he truth is, money speaks louder than patriotism. In the case of Gevrey-Chambertin press reports claim that local winegrowers had come up with an offer of 4 million euros, upped it to 5 million but were then trumped by the Chinese investor who was willing to fork out 8 million euros to secure the property even though the official asking price was ‘only’ 7 million. One of the things that most spooked the local wine community was that attempts by agricultural property watchdog Safer – which can pre-empt purchases so that priority is given to young wine growers or regrouping vineyard blocks – to prevent the purchase were thwarted. This gave the impression that the jewels in France’s wine growing crown could be plucked at will with no regard for keeping French heritage “in the national family
”. The move was particularly poignant in Burgundy where the number of estates sold to investors outside the region – let alone the country – are few and far between. A similar sale in Bordeaux, though with a much less prestigious estate in Entre-Deux-Mers (Château Bel Air), also raised eyebrows when it was announced that the purchase price was in excess of current market trends.
In the case of Burgundy as indeed in many others, the new owners are in fact intending to leave the existing management structure in place; the Chinese buyers seem to be astute enough to realise that their capabilities do not stretch to upholding French appellation traditions, at least yet.
The primary incentive for buying French wine estates is, of course, the desire to cash in on France’s current reputation in China. In many instances, this also involves developing the existing tourist structure so that Chinese holidaymakers can indulge in the pleasures afforded by the art of French wine making. Surely this can only be beneficial to France, especially since any future changes both to wine styles and the architectural designs of the buildings will have to be approved by the relevant authorities.
Perhaps the greatest concern for the French wine industry is what will happen in the future. Until now, most estates bought by Chinese investors have been in the lesser-known appellation areas, the Bordeaux satellite appellations primarily. Other foreign investors such as the Americans or the Japanese tend to spend more money and are willing to splash out as much as 1 million euros or more per hectare on the top properties. However, initial caution from the Chinese may give way to a greater readiness to invest in more expensive estates as knowledge of the international wine industry increases.
Industry chiefs in France’s main wine regions do not necessarily take a dim view of Chinese investment in the country, stressing that buyers could potentially act as ambassadors for the French wine industry in their native country. However, opinions generally are very much divided as many fear that an influx of foreign capital will only push prices up further and, all importantly, beyond the reach of French wine growers.