In between writing up her tasting notes for Bordeaux’ 2019 En Primeurs (‘Gorgeous wines’), Fiona Morrison has had a busy week spreading the news about the latest version of 10 Great Wine Families – A Tour Through Europe. Her book, now boasting a smart new cover for its latest print run, was the hot topic at two webinars. First, for the Institute of Masters of Wine, Fiona hosted a Zoom conversation with members of seven out of the 10 families featured in the book. She then teamed up with the wine club 67 Pall Mall for a Q&A chat with Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn, who was keen to find out how Fiona chose the 10…
‘They are good friends. I felt I could really delve deep with them. I wanted to really get behind a lot of the tensions and challenges – whether it was their carbon footprint, climate change, or inheritance taxes – I wanted to really write a story from the inside. I had to expose their souls a bit because that’s what you guys want to read!’
For anyone (like Ronan) thinking marriage to Jacques Thienpont, creator of Pomerol treasure ‘Le Pin’ and head of one of the 10 families, must have made Fiona’s job easy, Fiona set the record straight: ‘Thienpont was one of the hardest chapters to write! Jacques and I know that we are very lucky. Very lucky indeed. But when you have wines that sell for high prices, there’s a lot of tension that builds up in the family. For Vieux Château Certan, our sister château, we have 130 shareholders: that’s a lot of dividends to hand out, and a lot of pressure.’
So it isn’t just Burgundy, with its tiny fractured vineyard plots, where inheritance laws create a problem? ‘Napoleon had a lot to answer for,’ explained Fiona: ‘It’s often easier for wine families to sell up than it is for them to divide their business among their children. Most families don’t survive beyond the third generation. But what’s interesting about those in this book is that they all have. The Perrins and the Müllers go back five generations and the Frescobaldis are now in their 30th! Their records stretch back to the 9th century – they even have banking documents that show the money they lent to Henry VIII for his first divorce, from Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell (you’ll know him if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy) cut his teeth working for the Frescobaldis.’
So what’s the key to survival? ‘It’s all in the book! It’s important for each member and each generation to know that it’s not just about money. My best conversations were in the vineyards. The success of the families I spent time with is down to hard work. They really work. And they love what they do.’
Fiona explains that we need look no further than the Torres family for evidence. ‘When Miguel Torres saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth it really changed everything. From that moment on his aim was to cut back on the damage, to be carbon neutral, and they’ve been really successful in this. I really respect what he and his children, Mireia and Miguel Jr, are doing with ancestral varieties, too. They went into the foothills and put up advertisements asking farmers to get in touch about the wild grapes they knew. They made a collection, tested and tested them, and have come up with new varieties – Forcada is one, Garro another – that ripen later, at higher altitude and have the potential to resist climate change.
Of course, Ronan was keen to talk about the wines. The concentrated tautness of the Torres Forcada; the fruit and power of Egon Müller’s Riesling; the delicate punch of ‘Brad and Angelina’s’ rosé from the Perrins of Château de Beaucastel; the ‘walk in a field on a spring evening’ Fiona recalls when sipping Emmerich Knoll’s Grüner Veltliner, and the product of Alvaro Palacio’s ‘racing mind’, his Garnacha from Priorat. Not all of them as eye-wateringly pricey as Le Pin, but each of them detailed, intricate and fascinating. (During lockdown, you can sign up for 67’s online wine tastings for the chance to taste alongside experts like Fiona – if you take part, they’ll post you samples in tiny bottles, so you taste as you watch and listen.)
Knoll, Gaja, Liger-Belair, Müller, Frescobaldi, Niepoort, Palacios, Perrin, Thienpont and Torres are – as Fiona and Ronan both admitted – European wine royalty with wines so good they can be a life experience in a glass. And as Fiona pointed out, the way to truly understand them is to read her book, newly published and available at academieduvinlibrary.com.