeaux wine trade was stuck in the Middle Ages, he says; it was aristocratic, closed – and one reason why the garagistes, a collection of outsiders, caused quite such a stir. Thunevin himself had been in banking, while Jonathan Maltus (Le Dôme) was a British businessman and Stephan von Neipperg (La Mondotte) a German interloper.
With the challenging conditions of 1991, the first vintage of Valandraud had little impact. He made a tiny volume of red, and then a rosé de saignée that he gave away to friends. “L’histoire, c’est ’92,” Thunevin tells me, almost whimsically. The wine, a product of much more favourable growing conditions, put him on the map. “I created a revolution,” he says today. The 1991 Valandraud was released to négociants for 13€; the 2022 came out at 118€.
It was Michel Bettane who coined the term “vin de garage”, sneeringly suggesting that these new-fangled wines could be made in someone’s garage. But, as Jean-Luc Thunevin told me, “By talking about me, they made me exist.” Without such outrage from wine’s more traditional core, the garagistes likely wouldn’t have had the same success. Combine Bettane’s throwaway comment with the rise of garage music in the US and UK, and the movement gained an accidental cool-factor – but that’s all changed now.
“I don’t think anybody wants to admit they were a garagiste anymore,” Jonathan Maltus – the Englishman who created Le Dôme in 1996 – says. He looks back on the time with relative fondness, however. He’d arrived in Bordeaux in 1994, buying Ch. Teyssier, having sold his petrochemical business and decided after a stint in Cahors that he needed to be in the “Formula One” of wine, making for Bordeaux. It was an English wine merchant who told him how a single-vineyard Pomerol called Le Pin was causing a stir – one of a handful of “cuvée wines” that were becoming incredibly popular. As a canny businessman, he decided to give it a go himself.
“It was really exciting – and there was no budget,” Maltus says frankly, explaining how the movement rapidly became a game of one-upmanship. They would instantly snap up any new machinery or equipment, pushing their concepts further and further to out-do each other. Green-harvesting and picking only the ripest berries in multiple passes was de rigueur; the vines often stripped of their leaves to expose the fruit to the sunshine and maximise ripeness (something climate change has put paid to). Yields were consistently low, with over 30hl/ha considered too much to produce the requisite concentration. Maltus explains how the introduction of double-sorting and cold-soaking was radical – both expensive tools, with the latter requiring protective gas and the ability to chill tanks. He would put the wine into one set of new French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation, before transferring the wine to another batch of new oak for ageing. The resulting wines were bold, rich and lavish. “I like to think of it as a kind of Vivienne Westwood period,” Maltus says.
Ask any of the garagistes who inspired them and they’ll point to, among others, Le Pin. Although owner Jacques Thienpont firmly believes Le Pin is not – and never was – a garage wine; he feels that it is sometimes mistakenly seen as one because it was so successful at the time. Ironically, the wine was originally made in a garage, from just one hectare of vines. It was the sensuality of the wine that inspired Jean-Luc Thunevin, he tells me. He visited Le Pin several times and Thienpont told him that wine was all about the quality of the soil, rather than winemaking. “In the cellar, there are no secrets,” Thienpont says. Thienpont wasn’t Thunevin’s only advisor; Alain Vauthier of Ausone happened to be a school friend, and helped the amateur winemaker.
This tension between terroir and technique is at the heart of the garagiste movement. Jean-Luc Thunevin tells me how Valandraud was not a garage wine, but a “garden wine” – from 300 vines he planted on 0.6 hectares, a single site captured in 300 bottles. For Stephan von Neipperg, who made the first vintage of La Mondotte in 1996, from 4.5 hectares, “It’s a terroir… without an outstanding terroir, you cannot make an outstanding wine.” The garagistes, in his mind, by contrast were about “making the wine easier to understand – round, ripe, sometimes too ripe, extracted” – it’s a term he assigns to the likes of Ch. Gracia – first made in 1997, in a back-alley of Saint-Emilion.
Whether you are convinced these wines were true expressions of site or not, they were a direct contrast to the Médoc Classed Growths – where vast swathes of land were used to create a blend each year. Was it a reaction to the Left Bank’s dependence on blending, maybe even a complacency? Perhaps, but it was also a consequence of what each of them could afford; none of them, at first, had the cash to buy any more land. Thunevin’s methodology, for example, wasn’t idealistic; he had to do everything by hand because he didn’t have a tractor or any other equipment, splurging on new barrels alone, and turning a profit for the first time only in 1995.
It’s hard to untangle the movement from Parker’s influence – but few of the early renditions earned the big scores one expects and associates with these vins de garage. Le Dôme, for example, only earned 100 points in 2010 – long after Maltus had started reining in the style, La Mondotte in 2009. Although 1992 Valandraud kickstarted the movement, Parker only gave it 87-88 points when he first rated it in February 1994. Time blurs lines, inevitably – and, although it’s undeniable that Parker’s palate aligned with plush, polished styles, the truth around his influence is more complicated.
“We realised that the whole thing was just becoming a parody of itself,” Maltus says. He points to 2002 a real turning point, but it was only from 2008 that he stopped double oaking, reduced the proportion of new oak to 80%, and more recently started picking earlier. It’s the same across the spectrum, with many of these rebel estates now part of the formal classification system – absorbed into the establishment.
The instigator Jean-Luc Thunevin was branded Bordeaux’s “bad boy” for having challenged the status quo. It’s a reputation that he worked hard to keep – continually pushing forward (indeed, he even makes wine under the Bad Boy name today). Asking what prompted him to create Valandraud – and make it so differently, he says, “I have always been out of my mind. I always wanted to do things that were a bit shocking.”
Today, Bordeaux has more competitors than ever before, with a world of fine wine that is now truly global. Thunevin feels it’s a region in crisis – in need of another bad boy to take the baton. He was an outsider with nothing but a romantic dream of making wine. Whether you like what he did or not, he changed Bordeaux for good. “Les rêves sont nécessaires à notre équilibre,” he tells me – dreams are essential for our balance. The garage movement was just one chapter in Bordeaux’s lengthy history, but perhaps it’s time for another wave of disruptors – after all, they may just be the key to its long-term survival.