Russian breathes life into underrated region
Apologies if this sounds a little mean-spirited, but French wine regions don't get much more unfashionable than Bergerac.
Next to Bordeaux but certainly not Bordeaux, Bergerac is better known for its truffles than its wines. Attempts to establish iconic vineyards there have got the better of plenty of experienced wine hands.
Bernard Magrez, owner of Bordeaux's Chateau Pape Clement and 37 other estates worldwide, was one of them. He sold his Bergerac chateau in 2010, declaring: 'I didn't realise it would be so difficult to sell a Bergerac wine.'
So you have to hand it to Eugene Shvidler, who bought the vines from Magrez to increase the production of his own Chateau Thenac. He clearly sees something that others don't, and this is a man worth paying attention to.
Born in the city of Ufa, Russia, and now a US citizen, Shvidler is a billionaire several times over, having made his money in oil, gas and steel, with just a touch more coming from real estate and gold mining. He now lives in London full time, where he is a board member of MC Peat & Company, a firm of London stockbrokers run by former keeper of the privy purse and treasurer to the queen Michael Peat.
With all of this, it's fair to say that when Shvidler decided to add chateau owner to his many accomplishments, he could have chosen the easy route. He could, perhaps, have joined fellow Russian businessman Ilkham Ragimov, who in 2011 picked up sweet wine estate Clos Dady in the prestigious Bordeaux appellation of Sauternes, or followed the half dozen Russian businesses investing in Cognac.
Both regions have long histories with Russia, and offer clear marketing strategies. Instead, Shvidler chose to invest in Chateau Thenac, a beautiful property of a few hundred hectares, located in Bergerac, southwest France.
If I'd been writing this 10 years ago, when Shvidler bought in 2001, it would have been easy to dismiss the project as a rather glamorous holiday home. It's certainly hard not to be seduced by the property when you visit, with its solidly attractive Perigord stone farmhouse, complete with subtle signs of luxury.
But what Thenac demonstrates is the vibrancy of French wine - that even in overlooked regions, even when owners are not descended from French winemaking aristocracy, innovation and hard work are rewarded.
The past decade has been about slow and steady improvements to vineyard management, relocating and replanting certain plots, and nurturing older vines.
All grapes are farmed organically, and the winery processes employ gravity rather than pumps, to ensure minimal impact. Toasting and origin of the oak barrels is chosen according to grape variety, with a higher toast for malbec and a gentler one for merlot.
Winemaking is overseen by Stephane Guillot, who brought his experience from the Rhone Valley to Thenac. Located at a good 200 metres altitude, with less rainfall than Bordeaux, there is clear potential here, but Shvidler isn't taking any chances.
He keeps just 20 per cent for his flagship Chateau Thenac. Even the estate white spends almost a year in the barrel, while for the red, malbec adds spice and depth to the blend. The flavours are enhanced with 100 per cent new oak.
In the best years, a small quantity of sweet wine is made from older semillon and muscadelle grapes. Alongside this is the lighter and fresher Fleur du Perigord range, in white, red and rose.
I found the Fleur 2011 white - a crisp blend of sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle - a delicious glass.
The single-minded approach may be paying off. So far Thenac's listings include Claridge's, the Savoy and Wiltons in London, and Jean Georges in New York - not places that will list wines purely as a favour to the owner.
In establishing a presence in Hong Kong and the mainland, it may help that Chinese actress Li Xin is a friend of Shvidler and regular visitor to the chateau 'to relax and enjoy our home-cooked food and wines', as he put it.
I have eaten there, and can tell you that this is Michelin-level cuisine (given a rustic charm when you learn that the brilliantly talented chef also doubles as a vineyard worker). 'Changing people's ideas about wine is best achieved by opening bottles and allowing them to taste,' says Shvidler.
'Bergerac has been content to sit in Bordeaux's shadow and focus on producing high-yield wines at low prices. Our strategy is to go in the opposite direction and focus on low-yield, high-quality wines.
'There are a few other enlightened producers in southwest France with like-minded ideas and slowly perceptions are changing. It might not happen overnight, but we prefer to lead rather than follow.'
Best of Bergerac
Chateau Thenac Cotes de Bergerac Rouge 2008 - HK$190, Berry Bros & Rudd, bbr.com.hk, tel: 2110 1680
Fleur du Perigord Rouge 2009 - Links Concept, tel: 2802 2818