Despite the region’s image of being run by faceless corporations whose executives fear getting too close to the vineyard lest it soil their handmade Aubercy shoes, there are in fact thousands of family-owned Bordeaux châteaux. The prize for longest-serving could technically be awarded to Pierre-Gilles Gromand-Brunet d’Evry’s clan up at Château de Lamarque in Haut-Médoc: 25th generation and a direct line to Garison de Lamarque, who built the estate in 1050. But that would mean overlooking the 500 or so years when it passed out of family hands, so it’s better perhaps to turn to Château des Annereaux in Lalande-de-Pomerol, where the Hessels are in their eighth century of continual ownership since 1390.
Even in the ultra-select club of the classed growths, we have Haut-Brion owned by Prince Robert of Luxembourg of the Dillon family, Lafite and Mouton by various branches of the Rothschilds, Margaux by Corinne Mentzelopoulos and family, Ausone by the Vauthiers, Pavie by the Perses, Petrus by the Moueix clan, and Angélus by Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal, having taken over from her father, Hubert de Boüard. And if you take a look at the 1855 Left Bank classification as a whole (sticking to the red wines), you find only nine out of the 61 are, technically, owned by big corporations – mostly insurance companies, from the Ballande Group at Prieuré-Lichine, through Suravenir Assurances at Calon Ségur, to AXA Millésimes at Pichon Baron and Crédit Agricole Grands Crus at Grand-Puy Ducasse.
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Yet the question of walking the line between family and corporate ownership has been raised again with the recent sale of Château du Tertre by the Dutch Albada family, owners of Château Giscours, to the people behind one of France’s most prominent wine companies. As with Pinault at Latour, the sale (for leasing and managing du Tertre) is in a personal capacity to patriarch Joseph Helfrich and his family. But there is serious financial muscle behind them, and a big corporation. Helfrich founded Grands Chais de France in 1979, a company that sees over a billion dollars in annual sales through brands like JP Chenet and that owns or runs dozens of wine properties across France.
Only the most agenda-driven critic would suggest that corporate-owned châteaux have suffered from the consistency of investment made possible by these companies. Any hand-wringing over, for example, the Gasqueton family selling up at Calon Ségur seems to have been silenced by the €30m investment programme that has since been ploughed in to increase the density of plantation, up the levels of Cabernet Sauvignon and improve the overall facilities. These are big estates (50ha at Calon), and even with financial muscle, a replanting programme like this will take over a decade to complete. As for the charge that such companies are faceless, taking the route that AXA Millésimes has done – with first Jean-Michel Cazes and then Christian Seely as long-term figureheads – seems a good way to combine the corporate investment power with the need for consumers and trade alike to connect to an actual person.
It’s easy to applaud the rest of the Médoc ranking for being owned, in one way or another, by families. But look closer, and the notion of family ownership doesn’t seem so meaningful. For a start, of the families mentioned at the outset, only two – the Vauthiers and the Perses – live full time at their estate, and of the current generation, only Alain Vauthier’s daughter Pauline Vauthier makes the wine. And most of these families at the top end have access to more than your average funds of investment cash. The Rothschilds are, well, the Rothschilds, and Prince Robert of Luxembourg is, well, a prince.
Then you get to the likes of François Pinault, the force behind Château Latour, through his holding company Artémis Domaines but backed by his fashion conglomerate Kering, which owns (among many, many other things) Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta. Likewise, châteaux Cheval Blanc and Yquem were previously under the ownership of France’s wealthiest man, Bernard Arnault, but have since been swallowed up largely by LVMH, Arnault’s luxury-goods brand that rivals Kering for financial muscle. Are such proprietors really so different from institutional owners?
Away from the first growths, the majority of the Médoc crus classés tend to be owned by well-heeled families who have more than one source of income, whether as wine merchants or from entirely separate careers. Most choose to delegate running the estate and have their primary residence elsewhere. Rauzan-Ségla is
owned by the Wertheimer family, who spend most of their time working on the main family business of Chanel, while Montrose is owned by the Bouygues brothers, who dominate the building and telecommunications business across France. And Pichon Comtesse comes under the banner of Champagne Louis Roederer, owned by the Rouzaud family – though you’re unlikely to see Frédéric Rouzaud hanging out his washing in the garden and pouring wine for visitors.
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If, instead, we narrow it down to Médoc classed-growth owners who live full time at their château with their family, we are left with just François-Xavier Borie at Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Jean-Michel Cazes at Lynch Bages and Anthony and Eva Barton at Léoville Barton. Then there is a handful of others who split their time frequently between the property and Bordeaux, so are within easy reach, such as the Quiés at Rauzan Gassies/Croizet-Bages, Lucien Guillemet at Boyd-Cantenac, Jean-Hubert Delon at Léoville-Las-Cases, Bruno Borie at Ducru Beaucaillou, the Cordier sisters at Château Talbot and the Lurtons at, variously, Brane-Cantenac, Durfort-Vivens, Desmirail and Haut-Bages Libéral.
