Mon 07 Mar 2016

Buying Bordeaux For The Society: An Interview with Tim Sykes


Head of Buying Tim Sykes has recently taken on the buying of Bordeaux wines for The Society. I caught up with him recently to ask him about how it has been going so far, and about his love of this great region’s wines.

Tim Sykes

Tim Sykes

Why Bordeaux?
Because I love the wines! It’s a vast area with real diversity of styles, and is less straightforward to buy from than you might think. It regularly throws up some really, really interesting wines.

Bordeaux’s reputation was forged by a small number of the top châteaux and as a consequence, much gets overlooked. If you get under the skin there are some terrific wines lower down the price ladder. In terms of value for money Bordeaux holds its own against any other region. In the sub-£10 category, I struggle to think of many places outside of Bordeaux that offer the same consistency of quality and value for money year in year out.

Is Bordeaux a region you buy from for your own personal enjoyment?
Since coming to work at The Wine Society [in 2012] I have been drinking a lot more Bordeaux than I had done previously. Bordeaux wasn’t such an important region in my previous job because the restaurant trade sadly doesn’t have such a demand these days

Why do you think Bordeaux offers such value and variety?
There are thousands of châteaux and people making different styles of wine. This is not news to Wine Society members: we have been following many of the leading lights – people like the Dubourdieus and Despagnes – whose wines have stood the test of time. We have been working with them for a long time now. There’s a lot of history there: Jo Locke MW and Sebastian Payne MW did a fantastic job building up relationships with the people that matter.

Will you want to put your own stamp on the region?
Yes, of course, that is my job, and it’s also the challenge and what makes it enjoyable. It will involve lots of prospecting to find the new exciting producers.

What interests me most is the smaller family-owned properties – many of whom actually struggle to make a go of it – contrary to the image most people have of Bordeaux. Growers in some of the ‘satellite’ appellations, and those producing generic claret have often struggled in recent years – prices haven’t changed much for these wines in the last 10 years! Take The Society’s Claret – we buy at pretty much the same cost price as 10 years ago and the wine is getting better and better in quality terms.

Château Canada is an example of a good petit château that we buy from in most years. Good properties like this, the ones we deal with, are generally doing ok, but those that rely on selling in bulk struggle to make ends meet.

On the ground in Bordeaux: Tim with Château Branaire-Ducru's Jean-Dominique Videau

On the ground in Bordeaux: Tim with Château Branaire-Ducru’s Jean-Dominique Videau

You have been involved in sourcing wines for our en primeur offer since you started at The Society; do you cellar Bordeaux for your own enjoyment?
Yes, I like to cellar and drink the grander names too, of course. But in some ways the well-known names are less satisfying to buy as a professional buyer – they’re widely available on the ‘Bordeaux Place’ through local merchants – it’s not like buying from individual properties and finding things for yourself.

Where is the excitement then?
It’s the ‘truffle-snuffling’ element that gets us going as buyers. That’s the exciting thing. We read up on properties and regions… talk to people… prospect.

What have been your impressions as you take over responsibility for Bordeaux?
Of all the regions that I have visited since joining the Society, and in Bordeaux especially, there is enormous respect for The Wine Society. It’s a question of trust, something that has been built up over many, many years. Château owners often comment on how delighted they are to work with us and how much they enjoy meeting our members when they attend tastings.

Why do you think this is?
I think it has to do with loyalty and integrity. The Wine Society is a reliable organisation with a rich tradition. They respect the fact that there are no sharp practices when it comes to dealing with us. We make a point of showing our faces and visit a lot more than most merchants.

Are you getting the impression that there’s a new generation coming to the fore now in Bordeaux?
Yes, to a certain extent…we are seeing the likes of Fabrice and Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu stepping up to take more of a leading role within their family estates, then there’s Edouard Moueix whose father Christian is taking more of a back-seat role, for example.

Are families important in Bordeaux?
When it’s a family concern it is usually a lot more interesting. When you visit the big châteaux for example, you’re rarely shown around by the owner, even if it is family-owned property. It’s usually the director or manager – not the people who make the wine. That’s what’s so nice about the satellite appellations of Bordeaux – Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac – it’s generally more about family properties, much more like the rest of France in that respect.

There are exceptions, of course, people like the Bartons of Châteaux Léoville and Langoa Barton and the Borie family who own Ducru-Beaucaillou and Grand-Puy-Lacoste who are always charming and still retain the family feel.

What are your favourite clarets?
Impossible question to answer! Like many of our members, if I’m looking for everyday drinking wines in the sub-£10 bracket, I would head to somewhere like the Côtes de Bordeaux. Right bank wines based on the merlot grape are more supple and easier to drink younger.

At the more senior level I’d tend to towards the left bank more I love Château Batailley and Grand-Puy-Lacoste – both Pauillacs – on the left bank for example, as well as Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan.

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