Chinese Moguls Are Learning How to Make Bordeaux the Hard Way
When Hong Kong businessman Peter Kwok bought picturesque Chateau Haut-Brisson in Saint-Émilion in 1997, all he wanted was a vacation spot where his three children could learn to speak French.
“I knew nothing about making wine, but the chateau came with vines,” he says. “Fairly quickly I learned that quality is all about the soil—and Haut-Brisson’s wasn’t the best.”
Like so many others who’ve invested in Bordeaux properties, he began to see it the way the French do: Fine wine requires top terroir, which doesn’t come cheap.
In the past four years, he’s purchased four more estates as well as top parcels of vines in Pomerol next to prestigious estates like La Fleur-Petrus and Le Pin, hired a new high-profile management and winemaking team, and consolidated his burgeoning wine brands into something he calls the Vignobles K group, to help in selling his wines through Bordeaux’s traditional négociant system.
In doing so, Kwok, chairman of Citic Resources Holdings Limited, the energy subsidiary of the biggest state-owned investment company of the People’s Republic of China, who owns several hotels in China and Tibet, upped the game for fellow China-based wine-lovers.
Chinese interest in owning vineyards has exploded since 2011. Almost 130 chateaux have now been purchased by mainland and Hong Kong buyers, according to Laurence Lemaire, author of a new book, Le Vin, Le Rouge, La Chine, who confirmed these figures when we met recently in Bordeaux.
Most of them look for architecturally beautiful, historic chateaux in less prestigious areas, like Entre-Deux-Mers, and plan to exploit their potential as tourism hubs for Chinese visitors. They sell most—if not all—of what are largely pedestrian wines to the Chinese market.
Kwok has been much more ambitious.
In 2011 he bought La Patache, a tiny estate in the prestigious Pomerol appellation, for his son Howard, a Harvard MBA grad. Grapes from the top vineyard plots now go into Enclos Tourmaline, the first cult wine from a Chinese-owned property. Its quality got even better with the great 2015 vintage; it incorporated grapes from two new parcels, one near superstar estate La Fleur-Petrus.
Purchasing Chateau Tour Saint Christophe in Saint-Émilion, also in 2011 (Kwok owns it with his younger daughter), was another smart move.
When I first saw the property a few years ago, the 200-year-old dry stone terraces in the vineyard were crumbling. The winery needed total refurbishment.
“But the terroir is right, it’s on limestone,” Kwok had said excitedly back then, as he handed me a two-inch-thick file of soil reports.
On my visit last month, it was clear no expense was spared. The terraces had been disassembled and reconstructed; the traditional vineyards restored. Last year, Kwok bought neighboring Chateau Tourans, whose vineyards are on similar soil. Some of those grapes now go into Tour Saint Christophe to increase production.
And all Kwok’s wines have significantly improved in the past two vintages with the arrival of a new team, headed by Jean-Christophe Meyrou, the former director of top-rated Pomerol estates Chateau La Violette and Le Gay.
Meyrou is a partner in Kwok’s recent buy of a fifth estate, Chateau Le Rey in Castillon, the area next to Saint-Émilion, which is on a similar limestone plateau.
Enter Jack Ma
It turns out Kwok isn’t alone in his push for quality. Billionaire Pan Sutong bought trophy property Chateau Le Bon Pasteur from famous wine consultant Michel Rolland in 2013.
The most recent big-deal Chinese buyer is billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Internet giant Alibaba, who splashed out $16 million for Chateau de Sours, a 198-acre 16th century estate in Entre-Deux-Mers, three months ago.
Right now, de Sours is most known for its rosé, a wine style not particularly popular in China, though it also makes plump, juicy reds and tangy whites at several price levels that range from good to very good. Big changes are anticipated.
Ma paid significantly more than most chateaux in that region cost. But price is the least of it. Ma enlisted an architect LVMH uses to give the chateau and gardens a makeover and is planning a new winery and barrel cellar.
Ma has also announced he wants to buy up more estates, and he just purchased Chateau Pérenne, which makes an opulently fruity luxury red from Bordeaux kingpin Bernard Magrez.
Movie Star Magic
Some say Ma was encouraged to buy by Chinese film actress and director Zhao “Vicky” Wei, who bought charming but run-down Chateau Monlot in Saint-Émilion at the end of 2011. (She and her husband invested some $400 million in Alibaba’s film studio last year.)
Determined to create a great wine, she persuaded famous soil and viticulture expert Claude Bourguignon (a consultant to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) and oenologist Jean-Claude Berrouet (who made Chateau Petrus for 47 years) to help her and has bought two more estates.
She’s also founded a négociant firm, Cellar Privilege, to market a portfolio of wines from Chinese-owned chateaux, including Ma’s. I sampled all of them at her first tasting in Bordeaux last month at pretty, cream-colored Chateau Senailhac, once owned by Louis XIII—another of Wei’s properties.
So far, wines from Kwok’s Vignobles K group and Wei’s Chateau Monlot have truly impressed me. Other wines in Wei’s Cellar Privilege portfolio, including Chateau de Sours, are good-value, midrange Bordeaux but not exciting.
But it’s safe to say this is just the beginning.
“We are ready, our wines are more sophisticated,” Kwok says of his efforts. “We’re taking the long view.”
Taste Testing the Best Wines Owned by Chinese Moguls:
Owned by Peter Kwok:
2015 Chateau Tour Saint Christophe ($25 as futures). Intense and vibrant, this red blend of merlot and cabernet franc is a stunning bargain. (The almost-as-good 2014 sells for about $22.)
2015 Enclos Tourmaline ($150). This all-merlot wine is made only in the best vintages. It’s rich and polished, with the scent of truffles. There are only 3,000 bottles.
2015 La Patache ($22, as futures). This wine has a similar silky texture as the Tourmaline, but is earthier.
Owned by Zhao Wei:
2015 Chateau Monlot ($135). Spicy and layered, this merlot-cabernet franc blend is the best wine in the Cellar Privilege portfolio. (Earlier vintages are available only in China.)
Owned by video game billionaire Yuzhu Shi:
2015 Chateau Chadenne ($20). Bright and fruity, with the taste of ripe berries, this wine is from the much-undervalued Fronsac appellation.
2012 Chateau Haut-Mazeris ($30). This succulent red comes from Canon-Fronsac.
Owned by investor Gen-Xiong Li:
2012 Chateau Preuillac ($15). Juicy and appealing, it has deep flavors of cherries. The 2015, not yet on sale, is even better.
Owned by Jack Ma:
2015 Chateau de Sours Rosé ($15). Pale pink and refreshing, it tastes of crushed berries and has a silky texture.
2012 Chateau de Sours La Source Rouge ($30). Rich and ripe, this merlot-based red, the chateau’s top wine, boasts smoky notes and elegant tannins.