Cornishman Mark Hellyar left a career as a successful businessman five years ago to start producing wine in Bordeaux. Now his wine, Chateau Civrac, is stocked at several Michelin-starred restaurants, most recently at Le Gavroche. Neil Gerrard finds out how he has done it
Caterer How does a Cornishman end up producing wine in Bordeaux?
Mark Hellyar A lot of Cornish are mavericks in some form or another, and I would classify myself as a little bit of a maverick. And I think I must be the only Cornishman supplying wine to the French. What interested me was to make a wine that was a bit different to Bordeaux - something a bit new and more likely to interest a younger audience.
Caterer When did you start?
MH I started in 2005 after I sold a software business I was running. I had the opportunity to live out a dream and buy a property in France. My wife would say it was a mid-life crisis; I would say it was a carefully thought-out career decision. I went out there with a fairly square business head, regarding what style of wine I wanted to make and who for, which dictated where we looked for a property. We used a consultant to find the place, and he has stayed with me ever since, helping me with the whole process, including blending.
Caterer Did you have a wine background?
MH Purely from a consumer's point of view. I developed an interest over about 15 years and was fortunate enough to work in wine-growing areas such as California and South Africa. That's really what drove it. Lots of people in the wine business are deeply involved in it. But coming to it from an outsider's perspective and thinking about what people actually want and what works in a restaurant is slightly different to the traditional way of working. Bordeaux is very traditional and I wanted to make the wine more fresh and approachable.
Caterer How do you make it more approachable?
MH Fruit and softness. The way in which wine is traditionally vinified there means it has to be kept for five, six, seven years before it is soft enough to drink. But if you use a slightly New World approach to the way you treat the fruit you can soften the tannins, which makes the wine drinkable younger, and if it is well-made then it will also last longer in the bottle. It may not last as long as a Grand Cru but it is best at between three and 10 years old.
Caterer What do the French producers make of you?
MH I am regarded as a bit of a loony. I stay living in the UK and I don't think there are many people who have done that. In this demanding market you have to have a very clear view of what people want, and when you are there and entrenched you can lose track of that. So I try and embed myself in talking to chefs and sommeliers in the hotels and restaurants that we are fortunate enough to supply.