THE GARAGISTES OF SAINT-EMILION

Are vins de garage France's new cult wines?


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On the eve of the 2000 en primeur tastings, in Jean-Luc Thunevin's tasting room in the heart of medieval Saint-Emilion, a very modern drama is being played out. Every few minutes, growers come in, clutching bottles of wine just extracted from barrels. Try this, they say, offering something deeply colored, intensely concentrated, and full of new wood and superripe fruit. More bottles than usual line the tasting bench, most labeled with unknown names—names that their producers hope will be the next to garner high ratings from the world's wine critics.

These are the latest offerings from the growing number of French garage wine producers. As recently as the late 1990s, there were only a handful of these producers, but the number of growers who make these limited-production, handcrafted Bordeaux has risen dramatically over the last two vintages. Growers have seen the prices—and the profits—that wines such as Château de Valandraud, La Mondotte, Le Dôme and Quinault l'Enclos are fetching, and they want a piece of the action, too. They want to be able to sell their wines at prices that make even the aristocratic first growths of Bordeaux look inexpensive.

The Origins of Garage Wine
What exactly is garage wine? It means that the production of each wine mythically happens in an area the size of a garage. By the 2000 vintage, there were at least 25 of these wines being made in Saint-Emilion; now, they affect areas that were previously untouched, such as the Graves and the Médoc.

In Bordeaux, the garage wine craze all started with Le Pin. But owner Jacques Thienpont wouldn't thank you for describing his wine, first made in 1979, as a garage wine. His wine comes from five-acre plot of land in Pomerol that he believes is singularly favored. However, it was the success of Le Pin that inspired the vignerons of Saint-Emilion. And it was Le Pin's cellar, which is truly a garage under a battered farmhouse surrounded by vines, that inspired French wine writer Michel Bettane to coin the phrase vins de garage. Like "cult" in California, or "super-Tuscan" in Italy, the phrase caught on.

Who's Who in Garageland
If Jacques Thienpont's Le Pin is the grandfather of garage wines, then Jean-Luc Thunevin's Château de Valandraud is the godfather. Thunevin and his wife Muriel ran a number of successful businesses in Saint-Emilion before, in 1991, they produced the first vintage of Valandraud from 4.3 acres.

The Thunevins' approach to their vineyard is quite different from that of the Thienponts. They bought tiny parcels of land where and when they could: some on fine clay and gravel soils in the best areas of Saint-Emilion, some on the flat, sandy plains toward the River Dordogne. They blended the grapes together, allowing technique to improve upon the sometimes inferior vineyards. Today, they have 10 different parcels, totaling almost 35 acres; they now have enough grapes to make a second wine, Virginie de Valandraud. Thunevin even has a chateau, rather than a garage, where he makes the wine.

It is the success of Thunevin and his wines that has inspired what Thunevin himself calls "the second generation" of garage wines. Many are established growers who have decided that they don't want to go on selling their best grapes to cooperatives or négociants. They all have parcels of vines that are better than the rest. Why not add value, and vastly increase their income by turning the fruit from this fine parcel into a garage wine?

Enter Saint-Emilion's own local consultants: Michel Rolland, Stephane de Renoncourt and Gilles Pauquet. And step forward Jean-Luc Thunevin. Among Thunevin's many attributes is that he is good at marketing, and what many of these growers lack is marketing expertise. So Thunevin's négociant business has been turned into a clearinghouse for many garagistes who are eager to attract the attention of their target market—American wine collectors and the world's wine press.

In Thunevin's tasting room that day are just a few of these second-generation garagistes. Michel Gracia is a local stonemason who has named his wine after himself; his cellar is just up the road from the Thunevin family house. With him is Michel Puzio, who makes Château Croix de Labrie in his own Saint-Emilion vineyard and also works at Château Branda, in neighboring Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion.

There's also Francis Gaboriaud, owner of Château L'Hermitage, a seven-acre parcel of Saint-Emilion vineyard sandwiched propitiously between Château Angélus and Château Beauséjour-Bécot. And there's Gaston Garcin, who owns Château Haut-Bergey in Pessac-Léognan and Clos L'Eglise in Pomerol, and whose very own garage wine, Château Branon, has just been produced from a parcel of vines in Pessac-Léognan. Thunevin is on hand, showing off the second vintage of his latest creation, a garage wine from Margaux named Marojallia.

