Chinese face suspicion in French wine world
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Chinese investors are flocking in growing numbers to the wine-rich French region of Bordeaux, and while locals are grateful for the attention, some are questioning the motivations spurring the new craze.
special correspondent in Bordeaux
Amid dozens of tradeshow stands at this year’s Vinexpo fair in the southwest city of Bordeaux, one in particular stands out. Inside its imperial-red folding screens, the Yunnan Red Château & Wine stand visitors are tempted to savour a “taste of the East”. Tiana Wu, a young woman who has worked for the vineyard based in southern China since 1997, tips a bottle of red that is adorned with fine Oriental motifs and calligraphy. But two perplexing words stand out on the otherwise harmonious label: “French wild”.
Wu has trouble explaining what the term means. The wine’s grapes grow and are harvested in China. They are also pressed and bottled there. Does the taste recall French wines from a certain region? The talkative saleswoman admits she is not sure.
What is sure is her enthusiasm for French “vin” and the wine-rich region that hosts Vinexpo – the world’s largest annual tradeshow of its kind. “We would love to buy a wine property in France,” Wu says of her company. “But first we have to test out products to see if they are compatible with European tastes.”
Yunnan Red Wine & Castle is just one of several Chinese wine companies trying their luck on the French market. Since 2011, China has set out to become one of the world’s top wine producers and has already made inroads in France by buying up close to a dozen properties in the last few years. But like the supposedly Eastern-flavoured bottle that promises a hint of France, the sudden mélange has left many perplexed.
Not striving for excellence
Stéphane Derenoncourt, a French oenologist and successful wine consultant, is one of the Bordeaux locals watching the Chinese craze for wine with amazement.
Derenoncourt says he receives at least two requests for his expertise from Chinese companies every week, but has started turning the majority of them down.
“I get the sense that in reality there is little interest in China for wine culture. Wine has become interesting as a symbol of prestige, but few actually care about the taste,” he lamented, adding that he considered the phenomenon to be “a little disturbing”.
He is convinced that the recent Chinese tide in the region is mainly motivated by the prospect of business profits, not the pursuit of excellence in the field. An interest in cultivating and improving wine production – a trait among Japanese and Americans who have invested in Bordeaux in the past – seems to be largely missing this time around.
According to Olivier Poels, deputy editor of the specialised monthly magazine “Revue du vin Français”, Chinese investors are seeking a rubberstamp of French expertise and prestige to inflate the price of their bottles. The wine expert says this trend is particularly disconcerting because many Chinese-made wines are sold at prices far too elevated for their mediocre quality.
‘Used to a more subtle approach’
Chinese wine producers are in a hurry, says Edouard André, the director of Asian sales for an upscale wine estate in the region. “The investors want to acquire a vineyard with a recognised name. Even a small castle is interesting to them provided it has a name that can be easily branded, like ‘Lafite’,” he noted.
“People in Bordeaux are used to a more subtle approach,” André added, in reference to the blunt, and often financially unrestrained, approach of many Chinese investors. “They simply lay down their cheque book on the table and say ‘how much’?”
A case in point is the purchase of the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin - one of France's most prestigious brands in the Burgundy region - by a Chinese group one year ago. The 8-million-euro sale caused consternation among wine growers, since the property had been previously estimated at 3.5 million euros, or less than half of the sale price.
Keeping it French
But unlike others, André welcomes the interest of Chinese investors in the region, which he says can only translate into a boon for the Bordeaux name.
“We welcome them with open arms, and claims that the Chinese will somehow spoil the identity of Bordeaux’ castles is simply unfounded,” he said.
He points to the Chinese food industry giant Cofco, which bought a 20-acre vineyard in the Château de Viaud, located on the sought-after wine appellation Lalande de Pomerol, in 2011. Since the acquisition Cofco has continued to work with the same oenologist employed by the previous owners.
The Chinese-owned company Moutai has adopted a similar approach since it bought the Château Loudenne three months ago.
“Its wonderful that France can capture the imagination of the Chinese, who want to come to our country to learn our savoir-faire,” says Melanie Tesseron, the owner of Château Pontet-Canet, another prestigious brand.
Challenging the image of unfeeling businessmen, she sees the Chinese as “romantics” of wine and viticulture.
Whatever image finally sticks in the world of winemaking, the French will have to get used to China’s presence. In 2011 the Asian giant became the eight largest wine producer in the world, and the top importer of Bordeaux wine.