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Obituary: Peter Sichel

PETER SICHEL was an English gentleman in Bordeaux. He had only been in Bordeaux for 12 years when he was elected President of the Bordeaux Wine Merchants Association in 1972.

In the Bordeaux establishment's notoriously closed community, this was a considerable achievement in itself. But he soon found himself embroiled in the intricacies of the Bordeaux wine crash of 1973 which had involved fraud and corruption following the world-wide collapse of the 1972 vintage. In the event he won enormous respect for the diplomacy and skill with which he handled one of Bordeaux's worst ever crises.

Peter Sichel was born in Hampstead, north London, to the Anglo-French branch of an influential wine-trade family, whose involvement in wine dates back to mid-18th-century Germany. The German branch became famous for the development of the Blue Nun brand, through Walter Sichel in Britain, and Peter's cousin Peter Max Sichel in America. Peter Sichel's great-grandfather established the Sichel office in Bordeaux in 1883, initially as a branch of the family firm, H. Sichel Sohne, based in Mainz in Germany.

At first dividing his time between Bordeaux and the UK, Sichel eventually settled in Bordeaux after meeting his wife, Diana, a scion of the Heathcoat-Amory family. One of his major achievements was to put the ancient Margaux property, Chateau d'Angludet, on the Bordeaux wine map. Bought in 1961 as a virtual ruin after the devastating frosts of 1956 (it produced just four barrels of wine in that legendary vintage), d'Angludet today has become one of the most sought after cru bourgeois clarets.

He was also the major shareholder in Chateau Palmer, in which his father, Allan Sichel, invested in 1938, with three other Bordeaux families. Considered folly at the time, the investment took 20 years to show a return. Today, Chateau Palmer is widely regarded as one of the superstars in Bordeaux's constellation of crus classes.

Sichel maintained the tradition started by his father, whose Penguin Book of Wines was published in 1965, of releasing an annual report on the new Bordeaux vintage. The Sichel Vintage and Market Report was eagerly awaited by the wine trade as much for its detailed factual content as for its insights into the state of the market and Sichel's own wry comments on his current bete noire, whether it be the encroachment of New World wines or the fickle British wine journalist.

Peter Sichel was one of a rare breed in Bordeaux who managed successfully to combine the separate roles of merchant and chateau-owner. A strong believer in the business sense of adding value to the product, he was in fact the first wine merchant to become a wine maker, establishing a winery, the Cave Bel-Air, in 1967.

Although he had his hands full with his own projects, he still found time to become President in 1988 of the powerful association of top chateaux, the Union des Grands Crus, a phoenix which arose from the ashes of the 1973 crash. At a time when the New World was beginning to emerge as a competitive force to be reckoned with, his vision as an ambassador for Bordeaux and its traditional, old-world values was much respected.

In the face of stiff competition from the New World, he always championed the very French notion of terroir. In his view, the location of the vineyard stamps a wine with its own very distinctive character as against what he saw as the anonymity of varietal wines from the New World. "Character comes from the terroir, but quality depends on the winemaking," said Sichel. He admired, perhaps even envied, the marketing skills of the New World, wishing French wines could employ similar skill and techniques.

In 1987, he launched his own brand, Sirius, in response to the success of New World brands on export markets. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of the Sichel brand name. After a Which? Wine Monthly report on Bordeaux Rouge which had criticised a number of his wines, he physically pursued the journalist in question at a London tasting, brandishing a corkscrew.

Sichel was a wine enthusiast with vision. Not content to sit on his Bordeaux laurels, he invested in the Domaine du Reverend estate at Cucugnan in the Corbieres in 1989, and in the following year he bought another estate, Domaine du Trillol. As he approached retirement Corbieres became his viticultural mistress. It was a challenge for a man with such deep faith in the properties of terroir to invest in the Languedoc-Roussillon, a region with no track record of great vineyard sites.

He and his wife Diana had five sons, all involved in the business today, and a daughter. "Our strength today is that I have five sons in the firm," said Sichel proudly shortly before he died. When the British journalist Nicholas Faith recently told him he thought his son Ben was making better wine at Chateau d'Angludet than he ever had, Peter Sichel smiled with relief, happy to acknowledge that his children had well and truly taken over the mantle.

Peter Allan Sichel, wine merchant, grower and winemaker: born London 19 September 1931; married 1962 Diana Heathcoat-Amory (five sons, one daughter); died Bordeaux, France 22 February 1998.