Bordeaux: A Family Affair
What does it mean to own some of the oldest and most important wine estates in the world? A look at the past, present and future, the pride and passion of the caretakers of the great chateaus.
Philippe Castéja, president of Borie-Manoux, the wine merchant house, sits behind a leather-covered desk in his office in Bordeaux. On the walls are photographs of his Borie ancestors dating back to the 19th century; a marble clock is mounted over the fireplace behind the desk and wine books are displayed in a glass-fronted bookcase. In the cellars next door, wines from all over Bordeaux are stored, ready for dispatch around the world. This old family desk has seen the wines come and go for over 100 years.
This scene, with its sense of history, encapsulates many themes that run through any story about the Bordeaux wine families. There is the feeling of continuity, the imperative to think long-term about the business of wine. While in conversation, family members do not let you forget that the roots of the Bordeaux wine business are in the vines—the magnates of Bordeaux cannot forget their responsibility to the growers, the owners of a few acres of vines who produce the vast bulk of wine in Bordeaux.
Despite the arrival of insurance companies and institutional shareholders, Bordeaux wine remains a family affair. A network of often interrelated families controls many of the greatest chateaus. Families, often the same families, control much of the distribution of these wines through the Bordeaux wine market. These are people who hold both the past and the future of Bordeaux in their hands. They are the human faces behind the bottles. Here is what makes them tick.
The Sense of Family
“This is a family property,” says Henri Lurton, owner of Château Brane-Cantenac in Margaux. “I have the chance to watch the wine and the vineyards over many years. And I can then pass it on to the next generation. They can learn from me, as I learned from my father.”
Like his brother, Gonzague, almost next door in Château Durfort-Vivens, Henri Lurton’s ownership came from their father, Lucien. In 1992, Lucien decided to pass on his château properties—all 12 of them—to his children. It was a very familial occasion, which Gonzague describes:
“When my father decided to divide up the properties, he asked us to draw up a list of preferences. I wrote down that I wanted Durfort-Vivens, or I would leave wine altogether. I got Durfort-Vivens. It was the potential that attracted me, the chance to bring a property back to life over many decades.”
While all the Lurton chateaus on the Lucien Lurton side of the family are run independently, this is still a family business. On his desk, Gonzague Lurton has a photograph of all the family members including the patriarchs, Lucien and his brother André, owner of Château Bonnet and seven other chateaus, many in Pessac-Léognan.
The Merlaut family, too, with its eight chateaus and large négociant business, has divided up the chateaus. Yet Antoine Merlaut and his niece, Claire Villars-Lurton, emphasizethe personal connection that sets this business apart. “We have the same philosophy as a family, we consult all the time and we have confidence in each other,” Antoine says.
Villars-Lurton (who is married to Gonzague Lurton) recalls her grandfather, Jacques Merlaut: “Every Friday, I went to his house and he taught me everything about the wine market. He used to say there are three ways to lose money. One is to have a mistress. Two is to spend too much time in the casino. Three is to buy chateaus in Bordeaux. He chose the third.”
Clarence Dillon, an American financier, bought Château Haut-Brion in 1935. “But it was never a business investment,” says Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the current managing director. “My great-grandfather was passionate about France and about Bordeaux. The Domaine Clarence Dillon has been a major part of our family history since then. The two—family and estate—are so intertwined.”
This is the sense of family. And with it comes the sense of continuity in the vines and in the wines.
Family names: Borie, Castéja
Prominent brands: Château Batailley, Château Lynch-Moussas, Château Trottevieille, Beau Rivage
When the company was started: 1870
By whom: Eugène Borie
What is owned: Six chateaus in Bordeaux, Borie-Manoux négociant company
Family name: Merlaut
Prominent brands: Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Haut-Bages Libéral, Château Gruaud-Larose, Château Citran
When the company was started: 1960
By whom: Jacques Merlaut
What is owned: Groupe Taillan, owns eight chateaus in Bordeaux, wine merchant Ginestet, companies in the Rhône and Loire.
