The future of the family-run wine business is in young hands


- Credit: Archant

Commercial, industrial, investment-oriented? Or artisan, small-scale, family-centred? Which is the future of wine-making?

Commercial, industrial, investment-oriented? Or artisan, small-scale, family-centred? Which is the future of wine-making?

Anyone reading the trade press will realise how important that first trio has become, not least with the oriental enthusiasm for buying wine estates – remarkably, more than 100 Bordeaux châteaux now have Chinese owners.

Talk, though, to the people whose wines I personally like to drink, and opinions vary on whether this is a threat.

That’s true in the Loire Valley, where I’ve just spent 10 happy wine-exploring days. Courtier Charles Sydney, whose intermediary activity ensures many excellent bottles reach UK drinkers, dismisses any suggestion that investors are taking over.

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But Claude Papin, head of the growers of Quarts de Chaume, the valley’s only grand cru, is seriously concerned, both for the Loire and on a wider French scale.

He instances an alarming drop in the number of family-run domains over the past two decades, the ability of large-scale enterprises to sell wines at prices below survival level for small growers, the loss of tradition, individuality, the human element.

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Happily, investment speculators aren’t likely to get anywhere near his deservedly acclaimed Château Pierre-Bise estate, for that is already in the hands of the next Papin generation.

And with 19 grandchildren, the family wine future looks assured.

The Papins apart, my destinations included two more family estates, again individual, committed growers – they, and so many more like them, are people to cherish.

The Lebretons settled south of Angers as part of the historic Breton quarrying community, but they’ve been involved in wine for five generations now.

Careful vine location on the varied, mostly schist-based soils of their Domaine des Rochelles reflects in fine results – for example, Croix de la Mission exploits a cabernet sauvignon-friendly spot in what is generally cabernet franc land.

Jean-Yves is another father who has largely stepped back to let his son, Jean-Hubert, take control and turn the estate organic.

Jean-Yves celebrates the family continuity, but “each generation is different, each progresses: that is what is special”.

Across the local geological border, where metamorphic rock of the Amorican Massif gives way to Paris Basin limestone, Jérôme Billard’s silky, elegant Chinon reds are the epitome of cabernet franc from vines rooted in the building material of the Loire châteaux. He makes fine dry whites too, from chenin blanc.

Today’s Domaine de la Noblaie organically-grown wines are very much Billiard’s babies, on a carefully-tended estate greatly expanded from the heritage of his grandfather’s tiny vineyard area.

The next generation is there, but as yet far too young to think of careers in wine.

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