It was a sale that had all of St.-Emilion paying attention. After weeks of regulatory holdups, Josephine Duffau-Lagarrosse and Prisca Courtin-Clarins, representing her family, have acquired Château Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse, a Premier Grand Cru Classé, after the deal was approved by SAFER, the French land management agency, for €75 million (about $89 million).
Duffau-Lagarrosse, a ninth-generation shareholder at Beauséjour, said her dream was that the château remain in her family. She currently works as an agro-engineer and enologist for Bernard Magrez, who owns multiple Bordeaux wineries. Her vision is to take the historical estate "as high as possible and continue to grow in terms of the quality of the wines."
Courtin-Clarins’ family, which owns the highly successful Clarins Cosmetics, is her backer. This is the Courtin family’s first foray into winegrowing.
The news comes after several months of surprises. "Héritiers" means heirs in French, and Château Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse had plenty of them. Numerous family shareholders left the estate caught in disagreements and no clear line of succession. Competition to buy it would be fierce. It's a gem of an estate, perched between châteaus Angélus and Bélair-Monange.
This past November, after six months of intense negotiations, the Cuvelier family of Château Clos-Fourtet signed a purchase agreement for the 18.5-acre estate (15.4 acres under vine). The Duffau-Lagarrosse family has owned the estate since 1847, and winemaker Nicolas Thienpont, who manages Pavie Macquin, was formerly the general manager. The Cuveliers’ plan included Grégoire Pernot du Breuil, a young estate director who works for Thienpont.
Rival vintner Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal of Angélus had visited the estate in August and proposed to buy it, but was turned down. The château's board voted 92 percent in favor of the Cuveliers.
"After winning the tender for the property, in a fair and transparent way, we had been chosen, preferred and approved by a large majority of the Duffau-Lagarrosse board of shareholders," explained Matthieu Cuvelier to Wine Spectator. "We then followed the seller's choice of giving the mandate to carry out this sale on their behalf to SAFER."
That's when the deal took an unexpected twist. Les Sociétés d'Aménagement Foncier et d'Etablissement Rural (SAFER) arbitrates agricultural real-estate deals in France. In a done-deal like this, it's usually little more than an administrative stamp.
But it's also mandated to make sure young farmers, under 40, are not priced out of the market. The agency has been known to intercede in favor of young vintners in Burgundy, Bordeaux and elsewhere. Per the law, SAFER opened the tender to other offers for a brief window. They received three.
During this time, Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse had met Prisca Courtin-Clarins and presented her proposal. Duffau-Lagarrosse, 30, opposed the sale to the Cuveliers, but readily admits she could never have raised the necessary cash on her own. Courtin-Clarins, also 30, manages investments for her family's holding company. She liked the project, and they prepared a proposal.
De Boüard-Rivoal submitted a proposal as well. The co-owner and CEO of Angélus worked in private wealth management in London before returning to St.-Emilion. Rumors swirled through Bordeaux that de Boüard-Rivoal planned to incorporate the Beauséjour vines into Angélus, something de Boüard-Rivoal firmly denied.
"This is a strictly personal project that I have been carrying with my husband, with no link at all with Angélus and by no means any merger planned between Beauséjour and Angélus," de Boüard-Rivoal told Wine Spectator.
The Cuveliers and the Duffau-Lagarrosse board considered the deal a fait accompli. Then came an email from SAFER. Without explanation or warning, SAFER notified the parties that they had awarded the estate to de Boüard-Rivoal.
"The fact that we were unable to complete the purchase of this magnificent St.-Emilion estate came as a complete surprise to us," Cuvelier told Wine Spectator.
But the story wasn't over. The first email was an initial decision by SAFER's technical commission. On March 25, the three dossiers were resubmitted to the final commission. That group demurred, passing the contentious dossier up the food chain to SAFER's Administrative Council.
On April 7, the council announced its decision to keep the historic estate in family hands, “to attribute the property to the company Beauséjour Courtin, owned by the Courtin family, with the condition to permit and secure the installation of Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse, young farmer.” SAFER also indicated it supported the project’s respect for sustainability and biodiversity, and “to maintain the historic link between this wine estate and one of the Duffau-Lagarrosse family members.”
"We were informed about 45 minutes ago that the Clarins group bid won," wrote de Boüard-Rivoal in an email to Wine Spectator. "I am of course disappointed, but would, however, like to send my best wishes to the Courtin family, who just took over a great vineyard."
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