I’m delighted to say I spent last Monday evening drinking fine Claret with a revolutionary. Not that Arnaud Christiaens, a polished Belgian former hedge fund manager, is your usual rebel. But with his new venture Le Secret des Grands Chefs, he is setting out to turn the accepted order of things in Bordeaux on its head.
For all its glory, Bordeaux is a class-bound, rigid place. There is an almost unbreakable pecking order among the chateaux, based on the prices their wines reached at auction in 1855, no less. If your forebears were lucky enough to get bid-up back then, you own a “first growth” wine such as Latour or Lafite, and you can sell your produce for £500 a bottle and more. But if the bidders were dozing when your lots came up for sale, you may be as little as a “fifth growth”, selling for a twentieth of that amount.
In this world, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The great chateaux have money by the barrel load and can afford the best people, equipment and techniques to make the best wine. But in the fields next door there is equally good terroir that could make great wine with the proper investment. It would take someone with a great deal of brass neck to challenge a set-up that has lasted for almost 160 years.
Enter Arnaud. After a career at Société Générale and a Luxembourg private wealth manager he decided to set up his own alternatives fund in July 2007, just as the financial world was crumbling. He became interested in wine as a business and asset class.
Hedge fund managers are supposed to identify price discrepancies in any market and Arnaud had spotted one of the biggest anywhere – in Bordeaux wine. The question was: how to exploit it? His answer is Le Secret des Grands Chef, and a smart answer it is too. Arnaud has teamed up with Gerard Bassett, the world champion sommelier, and four of the world’s most respected chefs. He has identified four Bordeaux chateaux – exactly the sort of places that missed out in 1855 – and each one has produced a wine for him: a Paulliac, a Pomerol, a St Emilion and a Medoc. Each chef has adopted one (Alain Dutornier, for example, has adopted the St Emilion). Arnaud has worked to transform their wine from the ordinary to the special, investing in their production and allowing them to cut output. Like a hedge fund manager, he has done a lot of research into his investment.
Add some intelligent marketing showmanship (the wine comes in engraved bottles with wax closures and embedded identification microchips) and – ta-da – a new great label is born, with prices to match. The wine is now on sale at Hedonism, the wondrous wine emporium in Mayfair, with prices that range between £207.80 per bottle for the Medoc to £291 for the Paulliac. This may sound expensive, but it is only around a third of what a first growth now sells for.
And what of the wines? There is no doubt they are impressive. The Medoc was particularly fine at our tasting, with plenty of power and body already for a 2009. The Paulliac was a little disappointing – it certainly had the minerality but not the depth I had been expecting, although we were drinking it cold and the bottle had been open for some time. Are they great? Only time will tell.
I have no doubt they will do well. Arnaud has launched them with panache and deserves to be rewarded for his hard work, creativity and daring. The new connoisseurs in China and Russia will love the concept I suspect – they will instinctively support anyone who challenges the accepted order of things.
To the barricades, Cheval Blanc and Petrus. Ce n’est pas une revolte, c’est une revolution.