The Power brokers

bordeaux People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 20 August 2008

Bordeaux is undergoing a period of change to compare with any in its
history. So who are the movers and shakers behind the most
significant issues shaping the world’s most powerful wine region?

Eric de Rothschild Moving Markets

With the quality of the first growths now justifying prices undreamed of only a decade ago, traditional European markets may well be lost. That isn’t necessarily a problem, of course, if new ones are opening up – espscially if, in the case of Asia, they are willing to pay more. It is Lafite that has led the eastern charge, and where Lafite leads, others follow. Such ‘first among equals’ status was the case in the 19th century but less so for much of the 20th. To have regained it in the early years of the 21st is all credit to the visionary Eric de Rothschild. For someone who also has the family bank to run, de Rothschild has been most far-sighted in positioning Lafite and the Domaines Barons de Rothschild as beacons of quality in the wine world. Having taken over Lafite in his mid-thirties in 1976, his aim was to reverse the poor vintages of the past decade and upgrade the recently acquired Duhart-Milon. Soon both were performing well, then expansion came first with Rieussec in Sauternes, then Pomerol’s L’Evangile. Ventures outside France include Los Vascos in Chile, Quinta do Carmo in the Douro and Bodegas Caro in Argentina. De Rothschild refers to these as ‘my exotics’, and Lafite (and its second wine Les Carruades de Lafite) remains the flagship, most actively promoted by global tastings, particularly in China.

Frédéric Engerer

Grabbing the initiative

To run a first growth calls for a blend of skills, mostly administrative and financial.

The director’s job is not to make the wine, but to hire the best people to tend the vineyards and vinify the wines. He must also concern himself with distribution and image. Soon after business mogul François Pinault bought Château Latour in 1993, he appointed the then 30-year-old Frédéric

Engerer to run the property, a role he has since carried out with great tenacity. Engerer, a business school graduate, can come across as a martinet, but he has overseen ambitious, costly new construction at Latour that is partly responsible for the consistent, superb quality of the wine, rewarded with prices regularly higher than those of the other first growths. Unlike peers such as Pierre Lurton or Paul Pontallier, he did not come from a wine background and then acquire the skills to run an estate. Engerer arrived as an administrator and subsequently began a love affair with the ‘product’. He is in no doubt as to what he wants, though, and after 13 years, he now feels he knows the property well

enough to direct the winemaking. He sacked his winemaker in 2007. Most significantly, he is also prepared to consider new ways of selling Latour. It has

been traditional in Bordeaux to sell the new crop to négociants, then let them take care of sales. Engerer has let it be known that he also wants to know the final destination of his wine; merchants now have less freedom to dispose of it as they wish. He is also holding back a proportion of any new vintage to rerelease them in the future – at prices set by the château. He doesn’t mind ruffling feathers, so long as it’s to the benefit of Latour.

Pierre-Antoine Castéja On the coat-tails

‘We are condemned to work with the classed growths’, Castéja has said. This

was no complaint, merely his acceptance that the future of Joanne, his négociant giant, was to deal globally with established wine brands, rather than

create brands of his own. He knows the power has shifted to the châteaux, but if anyone can retain some influence, Castéja is better positioned than most. Today, aided by his younger brothers Olivier and Eric (his cousin Philippe is head of Borie-Manoux) he oversees a turnover of €125 million, of which 85% comes from export markets. The classed growths, their equivalents and second wines make up 95% of sales. Joanne’s strength lies in a partnership with châteaux owners. Castéja knows from experience where their wines should be sold and to whom. He travels continuously, has an office in New York, and is particularly active in Asia, Russia, Israel and Brazil, where his deep knowledge of these emerging markets allows him to give the châteaux the advice they need on pricing, since their job is – in theory at least – to make wine, not sell it. Joanne boasts a stock of 6 million bottles comprising 4,000 different labels. Yet it is by no means a mass-marketer: only 15% of its sales exceed 20 cases on a single order and 45% are for fewer than five cases. Castéja and his team enjoy as personal a relationship with their clients as they do with their suppliers. It is people like him that give a driving force and structure to the Bordeaux market by being a middle man par excellence.

