Hong Kong, 2010 – the height of easy money in wine. Lafite Rothschild held an auction with Sotheby’s that saw three bottles of its 1896 vintage sell for US$230,000 each, setting a new record and confirming the city as the white-hot centre of the wine world.
More than 700 new wine businesses had opened their doors in the territory over the previous three years, taking advantage of the 2008 law that eradicated wine import duties. They were joined in 2010 by Pont des Arts, a partnership between Thibault Pontallier, son of legendary Château Margaux winemaker Paul Pontallier, and Arthur de Villepin, son of former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. They were, respectively, 24 and 22 years old, overflowing with the confidence that comes with youth, well connected and in the right place at the right time.
The Pont des Arts concept
The idea behind Pont des Arts was simple: to create limited collections of wine bottled with labels created exclusively by famous artists. At first, this meant French wine and Chinese artists, and the business partners took roles that made the most of their credentials. Pontallier, who had just been appointed brand ambassador for Margaux, would oversee the winemaking side, sourcing specially made wines from contacts largely based in Bordeaux and Burgundy. His father was a consultant in the early bottlings, selecting and blending the wines with his son and helping establish contacts with his winemaking friends. Pontallier himself was travelling all over Asia in his day job with Margaux, making invaluable connections of his own. De Villepin, whose mother is the sculptor Marie-Laure Viébel, was to take care of the links to artists. His day job was also conducive to the enterprise, setting up art businesses, including the French photography gallery YellowKorner, across Hong Kong and China.
The first two years saw a partnership with Zao Wou-Ki, a friend of the de Villepin family, with six of the artist’s existing works appearing on six different wines – a Bordeaux set of Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux Rive Droite and Bordeaux Rive Gauche, and a Burgundy set of Côte de Nuits-Villages, Nuits-St-Georges and Meursault, all from unspecified producers. The first wines were launched in 2012, followed in 2013 by an expansion from Bordeaux and Burgundy to include a 40-year-old Cognac XO Fine Champagne, with labels from artist Yue Minjun. No specific estates or winemakers were mentioned in the early marketing materials, besides Pontallier and (I quote from the launch literature) ‘highly respected winemakers from Bordeaux and Burgundy’. All the wines were sold on strict allocation, using word of mouth and careful media placements.
10 years on…
As a business it was clever, certainly. Of the moment, undoubtedly. But long-term sustainable? The jury was out.
Fast-forward a decade, however, and Pontallier and de Villepin are still here. Pont des Arts has evolved into a flexible yet focused company and looks increasingly like a long-term prospect, despite the battering that the fine wine market has received over the past year. It’s taken some subtle but important pivoting to get here – most importantly by upscaling and shifting the focus on to rarity and access. The artists – no longer always from China – have been namechecked from the beginning, but from 2014 onwards the winemakers have also been front and centre, with the focus on small-allocation parcels of sought-after names.
Today, Pont des Arts offers limited-edition bottlings that change annually from, among others, La Conseillante in Pomerol, Chêne Bleu in the Rhône, Étienne de Montille in Chassagne-Montrachet, Champagne Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Péters Champagne, and Glenglassaugh, The Macallan and Fuji-Sanroku whisky. Recent artists to grace the labels have included Miquel Barceló, Wang Yan Cheng, Kohei Nawa, Yan Pei-Ming and the Piet Mondrian foundation, as well as de Villepin’s mother Viébel.
Where the business was 90% wine at the beginning, it is now an even split between wine and spirits. Prices still start at around US$60 for the Bordeaux white but quickly head to US$500 and upwards for the more exclusive collections. Allocations have shrunk – just 100 bottles of the Glenglassaugh, for example, were offered worldwide, and the majority of releases rarely exceed 500 bottles. But distribution has expanded, with offices and partners in Bordeaux, Paris, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. There is also a presence in upscale restaurants and private clubs in 20 countries – from Annabel’s and The Arts Club in London, to international hotel brands such as Rosewood, The Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La. Some of the range is also available via the online retailer Tannico.
The artists have been namechecked from the beginning, but from 2014 onwards the winemakers have also been front and centre, with the focus on small-allocation parcels of sought-after names.
The business has expanded laterally, too, offering bespoke ‘build your own’ collections, where they put VIP clients – be they hotel groups or individual collectors – together with producers and artists for curated bottlings or barrels. This could be in the form of aged Cognac or a high-end whisky such as, to take one recent example, The Macallan 1989. Other options might include decanters from Lalique or special large-format bottles or artist commissions with exclusive lithographs that showcase the original labels.