All of these producers are following techniques and practices that have become the hallmarks of garage wines. Because the plots are relatively small, it is almost possible to treat each vine individually—to almost call them by name.

Perfecting Winemaking Techniques in Saint-Emilion's Tiny Wineries

Grape yields are tiny: These growers talk about five or six bunches per vine, while some garage-wine producers mention as few as four bunches per vine. Vines normally yield 10 bunches or more. Eric Prissette of Château Rol Valentin in Saint-Emilion, who has been making his wine since 1994, describes how he harvests his grapes: "We make a number of passages through the vineyard, picking out individual ripe berries, leaving the rest to ripen further. In 2000, we made three passages, in 1999 we made five, because the harvest conditions were not so good. Then when the grapes reach the cellar, we select further on a conveyor, pulling out any damaged fruit."

The grapes receive the same care once they start to ferment. At Rol Valentin, they are fermented in small wooden vats specially designed so that each individual parcel of grapes is fermented separately. After alcoholic fermentation, the wine goes into new oak barriques for malolactic fermentation, a practice almost universally adopted by garagistes. The effect of the wood on the wine, combined with the superripe fruit and the softer tannins they produce, are essential elements in these wines.

The more established producers have already worked on perfecting these techniques for their garage wines. Comte Stephan von Neipperg, whose family owns Château Canon la Gaffelière, a Saint-Emilion grand cru classé, has been making La Mondotte since 1996. He, like Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin, has been blessed with an exceptional plot of land. Von Neipperg tells the tale: "La Mondotte was purchased by my family at the same time as Canon la Gaffelière. But for many years we didn't understand its potential.

"Then I realized how ripe the grapes could be, so in 1995 we made a special cuvée, just to see what we could do. That was such a success that we created the La Mondotte brand from 1996 onwards. We use it as a testing bed. We do special things to the wine there, which we then apply to our other properties. From 2001, for instance, La Mondotte will be biodynamic."

Dominique and Gérard Becot followed a similar path. They already owned an established premier grand cru classé, Château Beauséjour-Bécot. Then, in 1995, they purchased a small vineyard called La Gomerie. "We decided to make the best wine possible," says Dominique Bécot. They green harvest (remove excess bunches of grapes before they ripen) in August, pluck leaves to give the grapes extra sunshine (an important step in rainy Bordeaux), and use only new barrels.

Jonathan Maltus, owner of Château Teyssier, a grand cru in Saint-Emilion, and two garage wines, Le Dôme and Château La Forge, elaborates: "Because Saint-Emilion vineyards are so much smaller than [those] in the Médoc, it follows that the owners are much closer to the vines. We only have a small staff and need to be hands-on. In the Médoc, the owners are much more remote."

Being hands-on also means that Saint-Emilion growers have learned to apply the techniques used in garage wines to the more mainstream wines. It's a trickle-down effect. The result, says Maltus, "is that the quality level of all Saint-Emilion has improved enormously. At Château Teyssier, for example, we are able to use equipment and afford techniques which we could never have lavished on a Saint-Emilion grand cru if it wasn't for the two garage wines we make."

Tailoring Vins de Garage for the Export Market
These are not wines for French wine drinkers. True, wine commentators in France have taken up the idea of cult French wines to rival the cult wines of California. But these garagistes have their sights firmly fixed on the export market—more specifically, the American, British and Japanese export markets.

Maybe that explains the style of many of these wines, and why they so easily impress the wine critics. Although they are all appellation wines from Saint-Emilion, they wouldn't look out of place beside some of the most opulent New World offerings. Some seem to consist of nothing but very extracted superripe fruit and wood. Others manage to draw on Bordeaux's characteristic tannins and acidity to provide elements of subtlety and elegance without leaving the richness and voluptuousness far away.

