To own 42 vineyards around the world with annual sales of 4.5 million bottles is almost inconceivable. And yet, one man — Bernard Magrez — manages this Herculean task. Moreover, at an age when many would have long retired (Magrez is 84) he continues to scout properties to add to his holdings.
Beyond the vineyards, which include seven properties in Bordeaux, Magrez is a leader in oenotourism, with a five-star hotel and a world-class art collection. As you’d expect, his story is every bit as extraordinary as is his grand empire.
NOTE: If you’re already familiar with the Magrez history, skip on down to our recent conversation with him.
Bernard Magrez grew up in Saint Seurin, just outside Bordeaux City. His father owned a small construction company and, by all accounts, was a harsh disciplinarian. Magrez has mentioned that, “My father once made me kneel for two hours next to the radiator when I brought home bad grades. At age 12, I was sent away to learn wood working in the Pyrénées — again for bad grades.”
By age 19, Magrez returned to Bordeaux. He describes this bleak period of his life in straight-forward terms: “I needed work. Basically, I needed to eat. In Bordeaux, wine is the most important industry, so it was natural to look for employment with local wine firms.”
The young Magrez was hired by wine merchant Maison Cordier. For three years he worked in the cellars, then eventually sold wine. During this period, he convinced a Bordeaux banker to lend him money and used the funds to buy a small importing company. The timing, in 1962, was fortuitous. Hypermarkets and supermarkets were beginning to open in France. Magrez was determined to sell into these outlets and his persistence paid off. Eventually his William Pitters Port was available across the country.
After the success of his Port, Magrez expanded his imports to include a Scotch Whiskey, he called William Peel. A few years after, a Tequila label, San José, was added. In 1990, Magrez began selling a modestly-priced wine he named Malesan, again primarily to supermarkets.
The success achieved with the William Pitters port and the Malesan wine made it possible for Bernard Magrez to extend his company brands again. This time, he captured the world’s attention when he became sole proprietor of Château Pape Clément, one of the oldest and most historic Grands Crus in Bordeaux. Years earlier, Magrez had acquired partial ownership when his wife, Marie-Lyne Montagne, inherited a percentage of the Château, upon the death of her father, Paul Montagne.
After buying out the estate entirely, Magrez brought in Michel Rolland to consult. Magrez and Rolland continued to improve the vineyards, introducing lower yields and stricter selection. Significantly, they also added second wines — Le Clémentin du Pape Clément and Le Prélat du Pape Clément — to improve the Grand Vin and to reach additional markets.
Not surprisingly, Magrez has become known for his use of technology. He was one of the first proprietors to employ drones equipped with cameras and other sensors designed to measure plant damage, water stress, vine health and ripeness levels. Currently, his research team is developing driverless tractors. (More on these and other projects in our interview below.)
In 1999, Magrez expanded his presence in Bordeaux, with purchases of two Châteaux: La Tour Carnet and Fombrauge. Château La Tour Carnet is one of the largest estates in the Haut-Médoc. Moreover, portions of the castle date back to the 11th century and were used as fortifications during the 100-Years War. Château Fombrauge, located in Saint-Émilion, is also one of the largest estates in the region and dates back to the 15th century. Magrez once again worked with Michel Rolland to upgrade the properties, which at Fombrauge produce not only a Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend, but a beautiful Bordeaux Blanc as well.
Magrez recalls his purchases fondly: “Fombrauge is a 60-hectare property, while the average in Saint-Émilion is 13-14 hectares. In 2012 it was reclassified to Grand Cru Classé. So I made it a global brand. With La Tour Carnet’s 45-hectares and Pape Clément’s 32-hectares, I have a total of 137 hectares and make 550,000 to 600,000 bottles of the first wines each year.”
Magrez has continued to pick up properties in Bordeaux. In 1998 he bought Les Grands Chênes, a 38-hectare property in Haut-Médoc. Later, in 2012 he bought a classified Sauternes, Clos Haut-Peyraguey and in 2016 he purchased a small plot of vines in Saint-Estèphe, which he named Clos Sanctus Perfectus. A year later in 2017, he acquired Château Le Sartre, in Pessac-Léognan — making a total of seven Bordeaux properties, four of them classified estates.
In between the Bordeaux acquisitions, Magrez has bought properties in other regions of France, notably, the Languedoc-Rousillon estates Les Pierres Fendues and Faugères Pérénnité, as well as estates in Spain, Portugal, California, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Japan and Morocco.
