When British businessman Chris Ruffle built a Scottish baronial castle next to his vineyard in China, an AGA cooker was an obvious choice…
Chris Ruffle could quite easily lay claim to being one of the most unusual AGA customers. He’s always been something of a pioneer, choosing, for example, to study Mandarin long before it became a crucial business language. Ruffle has since planted China’s first vineyard in granite soil in Shandong province – and then he decided to build a Scottish baronial castle right next to it, before installing a claret AGA cooker in the kitchen. His story is not one of a life lived quietly.
Graduating in the late ’70s, Ruffle was initially unable to find a home for his linguistic skills so he “sold soap for a while in Newcastle” before finally finding a role at a Chinese trading company in 1983. Fast forward to the 1990s, and it was time to get on the property ladder.
“Everyone was telling me I should buy some property, so I did what everyone else was doing and looked in London,” he says. “I remember looking at the properties in Chiswick and thinking how expensive they were. So instead I bought the ruins of Dairsie Castle in St Andrews.
”Ruffle explains his Chinese grand design in a similarly matterof-fact way. In fact, it’s testament to his boundless optimism that he explains the building as little more than a result of his architectural taste. He explains that Scottish baronial architecture is “influenced by French chateaux – which I always admired – and pleasingly non-symmetrical.”
“I like complicated skylines and spiral staircases. Nearly all Chinese buildings are utilitarian. And mine isn’t,” he laughs, as if it is all perfectly straightforward. As for the building’s beautifully dramatic (but rather incongruous) outline on the Shandong horizon, Ruffle admits: “I’m a contrarian, I suppose.”
We talk about follies and whether it’s fair that they’re often regarded with derision or snobbery. Ruffle is emphatic. “I totally disagree,” he says. “I look at those Victorian follies and I think they show a terrific sense of humour.”
Talking about the ‘element of surprise’ that unusual or historically displaced buildings can provoke, he says word of mouth in his province is spreading, but that most of the visitors to his vineyard are “local Communist Party delegations”. This word-of-mouth marketing suits him, because “advertising here is so expensive”.
Like most self-build projects, the construction of Ruffle’s castle wasn’t without its hiccups. Having called upon the services of octogenarian Ian Begg – the same architect who helped him restore Dairsie Castle – he remembers a rainy day when he told Begg how it might have been simpler to build a castle somewhere sunny. There were some serendipitous purchases, however, with the stone that forms the castle walls coming from a granite mine just five miles away.
Once finished and stuffed full of imported antiques, Ruffle got on with the next stage of his grand plan: to plant his beloved vines and start changing hearts and minds about Chinese wine. Treaty Port, his vineyard brand, was born when the first vines were planted seven years ago – the first bottles sold in 2008. He explains that most Chinese wine growers plant in clay soil nearer to the coast, and that his company was the first to try out the granite soil inland.
“We’re still working out the best methods to get the most out of our soil,” he says, “and wine is a slow business.”
But he’s had some help, using Aussie Marc Davidson from Hunter Valley, who travels to China when his own vineyard, Tamburlaine, is on its off season.
Though his growing techniques are always evolving, Ruffle favours a Cabernet Sauvignon/Grenache hybrid grape variety. Grown on 20 hectares of grassed vineyard on wires well off the ground to avoid mildew – especially during Shandong province’s August rainy season – Ruffle now sells his wine mostly to visitors, although he admits that “the Communist Party has been my best customer”, with visiting delegations making frequent stops to sample his wares. This pioneering spirit might have been what provoked Lafite to duplicate Ruffle’s model and make its first investment in Asia – with the company choosing to plant, like Ruffle, in granite soil not far from his vineyards. Ruffle isn’t ruffled, however. “I have a chance to make the best wine in China,” he says.
Ruffle knows this might be a long road, but “as consumers become more sophisticated it’ll slowly change”. He explains how the three main growers in China do what amounts to a kind of workaround, by buying in raw wine from abroad. He doesn’t think this ideal and feels that a certain amount of snobbery is informing the larger Chinese vineyards.
“Traditionally, consumers have only wanted foreign wine – asking for Lafite and Bordeaux varieties,” he says. “But as the market grows, our taste will widen and I actually think the Chinese palate is not suited to the Bordeaux grape. The highly spiced flavours of Chinese cuisine kill the subtleties in Bordeaux wine, which is why I think the natural companion for Chinese cuisine is a fruitier, sweeter wine.”
With the Silver Heights vintners in nearby Ningxai winning awards lately, he may well be right. But I’m curious to see what an AGA cooker is doing in a faux castle in Shandong and to know how on earth it got there. Ruffle – as ever – is matter of fact.
“All Scottish castles have AGA cookers, don’t they?” he says, mischievously, before explaining that he had a (helpful) friend in AGA Rangemaster Group chief executive William McGrath.
“I was very lucky because I was able to get my AGA sent to China even though they’re not officially sold here yet.”
Favouring a 4-oven model in – naturally – claret, he also bought matching AGA woodburning stoves and Fired Earth tiles for his castle kitchen. Transported to Yentai port and then installed by an AGA engineer from New Zealand, he couldn’t be happier with his purchase.
Ruffle’s chef, however, must have been surprised by this strange addition to his new home. Apparently not. Trained in Western cooking techniques – though presumably not on an AGA cooker – he says he’s had “no complaints” from his kitchen staff and has been able to enjoy a steady stream of cakes, gateaux and breads, including a loaf which used a Chinese red bean to delicious effect. Ruffle’s wife favours more of a fusion approach, cooking steaks, slow food and British fare. He’s delighted again by the oddness of it. “We’re the only Western restaurant for miles. For four million people!”
The oddest thing, however, is Ruffle’s information on the Chinese precedent for our beloved British stalwart. Used in homes throughout his province, locals in Shandong opt for wood-burning stoves where the pipes run out of the kitchen and under the beds of the occupants. “So your mattress is warmed by the heat used for your food!”
Of course, the obvious thing to ask Ruffle at this stage is “what’s next?”. For the first time in the interview, he is vague and quiet.
“I’ve seen a baroque building in Malta,” is all he’ll say. This sounds like another mad plan, but he refuses to divulge any detail: “I’m keeping that under wraps for now.”