Survival of the Fittest
To date, wine collectors snap up the bottles as soon as they see them. Importer David Kohl of Market Wine in Davie, Florida, says that they do "incredible business with these wines. And with the high quality of the 2000 vintage, we expect many new buyers to be interested." Some of these wines, he believes, are on the verge of being established: "Le Pin is already established and Valandraud is almost there. However, there's always a risk that some of the others will never make it."

Jonathan Maltus, at Le Dôme, agrees: "Some of the newer garage wines are just not selling. With the big increase in the numbers of garage wines in 1999, there is a risk [that] the market will be saturated. If you put a wine on a pedestal, you have to sell it, you have to make it almost unobtainable."

There's no doubt, however, that garage wines are here to stay. The question is, how many? Are they more likely to be the traditional garage wines—those made from specific single vineyards, such as La Mondotte or La Gomerie—or those, like Valandraud and Rol Valentin, which are blended from a number of disparate parcels? And—a question only partially answered by the obvious ageability of Le Pin—are they wines that will stay the course, or are they wines for today and not for tomorrow?

There are even those like Eric Dulong, négociant and current president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, who believe that garage wines have nothing whatever to do with the Bordeaux appellation system. "I am against garage wine," he explained to me, "they are not Bordeaux, they do not respect our identity...there should be a decision on whether they can use Bordeaux appellations."

What is certain is that Saint-Emilion will never be the same again. A sleepy medieval borough, as much a venue for tourism as for wine, is now the revolutionary hotbed of Bordeaux. The quality of all Saint-Emilion wines has benefited from these anarchic upstarts in their midst. And while the aristocrats of the Médoc may see garage wines as something only to be found among the peasant farmers of Saint-Emilion, they also could benefit from some of the groundswell of enthusiasm and excitement that is permeating this ancient hilltop town.

· · ·

Top Garage Wines of Saint-Emilion

Le Dome
Name of owner: Château Teyssier
Wine consultant: Gilles Pauquet
Area: 4.1 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1996
How many bottles produced: 4,500

Chateau la Forge
Name of owner: Château Teyssier
Wine consultant: Gilles Pauquet
Area: 13 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1998
How many bottles produced: 22,000

chateau La Gomerie
Name of owners: Gérard and Dominique Bécot
Wine consultants: Michel Rolland, Jean-Philippe Fort
Area: 6 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1995
How many bottles produced: 9,000

Chateau L'Hermitage
Name of owner: Francis Gaboriaud
Wine consultant: Francis Gaboriaud
Area: 7.2 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1997
How many bottles produced: 12,000

chateau La Mondotte
Name of owner: von Neippberg family
Wine consultant: Stephane de Renoncourt
Area: 9.5 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1996
How many bottles produced: 11,000

Chateau de Valandraud
Name of owner: Jean-Luc Thunevin
Wine consultant: Jean-Luc Thunevin
Area: 34.8 acres
First vintage of this wine: 1991
How many bottles produced: 4,800-15,000

chateau Quinault l'Enclos
Name of owners: Alain and Francoise Raynaud
Wine consultants: Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu
Area: 26 acres
First vintage of this wine
: 1997
How many bottles produced: 50,000

—WE

· · ·

Reaching the Top
Although garage wines are produced in small quantities, some do make it to the U.S. In most cases, the producers do not have exclusive agreements with U.S. importers; any enterprising importer can purchase the wines through Bordeaux négociants or wine brokers.

As a result, prices for these wines vary widely, depending on vintage and the number of hands the wines have traded through before reaching a retailer's shelf. For example, Zachy's in Scarsdale, New York, offers bottles of 1997 La Mondotte for $350 and the 1995 for $299. Sam's in Chicago has the 1996 La Mondotte for $500.

David Kohl of Market Wines, a Florida importer, says his company offers 1998s from Château Griffe de Cap d'Or (approximately $40 retail), Château L'Hermitage ($109) and La Mondotte ($500).

Generally, it's easier to find these wines being offered as futures than as inventory. The 1999s are currently on offer; by the time you read this, pricing for the 2000s may be determined. A survey of 1999 futures shows prices ranging from $21 for Branda and $37 for Péby Faugères to $299 for La Mondotte and $335 for Valandraud. In the middle of the pack you can find La Gomerie for $116 and Gracia for $127.

—Josh Farrell

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