Quietly, confidently, Peter Kwok is once again doing things his own way.
The Vietnamese-born, Hong Kong-based businessman invested in Bordeaux in 1997 with the purchase of Château Haut-Brisson in Saint-Émilion, back when Hong Kong was still taxing wine at 60 per cent. It would be another 11 years before Longhai Investments bought Château Latour-Laguens in Entre-deux-Mers and was the starting gun for Chinese investors in the region.
Since then Kwok has bought another five estates; Châteaux Tour Saint-Christophe in Saint-Émilion, La Patache and Enclos Tourmaline in Pomerol, Enclos de Viaud in Lalande-de-Pomerol, and a few months ago inked on Chateau le Rey in Castillon. He did buy a sixth – Chateau Tourans in Saint-Émilion – but it wasn’t for the chateau building, or the name. Kwok wanted something much more important, and something that says a lot about his journey over the past 20 years from wine lover to chateaux owner.
“I always knew that buying wine estates meant being in it for the long term,” Kwok tells me as we meet up in the beautiful village of Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes where Tour Saint-Christophe is located. “But maybe in the early days I was looking to make an impact through clever winemaking. Today I know that making great wine begins and ends with terroir. That’s what it’s all about.”
All of Kwok’s estates are on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, on the slopes and flat tops of the hills that hug the Dordogne Valley. Vines have been thriving here for close to 2,000 years, but not all spots are created equal. These are hills rich in clay and limestone, very different from the gravelly flatlands of the Médoc region on the Left Bank, and the best parts ensure the vines get just enough of what they need, regulating water supply and keeping a sense of elegance and freshness in the glass.
This is what Kwok means when he talks about terroir, and it’s why he has also bought new high-quality plots to include in Haut-Brisson, and purchased Château Tourans, located close to Tour Saint-Christophe but with far more of its vines on Saint-Émilion’s famous limestone plateau.
“We bought Tourans for its limestone soils,” director Jean-Christophe Meyrou confirms. “It brings us up to 34 acres of limestone, from vines that are in excellent condition, and we have included them in the Tour Saint-Christophe blend from the 2015 vintage, while at the same time creating a second wine from parts of the original vineyard that we find less impressive. It means we are voluntarily cutting volumes of our main wine in half to assure quality.”
The hunt for the best terroirs of the Right Bank has also led Kwok – this time in partnership with Meyrou and a Belgian investor – to Château le Rey, again set on limestone slopes in one of the most sought-after sectors of Castillon. The first vintage will be 2016.
Clearly this is a man with a mission. Tasting through the 2014 and 2015 vintages of both Haut-Brisson and Tour Saint-Christophe does reveal a clear step-up in quality, with sappier, sexier fruit in the most recent vintage. Besides the new plots of vines, Kwok’s approach to barrel ageing has changed, with 30 per cent new oak used now, compared to 100 per cent in 2009 or 2005, which again shifts the focus onto the quality of the merlot and cabernet franc grapes.
And now that he is confident in his terroir, he wants everyone to know it. When he first bought in Bordeaux, he concentrated on selling through his own direct channels to Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China. It meant that prices were high, sales assured. But four years ago, with the 2012 vintage, that strategy changed and he began working with Bordeaux merchants to sell globally. Today, his wines have gone from 75 per cent being sold in Asia to less than 20 per cent today, with the rest present in more than 40 countries.
“It meant taking a drop in price per bottle while getting the name established in new markets,” Kwok confirms, “but I chose this route for the sustainability of distribution, and because I am proud of our wines. Anything worth doing involves a cost, and selling through the traditional Bordeaux system shows a confidence in the quality of our châteaux.”
Jane Anson, a wine writer based in Bordeaux, is the Louis Roederer Wine feature writer of the year 2016