There is a consortium in the wine world that, as much as I try otherwise, always reminds me of the SPECTRE organisation from James Bond. Thankfully, the truth is far more benevolent and, indeed, extremely worthwhile. But to explain my misconception, let us look at the facts for a moment.
The said outfit is an international grouping of established, well-connected families whose famous names go back generations, centuries even, with many histories shrouded in the mists of time.
They go by the esoteric latin moniker “Primum Familiae Vini”, meaning “The Leading [or First] Families of Wine”, and they limit their numbers to exactly twelve members.
Entry is via invitation only, and can only be ratified via a unanimous vote amongst all members, subject to fulfilling an unpublicised set of criteria, including the somewhat vague requirement to “own vineyards and wineries and excel in the production of fine wines of international reputation”, and that the family must be personally involved in the management of their company.
They also meet every year at the home of each of the members on a rotational basis, where they catch up, network, and plot and scheme the wine landscape for the years ahead. For the life of me I can’t help but imagine such meetings taking place in a lair of sorts beneath the cellars of some grand historic estate.
But as I mentioned, the truth is far from malevolent, and indeed is nothing but positive.
The First of the First Families
One summer afternoon in 1991, two of the world’s most highly reputed wine producers were strolling round a vineyard talking about the intricacies of their craft and the challenges of running a family company.
The two men were Burgundy behemoth Robert Drouhin and Spanish legend Miguel A. Torres, and their chat sparked the idea of an annual gathering where a select group of representatives from the world’s leading wine families could share their collective talent and knowledge in the pursuit of greater excellence.
The result of such a gathering, they anticipated, was the sharing not only of commercial knowledge and opportunities, but also the development of cultural and charitable initiatives too, plus much more.
The following year, in 1992, their plan came to fruition, with the establishment of an informal association of family-owned companies which today remains almost unique in the wine world, and probably also in the wider business world, transcending as it does geographical borders while maintaining the common business link of vineyard ownership and winemaking.
Primum Familiae Vini – or PFV – was born, with aim to defend and promote the traditions and values of family owned wine companies, and ensure that such ideals survive and prosper for future generations. Today, PFV members continue to exchange experiences of the wine trade, gain insight into future trends and explore solutions to their business challenges.
The Champions’ League of Wine Companies
The list of members of the PFV is simply jaw-dropping. From Italy, there is the Antinori family, the group’s – and perhaps the world’s – oldest wine family, with certifiable records dating back to 1385 and the likelihood that they were making wine well before then too.
They are perhaps most noted for Tignanello, the world’s most famous “Super Tuscan” that rebelled against the archaic Italian wine laws in the 1970’s by including French grape varieties in its Tuscan blend. Doing so created a storm in the wine world, becoming an almost instant success and forcing the Italian wine regulators to revise their laws.
But in some ways, Piero Antinori had his uncle to thank for the success of Tignanello. For Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, owner of Tenuta San Guido, another PFV member, was producing a wine strictly for his own family’s consumption called Sassicaia, a ‘Bordeaux Blend’ of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc.
Piero, along with Mario’s son Nicolò, convinced him to commercialise the wine starting with the 1968 vintage, unveiled in 1971, and though it had a modest start in terms of volume, critically it was a huge success, paving the way for Tignanello and a host of other Super Tuscans since. So Sassicaia is the granddaddy of them all, acknowledged with the honour of having its own DOC named after it: Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC.
It is perhaps inevitable that at least one of the esteemed Chateaux from Bordeaux would make it past the PFV’s stringent entry system. But given many of them are now owned by conglomerates, insurance companies, pension funds and the like, there aren’t many top-tier names that still fulfill the ‘family-owned’ requirement.
An exception however is Château Mouton Rothschild of Pauillac. The only estate to be promoted in the infamously rigid “1855 Classification” that dictates the Bordeaux hierarchy to this day, it’s also famous for featuring a different artist on its labels each year, with Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, Picasso and Miró all contributing over the decades.
Staying in France, there is of course Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, one of the founding fathers and legends of the region, in particular for their Beaune Clos des Mouches Premier Cru.
Up the road is Famille Hugel from Alsace, again an extremely long-established and highly-respected family famous for resurrecting and gaining official recognition for the historic Alsatian late-harvest “Vendange Tardive” and “Sélection de Grains Nobles” wines; while a quick hop across the border brings us to the estate of Egon Müller Scharzhof in Germany’s Mosel, who currently holds the group’s rotating presidency.
Further south is Famille Perrin from the Rhône, owners of Château de Beaucastel, one of the most famous and sought-after wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Less known, perhaps, is that the Perrin family also make Miraval, the rosé brand owned by “Brangelina”, aka Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (there has been no word yet about the fate of the winery following the couple’s very public break-up however).
