Interview with Charlie Sichel of Maison Sichel
Joanna Locke MW with Charlie Sichel
The history of Bordeaux négociant Maison Sichel is, in many ways, that of the Bordeaux wine trade, and it's a fascinating one. Surprisingly, in view of The Wine Society's long relationship with this key supplier, we haven't really done it justice in terms of editorial coverage.
NEWS Editor Joanna Goodman decided it was high time to put things right, and a recent meeting with Charlie Sichel proved the perfect opportunity.
An English family deeply rooted in the traditions of a great French region
We are not quite sure just exactly how long we have been shipping wines from Maison Sichel, but when Charlie Sichel, one of the five brothers now running the business visited our Stevenage office earlier this year, we established that we were already working together when he first started working for the family business 30 years ago. Looking back through our records we then discovered that this year marks the 25th anniversary of our first shipment of The Society's Claret, consistently one of members' favourite wines. This prompted Charlie to reveal an idea he had had for a Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory-style 'winning cork' competition to celebrate such a mile stone.
Key players with a long tradition
Members familiar with the Sichels will know that they have English roots and as well as trading in Bordeaux wines, are châteaux owners - classed-growths Angludet (the family home) and Palmer (where they are part-owners) regularly feature in our en-primeur offers; they also bought Château Argadens in the south of the Bordeaux region in 2002 and Château Trillol in the heart of Cathar country in the Languedoc in 1990. Importantly, they are the only one to own a winery. They also have a bottling plant and storage facility for their grand cru wines.
Perhaps what is less well-known is just how long Maison Sichel has been established. It began in 1883 as an acquisitions office in Bordeaux, originally to procure wines for the various branches of the wider Sichel family, and their respective companies in Mainz, London and New York.
Maison Sichel was established in 1883 but operated out of London until 1961 when Charlie's parents Peter and Diana decided to move to Bordeaux, renovating a dilapidated Château Angludet, which has remained the family home ever since.
The role of the négociants
The structure of the trade in Bordeaux is unusual in that in the past, wealthy château owners, often members of the aristocracy, employed vineyard workers to make wine on their estates and didn't sully their hands by becoming involved in the selling of it. All wine was sold to merchants (négociants) who then traded with importers and distributors and managed stock levels. It was these négociants who opened up the markets, bringing prosperity to the region. Many of them, like Sichel, were owned by foreigners. During hard times, when château proprietors were short of money (these being expensive properties to maintain), it was often to the merchants that they turned for finance. Powerful négociants assumed the role almost of unofficial banks for some of the châteaux.
Another important role of the négociant was to guarantee the source of the wine for their customers, often buying, blending, bottling, labelling and shipping the wines themselves. This would sometimes involve blending wines to the clients' tastes, even making an assemblage from different properties.
But what of their role today?
By way of an explanation, Charlie provided some context: 'Bordeaux has 120,000 ha of vines; there are more than 7,000 producers…some 800 million bottles of wine are produced every year; 60% is sold in France, 40% in the rest of the world. So you can see that although France is still thirsty, we still need to sell a lot of wine! How do we do that? Well, through a network of 200 courtiers (brokers, who act as a sort of go-between between château and négociant) and 400 négociants. Of these 400, 30 account for 85% of the volume. Maison Sichel,' Charlie proudly tells me, 'ranks in the top 12 of this top 30.'
The transition of Maison Sichel from merchant to grower
In 1938, taking the important step from négociant to producer, Allan Sichel, Charlie's grandfather, bought third-growth Margaux Château Palmer. 'My grandfather felt that the future for négociants was to control the source of the wines, and better still to own it.' A brave step forward for the family, but ever the pragmatist, Charlie's grandfather didn't buy a 100% share in Palmer, preferring to spread the risk with a group of like-minded négociant friends, a situation that continues to this day.
Charlie's grandfather, Allan Sichel, bought Château Palmer along with a group of like-minded négociant friends in 1938. The négociants wanted to have more control over the source of their wine.
The existing team at Palmer taught the family a lot about winemaking but the next project was to prove a steep learning curve. Allan Sichel had continued to work out of London, travelling out to France when required. Charlie's parents Peter and Diana decided that they should relocate to France so that they could keep a closer eye on things. They had started to look out for somewhere to live and one afternoon walked across the fields to view Château Angludet - a property in ruins. 'The building was in a terrible state; the ceilings had fallen in and there were only four hectares of vines remaining, the great frost of 1956 having killed off the previous owner's attempts at replanting.' But Charlie's parents could see the potential. 'Just one look at the neighbours - Château du Tertre, Brane-Cantenac and Giscours - was proof enough that this was a great terroir and my parents undertook a massive renovation programme to restore the property to its former glory.'
The building was in a terrible state; the ceilings had fallen in and there were only four hectares of vines remaining, the great frost of 1956 having killed off the previous owner's attempts at replanting.
The essence of terroir
Peter and Diana brought up their six children (five boys and one girl) at the château and it is still the family home, owned 100% by the brothers. All five boys are involved in the business with Charlie's brother Ben responsible for the winemaking at Angludet. The property now has 35 hectares planted with 55% cabernet sauvignon, 35% merlot and 10% petit verdot, the latter always forming an important 10-12% of the blend since Ben took over in 1989.
Charlie said that is wasn't until the 1970s that they started to produce good wines at Angludet, 'as the vines age, they give more solid power; more mature vines give grapes that are balanced and grapes that are balanced will give wines that are balanced and that will evolve better,' Charlie informs me, and, 'while weather conditions dictate the style of a wine, its essence comes from the terroir; quality comes from the winemaker.'