Frédéric Dubois The deal-maker

Property deals in Bordeaux are obsessively secretive; you only know what’s on the market if you already have the contacts and the money – and, often, the breeding – to get in through the door at one of the three major banks that deal in classified Bordeaux properties, where prices start at €10 million. They are Rothschilds, UBS and Lazard Frères – but only the last of these is based in the city itself. Lazards is a boutique investment bank that, it is reported, was key in the sale of Latour. The bank’s assets under management at the end of 2007 were £7 billion. Dubois is not the bank’s most senior advisor, but he deals with all overseas investors, so has become increasingly important as Bordeaux estates open up to foreign investment. And with such new money becoming more and more prominent in the previously closed shop of Bordeaux, a new guard has the potential to radically re-shape the way owners do business. In recent years, foreign investors have been busy – Simon Halabi at Cantenac Brown, German Otto Rettenmaier at La Tour Figeac, Longhai International Chinese at Latour-Laguens, US bank Colony Capital at Lascombes, – and there are persistent rumours that Russian buyers, no matter how wealthy, find it hard to get through the door, because it remains closed without the approval of insiders such as Dubois. He is so discreet that the last thing he’d want is to be on this list: ‘For buyers, the purchase of a château is like buying a work of

art – there is only one. It’s about status and ego.’

Stéphane Derenoncourt

The terroirist Unlike Michel Rolland (see p10), Stéphane Derenoncourt is a self-taught outsider, who came to Bordeaux from northern France in 1982 and spent a decade in obscurity as a vineyard worker. His first job in a cellar was at Pavie-Macquin, where he attracted the attention of Stephan von Neipperg of

Canon-La-Gaffelière in St-Emilion, who hired him as winemaker. As his reputation spread, he set up shop as a consultant. Today his portfolio of properties is extensive. The role of consultants continues to be a controversial one, but Derenoncourt appears keen to position himself squarely as a safeguarder of a property’s terroir, rather than striving for a particular style. He is committed to the wines he makes, making notes on every barrel, and is equally intrigued by each property’s soil structure, adapting his winemaking to the nature of the soils he finds. While Rolland is seen as a skilful manipulator in the winery, Derenoncourt is attracted to systems such as biodynamism

because of their respect for land and soil. Although initially a Right Bank specialist, Derenoncourt is now consultant to many rising properties in the Médoc and Graves. He has influence not simply because he crafts beautifully balanced wines, but because his role as consultant brings with it commercial advantages. As one of his clients confides, once it is known that Derenoncourt is on board, it becomes much easier for a winery to gain the attention of critics and merchants, and to sell the wine to major customers. (For a profile of Derenoncourt, see p82)

Jacques Boissenot The classicist

In the battle for a Bordeaux style, Jacques Boissenot represents the old guard. Described by Christian Seely of Pichon- Logueville as ‘a brilliant man, enormously respected by the people who work with him, discreetly guiding many of the Médoc’s greatest properties in the direction of finesse and elegance’, he has huge influence and is a real unsung hero.Now in his seventies, Boissenot was the right-hand man of Professor Emile Peynaud, who invented wine consultancy and persuaded Bordeaux to embrace modernity without losing its history. He consults for 48 Médoc estates, including all the first growths (except Mouton-Rothschild). The list also features Cos, the two Pichons, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pontet-Canet, Haut-Batailley, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las- Cases, Branaire-Ducru, Talbot, Lagrange, Beychevelle, Rauzan- Segla, Palmer, Brane-Cantenac, Giscours, du Tertre, Issan and Dauzac. None seem to have the hand of a consultant behind them, as Boissenot’s style seeks balance over power, using press wine not extraction to give structure and avoiding excessive new oak; aiming to express not impress. Boissenot also helped Peynaud create Tignanello for Pierre Antinori and he continues to consult in Tuscany. But his heart and his lab are in the Médoc, whose châteaux are lucky to have him.

