French Wine Country's Tradition Draws Chinese Investors

Cardinal Richelieu established Chateau Richelieu in 1632. Its history and local lore drew interest from Chinese investors, who bought it last month.
Cardinal Richelieu established Chateau Richelieu in 1632. Its history and local lore drew interest from Chinese investors, who bought it last month. (Courtesy Of Chateau Richelieu)
SOURCE: | By Gene Thorp - The Washington Post - July 26, 2009
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 26, 2009

FRONSAC, France -- It would be hard to find anything more rooted in France than Chateau Richelieu.

King Louis XIII's minister, Cardinal Richelieu, bought the prestigious vineyard in 1632 and installed his favorite mistress in the chateau. A generation later, the wines of Fronsac, Chateau Richelieu prominently among them, became standard fare for feasts at Versailles under Louis XIV. Ever since, Chateau Richelieu and its ancient heritage have been a pride of the Fronsac region, which runs along the Dordogne River 20 miles northeast of Bordeaux.

But times have changed, even in Fronsac. Chinese real estate investors based in Hong Kong and Beijing plopped down a small fortune last month and bought the place up -- vineyard, chateau and pedigree included.

The deal was the second such purchase in just over a year. Another Chinese company, this one based in Qingdao, gobbled up Chateau Latour-Laguens, just south of here, in early 2008. It has since launched a multimillion-dollar renovation aimed at turning the middling wine into a high-end marque and the 500-year-old chateau into a destination for well-heeled Chinese wedding parties.

In both cases, according to specialists involved in the negotiations, the Chinese buyers sought precisely what France is richest in: history, elegance, tradition and savoir-faire. The new generation of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs in effect came to France to buy a piece of the class, bloodline and heritage that were uprooted in their own country by the communism of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.

"The ancestry consideration, it was something that really counted for them," said Sophie Roussov, a wine marketing specialist hired by Longhai International Trading Co. of Qingdao to manage Chateau Latour-Laguens and its renovation. "If they were interested in this chateau, it was because it has a long history."

Not to mention that it looked like a good way to make money.

In both cases, winemakers reported, the Chinese investors have laid plans to market the pedigree of their newly acquired Bordeaux wines to the nouveaux riches back home. Local realtors estimated the purchase prices at several million dollars each. But with 1.3 billion consumers in a China that is just starting to get reacquainted with the finer things in life, including wine, Chinese getting a foothold in Bordeaux have concluded there is gold in the green bottles soon to be shipped to the other side of the world.

So much so, said Stephane Toutounji, a winemaking consultant, that a third Chinese company is reported to be sniffing around Bordeaux looking for a chateau to buy.

For many producers here, the investors and particularly the potential consumers of China have come to represent a new horizon, perhaps a source of wealth that will pull the region out of a slump brought on by overheated prices, competition from New World wines and the global recession.

"China is the future," Roussov predicted.

Surprisingly, in a country often jealous of its patrimony, the Chinese incursion has not generated any protests of note, local producers said. A few small-scale vintners have grumbled, they said, but mainline winemakers and merchants have so far regarded the Chinese buyers as an opportunity rather than a threat.

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