The New Barons of Bordeaux

By Pallavi Aiyar

Deep in the Bordeaux countryside, Chateau du Grand Moueys is a sprawling 170-hectare expanse of vineyards and forest. At its center, a neo-gothic castle with turrets and crenellated walls, bring to mind a medieval world of knights and romance.

Seated within the chateau's genteelly dilapidated dining room, the estate's new owner, 49-year-old Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Jin Shan, chomps forlornly, on a croissant and contemplates how to revive the vineyard. Globalization has created new challenges for the French wine industry. Once secure in their supremacy, French vineyards now must compete with less expensive New World wines, at a time of declining demand from austerity-parched developed markets.

I ask Zhang how he's been enjoying the local French food. "Hai xing," he replies with a shrug, using a Chinese phrase that signifies faintest approval. "I've got used to it."

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Aline Moineau, the chateau's longstanding manager, purses her lips tightly. Zhang doesn't appear to notice and perks up talking about a luxurious 50-seat Chinese restaurant, the piece-de-resistance of the high-end hotel and spa that he plans for the premises.

I ask if a French restaurant would make more sense in a chateau? "No," he answers emphatically. "In France there are many French restaurants, but very few Chinese ones. The guests in my hotel will mostly be Chinese, and the fact that they can find good food here will be attractive for them."

"But perhaps they would want to try French food?" interjects Moineau. "Please, let Mr. Zhang talk with the journalist first, and ask your questions later," snaps Sophie, the Chinese woman who serves as Zhang's French interpreter.

The clash of culture is obvious, one that feeds into larger resentments across Europe at China's rising clout and investments in the economically floundering continent. On the one hand, Europe welcomes Chinese riding to the rescue of distressed assets, but investors are focused on making profits. Inevitably Chinese consumers are influencing trends in taste, a development that's not always to the liking of locals.

Chinese investments in Europe are still small but growing at a heightened pace. In 2011 the Chinese invested $10 billion in the crisis-hit region, triple the amount of a year earlier, according to a study by economic consultancy Rhodium Group and the Chinese bank CICC. Chinese investors have been buying car companies, solar-panel producers and chemical plants among other acquisitions, prompting the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, to publish a report titled "The Scramble for Europe," drawing parallels between the European colonization of Africa in the 19th century and China's current activity in Europe.

While such declarations may be overblown, rocketing figures for wine consumption in the Chinese mainland, combined with the reputation enjoyed by Bordeaux wines have made owning a vineyard, or two, an increasingly attractive proposition.

China is not a traditional wine-drinking nation. Still, in 2011 it surpassed the United Kingdom to become the fifth largest consumer of wine by volume, according to the International Wine and Spirits Research group. The mainland's wine market has experienced more than 20 percent growth every year since 2006, and around 20 percent of Bordeaux's exports are now destined for China.

Purchases by Chinese in Bordeaux began in 2008, when a trading company from Qingdao bought Chateau Latour Laguens, a 30-hectare vineyard. By 2011, more prestigious estates like Chateau Laulan Ducos, classified as a Cru Bourgeois, began passing into Chinese hands. Another significant acquisition in 2011 was the €10 million deal whereby COFCO, a state-owned oil and food giant, became owner of Chateau Viaud.

 

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Pallavi Aiyar is an Indian journalist and author of the Vodafone-Crossword Award winning book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China. She reports on Europe for the Business Standard, and her first novel, Chinese Whiskers, was published in 2011. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

(AP Photo)

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