Belgian hedge-fund managers make unlikely revolutionaries, but former financier Arnaud Christiaens is set on shaking up the status quo in Bordeaux with a radical undertaking.
Through his SGC wines, Christiaens is out to challenge the rigidity of the Bordeaux cru system. In particular, he is seeking to present an alternative criterion for evaluating quality, rather than simply price and market success, the basis for the enduring 1855 classification.
It’s widely accepted that a number of individual châteaux on both banks of the Gironde generally outperform their original ranking – one thinks of Palmer and Pontet-Canet (3rd and 5th growths respectively) on the Left Bank, for example. But such a performance, argues Christiaens, is not necessarily reflective of the whole property, and comes down instead to certain superior individual parcels of vines that go into the grand vin.
Equally, Christiaens argues, several properties adjacent to classed growths have pockets of equally fine terroir. So why not cherry-pick the finest parcels from such unheralded properties by systematically analysing their soils and blend a small-scale wine from the resultant crop? This selection is conducted through a lengthy process of soil analysis in a secret laboratory overseen by a man he refers to only as “The Scientist”, an anonymous expert with two decades’ experience in Bordeaux, during which “he must have dug 20,000 holes across the region,” according to Christiaens.
“Most people in Bordeaux prefer to talk about winemaking [rather than terroir],” Christiaens says via Zoom from his London, Thames-front apartment. “But a château might only have 3% exceptional soil in its vineyards, and as much as 50% could be just average – yet the grapes from the whole lot are blended altogether.” And while the top estates might select these top plots to make up part of the blend in their more limited-production grands vins, such an approach isn’t always an option further down the chain. What might be lost or diluted in a lower-ranking château’s estate-produced wine can instead be harnessed to provide a unique character for SGC’s limited-production blends, claims Christiaens.
According to “The Scientist”, there are four main pillars that make for exceptional soil: suitability of soil type for the variety planted; quality of irrigation; nitrogen levels; and strength of the vine. Using these criteria, SGC created a scale out of 20 to assess soils. Only parcels it rates above 17 are eligible for inclusion in its wines – which currently comprise three cuvées, each blended from grapes drawn from several different sites: a Médoc; St-Emilion; and Pomerol (Pauillac, part of the original quartet of releases, is not currently on the menu as the château from which the grapes were sourced has since been sold).
Christiaens is confident of finding new parcels in the near future; he is currently looking in Péssac-Leognan and Margaux. In consultation with châteaux owners, his team (which includes Château Angelus owner Hubert de Boüard, and is led by Alain Raynaud, former President of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux and the consultant behind Pomerol’s La Fleur de Gay and St-Emilion’s Château Quinault L’Enclos), identify specific parcels of interest and analyse soil samples taken from a depth of 2m just after harvest. The process can take up to a year, and analysis is bolstered during the summer months, says Christiaens, by drone footage evaluating the vines’ growth and after harvest by checking the grapes themselves for nitrogen levels and hydric stress.
“This new ranking system means [we can uncover how] a less-esteemed château could have a specific parcel that is better than anything belonging to a more illustrious neighbour,” says Christiaens. Once parcels have been identified within the vineyards of partner châteaux (whose identities are, understandably, a closely guarded secret), the grapes are vinified on site but as distinct, completely separate cuvées.
De Boüard, who joined the team in 2018, is the latest high-profile name attached to SGC, but even before his involvement there has been noteworthy expert endorsement. An early adopter and subsequent partner was the late renowned sommelier Gérard Basset MS, who called Christiaens “a Burgundy guy in Bordeaux” on account of his small-site-specific approach. It was Basset who encouraged Christiaens to organise a blind tasting of SGC wines and five first growths, back in 2013, for a panel including head buyer of Mayfair’s upscale Hedonism Wines, Alistair Viner, and former UK Sommelier of the Year Nicolas Clerc MS of Armit Wines. SGC’s St-Emilion 2006 came out on top, followed by the Médoc 2009. Subsequent blind tastings with Michel Bettane and Jancis Robinson MW proved similarly convincing, with the latter writing, “even this hardened cynic has to admit that they may be on to something”.
When the first commercial cuvées of SGC wines (from the 2009 vintage) appeared on the market at Hedonism and three equally high-end restaurants, each was linked with a famous French chef – hence “Le Secret des Grands Chefs” on the bottle. As SGC evolved away from the culinary association, the acronym has since morphed into Le Secret des Grands Crus, and availability is now moving towards a limited, members-only allocation model.
Christiaens takes inspiration from the rise of the Super-Tuscans in the 1960s and 1970s and the innovations of the Antinori and Incisa della Rocchetta families, with the creation of Solaia and Sassicaia cocking a snook at what he calls the “dusty traditions” of Tuscany. In similar fashion, while SGC may be taking to the barricades, it’s a wealthy revolutionary who joins the cause, with initial membership of its Le Cercle list costing £20,000 for 16 bottles of each of the three cuvées. In addition, those interested in receiving allocations need to invited by an existing member and approved by the SGC Board. Wealth alone is insufficient to guarantee acceptance, with Christiaens insisting that a prospective member “needs to be a drinker, not a speculator, to be a nice person, and to give out good vibes”. So far, 250 individuals have shown sufficient qualities to make the cut: 60% are primarily resident in London, followed by strong representation in Scandinavia and Hong Kong; the US is currently in fourth place, but will “probably be number one by end of the year”.
While members of Le Cercle have previously enjoyed some impressively large-scale events as part of their membership (Christiaens booked out the whole of a Mayfair member’s club for a particularly lavish event in 2019), the focus is now on more intimate gatherings. “We want to arrange elegant, casual lunches and dinners for members who happen to be in town and want to meet up,” says Christiaens.
SGC has remained relatively discreet in its promotion in the seven years since launch due to the “incendiary nature” of the endeavour, claims Christiaens. Now, with its ducks in a row, he says, it is time to spread its wings, and Le Cercle has set a maximum capacity of 1,200 members.
As for the wines, there’s no denying they are impressive. The SGC Médoc 2009 (14%; drink now-2030) shows the warmth and power of the year, with earthy, currant and kirsch aromas and a whiff of chocolatey black truffle, and more cocoa dusting ripe black fruits on the palate, wrapped in large-framed plum skin tannins. This is the members’ favourite cuvée, apparently, and is still sourced from the original five parcels. For the pleasure it provides now, it was my favourite of the three, too.
The SGC St-Emilion 2010 (14.5%; drink 2022-2035) comes from three parcels, high on the Côte, including one rated 20/20 on the SGC terroir scale. It’s quite muted on the nose, where hints of roasted coffee bean, brick dust, dried violets and orange peel give way to red cherries and polished cedar. Focused on the attack, succulent but linear, chalky and herbal, it feels like some mature-vine Cabernet Franc is underpinning the fruit, with savoury acidity carrying the alcohol well.
The SGC Pomerol 2010 (15%; drink now (after a good decant) to 2034+) is also from three parcels) and is conspicuously the richest coloured of the trio. After the reserve of the St-Emilion, this comes out punching. Ristretto, sandalwood, cherry tobacco, tamarind, star anise, rosemary, resin and raisin aromas. Lateral, mouth-coating palate – fig jam, cherry pie and slabs of black chocolate with some vanilla, but a welcome, refreshing note of eucalyptus on the salty liquorice finish.