Family name: Dillon
Prominent brands: Château Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Clarendelle
When the company was started: Domaine Clarence Dillon started in 1935
By whom: Clarence Dillon
What is owned: Three chateaus in Bordeaux, Clarendelle brand
Family name: Lurton
Prominent brands: Château Bonnet, Château Brane-Cantenac, Château Durfort-Vivens, Château Climens
When the company was started: 1897
By whom: Léonce Récapet
What is owned: Around 30 chateaus in Bordeaux, property in Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Argentina, Chile
Family name: Moueix
Prominent brands: Château Pétrus, Château Magdelaine, Château Belair-Monange, Château Trotanoy, Château La Fleur Pétrus
When the company was started: 1937
By whom: Jean-Pierre Moueix
What is owned: 12 chateaus in Bordeux, Dominus in California, Christian Moueix brand
Vine and Wine for the Long Term
When Gonzague Lurton says: “I seek something unique in my wine, it’s an expression of terroir, yes, but it’s also the way I approach the terroir.” Or when Philippe Castéja remarks: “I was brought up in the country. I used to spend six months a year in Pauillac. I learned all the work of the vines, all the jobs of a vineyard worker.” Both are expressing what all family members say: Their life is their land.
Edouard Moueix, co-owner of Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix in Libourne, explains why he and his father, Christian (the company president) are committed to the Right Bank regions of St.-Émilion and Pomerol. “We live here, we have a relationship with the people. When somebody sells land, it’s an advantage to be local.”
Moueix recalls his family buying Château Belair in 2008. “When we bought Château Belair [since renamed Château Belair-Monange], we had never really been inside the château itself,” he says. “But already we had checked every inch of the vineyard, almost touched every vine. The vines are the essence of our business.”
These families remain close to their vines, even though they may travel the world representing the family and its wines and may wear suits and ties in their offices. “You find surprising things as you watch the vines age,” says Henri Lurton, whose passion for his vineyard at Brane-Cantenac is evident. Instead of following the commercial route of replanting, “I can ask myself, can I afford to keep these magnificent old vines for another year?”
“We have the time and the ability to think about the environment because it is our environment,” says Merlaut. “We are the guardians.”
One example is the recent decision to reinforce the quarries under some of the Moueix properties in St.-Émilion. “St.-Émilion is like a Swiss cheese without much cheese,” explains Moueix. “It is riddled with quarries. [We had] a choice between a system that lasts 50 years and one that lasts forever. We chose the one that lasts forever, even though it is 10 times more expensive.”
Long-term thinking is intrinsic to the Dillon family’s approach as well. “It took us 20 years to see the results of our work at Château La Mission Haut-Brion,” explains Prince Robert. “Only now, we are 25–30 years into our ownership, can we really see the quality that we can do great things with.”
Chateaus are the Bordeaux equivalent of brands. And it takes many years to build up a brand. Claire Villars-Lurton has worked hard to create the brand image of Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac. The Moueix family worked for decades to bring Château Pétrus to its current preeminence. But marketing is the last part of this process. The vineyards and the cellars have to be kept up to date, the wine has to be at the top of its game.
Being close to the land over generations also brings with it a responsibility to people. Even though they may own major chateaus that are riding high at the moment, family members are well aware of what is happening in the rest of Bordeaux. Some, such as Moueix and Castéja’s Borie-Manoux, buy wine for blending into their own brands from cooperatives and individual vineyard owners.
“I know the people we buy wine from,” says Moueix, referring to his frequent drives around the Right Bank. “I can shake their hands. Somebody who sells his wine to us, this is his baby, and he wants to make sure his baby is in good hands. So we have an important social role.”
Like most wine merchants, the Moueix buy from the same chateaus and vineyards over many years, in good times and in bad, in good vintages and in not-so-good vintages.
“For me there is a big problem at the moment in Bordeaux,” says Merlaut. “Bordeaux is very successful with the top wines, but very unsuccessful with the rest. I am upset about it. The classed growths [used to have] a job as a locomotive for the rest of Bordeaux, and it doesn’t work any more.”
Castéja agrees. “It is a real crisis,” he says.
Keeping everything in historical perspective is important for these Bordeaux families. It is why Castéja has photos and yellowed documents of his family history and pictures of his family chateaus in his Bordeaux office. It is why the Lurtons have created a Web site to explain the links within their complex family.
It is why Prince Robert is creating a library and archives, due to open later this year at Haut-Brion. The vineyards have been planted for 2,000 years “and we are the second-longest owners since it was first recorded in the 16th century,” he says. They have archives of the chateau and of the family as well as a collection of over 1,000 wine and food books. “Last year, in New Jersey, I was able to find letters written to my great-grandfather during World War II about what was happening at Haut-Brion,” he says. “Now they can be preserved at the chateau.”
The sense of ownership and of guardianship is something intrinsic to these families. It’s why they record their perhaps-temporary ownership in the long-term history of the land and the chateaus. It’s why they remain at the heart of Bordeaux.
“It is important to communicate our passion about the estate to the next generation,” says Prince Robert. “Our family’s passion is formed around an exceptionally historic jewel. We need to preserve that.”