A few years ago, we noticed frenetic activity on the upper Saint-Émilion plateau, just opposite Château Troplong Mondot. Château Tour Saint-Christophe had a new owner and the entire property was being restored and upgraded. One of the primary objectives was to revive the vineyard terraces as they’d been originally constructed in the 18th century. Stone walls, almost 1.5 km long, were painstakingly repaired by hand, a two-year process to preserve the appearance of these unique terraces in Saint-Emilion.
Peter Kwok is the visionary behind the reconstruction. Born in Vietnam, then later educated in Taiwan and Berkeley, Kwok made his fortune in China. He is currently chairman of CITIC Resources Holdings, the energy subsidiary of CITIC Group, China’s huge state-owned investment company, as well as managing director of his own company, USI Partners. USI owns Starwood group hotels in China and Tibet. Kwok also owns a solar panel farm in Tibet.
In addition to his extraordinary business acumen, Kwok is passionate about all things French — particularly Bordeaux wine. Over the past 20 years he has purchased seven estates — a remarkable achievement given the land values in the region. Besides Château Tour Saint-Christophe, Peter Kwok’s Vignobles K Group also owns Château La Patache, Enclos Tourmaline, Enclos de Viaud, Château Le Rey and Château Haut-Brisson, his first Bordeaux estate, purchased in 1997.
Last year Kwok acquired Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé Château Bellefont-Belcier for an undisclosed sum.The 33.4-acre estate also has plots on the fabled Saint-Émilion limestone plateau and south-facing clay-limestone slopes.
Recently we had a chance to tour Château Tour Saint-Christophe and sample wines from the Vignobles K estates. Peter Kwok also graciously consented to this interview.
1) You’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that you became fascinated with French culture as a child in Vietnam. When did you leave? Where did you settle first?
I was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon, which was full of French influences. There were French villas, cafés that lined the streets, and the Saigon Notre Dame. The city was very pretty, but people always told me that France was far better: the villas and château were bigger, the Paris Notre Dame was grander, and the River Seine was more beautiful than the Saigon River. As a child, I was determined that one day I would have to go to France.
I left Saigon when I was 17 years old for Taiwan, where I completed my university studies and met my wife. It was not until my late 30s when I first visited France.
2) What are your future plans for Château Tour Saint-Christophe? We assume that your efforts will eventually lead to a reclassification?
Thank you very much for your support! I believe that the most important thing in winemaking is to be true to your terroir and to show what is unique to each vineyard. The symbol of Château Tour Saint Christophe is the limestone terraces on which the vines are planted. I hope people can see and feel the terraces just by tasting the wine.
3) What are your plans for Château Bellefont-Belcier? We’ve read that you’re replacing a good part of the vineyard. Will the changes there be as extensive as they were for Château Tour Saint-Christophe?
Château Bellefont Belcier is an incredible property with an exceptional terroir. We will of course improve the property as needed, such as upgrading the winemaking facilities and replanting some vines. The situation is different from Château Tour Saint Christophe when we purchased it in 2012 and the vineyard needed a lot of work. There we replanted 40% of the vines. For Bellefont Belcier, we will slowly replant around 10-15% of the vines.
4) Is there a particular reason you’ve not purchased a property on the Left Bank?
I purchased these vineyards for my three children, so that they can bring their families to learn and appreciate French culture. I wanted the properties close together so that when they come for holidays, they can easily visit one and another.
5) How involved are you in the winemaking process at your Châteaux? Is the style a reflection of your preferences or do you rely more on your technical advisers?
We have an excellent winemaking team, from the farmers to the cellar masters to Jerome Aguirre our Technical Director, whom we trust fully. We rely on them to grow and make the wine, though our family does visit frequently to taste and give feedback. It’s more a discussion with the team as they are the experts. Perhaps my children will learn how to make wine someday!
6) You employ a very pro-active approach to marketing your wines, with clubs, retail shops within the estate, B&B’s — strategies not always so typical in Bordeaux. How did this all evolve?