Aside from his collection of wine estates, Bernard Magrez has been a shrewd collector of art for some twenty years — from 15th century bronzes to Flemish landscapes. More recently, he has begun to collect modern art. In 2011, he purchased a striking 18th century mansion called Château Labottière to house his burgeoning collection. It’s since become an international destination for modern art, particularly Street Art — which seems to contrast sharply with Bernard Magrez’ ornate Châteaux and formal demeanor, but clearly reflects his diverse interests and curiosity.
Magrez has also contributed mightily to oenotourism in Bordeaux. La Grande Maison Bernard Magrez is a five-star hotel with beautifully landscaped gardens and six luxurious rooms. Guests can indulge in the rarified atmosphere and a wine list, of course, with well over 300 Bordeaux classified growths.
Beyond his Grande Maison, Magrez has also opened Châteaux Pape Clément, La Tour Carnet and Fombrauge to visitors. Guests enjoy tours of the property, wine tasting and classes, as well as exceptional dining experiences. Imagine lunch at a table once owned by Pope Clement V, surrounded by his crystal, porcelain and art. It’s an unforgettable experience. We can attest to that!
A few weeks ago, Bernard Magrez took a break from his non-stop schedule and indulged our many questions about his future plans and his take on recent world events:
As you look back at your career and all you’ve achieved — 42 vineyards located around the world, including four Grands Crus properties in Bordeaux; château lodging; a world-class art collection — do you ever marvel at your own success?
As a matter of fact, you can never be satisfied with yourself, knowing you could have done better. I am always looking for improvement, new estates acquisitions, constantly developing our business to sustain the future of the company.
Given the current world situation vis-à-vis Brexit, U.S. tariffs and pandemics, do you feel that Bordeaux, the wine industry and even, to some extent, your own achievements could be in jeopardy?
I strongly believe that in any crisis plenty of opportunities arise for further developments. The latest ones are no exception.
With regard to the vineyards you currently own, do you continue to scout properties to purchase? If so, is there a region you’re particularly interested in and why?
Yes I do! I bought one not long ago in Bordeaux. (Château Le Sartre, in Pessac-Léognan) Tomorrow, I am flying to Tuscany to possibly acquire an estate reflecting the unique style and great potential of this iconic wine region.
You’re known for innovation and technical advancements in the wine industry, your use of drones is just one example — what do you think the next big innovation in wine production will involve?
I strongly believe in quality and the importance of our Research & Development Centre, created a few years ago. For the last few months, we have been using an electric straddle (high-clearance) tractor well equipped for efficient ploughing and hoeing, in order to avoid compacting the soil and allowing it to breathe and develop naturally. This electric tractor works without a driver thanks to high quality maps provided by our drones. The aim is to know precisely what work must be done in a specific area of the plot instead of acting globally in the full parcel. This unique & quiet tractor, emitting no CO2, can leave on its own from the agricultural shed at 8 a.m. and be back at 5 p.m!
Along the same line, your teams are working to research climate change and to develop new varietals suitable for Bordeaux. How is that progressing? Are you able to make any recommendations as yet?
If we look at current climate change forecasts, we can expect to see a temperature increase of two degrees over the next decade. Indeed, by 2050, the Bordeaux wine region could face extreme climate conditions with a potentially severe impact on how grapes mature and ripen (reduction in acidity, increase in sugar and alcohol…). To answer this, I created a private collection of 75 grape varietals back in 2013, with the aim of identifying the varietals of the future, and allowing us to adapt to an uncertain new climate. With around 200 plants per varietal, each one produces a wine which is fermented and matured in barrels or thermo-regulated 3hl vat. 2020 will see the first wine made from this collection.
You’ve also been a leader in oenotourism. Your tours, lodging, etc. have enhanced the image and prestige of Bordeaux. Do you have any plans beyond what you’ve already established and maintained?
We began our oenotourism project 15 years ago. We know that nowadays, wine lovers are looking for unique and exceptional experiences. We are constantly offering something different. A month ago, we built an extraordinary wooden house at La Tour Carnet where clients can enjoy living in the middle of Mother Nature. We are planning to build a few more.
Obviously, finding personnel to manage your properties is a top priority. In fact, you have a sign in your office reading: “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” What is the first thing you look for in a potential new hire?
To be precise, the exact sentence is: “If you enter in my office with a problem without offering a solution, then you are part of the problem.” I often use another phrase which states: “Trust is like a matchstick, you can only use it once.”
As someone who appreciates classical literature, you have provided your team with copies of Seneca’s De Vita Beata — what do you hope they’ll discover?
I regularly offer that book to my team, sometimes to discuss a philosophy, sometimes economy, sometimes to increase open-mindedness. Regarding Seneca, I always say that having shortcomings is normal, but the role of everyone is to do everything to overcome them.
You’ve mentioned on many occasions that your relationship with your father was “very difficult.” How did that experience influence your life choices?
