China’s thirst for wine has propped up a multi-billion domestic wine market. It has also taken deep-pocketed investors to snatch up vineyards worldwide to quench their thirst for wine and prestige. From the fabled wine region in Bordeaux to China’s new favorite, Australia, the country’s grape ambition has left an indelible imprint on global vineyard map.
As China’s wealth swells with millions of aspiring wine lovers, Bordeaux embarked on what respected British wine writer Jancis Robinson calls a “naked scramble for Asian business”. It apparently worked. At the turn of the century, China bought practically less than 1% of Bordeaux wines and by 2015, this swollen up to over 30%, making it Bordeaux’s most lucrative export market.
What happened later is China’s growing taste for claret can no longer be contained in a 750ml format Bordeaux bottle. The country’s nouveau riche had their eyes set on the source, the vines and the chateaux in Bordeaux, which is synonymous with French fine wine traditions. Bordeaux’s two consecutive and successful vintages of 2009 and 2010, not only greased Bordeaux’s money-making machine, it kicked China’s buying boom for Bordeaux vineyards into high gear.
That’s why when the well-heeled Chinese investors met with deal-hungry Bordelais who are tirelessly courting Chinese business, it is a match made in heaven.
Today, out of 8,000 vineyards and chateaux in Bordeaux, the Chinese have bought about 170 estates, representing about 3% of the wine region’s overall ownership, most of which are non-classified Chateaux.
State-owned conglomerates and private companies have raced to snatch up lesser-known Bordeaux estates to produce wines destined for China’s mass market. COFCO, the country’s biggest foodstuff company and owner of Chinese winery GreatWall, in 2011 bought Viaud Chateau in Lalande-de-Pomerol AOC for US$15.19 million. Without any shred of subtly or ambiguity, state media declared, “China swallows Bordeaux”. The purchase was interpreted by Bordeaux insiders as Chinese finally saying, “we are, feet on the ground, in Bordeaux,” Wine Spectator reported at the time.
The country’s biggest and oldest winery, Changyu Pioneer Wine Company, followed and bought 90% of Château Mirefleurs, a Bordeaux Supérieur estate from French wine group Castel in a deal worth €3.33 million in 2015. Even the country’s most valuable baijiu producer, Kweichow Moutai, jumped on the bandwagon and purchased Château Loudenne in Haut-Medoc, the same year.
One of the most high-profile Bordeaux sales in recent memory involves Jack Ma, China’s second richest man worth over US$40 billion and founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba. He acquired two historical estates, including the 18th century Chateau de Sours in Entre-Deux-Mers and Chateau Perenne in Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux in 2016.
Famous Chinese actress and film director Zhao Wei bought a Saint-Emilion grand cru estate Chateau Monlot in 2011 for an undisclosed price, making headlines in and outside of Bordeaux. She has since gone on to purchase at least another three estates in Bordeaux, which are Château Patarabet located at the foot of the village of Saint-Émilion and the 16-ha Château La Vue in 2013. Her footprint expanded into Entre-Deux-Mers with the purchase of 57-ha Château Senailhac in 2015, and in 2019 she added Château La Croix de la Roche in AOC Fronsac.
The buying caught on. The Chinese real estate tycoon Pan Sutong who has a taste for fine vintage snatched up Château Le Bon Pasteur, Château Rolland-Maillet and Château Bertineau St-Vincent vineyards in Bordeaux in addition to Napa’s Sloan Estate. Hong Kong-based billionaire Peter Kwok also owns at least seven estates in Bordeaux Right Bank.
The business of selling Chinese historical chateaux with vineyards has become so lucrative that Vineyards-Bordeaux, a Christie’s affiliated company that deals with vineyard sales in Bordeaux, has two language options on its website other than French – English and Chinese. It also has a dedicated China desk, dealing with growing inquiries from potential Chinese buyers shopping for trophy estates and vacation homes.
The massive Chinese buying spree in Bordeaux was welcomed by some as a much-needed cash injection when many family heirs struggled to pay France’s daunting inheritance tax. But some Chinese-owned estates’ bizarre name-changing to auspiciously sounding Chinese names irked some traditionalists in the wine region.
More worryingly, with no sight of Chinese buyers in Bordeaux after the purchases and the conspicuously idle Chateaux and unattended vineyards, questions of more dubious intention of the buying rush were raised.
Haichang Group, founded in Dalian in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, went on a shopping binder and purchased over 20 Bordeaux wine estates for more than US$64 million. It produces around two million bottles per year across 60 labels, much of which is sold in China. However, in 2018 French authorities froze 10 of its vineyards on suspicion of fraud and money laundering following four years of investigation.
“For 10 chateaux, we discovered a certain number of tax crimes: laundering of the proceeds of tax fraud, forgery, use of forgery, etc,” a police source said as reported by AFP.
But much of the buying frenzy in Bordeaux has cooled down in recent years. Without proper management, distribution and tech know-how, much of their investment like the grapes withered on the vines. This is when a new favorite has emerged for Chinese investors, closer to home and much for attractive – Australia.
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