Increasingly, we want to believe that luxury wine is about not just taste but values. Seeing a family behind the labels suggests authenticity, connection and tradition. As Damien Barton-Sartorius of Léoville Barton in St-Julien says: ‘I do think that being family-owned makes a difference. Especially in Bordeaux, where the image is often that the region is not welcoming and that it cares more about brands than wine. We don’t employ brand ambassadors to represent us in different countries, and when we go to tastings, it is invariably a family member pouring the wine.’
Increasingly, we want to believe that luxury wine is about not just taste but values
Emeline Borie at Grand-Puy-Lacoste in neighbouring Pauillac agrees. ‘In terms of investment, we are not simply thinking year to year; the idea is to hand over to the next generation. If you take our example, since 1978, when my grandfather bought the estate, we’ve never stopped making improvements, but we take it slowly, investing a little every year to spread the cost.’ The Bories increased the size of their vat cellar in 2016 and 2018, upgraded the harvest reception in 2017 and purchased a new optical sorting machine in 2019. ‘Most wine lovers who visit are very surprised when they arrive in Bordeaux to find so many empty châteaux. Here, they are happy to see that people are still living on the estate.’
The reality of top-level Bordeaux wines is that things are more complicated than that, and it’s unfair to pretend otherwise. We fetishise family ownership on the one hand and yet demand the kind of perfection from the wines that you can only get from the big pockets of institutional investors. The entire system of en primeur, when these top wines are subjected to mass critical assessment and comparison while still in their infancy, is hardly set up to give properties the benefit of the doubt. Is it any coincidence that the 1855 estates that regularly come in for the most criticism are Rauzan-Gassies and Boyd-Cantenac, pretty much the only names in the entire 1855 ranking with no outside source of income beyond the wine itself?
Both Anne-Françoise Quié, co-owner of Rauzan-Gassies, and Olivier Salques, nephew of Lucien Guillemet of Boyd-Cantenac, have told me they simply don’t have the budgets for investments that their neighbouring estates have, and they recognise that they are often criticised for their choices as a result. How many times have we heard snide comments about Rauzan-Gassies using machines for harvesting part of their vines, forgetting that only 16% of the whole of Bordeaux picks entirely by hand?
The same can be said for fifth-growth Cos Labory in St-Estèphe, which routinely receives scores way below that of its neighbour Cos d’Estournel (under multimillionaire entrepreneur Michel Reybier). Both are family-owned – but by very different kinds of family, with very different budgets that inevitably translate into different amounts of polish and finesse in the final wine. It’s hard not to think that being an ‘ordinary’ family without endlessly deep pockets puts you out of the premier league when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the pack.
‘We have spent the past decade paying inheritance taxes that will allow us to keep owning the estate over the long term,’ Quié told me, while also confirming that she turns down offers for the property at least once a month. ‘Inheritance taxes are hefty, particularly as land values increase, and it has meant that we have had to use money for this instead of buying new land, as many of our neighbours have done. All renovations have to be carefully planned and carried out over many years.’
There are other drawbacks to being a family business. Barton-Sartorius points to one: ‘You never leave work. There is never a feeling of switching off, because you are always thinking about what needs to be done even once you get home in the evening. And there are no bosses in the traditional sense, so it’s not always easy to resolve disputes. Luckily for us, the family group is fairly small, and we are all working towards the same goal. Things become more complicated when there are lots of family shareholders involved, or when not everybody is working in the business, which could lead to arguments over reinvesting profits or collecting dividends.’
Despite all of this, and even with all its contradictions, family ownership at the top end of Bordeaux is unlikely to disappear any time soon, not least because it fits so well with the timescales involved in winemaking. Planting programmes such as those being undertaken at Calon Ségur highlight the simple but unavoidable fact that these are long-term investments. Even after planting, you need to wait three years before the vines are ready to harvest, with most then needing another 15 to 20 years before giving their most complex fruit.
You can only harvest once a year, and at this level you then need to allow 10 or 20 years in bottle before the wines are ready to drink. Quick returns on investments are pretty much unheard of. This is perhaps why Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, owner at Mouton Rothschild alongside his sister Camille Sereys de Rothschild and brother Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, says that being a family – even with a management team in place, as is the case with Mouton – is critical to their success. ‘In most of the other businesses that I have been involved with – in fact, in most other businesses full stop – plans are made for the next five years, or 10 maximum,’ says Philippe. ‘But in a wine estate, the timescale is 20, 30, 40 years. Shareholders might not be prepared to wait that long. But for a family, it makes perfect sense.’
This article was originally published in April 2020, and updated in February 2021