I don’t know if the poor relationship I had with my father has played a big part in my life. I don’t believe that one’s roots, whether they are positive or negative, can greatly influence an individual’s life.
Your personal art collection and the Bernard Magrez Institut of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux have international status. Many successful figures in the wine industry collect art, but you’ve chosen to collect unknown artists. Could you share the evolution of that project and discuss your support for young artists?
Indeed, in my personal collection, many works are from unknown artists. I believe in authentic talent which doesn’t require a well-known reputation. The only goal of the Bernard Magrez Institut is to give a chance to talented people. I want to give back to life what life gives to me. This can be accomplished by helping each other.
Finally, you’ve stated that “Artists teach you to see in 360” — an especially evocative expression. Was there a single piece of art that altered your perception in a meaningful way?
Like other collectors, I admire the language of many artists, obviously they are all different! I discover through their work and art pieces various paths of life totally unknown for me. This is what pushes me forward.
We’re pleased to offer the following collection of wines from the estates of Bernard Magrez. To order, call 850-687-1370 or write email@example.com.
2016 Bernard Magrez 4-Bottle Bordeaux Set. $289.99. 12 sets available
Includes Châteaux Pape Clément, La Tour Carnet, Fombrauge & Les Grands Chênes.
2009 Château Pape Clément. RP-100. $199.99. 24 bottles
2009 Château Pape Clément. RP-100. $369.99 1 magnum
2010 Château Pape Clément. RP-100. $259.99. 12 bottles
2015 Château Pape Clément. JS-99. 109.99. 17 bottles
2016 Château Pape Clément. JS-98. $109.99. 48 bottles
2016 Château Pape Clément. JS-98. $229.99. 2 magnums
2016 Le Clémentin du Château Pape Clément. $49.99. 12 bottles
2017 Château Pape Clément. JS-96. $85.99. 12 bottles. Available Spring 2021.
2018 Château Pape Clément Blanc. JS 98-99. 134.99 24 bottles. Available Spring 2021.
2018 Château Pape Clément. JS 97-98 RP 96-98. $88.99. 35 bottles. Available Spring 2021.
2010 Les Grands Chênes. $29.99. 35 bottles
2017 Faugères Pérénnité. $9.99. 24 bottles
We have an initial release for the 2018 Bordeaux, arriving before November. These are tariff free, so grab them while they are still available!
La Dame de Montrose. JS 95-96. $45.99. 12 bottles
Château Pichon-Baron. DC-99 JD 97-99 RP 97-99. $149.99. 36 bottles
Château Pontet Canet. RP 97-99 AG 96-99. $117.99. 18 bottles
Château Clerc Milon. DC-96 JS 95-96. $82.99. 4 bottles
Château Duhart Milon. JS 95-96 JD 94-96+. $73.99. 24 bottles
Château d’Armailhac. DC-94. $49.99. 6 bottles
Château Siran. JS 94-95. $29.99. 11 bottles
Château Canon. JS 98-99 RP 97-99 WS 96-99. $118.99. 18 bottles
Château Fourtet. WS 96-99. $112.99. 24 bottles
Château Pavie Macquin. JD 97-99 DC-98. $72.99. 36 bottles
Château Larcis Ducasse. JS 97-98 RP 96-98. $69.99. 12 bottles
Château Les Gravières. RP 94-96. $23.99. 18 bottles
Château Villemaurine. JS 95-96 JD 94-96. $49.99. 10 bottles
Vieux Château Certan. JS 99-100 DC 98-100 WE 98-100 RP 97-100. $292.99. 3 bottles
Château L’Évangile. JS 98-99 RP 97-99. $236.99. 4 bottles
Château La Conseillante. JD 97-100. $217.99. 12 bottles
Château Clinet. JD 96-99. $88.99. 20 bottles
Château Rouget. JS 96-97. $49.99. 24 bottles
We’re also offering a small but choice selection of white Bordeaux, including dry and sweet Sauternes. Again, these are not affected by tariffs and will be available Spring 2021.
2018 Château Cheval Blanc “Le Petit Cheval” White. DC-92. $108.99. 24 bottles
2018 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. JS 97-98 JD 96-98. $109.99. 18 bottles
AND FINALLY…. a few California offerings
2017 Opus One. $299 — lowest price in the U.S. — elsewhere $349. 26 bottles
2018 Belle Côte Estate Chardonnay. $89. 6 bottles
2018 La Carrière Estate Chardonnay. $89. 6 bottles
2018 L’Après-Midi Sauvignon Blanc. $59. 4 bottles
2017 Ma Danseuse. Estate Pinot Noir. $109. 10 bottles