It wouldn’t be a list of famous names in wine without a Champagne in there, so step forward Pol Roger, a brand beloved of wine aficionados. Indeed, Pol Roger is perhaps most famous for being the bubbly of choice for a certain Winston Churchill – indeed, their top wine is called Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in his honour.
So strong is the link between the two that Pol Roger printed labels with black borders upon the death of Churchill in 1965, and they are rumoured to reintroduce pint bottles of their Champagne in post-Brexit Britain, a size favoured by the Big Man because it was “enough for two at lunch and one at dinner”. We’ll raise a flute to that!
Finally, Iberian peninsula is well of course well represented too. Obviously there is Bodegas Torres of Catalonia, who shocked the world in 1979 with their Cabernet Sauvignon (forbidden in Spain at the time) which was presented in a black Burgundy bottle (another rebellious act) and which beat a host of top-tier Bordeaux wines – including the legendary Château Latour – in a blind tasting. The outcome was instant fame for their Mas La Plana, worldwide recognition of Spain as a quality wine producer, and the beginning of a new era for the country’s vinous fortunes.
But even then there was – and still is – one name in Spain which is ‘iconic’ in the truest sense: Vega Sicilia, in Ribera del Duero, whose Unico is a blend of native Tempranillo with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Finally, there’s the Symington Family of Portugal, who has an enviable portfolio of brands: Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Cockburn’s Ports; Blandy’s of Madeira; and a handful of dry red wines from the Douro. If TheTaste.ie readers are unaware of my admiration of this wine company, look no further than my experience tasting a 100 year old Port from them last year, and experience I won’t forget any time soon.
Faith, Love and Charity
It’s not just a talking shop however: the group is adept at leveraging its considerable portfolio of ultra-prestige brands for the benefit of charities worldwide via the Primum Familiae Vini Collection Case, which contains one bottle of the finest flagship wine of each member currently available, an enviable haul for any wine lover when the sheer iconic nature of the wines involved are taken into account. King Juan Carlos I of Spain and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden are both said to own their own cases.
Also occasionally up for auction is the rare “PFV Passport”, entitling the owner to visit each of the member estates for a private tour and tasting to be followed by an intimate dinner with a family member, a truly prestigious opportunity by any measure.
Examples of the power of this initiative is in 2013 when the PFV played a significant part in raising £55,000 for The Grape Foundation, dedicated to raising funds to help neglected or impoverished children around the world; while in 2015 the PFV in association with Opus One raised a staggering US$2.4 million at Auction Napa Valley.
I bet S.P.E.C.T.R.E. don’t do charity fundraising gigs.
The Next Chapter
Unlike S.P.E.C.T.R.E. though, there is actually the possibility of leaving the PFV … and no, it’s not via booby-trapped chairs or being plunged into a pool of sharks!
To date there has been two departures: the legendary Robert Mondavi Winery in California ceded membership in 2005 following its purchase by global conglomerate Constellation Brands, while Paul Jaboulet Aîné of the Rhône was a member until 2006 when the Frey family, owners of Château La Lagune in Bordeaux, took over the Maison.
The latter departure has actually left the PFV one short of its maximum membership, and apparently – like all families – internal disagreement regarding who to invite to fill the spot has resulted in a stalemate.
Perhaps it’s time to expand the reach of the PFV beyond Europe? For the “New World” is now recognised by most as being, actually, quite old: for example the “youngest” member of the PFV is the Perrin Family, established in 1909, a date easily surpassed by Cousiño Macul of Chile, which is in its sixth generation of family ownership since roots were put down – both literally and figuratively – in 1856. As it happens, this is also a date that precedes many of the PFV families, including founding fathers Torres (1870) and Drouhin (1880).
Next door, Luigi Bosca of Argentina has been family-owned since its establishment in 1901, and even “New Old World” wineries such as those in Georgia, Slovakia and elsewhere in the region have histories stretching back centuries.
It would also be pertinent to suggest any number of Australian wine brands to fill the gap, but it seems they’ve already beaten me to it: there exists the “Australia’s First Families of Wine”, a grouping of 12 family-owned Aussie wineries established in 2009 and unashamedly modeled on the PFV.
So in order to survive and thrive, I feel the PFV should look beyond their Old Europe foundations and bring in some fresh blood. But one thing is for certain: despite a squabble over who the twelfth member should be, these eleven families haven’t survived for centuries by being stubborn or complacent, so the PFV is likely to be around for some time yet.
When not writing for TheTaste.ie, Richie Magnier blogs at themotleycru.com and shares his thoughts via @RichieMagnier on Twitter. Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).
Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride. Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.