Oenotourism, Wine clubs, and boutiques have existed in Bordeaux for a number of years already, so they are now more common. I did my graduate studies in California, and I saw first-hand how these services helped build brands and created touchpoints with customers. When I saw oenotourism and wine clubs appearing in Bordeaux, I knew our company should do so as well. Ultimately, we rely on our négociant partners to market and push our wines, and having these services helps to further get the story out.
7) Your art collection is highly-regarded and you often refer to winemaking as a great artistic expression. It’s a common comparison, but how do you personally equate the two?
There is one fundamental difference between art collection and winemaking. Art collecting has no cashflow after purchase, while winemaking is a farming operation that may slowly generate cash. With a piece of artwork, you can do nothing to it. A vineyard is like a piece of art that you can improve. You can invest, change the style of the wine, and see the vineyard become better.
8) You’ve stated that as you first began producing wine, the primary market for your production was Asia. Now, however Asia represents only 20% of your total market. What countries make up the remaining 80%? Do you see those market percentages changing? If so why?
In the past, we sold mostly to Asia, but we had only one vineyard. Now with seven vineyards, we sell about the same amount to Asia, but our scale has increased tremendously. As we sell through the Place de Bordeaux, we sell onto the open market and our customers can come from anywhere in the world. Our main markets are now France, other European countries and the U.S.A.
9) Many of your neighbors are quite complimentary of your properties and you personally. Could you discuss a bit your efforts to assimilate within the Bordelais community — not the easiest group to please!
Anywhere you go, you want to be friends with your neighbors. My neighbors can see that we respect them tremendously, and they have welcomed us from the beginning. We are here to do farming, so we are determined to be here for the long term. It is important that we learn from our neighbors and they are our supporters.
Peter Kwok’s growing reputation makes his wine more and more difficult to obtain. We still have available his 2017s (in futures ) and a few bottles of 2015. Please place your orders quickly. For more information about the Kwok wines or any of the other Bordeaux vintages listed here, please write firstname.lastname@example.org or call 850-687-1370.
2017 Château Tour Saint-Christophe Futures. $26.99. 72 bottles available.
2017 Château Bellefont-Belcier Futures $42.49. 24 bottles available.
2015 Château Saint-Christophe. $28.99. 14 bottles available.
Amazing wines you can drink now or wait. And as usual, at the very best prices!
2009 Château Clinet (100pts). $288.99. Only 4 bottles.
2010 Château Clinet. $139.99. 12 bottles.
2003 Château Berliquet. $39.99. 3 bottles.
2002 Château Barde-Haut. $36.99. 36 bottles.
2004 Château Barde-Haut. $29.99. 12 bottles.
2006 Château Barde-Haut. $33.99. 36 bottles.
2008 Château le Gay. $98.99. 2 bottles.
2002 Château Clos l’Eglise. $83.99. 4 bottles.
2003 Château Clos l’Eglise. $88.99. 6 bottles.
2009 Château Figeac. $199.99. 12 bottles.
2010 Château Montrose (100pts) $219.99. 11 bottles.
1998 Château Margaux. $378.99. 12 bottles.
2008 Château Lanessan. $24.99. 12 bottles.
2008 Château du Glana. $29.99. 10 bottles.
2010 Château Haut-Bergey. $37.99. 6 bottles.
2009 Château Langoa Barton. $68.49. 22 bottles.
2009 Château Branaire-Ducru. $79.99. 2 bottles.
2006 Château Pontet Canet. $82.99. 2 bottles.
2009 Domaine de Chevalier. $87.99. 8 bottles.
2010 Château Leoville-Barton. $126.99. 3 bottles.
2010 Château Smith Haut Lafitte. $142.99. 12 bottles.
2008 Château Leoville Lascases. $145.99. 12 bottles.
1996 Château Leoville-Poyferre. $148.99. 5 bottles.