Bordeaux has always attracted investors, from royalty to businessmen to celebrities. That Chinese wine lovers are now counted among them isn’t news anymore, but back in 2011 when bonafide film star Vicki Zhao Wei made her first winery purchase, tongues wagged and pundits fretted. Decanter reported that she may have paid between €4 and €5 million for the midrange, attractive St. Emillon Grand Cru château with eight hectares of vineyards.
In winemaking, changes take a long time to implement, and eight years of diligent improvements have passed by at Château Monlot. It’s also taken a while for her wines to reach Singapore. Zhao has chosen Grand Cru, a wine concierge and bar in The Fullerton Hotel Singapore as her exclusive retailer, thanks to a series of coincidences that took place after she cast Singaporean actor Li Nanxing in her latest web drama, Everyone Wants To Meet You. Li enjoyed Château Monlot so much while drinking with Zhao in China that he encouraged her to make it available in Singapore.
In Mandarin, Zhao quips, “Singapore has lots of the best things in the world including red wines. So I feel that it should also have our wines.”
A flavour profiler While Zhao name-drops her love of Petrus, Pavie and Ausone, her savvy business instincts brought her to Château Monlot, a fiveminute drive away from Petrus. Merlot was and continues to be her favourite grape for its powerful taste profile, though she concedes that there are increasing fans of Burgundy in China. “Every winery is different and offer their own wines that are unique in terms of characteristics and flavours,” she explains. “I am a huge fan of red wines, and at that point I was searching for a winery that best suits my palate.” Her sincerity won over retired Petrus winemaker JeanClaude Berrouet, who now consults for various wineries including Monlot. At the day-to-day helm is head winemaker Jean de Cournuaud, whose family has been making wine since 1769, before the French Revolution.
Along with the estate, Zhao bought over the 2008 and 2009 bottled stock and the 2010 and 2011 vintages which were still in barrels at the time. She invested in soil reports, new equipment and other machinery in order to push the quality of the grapes. “Even though we are not the best winery yet, we already have what a ‘best winery’ should have, probably one of the best around,” she says of her modern equipment.
Since her first 2012 vintage, which was a good drinking year, it was 2017 that rates as the most challenging. Frost and other adverse weather conditions combined to decimate many vineyards, and the estate lost at least 35% of its usual harvest. In spite of that, careful tending of the remaining grapes ensured that critic ratings have been favourable, with 90+ from James Suckling, and Jane Anson reporting that, “There is a lovely spicy side to Monlot, a freshness to the fruit without feeling underripe.”
In no hurry
Unlike some other Chinese investors, Zhao has not changed the name of the 400-year-old estate or immediately increased its output. “Nature has to take its course,” she shares. “We have already spent 10 years to build our vineyards, and it will take maybe 20 more years to reach its prime. A grand cuvée is not something that can be rushed. I’m just happy to see that year by year, there are tangible results, that the ratings are growing better, and that we are proud to serve the wine to others as it tastes good. Not just because I’m Vicki Zhao!”
If Zhao sounds relaxed and laidback, she credits it to her relationship with the estate that sits in Saint-Hippolyte, a picturesque village of about 150 residents within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St. Emillon. She visits about two to three times a year with her family, taking the chance to absorb the environment and history while also doing important tasks like tasting the blends.
“This is not a holiday villa,” she jokes. “I felt that Monlot’s potential was there when I bought it. Not every vineyard and winery can create the best red wine. For example, if a basketball player does not have enough height, it will be very hard for them to excel. Same goes for the winery, I felt that it had the potential. That’s why we have been putting in so much time, effort and money into supporting the winery, to ensure that we can continually increase the quality of wines produced. It’s not going to happen in a couple years.”
This year, Zhao made the news again for buying her fourth estate, 12 hectares of organically certified Château La Croix de la Roche in AOC Fronsac and Bordeaux. She bought it as she rarely comes across organic wines in Bordeaux, and it also complements its red wine production with white wine and sparkling bottles. “I’m more interested in cultivating healthier options now,” she says.
But that’s where she’ll stop for the meantime – no “wine empire” or anything like that, she deadpans. “Whether it’s acting, directing or wine, I have to be passionate about it. I won’t go to Italy, Spain, New Zealand or Australia looking for estates. In the end, I will always go back to choosing what I like, and am confident to recommend to people.”