A shorter version of this article about a leading figure in the Bordeaux wine trade is published by the Financial Times.
The Bordeaux wine trade is exceedingly tight-knit. Those who run the big trading houses, the négociants, tend to be nth generation wine merchants, dealing with members of other long-standing families who either own châteaux or represent other links in the long commercial chain that delivers the wines of Bordeaux to their eventual consumers, or, frequently, investors. There are, for instance, the nicely named courtiers whose job it is to advise château owners on how to price each vintage's wines and to whom to offer them. One of these, Tastet & Lawton, has records of the precise details of each growing season in the region going back more than 250 years.
Most of the négociants happily court the media. Some of them even offer special tailor-made tastings to journalists during the all-important primeurs season when the latest vintage is assessed, scored and then put on the market. But one of them has always fascinated me for his combination of power, reputation and almost obsessive discretion. I once saw Jean-François Moueix across a crowded room at his usual table at Tupina, the insider's restaurant in Bordeaux. I was once briefly in the same room at his son and heir-apparent Jean Moueix, that room being the tasting chamber at Petrus, the near-mythical Pomerol estate whose wines command the highest prices of all Bordeaux wines.
It was arguably inheriting Petrus on the death of his illustrious wine merchant and art collector father Jean-Pierre Moueix, and taking over management of it from his congenitally charming younger brother Christian, that inevitably brought Jean-François very, very slightly out into the limelight. (Practically the only communication I ever received from the J-F branch of the family was the instruction then that the wine henceforth be known as Petrus, rather than Château Pétrus, as many used to write it. Christian and his son Edouard Moueix continue to put an accent on their property Château La Fleur-Pétrus.)
But selling Petrus is the commercial equivalent of falling off a log. It is Jean-François' unparalleled ability to spin top-quality Bordeaux into gold as a négociant that has won him admiration and envy among his peers. He owns Duclot, a particularly high-end merchant business that sells to wine importers around the world, smart restaurants in France and the US, and direct to consumers online and via their own wine shops in Bordeaux, Paris and Brussels.
Jean-François Moueix also has minority shares in the super-smart Châteaux Montrose and Calon Ségur, and in Maison Descaves, a négociant with unparalleled stocks of ancient vintages built up by the indomitable Madame Jeanne Descaves, until Champagne Louis Roederer, also owners of several Bordeaux châteaux, took over majority ownership of Descaves in 2014.
Very much in the spirit of Madame D, Descaves was run by two more women after her demise in 1999. Marie-France Chauvin was succeeded by Ariane Khaida, who in 2014 was moved to the important position of running Duclot for the Moueix father and son.
A refreshingly communicative 43-year-old Champenoise, daughter of a surgeon, she professes herself delighted to be working for two such different but complementary generations of Moueixes. Jean-François provides the specialist expertise, fully conversant with every nuance of the Bordeaux wine business, with his long-haired, jeans-wearing son Jean, still only 32, providing a more lateral, global vision. It was him who, for instance, ensured that the company moved into combating Bordeaux's stuffy image by courting trend-conscious sommeliers directly via La Vinicole studios in Paris, New York and, more recently, Los Angeles. He told an interviewer for Les Echos that he had tried finance but dismissed it as not 'cool'. Since then he has been busy launching various spirits and hospitality ventures.
Presumably Jean was closely involved with the surprising recent decision to sell 20% of Petrus, the crown jewel of the family holding company Videlot, to the Santo Domingo family, a substantial shareholder in AB InBev, the world's largest brewer. The Moueixes hinted to their importers that this was a prelude to 'investments in other vineyards in Europe' although none has so far been announced.
Just before Christmas I met up with Ariane Khaida in Duclot's new offices beside Bordeaux's cathedral. Visitors are entertained in a room that would not look out of place in Architecture Today on a roof terrace with a narrow pool overlooked by the spires. While waiting for her I took this picture in their reception. Guggenheim, or what?
