Crippling death duties and poor returns have made running the family château in Bordeaux a precarious business. WILLIAM BOLTER reports on the triumphs and the pitfalls

Crippling death duties and poor returns have made running the family château in Bordeaux a precarious business. WILLIAM BOLTER reports on the triumphs and the pitfalls

When I asked Xavier Borie of Ducru Beaucaillou whether I could visit him to talk about family-owned châteaux in Bordeaux, he asked whether I had embarked on research into a dying tribe. It seemed to him that no month went by without a major vineyard being sold – generally to someone outside the region’s wine world. Château Lascombes was reported to have just been sold to an American corporation and there are rumours that other major growths were up for sale. Most vineyards in the Médoc and Saint-Emilion are nonetheless family owned. They have been passed from one generation to the next, sometimes for centuries, or have been bought by an enthusiastic outsider anxious to return to the land after a successful career in some unrelated branch of human acitivity. The Napoleonic code initiated the principle that each child should inherit an equal share of a parent’s estate, and vineyards in the region are frequently sold to satisfy this legal requirement.

There are still, however, a small number of famous family owned vineyards that excite the lively interest of wine lovers throughout the world. These have been family owned for more than one generation, they are big enough to produce a sufficient quantity of wine to obtain an international reputation and they are all the object of envious and predatory interest by people who have made a considerable fortune in some other sphere. For the most part, the owners live on the property and all of them are run by a member of the family. Eric d’Aramon, who has taken over the running of Château Figeac from his father-in-law, Thierry Manoncourt, described his move into the château’s management as being closer to entering a religious order with established traditions than starting in a new profession.

The financial success which now rewards the owners of classified growths is a recent development, at most 20 years old. When he first came to Bordeaux in the 1950s, Anthony Barton was discouraged by his uncle from concentrating his activities on Léoville-Barton since it was an unprofitable side activity. It was only in 1985 that the château made a profit.

The terrible, true tales of owners in the Médoc grubbing up vines with no certainty of ever replanting in the 1930s and of the dark days after the massively destructive 1956 frosts in Saint-Emilion are present in the memory of everyone who heard them during their childhoods.

The sense of belonging to a place, l’enracinement local, in Madame de Lenquesaing’s pretty phrase, brings with it the sense of responsibility for and to the people who work on the property. This linking of owner and workers is most in evidence in the self-contained hamlet of Château Montrose, with proper street names on plaques, the ideal Médoc estate of the 19th century. The ties between owner and employee are necessarily close, and the owner may well be called in to calm a marital problem or help with advice or with an advance – sometimes a significant advance – on salary. This set of unwritten obligations comes with the estate as much as the vats and the tractors.The huge advantage of owning an inherited estate is the freedom of action and decision. This freedom comes at a price, but it is a fine and sometimes heady experience. Léo de Malet-Roquefort is unusual in having had no advising oenologist since 1998, a decision that no employed manager would or could entertain. The family owner can and does decide on such vital matters as what to plant and when to pick, and all those many details which contribute to the style and quality of a wine. This is not merely the advantage of a short cut in decision making: an owner inexperienced in winemaking may well impose an idea on an unwilling manager which both will regret.There is a real difference in the management horizon between an outside manager and a managing owner. The manager runs the property according to the instructions of an owner or a managerial board taking a larger view which includes a knowledge of the other interests and requirements of the owner. These are not necessarily those of the vineyard, and the long-term interest of the château may well be overlooked.

The manager brought in to run a property makes many, even most, of these decisions but he must have in mind the duty he has towards the shareholders. The crux of the matter lies there, in this matter of risk taking. Sometimes the risk does not pay off and an owner may become a latter day Captain Blighs, as is shown by the story of a good part of the 1947 Léoville-las-Cases. The wine was made when the owner was seriously ill and prevented from issuing instructions. It acquired unacceptable levels of volatile acidity and had to be discarded because the cellar master and workmen had strict instructions that the casks were to be topped up only on the express instructions of the owner. There are no such stories of risks taken by managers, but I suspect that the fear of the results of making a wrong decision, of taking a chance by waiting to pick, or using less new oak to make a more elegant wine has deprived wine drinkers of some exciting wine. With the inheritance of a vineyard comes knowledge of how the wine was made in the past, as well as tasting experience of the vintages as they aged. This wealth of experience does not seem to have held back innovation, and it has certainly encouraged the making of very personal wines at, for example, Château la Gaffelière and Ducru-Beaucaillou – styles clearly visible from blind tastings. Confidence seems to be inherited with the other intangibles.

In the best cases, a serious advantage of being sole master at a family property is that the owner knows not only what he wants, but also the way to get it. The owner who buys into winemaking knows that he wants to make wine which will be much praised, but even if he has the gift for words to describe to an enterprising manager what he wants, he will not necessarily know how that can be obtained. Château Pavie was for a long while a

family property making a very personal style of Saint-Emilion wine. It was then sold to a man who had made his fortune elsewhere and wanted to make a wine to be wondered at. He invested large sums in the vineyard and equipment. I am not alone in preferring the wine made under the new owner. The advantage that the grand buyer of a grand vineyard had until perhaps 10 years ago was money for major investment. In the 1970s a bank refused to advance the cash for the end-of-month salaries to a major classified growth in the Médoc, and the individuals whose wealth is limited to possession of a major château (a group for whom it would be difficult to find sympathy) have this ingrained in their memory as much as the name of the parcels of land which go to make up their vineyards.

If that last sour memory is gradually fading, the significance of death duties looms each year more grimly for the families. French lawyers have been less successful than English in finding ways of avoiding crippling death duties, and making satisfactory arrangements to pass on a vineyard to a son or daughter has become extremely difficult.The tax authorities calculate what has to be paid or what can be paid during the owner’s life according to an evaluation calculated on the sale of similar properties. Such an evaluation presents considerable difficulty when estates are being bought and sold at a very slight or even negative return on investment. At first sight, one cannot see how a château owner with six children could now so arrange his estate that a single member of the family could take it over. The owners of the major family properties have a great track record for their wines. They also seem confident that they will be able, one way or another, to pass on their estates as they are. Several facts give weight to their belief. The Malet-Roqueforts have owned la Gaffelière since the 17th century, and demand for their wines and others with a similar reputation is great – increasing – with prices showing no tendency to fall. The owners of these properties have seen their hard work pay off, and they are confident that this will continue.

Written by WILLIAM BOLTER