Grape & Grain

With his two Bordeaux wine estates, oil baron Alejandro Bulgheroni is taking his time to get things just right

Argentina’s richest man and a serial vineyard buyer, Bulgheroni is making sure his Chateau de Langalerie and Chateau Suau properties produce the best quality wines while building a sustainable business

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 August, 2017, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 5:41pm

Alejandro Bulgheroni, or Don Alejandro as he is more usually known, is low-key, soft-spoken and charming. Chatting during a recent garden party he was hosting in Bordeaux, he casually picked up and carried away my empty plate in a manner that was very much the opposite of what you would expect from an oil and gas baron worth nearly US$4 billion.

That figure doesn’t make him the wealthiest chateau owner in Bordeaux – that accolade that goes to LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, worth US$53 billion, at Chateau Cheval Blanc – but he is certainly right up there, and notably worth a good deal more than the Rothschild family at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

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Not that he will be the one to tell you this. His arrival in Bordeaux is entirely in keeping with his modest persona. Bulgheroni is the wealthiest man in Argentina, owner of two private jets and two helicopters who, besides his oil and gas interests, has wineries in Uruguay, Argentina, Australia, California, Tuscany and Patagonia. Yet almost nobody in Bordeaux seems to know he bought his first chateau in the region back in 2013 and a second one the following year. Overseeing both properties, as wine consultant, is influential oenologist Michel Rolland, who also works on Bulgheroni’s flagship Napa winery in California, the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate.

I know Bulgheroni’s wines from Napa and Uruguay, but not those closest to my own home in Bordeaux. To familiarise myself, I drove out to meet estate manager Franck Noguiez at Bulgheroni’s Chateau de Langalerie near Sainte-Foy-la-Grande.

Located in the Côtes de Bordeaux appellation – as is Bulgheroni’s other property, Chateau Suau – Langalerie was bought after a dispute that saw the previous owners move out in a hurry. Their furniture, even their books, are still in place, as Bulgheroni has concentrated on fixing up the vineyard before turning his attention to the possibilities of the chateau itself.

The estate is in one of the most rural corners of Bordeaux, and I found it by heading towards the centuries-old sequoia tree that towers above the central courtyard – a hugely unusual sight in southwest France. An oak grove stands a little further behind, planted with formal alleys in the style of Chateau Versailles but for now left overgrown and abandoned.

This is the huge advantage of buying an estate when it is not your primary source of income. We are able to take our time and make clear plans for this estate
Franck Noguiez

It all looks just as studiously understated as its owner, until you start to delve behind the scenes. This is an estate that covers 220 acres, split at the time of sale into 145 acres of vines and the rest pasture and woodland. Bulgheroni immediately pulled up 130 acres and is still replanting, with just 15 acres left in production. A new winery is under construction, to be ready for the 2017 harvest.

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Drainage channels have been introduced to further improve the potential of the gravelly soils, and the percentage of the cabernet sauvignon grape is being increased. For now, they are releasing nothing under the name Chateau de Langalerie (bottling instead under the name of the estate’s second wine, Chateau de Bleyzac), preferring to wait until the quality is up to their expectations by 2020.

“This is the huge advantage of buying an estate when it is not your primary source of income,” Noguiez says. “We are able to take our time and make clear plans for this estate to be primarily cabernet sauvignon based. Chateau Suau is primarily merlot based. We aim to make two very different styles of wines that are reflections of their terroir and give a clear offer to our clients.”

Bulgheroni joined his father’s oil company Bridas at the age of 22, working first with his father and then with his brother Carlos, who died in 2016. He continues to serve as president and chairman of the company after selling a 50 per cent stake to the Chinese state-run oil company CNOOC in 2010.

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He bought his first vineyard almost a decade ago in Uruguay and since 2011 he has been buying estates at an average rate of two per year. In another departure from the typical “oil man” image, all of Bulgheroni’s estates are farmed either organically or biodynamically, and all either use or are introducing wind and solar power, and extensive recycling programmes.

“Suau is already 100 per cent organic,” Noguiez says, “and Langalerie is beginning the conversion right now. The key is to build a sustainable business that Don Alejandro can pass on to his seven children.”

“I want to leave them something beautiful,” is how Bulgheroni puts it.