One has a background in wine and an interest in art, while the other has a background in art and an interest in wine. Together, Thibault Pontallier and Arthur de Villepin of recently launched wine brand Pont Des Arts are intent on bridging art and wine, East and West, collectors and newcomers alike. Young, 20-something upstarts they may be, the two Hong Kong-based Frenchmen have not just conviction but the pedigree to realise their lofty ambitions. For Pontallier, son of Chateau Margaux's Paul Pontallier, the viticultural tradition in his family dates back to the 16th century, while Villepin is the son of former French Prime Minister Dominique Villepin and sculptor Marie-Laure Viébel. In Singapore recently to showcase their 2010 vintages — which bear lithographs of works by Beijing-born, France-based Zao Wou-ki — the Pont Des Arts duo spoke of their love for wine, art and country.
Why the name Pont Des Arts, which is famously the name of the bridge that crosses the Seine near The Louvre?
Arthur de Villepin (AV): We really took our time to find the right name, and when we did, we felt it fitted exactly with our concept. Pont Des Arts means the bridge of arts, and what we wanted to bring together was the talents of the art world and the talents of the wine world. We also wanted it to represent a bridge between two cultures — Europe and China.
Thibault Pontallier (TP): The bridge is the most romantic in Paris, and it evokes the imagery of bridging East and West, bridging talents and generations. And we're also the only brand in France to bridge Burgundy and Bordeaux.
AV: We only realised after friends pointed it out, that Pont Des Arts is the amalgamation of our names. Pont, for Thibault's last name, Pontallier, and Arts for Arthur.
Let's talk about the wines first. How did you decide on what to release?
TP: Together with my father [Paul Pontallier] we tried 600 to 700 parcels, and the idea, like what is done with burgundy or champagne, was to buy the best grapes possible for us to make an assemblage — we do the vinification, we buy the barrels and do everything else from the cork to the bottle. It was magical working with my dad. He'd taste every parcel and then say, “We need 10 percent of this, 40 percent of that… this will bring the elegance, this will bring spice, this will bring structure…”
AV: This is what links the project to art as well. The winemaker is definitely an artist; a maestro. When he chooses to do a blend, he is imposing a certain style, and what is common here with all the wines, is the style of Paul Pontallier.
We heard the source of your grapes is a secret.
TP: It's no secret. Our Right Bank Bordeaux (Rive Droite 2010) is from Saint Emilion. The Left Bank Bordeaux (Rive Gauche 2010) is a mix of Margaux, St Julien and Pauillac appellations. All the Burgundy appellations are on the bottles as well: Pouilly-Fuisse, Cote de Nuits and Nuit Saint Georges. The only secret we keep is one producer in Burgundy, because he asked us to. He's a very good friend and quite famous and he doesn't work with anyone else.
And now the art. Why was the work of Zao Wou-Ki chosen to feature on bottle labels?
TP: Zao Wou-Ki was really perfect for us to start with because in books and interviews he's described as the bridge between France and China. He was born in Beijing and when he was around our age he went to live in Paris. So his life and paintings are influenced by two cultures. Just like how he went from Asia to France, the two of us are from France living in Asia. It makes sense. Plus, he is good friends with Arthur's family.
AV: What we did was to work with the artist to match the characteristics of each wine with a painting. For example, the two white wines feature watercolour paintings, and the flowers and colours in them express what you feel and taste in your mouth. It's a great metaphor. For us it's about the ultimate experience. It's no more just drinking wine or learning about art, it's doing both at the same time.
Some have observed that wine has lost its popularity with the young in Europe. Do you agree?
TP: It's not true for dinner and lunches, people have a lot of wine still. But for parties and at pubs, whisky and vodka are preferred. So our aim is to get people to rediscover wine and enjoy them through a whole selection. When you buy an entire set, you get six wines — three Burgundy and three Bordeaux — and can learn about the differences between the various appellations. And you also get six paintings. That makes it fun.
AV: There is really a pedagogical element to our project. Both with the wine and with the art on the bottle. The paintings reveal how the artist lived and how his work has evolved. When he arrived in Paris, he painted more in the figurative way and over the years he became more and more abstract and influenced by European artists like Cézanne and Gauguin. He's 92 now, and we went through his work from 1948 to 2007 for the selection.
You are both young men with famous last names. Is there a pressure to succeed in this venture?
AV: That's one of the motivations.
TP: We have to be honest, our names help. For wine, the credibility that my family name gives is wonderful because people take you seriously, they'll want to try the wines, and they realise it's very good.
AV: For me there's an ambition to match the level of what our families have done before and why our names have been made famous. But it's really also a family project.
TP: The four of us, father and sons, have done dinners together where we discuss opportunities, the project, and talk about wine and the arts. It's fun.
How did the idea to start this venture come about in the first place?
TP: Both Arthur and I live in Hong Kong and we met in summer 2010 through a common friend. Arthur said he wanted to create something with art, and I wanted to do something with wine. So we thought it was a good idea to combine these two passions into something special.
AV: One of the first things we started talking about when we met was our passion for France. We're both very patriotic and we enjoy discussing politics, so one ambition for this project was to bring the best of France to Asia.
TP: We thought it's more useful to do this than to join a French political party right now! France needs a better image, and we want to show that there are many young people doing good things.
What's next for Pont Des Arts?
TP: This year we're going to release a cognac and an armagnac. Next year we're going to do champagne. The idea is always to do new projects. We don't want to increase quantity of every wine, because we'll lose quality, what we prefer is to increase diversity and the exhibition of art.
Pont Des Arts is exclusively distributed by Vinum Fine Wines, vinum.com.sg