Over 40 years, the Sichel family has made Château d'Angludet's reputation. ROGER VOSS reports.
There are few family homes in the Médoc. Most proprietors live in the cities of Bordeaux or Paris. They treat the properties as an office, and the château as a place for entertaining, or for a few weeks’ holiday in the summer. Château d’Angludet is a welcome exception. Driving up the slight slope, past the meadow where there is likely to be a horse grazing, past the ornamental pond, and entering the house where umbrellas and wellies are stacked in the hallway, it is immediately clear that the château is both lived in and enjoyed. Yet, 40 years ago, in 1961, when Peter and Diana Sichel first saw Angludet, it was a scene of desolation. The house was barely habitable. After years of neglect, compounded by the economic disaster of the 1956 frost, there was a mere 7ha (hectares) of vines. Five of these were so badly planted that they had to be ripped out. The great 1961 vintage, as far as Angludet was concerned, consisted of 11 barrels.
From the first, this was to be a place where the Sichels could live and bring up their children. Peter had decided to move from England (where his father Allan had worked in the wine trade) and base himself in Bordeaux, building up the négociant business that bears his name. So he rebuilt the house, empty since World War II, and replanted the vineyard. It was as much a labour of love as a business enterprise. His work was a case of restoring an ancient, privileged place, rather than creating something new. The château – part low farmhouse, part elegant 18th-century structure – is built on the site of buildings that date back at least to the 14th century. The vineyard is certainly recorded from the mid 18th century, when Margaux, the earliest of the Médoc communes to be planted with vines, was being developed.
As with many French estates, French inheritance laws meant that Angludet passed through some bad periods. One occurred during the 1855 classification, meaning that Angludet, which had been described earlier in the century as one of the classed growths of Margaux, was omitted from the listing. Classification as one of six crus bourgeois exceptionnels in 1932 could only be a second best. Peter Sichel’s task in his 37 years at Angludet before his death in 1998, was to rebuild the reputation of the property. That he succeeded is a matter of record, echoed by the huge demand for the wines of Angludet today. And that he and Diana also created a wonderful family home is proved by the fact that she and the youngest of their six children, Rebecca, still live there.
The vineyard was gradually extended to its present 34ha, 30ha of which are in production. Their neighbours, Giscours, du Tertre and Monbrison, surround the block that represents Angludet’s vineyard, and which together cover the gravel outcrop of Le Grand Poujeau in the southwestern corner of Margaux. The present mix of vines is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot.
Father to sons
Today, the négociant side of the Sichel business in Bordeaux is run by Allan Sichel, Peter and Diana’s eldest son, along with James and Charles, his brothers. The vineyards and the wines of Angludet are under the control of Ben Sichel. Ben trained in oenology at Bordeaux, before making the obligatory winemaker’s world tour, ending up in Tunisia. He returned to work at Angludet with his father in 1989. Ben is both a viticulturalist and winemaker, but it’s apparent from early on in conversation that, for him, the vineyard comes first. As he says, ’80–90% of the results come from the vineyard.’
The soils of Angludet – partly light gravel where the Cabernet is planted and partly gravel with a clay subsoil where the Merlot has been placed – contribute, he believes, to the style of Angludet’s wine. ‘We tend to make a lighter style than the properties in the centre of Margaux. The lightness isn’t a weakness, but a virtue, because our soil brings out the elegance of Margaux. And in both the vineyard and the chai I want to respect that elegance.’ Like many vignerons in Bordeaux, he is working on ways to control the vigour of the vines. ‘We started a vendange verte (green harvest) back in 1988. And in 1997 we tried to control the vigour by sowing crops between the rows. That experiment was a success in controlling yields. But sowing grass between rows took too much moisture from the vines, so we had to control the grass with a light herbicide. I don’t like using herbicides, so now we are ploughing the grass into the soil every autumn, and re-sowing again in the spring. It means the vines have extra food and retain the winter rains.’
Not content with these experiments, Ben has been working on a way of getting the vine root systems to go deeper into the ground, opening up the ground to 50cm depth. The idea is to give more complexity and less vintage variation due to differences in rainfall. He has also experimented with different types of vine canopy after finding that each variety in the vineyard reacts differently to raising the canopy. While Angludet may be at the forefront of viticultural practices, in the chai things are more traditional. For a start, there is Ben Sichel’s view of wood. ‘The style of wine we are making doesn’t need much new wood, so we use between 20 and 25%. It’s more important to get the right quality of barrel than it is to increase that percentage.’ Similarly, he has rejected the idea of replacing concrete fermenting tanks with the now-fashionable wooden fermenters. ‘When they’re new, they give too much wood taste,’ he says. The new methods Ben has introduced in the chai at Angludet are designed to treat the fruit more gently. ‘We have less vigorous pumping and extraction than we used to,’ he explains. ‘That gives us better press wines, which in turn means we can use the press wine to give more volume as well as more complexity.’
Certainly over the past two decades – probably since the 1982 vintage – Angludet’s wines have deepened in their complexity and richness while retaining their elegance. They are also wines that age well – I have some 1982s in my cellar that could well last a good few years yet. In their youth, they are deceptively easy to drink. Ben says that ‘they develop fast in the first two or three years, but after that the wines really slow down. It’s hard to persuade people that our wines can last 15 years or more, but I don’t want to change our methods because what we are doing now is expressing the terroir.’
Terroir is a word Peter Sichel used all the time. His concern, when he bought Angludet, was to bring out the best in the land he had acquired. For Ben, the task is somewhat different. He believes the wine has reached a ‘quality plateau. Any changes we make will be small and will take time. Above all, they will be natural.’ Here is a property in good hands. Forty years after it was rescued, Angludet is performing at full throttle – apt for Ben, who is a motorbike fanatic. If there was any justice in the wine world, it would be classified as a fifth growth today. As it is, we can just enjoy the wine.
Roger Voss is based in Bordeaux.