How has the China market evolved in the five years you've been in Hong Kong? "Five years ago we did big wine dinners with Chinese officials and generals, who only wanted to drink Bordeaux wines at banquets with 100 other people. It was all about face. But China has done in five years what America did in 30 in terms of interest in wine. It's normal for any market starting out to only want the best, but now they want to drink every day and try different things, like [wines] from Burgundy, Loire and Champagne, and Italian and Spanish wines. Last week I joined my dad [Paul Pontallier, managing director of Chateau Margaux] in Beijing, where we did a comparative tasting of the best teas from Taiwan and China in the past 40 years, and 10 vintages of Margaux from the past 40 years. Tea and wine have a similar culture in terms of [needing the right] climate, soil, know-how. [You have to know] when to drink them and about their complexity."
Has the anti-corruption campaign affected your sales in China? "There are no more officials drinking these wines, but we knew this would happen. We worked for five years to make sure we were not depending on them, and are now moving towards the private sector, with doctors, CEOs, bankers, real estate developers. Before, we would have 10 people buying hundreds of cases. Now it's hundreds of people buying one case each."
Describe the Hong Kong wine scene. "Hong Kong is like France but with more money. I've never tasted as many good wines as I have here. I'm amazed by what people have and what they open. I had the chance to try a magnum of 1900 Chateau Margaux at Otto e Mezzo. My father has tasted it before but, for me, it had to be here."
Your father has worked at Chateau Margaux since 1983. What was it like growing up there? "I loved playing hide-and-seek in the cellar and I would ask the man who made the barrels to make wooden toys for me, like a sword or a hammer. When I was three years old, my father would dip his finger in the wine and let me have a little taste, to see what my reaction was. He put wine in [Thibault and his siblings'] blood early on. I started helping to harvest the grapes when I was six years old and did so until I was 25. As we got older, we gradually drank a bit more. If you do that, you never feel like you want to be drunk."
So did you know from childhood that you'd go into the wine business? "I studied business and then, in 2007, I worked for the United Nations' World Food Programme in Italy. Two years later I worked for [former French president Nicolas] Sarkozy for a few months, in his communications team. In politics I realised that you are easily replaced. It was after this that I decided to go back to wines, because it's about building friendships."
Why did you start Pont des Arts with Arthur de Villepin? "Coming to Asia, I knew I wanted to do something completely different; the wine society is very conservative. But with Pont des Arts we have the freedom to do what we want with the wines, spirits, cognac, whisky. We taste the grapes and buy the ones we want and then my dad blends them, and we bottle them. We make only 280 cases, and Arthur chooses the artists to create the wine labels each year."
What do you do when you're not working? "I love travelling. For most of the travel I do for work I go to big cities, so in my personal time I look for the opposite - being in nature, with almost no alcohol and simple food. My favourite trip ever was when I went to Botswana 10 years ago and lived in a tent, watched the safari animals and felt like I was in the Lion King."
Thibault Pontallier will be hosting a Chateau Margaux dinner on June 4 at Spoon by Alain Ducasse, at the InterContinental, in Tsim Sha Tsui.