Going on a wine adventure

Fourth-generation French winemaker Laurent Ponsot is leaving Burgundian winery Domaine Ponsot to start his own label, Domaine Laurent Ponsot

In the documentary Sour Grapes (2016), French winemaker Laurent Ponsot comes across as being a renegade, storming into a wine auction in New York and declaring that the Domaine Ponsot wines being put up for auction are counterfeit.

The 63-year-old is the fourthgeneration scion of the Burgundian winery with a 145-year history. He realised that the wines were fake when he spotted vintages in the auction catalogue that did not exist, such as a 1929 Clos de la Roche. His grandfather had not started estate bottling - that is, bottling on site instead of outsourcing the process - until 1934.

Mr Ponsot was instrumental in exposing that the wines in the consignment by Indonesian wine collector Rudy Kurniawan were fake and even testified against him.

More than US$30 million worth of counterfeit, "rare vintage" wines were sold as part of this grand con job, where Kurniawan replicated expensive wines by mixing old wines with new, cheaper ones. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 2014.

But while Mr Ponsot was fine with the first half of the 85-minute documentary by film-makers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, he feels it fell short of expectations.

"Sour Grapes didn't say everything and also had some mistakes," the Frenchman, who was in Singapore as part of an Asian promotional trip, tells The Sunday Times.

"What I didn't like was that at the end, you think that Rudy is a hero, but he's a crook," he adds, visibly agitated.

So, to tell his side of the story, he is writing a book on his crusade against Kurniawan, whom he spent five years tracking down. He also went to Kurniawan's birthplace, but declined to reveal further details, adding that he is saving it all for the book.

He points out that Domaine Ponsot bottles are no longer seen in wine auctions around the world.

"I don't want to be rude, but auction houses don't take enough precautions," he says. "As a consumer, you have to be really careful."

Domaine Ponsot wines are considered among the top in Burgundy, where Mr Ponsot was known for typically being the last producer in the Cote de Nuits wine region to pick grapes at harvest.

A case of 1985 Clos de la Roche, its flagship wine, fetched a then record-setting price of US$91,500 (S$128,300) in 2015 at an auction by Texas-based Heritage Auctions.

In Singapore, prices of its wines range from $62 for a 2004 Bourgogne Cuvee du Pinson to $3,472 for a magnum of 2014 Montrachet Grand Cru at wine distributors Wine Clique. The Clos de la Roche Cuvee Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru retails at about $600.

Given the wines' high prices, as a supplier, Mr Ponsot has been using technology to prevent counterfeits. Now it is nearly impossible to make a copy of Domaine Ponsot's bottles.

For instance, the 2005 vintages had labels laser-etched onto the glass instead of on traditional paper. From 2009, the company also started using Prooftag anti-fraud seals and a reference number that can be used to trace the authenticity of a bottle.

Mr Ponsot says he also wants to explore how technology can be applied to improve the wine-making process.

That is apparently part of the reason why last month, after 36 years as the winemaker in Domaine Ponsot, he announced that he was leaving to start his own eponymous winery in Gilly-les-Citeaux, which is close to Vougeot in the Burgundy wine region.

He will keep 25 per cent ownership of Domaine Ponsot and remain as a silent partner, while his sisters - Catherine, Stephanie and Rose- Marie - own the other 75 per cent.

"I wanted to have more freedom to start a winery and go on using technology at the service of nature and of history," he said at a press conference last week with local media.

But he would not delve into specific reasons for his departure.

"For personal reasons, I decided to move forward because I had a lot of things in mind that I wanted to do that I could not with my situation at Domaine Ponsot," he says.

For instance, he announced that he is starting research into the alternative to using the traditional barrel in the process of ageing wine.

"I don't know if it'll take five, 10 or 20 years, but we will find a way to avoid all the problems with the barrel (bacteria, volatile acidity), but still allow the wine to breathe," he says.

His new wine-making "adventure", as he calls it, will be undertaken with his 37-year-old son Clement. He also has two daughters, who will be co-owners.

While he owns a few vineyards, he has established himself as a negociant or a wine merchant who sources for grapes, juice or wine from other vineyards that can be blended with other wines or bottled under the domain's name.

Negociants have a less-thanstellar reputation in the industry, but he points out that the wine-making powerhouse that is Burgundy was run by negociants for centuries.

The vigneron, or winemaker, would farm the vines, make the wine and sell the barrels to the negociant after the harvest, where he was in charge of ageing, bottling and marketing the wine.

"I established myself as a negociant to source the best things possible and make sure the farming is in accordance with my standards," he says.

Under Domaine Laurent Ponsot, he plans to release nine white wines and seven red wines.

Some of the 2016 vintages will be on the market in autumn 2018, while the whole first tranch of this year's vintages - which he will harvest in September or October - is expected to be released in autumn 2019. He plans to sell 30,000 bottles and eventually increase production to 300,000 bottles.

But, ultimately, he will release the wine only when it is ready.

"Nature gives me a lot of advice and I will decide what to do when the wine says it's ready," he says.

And while the prices of wines, especially those from famed regions, continue to increase, he does not intend to capitalise on the name of the appellation to jack up the price.

"From my point of view, there is a right price for the right wine. I won't promise anything, but I will stay reasonable, that's for sure."

He also appreciates Singapore's wine-drinking culture.

He says: "When I sell wine here, people actually drink it. They are not collecting to show off or to speculate - they drink.

"This is what I want as a winemaker, for people to drink it with pleasure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Going on a wine adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe