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Insured success?

by Tom Cannavan, 05/09

I was recently invited to a dinner in the atmospheric old wine cellar beneath The Don restaurant in the City of London. The dinner was being hosted by excellent merchant Seckford Wines, and by Aymeric de Gironde, Commercial Director of AXA Millésimes, the arm of the AXA insurance group that has invested in a portfolio of the world's leading wine estates.

My faux-pas of the evening was asking Aymeric (right) if his family was from the Bordeaux region, and whether the family took its name from the famous Gironde river that flows through it. "Actually," replied Aymeric with the relaxed charm of the aristocracy, "the river was named after my family."

Why global insurance giant AXA should have become one of the world's most prestigious and powerful wine companies is an interesting question. Clearly there is money to be made in wine at this level of operation, but it seems that wine must be in the blood of at least some of AXA's French-based board. Aymeric explained that he is in the luxurious position of his bosses telling him he needn't make huge profits with any of the estates, "as long as I don't make a loss!" he adds quickly.
  


   AXA's portfolio is indeed impressive, including Quinta do Noval in the Douro (left), Disznokö in Tokaji, Domaine de l'Arlot in Burgundy and a clutch of Bordeaux properties including three that would be tasted at dinner: Suduiraut of Sauternes, Pichon-Longueville- Baron of Pauillac and Petit Village of Pomerol. The man in charge of AXA Millésimes is Englishman Christian Seely who took over from Jean-Michel Cazes (owner of Château Lynch-Bages and Les Ormes-de-Pez) in 2000, after several years in charge at Quinta do Noval, an underperforming shipper than he transformed into one of Portugal's most successful and iconic brands.

AXA clearly doesn't regard its wine business as peripheral, investing heavily in measures to improve quality across the portfolio. A second barrel cellar was recently built at Pichon-Baron to allow maturation of two separate vintages with no pressure on space or barrels, at Disznokö the winery has been extended
by 25 percent an extra 50 acres of vineyard have been planted, and there has been massive investment at Petit-Village in Pomerol, including new vineyards and new cellars.

the wines

This was a great evening, the wines matched well to quite traditional comfort food starting with smoked salmon, moving on to lamb and then onto cheese and treacle tart. For me, the surprise of the evening was that the youngest vintage of Pichon-Baron on show was the most enjoyable - the 2004. I am certain the 2000 and 1996 are great wines, and are perhaps in a 'closed' phase at this point, but the 2004 was surprisingly open and enjoyable, as well as having real structure and class.

Château Suduiraut, S de Suduiraut Blanc, Sauternes 2006
Picked in several tries just like the sweet Sauternes, Suiduraut's dry white is made from Sauvignon Blanc with a little Semillon, and this is only the thrid vintage of the wine. It has a beautifully delineated nose with creamy, very fine oak that is gently toasty with crushed almond and cashew notes over clean, crisp, minerals and white fruit. Lovely, fat lemony fruit but stays wonderfully precise and focused. 91/100. No known UK stockists of this wine.

Château Pichon-Baron, Pauillac 2004
Extremely deep, solid crimson/black. Wonderfully deep and sinewy nose with muscular black fruit and a little earthy character. Remarkably approachable already, with freshening cherry fruit and acidity, spices and cedary wood giving a drying, spicy finish. This may not have the fruit for 50 years, but is already delicious and will drink for 15 or 20. 94/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Château Pichon-Baron, Pauillac 2000
Coffee and spice, and a tight mineral quality, lots of tight black fruit beneath. Coffee and ery tight, svelte fruit on the palate too. There is a juicy crunch to the fruit on this, but it is very tight, sinewy and I think still needs considerable time. 93/100, potentially more. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Château Pichon-Baron, Pauillac 1996
This is the most closed vintage of the night. Liquorice and coffee with plenty of cedar and edgy, tight and focused black fruit. Powerful, earthy palate, with fantastic structure: Bold and very firm and tight on the palate too, it has lovely length and balance. A wine that has still to reach its prime. 93/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Château Pichon-Baron, Pauillac 1989
Potentially the highest-rated Pichon of the night, this wine was also extremely closed and really quite difficult to assess. It is certainly a bit impenetrable right now, with meaty, solid aromas of plummy fruit and cedar, and a fairly muscular and chewy palate. Tannins are moderate, but I found a thickness and a leathery opaqueness to this that makes it slightly less charming than it might be, and difficult to predict in terms of evolution. An authentic Pauillac, but a fairly tough drink right now. 91/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Château Petit Village, Pomerol 1995
Big, seductive, coffee and dark bramble fruit that's typically Pomerol. Big and velvety on the palate too, though the tight, racy acidity and very firm structure comes through, adding an angular character on the finish that some might say detracts, but I found it kept this this fresh and vital. A lovely wine. 90/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Château Suduiraut, Sauternes 1989
Pouring a burnished gold - a little darker than I'd have predicted, even for a 20-year-old wine - this has a fine, inviting nose where caramel and barley sugar aromas suggest good Botrytis, and a marmalade orange background suggests the fruit is still there. On the palate it is rich and lush, with a good backbone of fresh, lemony acidity keeping the picture sharp. Not a fantastically long and profound Suduiraut, but hugely enjoyable and quite delicious. 91/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.