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A Dutch treat from Bordeaux

Would-be banker Alexander van Beek took a summer job at a vineyard and never went back

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

In 1995, a young Dutchman completed an MBA. Banking beckoned. An internship was arranged. But Alexander van Beek thought that he would have a brief gap-summer before surrendering to a life of suited servitude in a counting house. Even though he spoke no French and had little technical knowledge of wine, he went to Bordeaux, rocked up at Château Giscours and asked for a job.

Several points were in his favour. He worked hard and never minded getting his hands muddy. He cheerfully put up with any amount of teasing, which encouraged him to learn enough French to fire back. Finally, Giscours and its neighbour, du Tertre had been bought by a Dutch family, who were not thrown by the idea of a fellow Dutchman becoming a vigneron. So the summer passed. Alexander stayed. And stayed, and stayed. The internship was held open. Perhaps it still is. It seems unlikely that it will be needed.

The early years were difficult. Giscours had been run down. Investment had been lacking and some of the vines had deteriorated. There were accusations that some of Giscours’ second wine, Sirène, had been adulterated. It is also possible that the charges had been inspired by envy. The legal process dragged on for years and was never conclusively resolved. Anyone who doubts the absolute superiority of the English legal system to its French counterpart ought to examine the Sirène case.


Fortunately, the new owners were both rich and undeterred. They regarded their new venture as a labour of love. Alexander did a lot of the labour, and loved it. Long before he took command of the whole enterprise, he had won a formidable reputation in an industry which has never rushed to put foreign talent at its ease. Not that he has ever eschewed cosmopolitanism. Alexander runs one of the best cricket teams in Bordeaux and is even now trying to entice a young Englishman to sign up to the — wine — team. It is wholly irrelevant that the youth is also a promising all-rounder.

The other evening, some of us had the good fortune to admire the results of the van Beek stewardship, despite attempts at sabotage by man and nature. Another London tasting had been arranged, but the organisers backed out. They deserve to feel extremely foolish. Mark Walford, the intermediary, was busy with nature conservancy in the Highlands. A grouse moor is never an ideal location for complicated mobile-phone negotiations, and the French air traffic controllers were on strike. In the end, everything came together with the finesse and brio of the final paragraphs of a Jeeves and Wooster story.

Giscours is a third growth, du Tertre a fifth. Although this manifested itself, that was solely due to Giscours’ excellence. We had the 2001 en magnum: superb claret in the prime of middle-aged maturity. The 2012, as one expected, was backward, but it is a wine of immense promise. The 2005 took the laurels. It was close to perfection.

The du Tertre wines were all excellent, but its 2012 was accessible now. That said, it will last. The 2000 was still batting like an accomplished stroke-player. In most other vinous company, du Tertre would have excelled. Yet there is no disgrace in being overshadowed by Giscours. In general, as Alexander put it, Giscours was the more intellectual of the two wines. This is his doing. Over the years, he has substantially increased the proportion of that most intellectual of grapes, cabernet sauvignon.

At the end of the evening, we gave Alexander a hearty send-off. Banking’s loss was our gain.

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