Chinese connoisseurs buy up Bordeaux's wines

Vineyard in Saint-Emilion, near Bordeaux, south-western France Bordeaux is France's largest wine-growing region

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Although bustling Beijing and Bordeaux may seem worlds apart, the two cities are becoming increasingly intertwined.

Sales of Bordeaux, which includes some of the most famous red wines in France, increased again during 2012, but rather than French wine-lovers, it is Chinese consumers who are behind this growth.

Indeed, China has recently become Bordeaux's largest export destination. This transformation is particularly remarkable given China's short history of mass wine consumption.

Over the past four years, some 30 French chateaux have been bought by Chinese investors, and around another 20 deals are currently in the pipeline.

This passion for French wine is part of a wave of Chinese interest across Europe, seeking to satisfy domestic demand for what many Chinese consumers see as the finer things in life, such as French wines, luxury travel, foreign cars and fashionable clothes.

'Money and energy'

Chateau Angelus is one of the most prestigious vineyards in Bordeaux, in the wine-rich area of Saint-Emilion.

stack of wine boxes 2012 saw China and Hong Kong emerge as key export markets

Emmanuelle d'Alignby-Fulchi, the chateau's technical director, told me: "We started to see a lot of Chinese coming first just to taste and learn about French wine, but it is true that during the last three or four years they are now more involved in the wine business.

"In general, I think it's a good thing because each time someone is arriving with money and energy. It's very good for the whole area.

"There is definitely a big, big demand from Asia. China has more than a billion people so obviously if they start to demand wine they are very heavy on the market."

'Huge potential'

China's growing taste for Bordeaux wines aligns well with the troubled French economy, which has found itself right at the heart of the eurozone debt crisis.

Bordeaux wine facts

 Wine bottles at a stand at 2011's Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine and spirits trade fair, in Bordeaux-Lac, southwestern France
  • Vineyards total 117,500 ha (290,000 acres)
  • Annual harvest 730 million bottles (5.5m hectolitres)
  • 55,000 workers in the wine industry
  • Grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Sauvignon, Muscadelle

And it's not just wines. Property agents in Bordeaux are reporting an increasing number of inquiries from potential Chinese investors.

Alex Hall, originally from the UK, runs a firm called Vineyard Intelligence, which advises investors, individuals and companies who would like to buy vineyards in Bordeaux.

He says Chinese investment is giving much-needed support to traditional French industries, especially because of the eurozone debt crisis.

"This is clearly at the moment where most of the interest is coming from. That's not to say I don't have clients from elsewhere in the world, which I do, but certainly the level of demand and potential there is huge.

"Certainly China's the most significant, in terms of the speed with which it has grown and the potential for future growth. And I think there's no doubt the Chinese have come to the rescue to some extent in that they have provided a strong market."

Wine sales

When it comes to wine sales, Bordeaux saw total revenues of 4.3bn euros ($5.7bn; £3.7bn;) in 2012, up 2% in volume and 10% in value on the year before, says the CIVB, the Bordeaux Wines Bureau, the trade body which represents Bordeaux's wineries.

Georges Haushalter, the CIVB's president, says there was a great deal of preparation to make sure Bordeaux was ready for the developing market.

Three Chinese students wine-tasting in Bordeaux Chinese investors are now buying up vineyards as well as their wines

"We've been working the Chinese market collectively in Bordeaux and frankly speaking we did not see much over the first few years," he said.

"Only recently during the last five years have we seen a huge and very fast development of the Chinese consumers' interest for Bordeaux wines.

"I think the reason why we have been successful is because we had done all of the preliminary work of putting together the networks, we had a distribution system in place.

China, together with Hong Kong, now accounts for some 71 million bottles of Bordeaux a year.

Theme park

Edouard Andre, export manager at the wine merchants Compagnie Medocaine des Grands Crus in Bordeaux, told me that the developments in the French wine market had been driven by changes in China itself.

"It is true that we are seeing a very spectacular change of the market in China. The emerging buying segment of the market is increasingly rich and increasingly knowledgeable about wines and products from Europe."

Indeed, such is the growing Chinese love affair with French wines, a Saint Emilion-inspired wine theme park is being built near the seaside resort of Dalian, in northern China.

Investors are trying to replicate that certain "je ne sais quoi", an elegant French feeling for Chinese consumers who would like the wine, the food and the atmosphere - but without the long flight to Europe.

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