Last month, early one Saturday evening, a large private boat disembarked from the Quai Richelieu in the centre of Bordeaux before making its leisurely way up the broad Garonne to the tiny riverside hamlet of Langoiran. On board were 70 animated diners eagerly anticipating the annual Harvest Dinner of Le Grand Société, which is held at the very bijou 18th-century mansion Domaine de Bellevue. As ever, it was quite an occasion.
Readers of this magazine may not have come across Domaine de Bellevue in the rather unfancied appellation of Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux. And you’re even less likely to have heard of Le Grand Société. But you will, without a shadow of a doubt, know all about this elite club’s illustrious members. Not least because they include the likes of Charles March (Earl of March), broadcasting legend Sir Terry Wogan and former England Rugby captain Tim Rodber. There is also a bevy of high-profile bankers, CEOs and entrepreneurs.
Every year, the members and their partners return to the relatively modest Domaine de Bellevue for its September celebration. One of the reasons they do so is a sublime combination of good food, fine wine and stellar dining companions. Another is the property’s co-owner, the charmingly persuasive Tim Griffiths. Without him, there would be no Grand Société and probably no Domaine de Bellevue – at least, not in its current and upwardly mobile incarnation.
Griffiths is a great bear of a man, who played rugby for England at under-21 level before suffering a career‑fatal injury, at which point he promptly applied his considerable entrepreneurial talents to transforming a small printing firm, Williams Lea, into a global marketing-services company. In 2012, as CEO, he sold it to DHL for £800m, with a turnover of about £1.2bn.
Fine wine is just one of Griffiths’ many interests. Some of the others are farming, philanthropy and co-owning the franchise in The Scarlets, a professional regional rugby-union team based in Llanelli, for whom he is one of the club’s most active directors. If there was one thing that wasn’t on his radar, it was becoming a Bordeaux vintner.
That all changed in 2007, on a skiing holiday in Courchevel. “I’m a fitful sleeper, so one night I went downstairs and idly began to read a five-day-old copy of the International Herald Tribune,” says Griffiths. He was just about to put the paper down when he noticed one of the small ads seeking a partner for a renaissance wine project. He cut it out, put it in his pocket and returned to bed. “Some weeks later, I came across it again,” he says. “Purely on a whim, I called the owner, Jean-François Boras, and arranged to meet up.”
Shortly after that, Griffiths found himself in situ at Bellevue, admiring not just the glorious riverside view but also the vineyard, cellars and, most importantly, the wine. “It was a coup de coeur. I loved it from the moment I saw it,” he says. Over dinner and a bottle of its 2005 Grand Vin, the two men quickly agreed terms and shook hands.
In many ways, Boras’s backstory is no less compelling. A former French naval officer and management consultant with no winemaking experience, he bought the property in 1999 after a four-year search. Bellevue was exactly what he wanted – a small vineyard with what he thought was a good terroir.
It also came with a delightful château and deep cellars hewn out of limestone rock. In the 17th century, it was coincidentally owned by a sea captain, which explains its distinctive coat of arms. The downside, though, was that both the property and vineyard had been abandoned since 1963. “The vineyard was a jungle and the house was a wreck,” says Boras. “But I had this feeling that it was a diamond in the rough.”
Resurrecting it was a daunting task even for someone as dynamic as Boras. With no formal training, he enrolled at ENITA, one of Bordeaux’s leading oenology schools. There he met and befriended Professor Kees van Leewen, who had famously consulted at Cheval Blanc. “I’ll never forget the day he visited Bellevue to look at the soil,” says Boras. “He’s a man of few words, so I left him alone to make his analyses. After a few hours, he found me and told me that we had a magnificent aspect and a terroir which wasn’t so materially different from the great clay-limestone soils of Cheval Blanc and Ausone in St Emilion. Honestly, I was speechless.”
Blessed or cursed with this priceless insight, Boras became even more obsessed with the idea of making a “great vin de terroir”. He planted his tiny, 3.3-hectare, southwest-facing vineyard at high density, carefully matching his Cabernet and Merlot vines to each specific soil type. In addition, he boldly and deliberately put in more Cabernet Sauvignon than the norm. “I did that because I wanted to create a wine with elegance, freshness, balance and finesse, one that would have sufficient structure to age and evolve.”
His first crop was in 2005. “It was such a great vintage, I felt I’d hit the jackpot,” says Boras. The year 2006 was also surprisingly good. But 2007 was a difficult, dilute year and he decided the wine wasn’t up to scratch. In fact, he took the costly decision not to make any wine that year. By now the bills from the house and the vineyard were racking up and he was rapidly running out of money. “If I wanted to carry on at that level, I knew I had to secure outside investment.”
The Anglo-French partnership is clearly an entente cordiale. Griffiths and Boras are roughly the same age, get on as friends and colleagues and clearly trust each other. “We’re a good blend,” says Boras. “I met lots of other potential investors who weren’t right. For them, it was all about business plans. With Tim, it was much more about passion and instinct. Professionally and personally, we’re on the same page.”
Their respective roles are also clearly defined, as much by chance as design. “Jean-François is a perfectionist whose job is to make sure that we never compromise on the quality of the product,” says Griffiths. “Mine is to make sure he has everything he needs to make genuinely great wine.”
The big question was how to put Bellevue on a firm, well-funded footing. Instead of selling the wine through the usual merchant channels, Griffiths struck upon an innovative debenture model. In return for a £10,000 investment, members of Le Grand Société would receive a five-year annual allocation of 24 bottles of Bellevue’s Grand Vin and a dozen of its second wine, Les Ancres.