Khaida (once holder of a pilot's licence) worked for LVMH for four years, two of them as the buyer of Louis Vuitton leathers, selecting the skins all over the world. Now rather less peripatetic, with a husband outside the wine business, she insisted over green tea that Bordeaux's négociants (of which there now is a total of 2,000, although only a dozen or so are really powerful) have become infinitely more professional since she arrived in Bordeaux in 2002, and talks of a revolution in how the wines, which she described as brands, unthinkable a decade or two ago, are positioned and sold. Traceability and forklift trucks are the order of the day today, sprawling temperature-controlled warehouses on the fringes of the city have replaced the atmospheric cellars on the quayside. Khaida confessed in an interview last year with Jane Anson for Decanter.com that the Bordelais have learnt considerably from the fastidious distribution and brand-building practices of the few top non-Bordeaux now offered on the Bordeaux Place (see Bordeaux compared with the world outside).
The Bordeaux wine trade was notable for its naked scramble for Asian business at the turn of the century, as was the British fine-wine trade, virtually all of them setting up offices in Hong Kong, the hugely important Asian wine hub. Duclot moved into Hong Kong only 18 months ago, selling exclusively Bordeaux wine to the usual Chinese market and supplying Japan from there too. 'When Chinese demand peaked between 2010 and 2012 we were busy setting up in New York', is Khaida's explanation for their late entry.
She is clearly frustrated by the volatility of the Chinese market, which had recovered from the slump six years ago in response to President Xi's ban on excessive gifting, and broadened in terms of the range of wines demanded. But last summer Chinese demand cooled and has been pretty frigid since September.
The fine-wine trade is a bit like the antiques business with lots of broking between traders but Duclot are playing the fashionable provenance card hard. Any whiff of fake wine plays into the hands of a wine merchant who can prove their stock comes straight from the château. 'We buy very little from the secondary market', claims Khaida, 'and if we do, it's marked on the invoice.'
Duclot's speciality may be the Bordeaux wine elite, the grands crus classés, and Khaida is clearly proud that they don't sully their hands by dealing with the supermarkets, but even they cannot afford to ignore the value currently on offer lower down the ranks. (Bordeaux wine today ranges from the worst value in the world at the top of the tree to the best at the bottom, in my view. See some recommended bargains below.) Khaida reports that they are developing a range of petits châteaux ('although we don't like the name') to answer demand from their clients. They have a buyer who specialises in such wines, which have to be approved by an in-house tasting committee, and also have someone in charge of writing tasting notes on them.
For many years the bread and butter of any Bordeaux négociant was the en primeur offer every spring but demand for such embryonic wines has slowed to such an extent that en primeur sales may represent just 30% of the firm's total turnover some years, according to Khaida, depending on the quality of the vintage, that year's pricing and the state of the world economy. It is typical of the Bordelais way of doing business that Duclot has no contracts with any of the château owners on whom their business depends.
The strength of Bordeaux is its historic relationships, according to Khaida. 'Relationships between the important families give the stability of the system.' But she admits that it would be very difficult to refuse or reduce an allocation of wine from a particular château, no matter how disappointing the quality and how difficult to sell.
One big difference today is that the en primeur market is no longer ruled by the scores of a single critic, as it was when the American Robert Parker virtually dictated the market single handed. (He has since retired.) Khaida admits that trading without this crutch is 'more difficult but more interesting. Now properties can talk about much more than a score. They have the right to defend the wines they like.' Amen to that.
Some Bordeaux bargains
These, listed in ascending price order, are all wines I have tasted in the last few months that I thought were particularly good value. Note the very varied ages of the wines.
Ch Argadens 2015 Bordeaux Supérieur (a wine of the week)
£11.50 Davy's Wine Merchants
Ch Cabos 2015 Bordeaux
£11.50 Lea & Sandeman
Ch Poitevin 2012 Médoc
£17.95 Lea & Sandeman
Ch Fontesteau 2000 Haut-Médoc
£19 The Wine Society
Ch Les Hauts-Conseillants 2012 Lalande de Pomerol
£21.95 Davy's Wine Merchants
For tasting notes see our tasting notes database, and for other stockists see Wine-Searcher.com.