Sylvie Cazes The ambassador

Women in roles of significant power in Bordeaux have always a bit thin on the ground – besides, of course, Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. There are increasingly influential female oenologists, négociants and winemakers, but in the political sphere, things shift very much back towards the men. Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau may become the exception to this rule in the next few years. As her brother Jean Michel has taken a step back from the

day-to-day business (although still a key ambassador for the region), Cazes has very much stepped forward. Cazes has always been a team player and perhaps not taken the credit due for her work, but it seems she shares her brother’s ambassadorial instinct, particularly in the establishment of tourism hub Bordeaux Saveurs and the growth of wine tourism in the Médoc as a viable financial business. Her role on the boards of Cazes Family Holdings, most prominently including Lynch-Bages, and the Union des Grands Crus (UGC) give Cazes great influence among the 1855 set, but it would be a seismic power shift if, as looks likely, she is elected to replace Patrick Maroteaux this month, becoming the first woman president of the UGC, the region’s most high-profile body.

Allan Sichel The middle man

As president of the negociants’ union, Allan Sichel has to use every inch of his diplomacy. Bordeaux negociants are in an intense period of change – the power has swung away from them towards the châteaux, particularly after the successful 2005 vintage, while increasingly difficult global financial conditions often means it’s the merchants’ margin that comes under threat, not the property owners, who have low stocks and full bank accounts. Educated in England, Sichel worked as an accountant and CFO before joining the family business, Maison Sichel, of which he is now president, in 1992, experience which no doubt is in demand as financial markets tighten. Many châteaux now want to

know where their wines are sold, and hold merchants far more

accountable – something Sichel appreciates as partowner of high-profile properties such as Palmer and d’Angludet. This new climate means that as head of the négociants union, he must see things from the perspective of

both struggling, traditionally run firms and new players focusing on emerging markets such as China or India. Maison Sichel is among the innovators – taking on brands like E-motif, aimed at under-30s, to improve margin and act somewhere between a brand owner and importer.

Hubert de Boüard The politician

De Boüard, president of the St-Emilion Syndicat, is a political animal. Most significant is his role as regional president of the INAO, the powerful French regulatory wine authority. There will be no alterations to existing appellations if he doesn’t concur. He is also a man who understands the importance of communication. Despite his numerous roles, he remains an accessible figure and an ardent enthusiast for all the great wines of Bordeaux. When de Boüard took over his family’s château, Angélus, in 1985 there wasn’t a single barrel in the cellar. What’s more, yields were high, there was no selection and, consequently, the wine was mediocre. Visits to other wine regions such as Burgundy showed him what he needed to do. His persistence paid off and, in 1996, the St-Emilion estate was promoted to premier cru classé status. De Boüard has also invested in properties including Château de Francs in the Côte de Francs, and one in Lalande-de-Pomerol he renamed La Fleur de Boüard. More recently he has bought a 50% share in his underperforming neighbour Château Bellevue. He also finds time to act as consultant to a handful of St-Emilion properties, such as Clos des Jacobins, and ventures across the river to do the same at Pichon-Lalande, giving him a unique, high profile perspective across the region.

Michel Rolland The modernist

Despite his cigar-chomping, chauffeur-driven image, Michel Rolland is a man of the soil. At first he ran a modest wine lab and managed his family properties on the Right Bank, notably Bon Pasteur in Pomerol, but before long his tasting skills led him to a career as a consultant. Rolland is controversial, in part due to his alliance with Robert Parker, but he is far more than the golden boy of the US wine press. His beliefs are far from shocking: picking fully ripe grapes; extracting

everything the fruit can deliver; malolactic fermentation in barrels; new

oak; occasional modern techniques like micro-oxygenation; and blending

the final wine as late as possible. His wines are usually weighty, fleshy and sensuous, a style consumers love. Critics claim they all taste the same. There is a stylistic imprint, to be sure, but he respects the individuality of the properties he works for. Forays onto the Left Bank – such as Bernard Magrez’s huge portfolio of properties and, formerly, at Kirwan and Siran – may be questionable, but on his home patch and in New World wine regions such as Argentina he has a sure touch. The question is, how far will he go in combining the stylistic element of the two? Whatever the answer, you may like or dislike his wines, but t’s hard to deny that wherever he has been a consultant, the wines are better than they were before he married.

Latest coverage

The latest information from the world famous DWWA competition

Related Topics