‘These are labour-intensive projects that take time and are not easy to scale up,’ says Pontallier, ‘but that’s the point. We’ve been able to convince people of how serious the project is. And the more people trust us, the more interesting becomes our access to rare wines and spirits.’ Wineries also benefit from the partnership with artists, he says. ‘We’ve had various events where the wineries get to connect with a different kind of audience, often younger, female, or simply a different demographic. It expands the possibilities for reaching out to people, and it’s creative and fun.’
Nicole Rolet, owner of the high-profile, ambitiously revived Chêne Bleu estate near Gigondas, watched the project develop for years before deciding to create her own Pont des Arts bottling, a 100% old-vine Grenache 2017 rosé paired with a Miquel Barceló image of a bullfighter. ‘Our relationship started as a friendship with Thibault and, through him, his late father Paul,’ says Rolet. ‘I enjoyed watching the brand evolve, but since our wine is already limited production, with tiny yields from old vines grown at altitude, I wasn’t sure we would have the capacity. But I love collaborative projects, and going across the aisle to work with an artist was hard to resist. I am a strong believer in the power of creativity and the renewal it can bring.
The decision didn’t initially come from a commercial frame of mind, but from an opportunity to create something with a team that brings enthusiasm, energy and new ideas.’
The two founders have grown up alongside their company. They started out with 20 investors who believed in what was initially just an idea and a catalogue presentation, but today there are just 10 investors left, with Pontallier and de Villepin buying out the ‘least active’ of them and becoming majority owners themselves. Pontallier stepped down from his role as Château Margaux ambassador in 2019, three years after his father died of a rare cancer, aged just 59. Part of the reason, he says, was because he found it so hard to be reminded of his father every day, but equally, he had reached the point where he was ready for a new challenge. Today he is back in Paris full time, making the most of his experience in the luxury industry as a consultant in top-level management. De Villepin, who was born in America and grew up in India and France depending on his father’s postings, is still living full time in Hong Kong, recently opened an art gallery with his family and runs his own art advisory business, consulting and sourcing for interior designers, hoteliers and property developers. He is a collector himself now, with his works by artists such as Xu Qu, Sun Xun and Myonghi Kang celebrated in the local press.
‘Now one of us is in Paris, the other in Hong Kong, and we’re really living the bridge,’ says de Villepin with a smile. ‘But we’ve worked that way from the beginning – we’ve both always had other jobs and set up a team specifically for Pont des Arts. We’ve never been tied to one particular way of doing business and never wanted to limit ourselves. If Burgundy is more in demand at any one time, then we’re able to respond to that. The idea now is to do less but better. Keep refining and making smaller bottlings.’ In particular, he says, they’re keen to work with Italian and Californian producers in the coming years and to develop a handful of ‘anchor products’ with producers with which they have built a relationship.
At a time when doing business remotely has become the norm, living on different continents doesn’t seem such an issue. ‘We’ve lived many difficult moments together over the past decade, from Paul’s death to the current economic and social situation,’ says de Villepin. ‘It certainly makes you think a lot: if everything falls away, what really matters? What does it mean to be a winemaker, an artist, a collector? It’s not just about margins and amassing labels, but about relationships that you nurture. This has become the backbone of our values, and we hope it will carry us through.’
So, how are the wines?
The early years of the Pont des Arts wines – for me, at least – were underwhelming in terms of the quality in the bottle. Well-made but anonymous; not just because no winemakers were mentioned on the label but also in their flavours, which were correct but uninspiring. I start to see the range gaining focus and depth from around the 2014 vintage onwards. A few I would particularly recommend include the Corton Grand Cru Les Maréchaudes 2015 from Maison de Montille, with its white peach tension and juice, and an excellent Cuvée Spéciale Pomerol 2015, just about ready to drink and showing plenty of rich Pomerol attraction in a vintage that is still young and bedded down in the biggest wines. (No winemaker is mentioned on the label here, but Château La Conseillante has been involved in other vintages, which gives an indication of the level of producer we’re talking about.)
This article is taken from the French-themed summer 2021 edition of our quarterly magazine, which focuses on premium wine, spirits and good living, via vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to get your copy.