I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived at Château de Sours on a beautifully sunny October morning. It was the beginning of a week where the skies were threatening to turn stormy but the heat from the summer was still evident, the vines green even though their grapes had been picked.
I drove up to the main Château entrance that I was used to from previous visits, before remembering that it is now closed off as the private residence of the world’s 17th richest man, and did a half-turn back to a carpark with a group of under-construction offices.
A small group was waiting for me and within minutes we were sat in a four-seater, open-topped Polaris Ranger embarking on a three-hour drive around the estate.
By turns we walked, or drove, but at no point did we visit a winery or even taste any wine. Instead what I got was an insight into one of the most remarkable projects I have visited in the region.
It had been four years since I was last here, since the news broke in February 2016 that Jack Ma, founder of Hangzhou-based internet giant Alibaba, had become the new owner.
The estate that he had chosen, Château de Sours, is located in St Quentin de Baron in a bucolic corner of Entre-Deux-Mers, complete with the rolling hills that are hard to find in much of Bordeaux.
Previously, it had been best known for its British links due to ownership first by Esme Johnson, founder of Majestic Wine Warehouse, who had put its rosé wine on the map and then Martin Krajewski, the charismatic businessman who built on its reputation and launched a sparkling rosé to cement the estate’s reputation.
But Ma’s arrival lifted it to an entirely new stratosphere, with global headlines and intense interest as to what would happen next.
The rumours started from the moment he signed on the dotted line.
First, reports suggested that he was tearing down the existing Château to replace it with a mini-version of Versailles Palace. Then that he was opening a five-star hotel that would involve buying up all neighbouring estates and tearing them down, along with vast swathes of centuries-old forests.
I read in one report that he was having a lighting system installed that could be switched on from his helicopter while flying overhead, while another told of fights with architects, former employees and neighbours over outlandish projects that would see him create a First Growth wine in the soils of Entre-Deux-Mers.
All of which goes some way to explain the obvious desire to control the narrative. ‘Rumours start like a mosquito but they become like an elephant,’ is how estate manager Tom Vercammen put it.
Vercammen works alongside his wife Cheryl. Both speak five languages and are formidable. You can imagine Tom striding around a game park in Kenya, Cohiba in hand, ready to wrestle any passing big game.
Originally from Belgium, with a background in agronomy and horticulture, he has not been hired for his wine expertise but for his land management experience. It turns out that running huge estates for extremely discreet billionaires needs a very specific skill set, and he has it.
The last one the pair of them took care of comprised 15,000 hectares in south Spain. They arrived at de Sours in late 2017, just as previous owner Krajewski’s consultancy was coming to an end.
‘The first thing I did was carry out an audit of what was needed, and undertook full redevelopment from 2018,’ Vercammen tells me; the clear implication being that everything was needed.
Speculation about buying neighbouring land appears to be borne out to some extent.
De Sours has grown from a 70ha estate at the time of sale to 200ha via the purchase of two properties. There are no plans to buy any more, although the team is keen to tell me they they’ve had numerous approaches from people wanting to sell.
Even so, every inch seems to be carefully considered. The visit felt more like exploring a property in Argentina or Chile, with mile after mile of carefully constructed landscapes where vines play only one part of a larger whole.
‘We see 2018 as year zero,’ Vercammen tells me. ‘When we arrived, much of the land was either vineyard or was left wild and overgrown. There were extensive forests but many of the trees had beetle infestations or other issues.
‘What we did was look at the entire 200ha area as if at a blank page, carrying out soil studies, working with research institutes about balancing the ecosystem, encouraging an integrated pest management system, managing the water and drainage, and developing long-term sustainable agriculture, copper alternatives and ways to regenerate soils.
‘Around 100ha has been reclaimed, relandscaped, replanted, irrigated, and improved. Essentially we have spent the past few years working, working, working the land.’
There are touches that remind you there is an extremely demanding boss behind all of this.
Music is piped throughout the gardens right down to the lake. You see high fences and security watchtowers at various points. And the entrance to the main Château has amphoras and large oak casks that will remain even after the main winery is completed, as a way for Ma’s guests – ‘such as, the king of Denmark’ – to get an idea of the winemaking techniques.
Even the numbers can obscure the bigger picture here, because it is so easy to get lost in them.
I am told that six full-time gardeners have planted 20,000 roses, with 10,000 still to come across 15ha of parkland. Also newly arrived are 25,000 hortensias, 5,000 fruit trees, 6,200 oaks, 20 beehives of honeybees and 70 hives of bumblebees.
A kitchen garden grows vegetables for feeding 55 Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs, 11 Scottish Highland cattle, 100 chickens and Noir de Gascogne turkeys.
Even the vines will be interspersed with fields of wildflowers, and 26 new small lakes to assist with drainage and water removal.
There seem to be several long-term objectives at play. One, quite simply, is to give Ma somewhere with privacy and space. He loves fishing, for example, meaning that the main lake in front of the Château has been extended to 8,000 square metres and is fully stocked with carp, bream and black bass.
On the wine side, the aim is not to create a new First Growth but establish a Vin de France, with all the flexibility that implies.
To date, only occasional limited releases have been sold within China, via the FreshHema online shopping platform owned by Alibaba, although bottles of sparkling rosé labelled Mars Sours were given to 60,000 Alibaba employees as a farewell gift.
The long-term strategy has been unclear until now.
‘If we release as Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur, we are hemmed in by the price ceiling those appellations carry with them,’ says Vercammen.
‘This way, we are not beholden to the rules of Bordeaux. Instead we are looking to plant according to the soils and market demand, rather than be bound by Bordeaux rules.’
A new winery is due for completion in 2022, the same year the new-look wine is due to be released onto the market.
Trellising has been raised across the vineyard, vine stakes have been replaced and all pesticides and herbicides have ceased since 2018, with horses ploughing 12ha of vines.
They have all six red Bordeaux varieties planted, but they are also planting grapes from northern Portugal and northern Spain, such as Verdelho and Alvarino, as well as Colombard, Clairette, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
It seems increasingly clear, as we drive around and the scale of development becomes unmistakable, that the overarching aim is to widen the definition of a wine estate to something that encompasses permaculture, agroforestry and biodiversity in a way that does more than pay lip service to the terms.
Vercammen’s past experience helps here. He has not run a traditional château, and as a result feels no loyalty to the norms of the industry. He was unwilling to even name a wine estate that he admires. When pushed, he cited Château de Berne in Provence and Kingscote Estate in UK.
It’s disappointing for Bordeaux perhaps, that the appellation name will not be on the label, but there are still lessons to be drawn, particularly as it is increasingly clear that all wine regions are going to have to step-up to consciously cultivate biodiversity and move away from monoculture.
Outside of wine, Ma has now stepped back from Alibaba, and is better known for his philanthropy. He’s pledged, among other things, US$14 million to preserve wetlands in Hangzhou and has this year donated millions in medical supplies to countries, regions and organisations battling Covid-19.
The year before he arrived at Château de Sours he bought of 280,000 acres of American wilderness in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, to turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. And it is this, I would say, that gives a better idea of his plans for de Sours.
‘We got a lot of negative headlines about destroying the forest on our arrival,’ says Vercammen. ‘But we are not destroying nature, we are upgrading it, giving value back to the land. Everything is here for a reason. It takes vision to see it, and while Ma is always very humble in person, he misses nothing’.