Through his extensive business and social contacts, Griffiths knew plenty of potential members whom, he hoped, would be drawn to the idea. One of the first was John Hepburn, advisory director at Morgan Stanley. “I’ve known Tim a long time through various deals we’ve done together,” says Hepburn. “I immediately loved the wine and just thought it was a fantastic thing to be a part of – in return for not a huge amount of money.”
That first year, Griffiths secured no fewer than 40 oenophile punters and sufficient long-term funding to move Bellevue forward.
For Le Grand Société’s affluent members, it’s not just the wine that appeals: every aspect of the club, from the packaging to the service delivery, has been well thought out and executed to impeccable, personalised standards. For instance, members can have each bottle adorned with their own wax seal. How many wine merchants lay on that kind of detail? Then there are the exclusive events and tastings, most notably the Harvest Dinner. Members usually make a weekend of it and the club conveniently arranges guests’ accommodation at the five-star Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux & Spa or the new Hôtel de Sèze. On the Saturday night they all make their way by boat to the black-tie dinner, invariably hosted by Griffiths and Boras in Bellevue’s highly atmospheric limestone caves.
According to Rodber, “It’s a very relaxed, intimate and convivial evening. Also, you have this amazing group of extraordinarily successful, interesting and like-minded people sitting around the table. Every year, you meet someone new. It’s no surprise that lots of friendships and business networks crop up. I can’t recommend it enough. It really is a unique and exceptional thing to be a part of for all sorts of reasons.”
Naturally, not everyone is able to make it in September. In which case members can, at their leisure, visit the domaine throughout the year for a private tasting followed by lunch or dinner with Boras. “We want to encourage this as much as possible,” he says. “Some will come by private jet or helicopter. It’s all very bespoke now that we have set up a dedicated concierge service to do this kind of thing.”
More than anything, Boras is delighted by members’ positive reactions to the quality and style of his wine. “These are very demanding and sophisticated people who know what great wine is. Quite a few have cellars full of First Growth Bordeaux,” he says. “So their comments have been very encouraging. But I think we can do even better. The vines are so young and we are constantly learning about the vineyard.”
Despite the plaudits, both Griffiths and Boras craved some kind of professional independent benchmark, if only to gauge just how good Bellevue was. In 2011, they sent samples to a handful of the UK’s top sommeliers. Griffiths used his connections with the Mayfair club 5 Hertford Street to ask its wine consultant, Michael Schuster, what he thought of the wines. Schuster, widely regarded as one of the UK’s top tasters, was undeniably impressed. “When tasting these [wines] I found it difficult not to be reminded of Ausone,” he wrote in his report.
According to Griffiths, Schuster also suggested putting on a blind tasting to test his theory. Griffiths wasn’t so sure. “This was high-risk stuff because you can end up with egg on your face if it goes badly. However, after a lot of umming and ahhing, we couldn’t resist the challenge.” They commissioned a wine merchant in Bordeaux to organise a rigorous blind tasting of the 2005 Bellevue against the stiffest competition imaginable. It wasn’t just Ausone and Cheval Blanc. The line-up included Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion.
On July 13 last year, 10 independent professional experts convened at the Café Opera of Bordeaux’s Grand Théâtre. There, they duly tasted, assessed and scored all seven wines. One was François Ménard, a member of Le Concours des Grands Vins de France. In the video of the event, he is asked by the presenter, Michel Cardoze, whether any of the wines surprised him. “No,” he replied. “I found them quite similar to one another.” Yet he his fellow tasters were utterly astonished when the wines and the results were revealed. Not least because Bellevue outscored Ausone and Cheval Blanc, and came within a single point of all four of the other premiers crus. “It proves that when you have a good terroir, when you work well and bring some passion and care, you can make something very good,” said one of the tasters, Laurent Céré, a consultant oenologist in Bordeaux.
When Boras and Griffiths nervously phoned at 6pm to find out what had happened, they were understandably jubilant. “It was an incredible vindication, better than we dared to hope for,” said the Englishman. Since then, both Bellevue and Le Grand Société have gone from strength to strength. In particular, the club’s membership has nearly doubled, as well as becoming much more international, with members in Hong Kong, South Africa and Russia. That’s no accident. Next year, tastings, dinners and events are scheduled for Chicago, New York and Hong Kong.
In spite of the expansion, “there’s still room for new members,” says Griffiths. “There is, of course, a cap. But being relatively new, we’re not there yet. The important thing is that we get the right people.” New members must be proposed, then pass muster. Not everyone does.
After the success of the Bordeaux tasting, Griffiths did contemplate the idea of selling some of the crop through just one leading UK merchant on an exclusive basis. “We had a ‘beauty parade’ and it resulted in a lot of interest,” he says. But he has now decided resolutely against it. What that means is that unless you join Le Grand Société or happen to know one of its members, opportunities to drink the wine remain extremely limited.
“I joined Le Grand Société earlier this summer not only because wine is a particular private passion of mine, but also as this is a real adventure,” says Alex Langlands Pearse, who owns several pubs. “Whenever I host a shooting dinner at one of my pubs, I’m always very proud to put a large-format bottle on the table. People love the wine, but also the story behind it. Already, a few friends have asked me about how they can become members.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, neither Griffiths nor Boras can quite believe how well things have turned out, and how quickly. “To be honest, I really got involved because I thought it would be a bit of fun,” says Griffiths. “I didn’t expect it to become as big or as successful as it has. Now I know we’re onto something very, very special.”