The creation of the Bel Air winery
The next big project for Charlie's parents was the construction of the Bel Air winery in 1967. Taking a leaf out of the champenois book, they decided that they would make wine from grapes bought-in from 50 or so carefully selected grape growers. This enabled them to control the style of wine made, giving them greater flexibility to fulfil the requirements of different clients. 'We are the only négociants in Bordeaux to have a winery Charlie says, 'and importantly, we work with our growers year-round not just at harvest time to make sure that we have the best quality grapes for our wines.'
'We are the only négociants in Bordeaux to have a winery Charlie says, 'and importantly, we work with our growers year-round not just at harvest time to make sure that we have the best quality grapes for our wines.'
The making of The Society's Claret
It's at the Bel Air winery that our Society's Claret is made. Such is their knowledge of the style of the wine that they produce for us and the growers from whom they source the grapes that Charlie tells me, 'some years we know which plots from which vineyards will go into your house claret even before the grapes are harvested.'
'Some years we know which plots from which vineyards will go into your house claret even before the grapes are harvested.'
How do they go about blending the wine and has the style evolved over the years, I wonder. 'Every January The Society's buyers, Joanna Locke MW and Tim Sykes, visit us to put the blend together. We start by having the current blend for reference; there are discussions about taste profile…should it be a bit more modern…more classic…should it be a vintage wine? It's always a merlot-dominated blend - usually about 60% merlot to 40% cabernet sauvignon and we usually spend three to four hours tasting and re-tasting the pre-selected wines that the technical team have put together for us. It's rarely a question of shall we include more cabernet or more merlot but more usually it comes down to the inclusion of tiny proportions of wines from different plots which can make a dramatic difference and really lift the final blend.'
Society buyer Joanna Locke MW blending The Society's Claret with Sichel's technical director Yvan Meyer in Bordeaux.
As for changes in taste over the years, Charlie says that after working with us for so long they have a good understanding of what it is that our members are looking for in an everyday claret. As for changes in taste, Charlie believes that improved viticulture means that winemakers get to use better raw materials and that improvements in winemaking mean that better wines are being made. 'Peoples' tastes have evolved with this, they demand more and are a lot more unforgiving, which is how it should be. There is really no excuse for making bad wines even in challenging vintages,' Charlie believes.
Argadens: a strategic move towards improving quality
This constant striving to improve quality was part of the rationale behind the acquisition of Château Argadens in the Entre-Deux-Mers in 2002. 'We wanted to buy another property but couldn't have afforded one in the more famous Bordeaux communes and Argadens is very close to our Bel Air winery and to the growers we work with; it has a great terroir, it's opposite Sauternes in the southern tip of the Bordeaux region with the vineyards all planted on top of a hill.' Charlie explained that they wanted to encourage their grape growers to take a few steps further on from sustainable farming, which he believes should be the absolute minimum. 'In France everyone thinks they know better, things have to be softly suggested and people gently persuaded and we felt we had to demonstrate the benefits. This is where Argadens has a key role to play. Our team of winemakers use it as an experimental vineyard to produce the best quality of grapes…we've taken organic farming one step further, not as a selling point but because we believe it makes sense to work with nature as much as possible; some were dubious at first but the results were hard to argue with and the project has really paid off.'
The Sichels acquired Château Argadens in the Entre-Deux-Mers in 2002, a strategic move which has improved quality across the board.
Winning ways and wines
The 'experimental vineyard' has proved to be far more than just that, with the wines receiving critical acclaim from their first release. Only two hectares are white, but we have chosen to list the Argadens Blanc as an excellent example of its type, demonstrating that characteristic balance between freshness and fruit combined with appetising savoury notes that define good Bordeaux Blanc - a style of wine that deserves to have more followers, we believe.
A family affair
With five brothers involved in the company I wondered how they had determined who was going to do what. Despite not being the oldest of the brothers, Charlie says that he was the first to join the business. 'As a teenager and young man I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my life but I spent six months in the US travelling and working and then after doing my military service back home in Bordeaux I went to work in the UK at our London office. I discovered that I really enjoyed this side of the business and recognised what a civilised industry it is to work in.' Charlie's twin brother James joined the family business shortly after him.
'As a child, more than any of us, Ben was fascinated by the winemaking process and would often be found in the cellars or vineyards. Now he is a trained oenologist and makes the wine almost single-handedly, disappearing for days on end in the winery!'
Charlie says that all the brothers knew that Ben was destined to be a winemaker and a great one at that, 'as a child, more than any of us, Ben was fascinated by the winemaking process and would often be found in the cellars or vineyards. Now he is a trained oenologist and makes the wine almost single-handedly, disappearing for days on end in the winery!'
The eldest of the brothers, Allan is managing director, taking over from father Peter after his sudden death from a heart attack in 1998. Charlie, Jamie and David share the world-wide export markets between them and now Allan's sons Max and Alexander have joined the sales teams, representing the seventh generation of the Sichel family, and, notably, the first with French blood!
The Sichel brothers, left to right, James, Ben, David, Charlie and Allan (seated).
The future is bright
You get the sense that, in common with other successful family businesses, the desire to keep improving and experimenting is what sets the Sichels apart and keeps them at the top of their game. Charlie and his family are also among some of the nicest people you'd care to meet in the wine trade, or any other trade, for that matter and, in a business that relies so heavily on the ability to forge ties and build lasting relationships, the importance of this quality cannot be understated.
Charlie Sichel at The Wine Society