Robert Wessman was once dubbed the Viking Boss for how he transformed the pharmaceutical business in Iceland. Now he has his sights set on the premium end of the wine business, buying Bergerac estate Château Saint-Cernin, and employing global wine consultant Michel Rolland and his team to oversee the cellar and winemaking. He is already making waves with the red Château Saint-Cernin already outscoring Cheval Blanc and Harlan Estate in a critics’ blind tasting. Geoffrey Dean was whisked to Bergerac in a private jet, tasted the wines and quizzed Wessman about his best route to market in the UK.
All three labels of Chateau Saint-Cernin are served on board the private airline VistaJet’s 74 planes, while the medium-term strategy is to achieve high-end distribution in 20 cities worldwide.
Robert Wessman, the billionaire Icelandic pharmaceutical entrepreneur, is aiming to gain market share in the UK with his No 1 Château Saint-Cernin label from the Bergerac appellation. The 2016 vintage, a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, showed very well in blind tastings at the 12th century chateau, in the Perigord region, when a combined group of journalists and buyers from Britain, France and other countries visited in early May. For the record, the Saint-Cernin outscored the Cheval Blanc 2014 as well as the Harlan Estate 2012.
Wessman and his Russian wife, Ksenia Shakhmanova, both passionate wine-lovers, have spared no expense in assembling an impressive stable of three wines: the red Bergerac, a Chardonnay from Limoux (also labelled No 1 Saint-Cernin) and a Rose Champagne, named Wessman One. Michel Rolland has been hired as a consultant, with renowned oenologist, Julien Viaud, who works in partnership with Rolland, making the red wine. Wessman has invested in a new state-of-the-art cellar at Château Saint-Cernin, which will be completed next year.
At present, Hedonism are the only retailers in the UK that are stocking the Bergerac Rouge, with an RRP of £49. Julien Le Doare, the Mayfair store’s shop manager, says that his head buyer is considering taking on the Chardonnay. Whether drinkers can be convinced that a Bergerac is worth such an outlay is a moot point, but the wine’s strong performance in the blind tastings was encouraging. The Chardonnay also did well in them, but its elevage in as much as 80% new oak will not endear it to every palate.
Once dubbed ‘the Viking Boss’ by The Economist magazine, the charismatic Wessman is intent on making a commercial success out of his venture into the world of wine, being keen to scotch any notion it is a rich man’s indulgence.“I have changed the pharmaceutical industry a lot despite the fact I knew little about it at first, and I have very high ambition for my wines,” Wessman told The Buyer. “We have a great team making them, and an amazing new cellar that will be ready in 12 months.”
Current production of the three wines is currently 20,000 bottles per annum, although Wessman says his long-term target is 50,000. His acquisition of 2.4 hectares of prime vineyard sites in La Serpent village in Limoux in south-west France will enable him to produce more Chardonnay. All three labels are served on board the private airline VistaJet’s 74 planes, while the medium-term strategy is to achieve high-end distribution in 20 cities worldwide. Current listings include Paris, New York, Miami, Hong Long, Macau, Taipei and Auckland.
The red Bergerac’s oak treatment was judicious, with the wine seeing a third new oak, a third second fill and a third stainless steel. Both the 2016 and 2017 have been bottled, with the former’s concentration being especially marked. The fruit is bought in from local growers, but the plan is to plant a couple of hectares of one or two unusual varietals at the chateau to make special cuvées. These will be selected from micro-vinifications of 18 varietals that are being grown as part of a technical joint venture with Bernard Magrez at Chateau Pape Clement in Graves. The rarer varietals include Alicante Bouschet, Amaron, Caladoc, Chenanson, Duras, Niellucio and Vinhao.
As for the non-vintage Wessman One Champagne, a Rose that comprises 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, it is dark pink with a full body. Aged on the lees for three years, it has a dosage of 6g/l. Like the Chardonnay, it has an RRP in France of €40. Both are high quality wines, but the key for success in the UK will be their price point. How well the wines sell at Hedonism is difficult to predict, and on-trade sales may represent the best way into the UK market.