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The bottles are not in France: China bought best Burgundy vineyards

www.washingtonexaminer.com by Joel Gehrke16/01/2020  

Paris — Nicolas Martin, poring over the map of France, interrupted his description of the wine from each region when he came to Bourgogne to make an economic comment: The best Burgundian wine is owned by China.

“If you are trying to buy good bottles, it costs the same price for us [as] for you guys in the U.S. or in Australia, you know?” Martin, one of two employees at a small wine shop and restaurant in central Paris, told the Washington Examiner. “Because the bottles are not in France anymore.”

Martin’s observation exemplifies the customary western worry about Chinese investment in vital international assets, with a twist: These deals involve a prize of French culture, rather than a strategic infrastructure project. Chinese owners are taking a hands-off approach to managing their new vineyards, in contrast to their more controversial Belt and Road Initiative, but the French wine industry still chafes at the perceived encroachment.

“It’s very bad,” Florian Albanesi, the director of Le Boutique des Vins, told the Washington Examiner in English.

Albanesi enjoyed touting the history of the shop, which sits in one of the city’s traditional passages couverts — the shortest covered passage in all of Paris, he noted. Just blocks away from La Madeleine, the Napoleonic monument that was consecrated eventually as a church, and a short walk from the élysée Palace, the wine shop caters to the business and government clientele and closes on the weekends.

Albanesi reverted to French to articulate his grievance over China's incursion into the wine industry. “He says it is like if they purchased Harley Davidson,” Martin translated. “It is a symbol.”

The tension over the investments has percolated for years. In 2012, a Chinese casino magnate bought Napoleon’s favorite chateau in Bourgogne —also known as Burgundy, “the birthplace of Pinot Noir.” Chinese owners ruffled Gallic rooster feathers by changing the names of historic Bordeaux vineyards to reflect the tastes of the Middle-Kingdom's domestic market; and so was born the Chateau Tibetan Antelope. And the People’s Republic of China’s red flag flies over Clos des Quatre Vents, purchased in 2017 by a state-owned energy company.

“It’s a good thing there are Chinese investors, most definitely. Because there are too many producers here, and there’s too much wine,’’ Nan Hu, director-general of the Bordeaux vineyard, said in April. ‘‘So, we are important to Bordeaux.”

The previous owner cited “succession taxes” to explain his decision to sell the chateau rather than leave it to his children. Those personal decisions loom large in the minds of older generations, according to Martin.

“In Europe, they feel that we lose things,” he said. "Lose the money, lose the education. We've got the new rules from Brussels, from Europe, which changed a lot — not here, not in the capital, but in the country, it's changed a lot of things. So in the same time, Chinese people buy the things. If the situation — if it was okay for us it wouldn't be a problem, I guess, but now it's a problem because the people feel like they are losing everything.”

"All the good champagne is in Champagne," Martin said. "You have Jay-Z who bought champagne, and he just bought a small land they say this, alright ... play with this, that's it."

Martin emphasized that the issue isn’t the Chinese, specifically — “it could be a country from Africa or something else actually, I don’t care” — and added that he’s “not saying it's good or bad.” Still, his unease about the issue reflected the broader debate over whether and how to limit integration with the Chinese economy at a time when U.S. officials see the Chinese Communist regime as an ambitious strategic rival.

“I'm just saying, it's a market, we open the market, it's our rules, and they are just playing [by] the rules — they buy everything because they've got the money,” he said. “I'm not worried because we have a history, but, Chinese too — it's a strong country.”