As Chinese settle into French vineyards, some in Bordeaux region express dismay
ARVEYRES, France – The rabbit – the “Imperial Rabbit” – looks out quietly from the vineyard’s sign, sandwiched between the familiar words “Great Wine of Bordeaux.”
But there are no rabbits in this vineyard, imperial or otherwise. Nor are there any “Golden Rabbits” or “Tibetan Antelopes” or even “Grand Antelopes” in the vineyards not far away.
That has not stopped the new Chinese owner in one of France’s most fabled wine regions from naming his newly acquired chateaus after them – to more than a little consternation among tradition-bound French.
“Up until now, the rabbit has not enjoyed a great reputation in the Bordeaux vineyards,’’ noted Le Resistant, the local newspaper in the regional capital, Libourne. “The trend has been, rather, to eradicate it.”
There is perhaps no place more synonymous with France and its tradition of fine wines than Bordeaux. Its longaging, leathery blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, to name just two, have inspired American imitators and are sought after the world over, often at exorbitant prices.
Yet despite the protestations when it comes to the Chinese, this story of invasion is not necessarily a new one for the region on the southwest coast of France.
For centuries, Bordeaux has adapted to foreign money and tastes, with a flexibility that belies the purists’ contention that tradition is inviolable.
Bordeaux accommodated the English when it was under their domination in the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as the Dutch who drained its marshes in the 17th century.
It opened its cellars to the Germans during the Nazi occupation, and more recently it shifted its taste to accommodate the preferences of Californiainfluenced American wine critic Robert Parker. Bordeaux goes where the money is. And the money is now with the Chinese.
“It’s a good thing there are Chinese investors, most definitely. Because there are too many producers here, and there’s too much wine,’’ said Nan Hu, director general of the Clos des Quatre Vents, the sumptuous property of a state-owned energy and real estate conglomerate from China. “So, we are important to Bordeaux.”
Indeed, not all French here are so put out. One is Jean Pierre Amoreau, a celebrated maker of Bordeaux at Chateau Le Puy. Is he worried?
“Not at all,” he said. The Chinese were helping a lot of owners who, because of high French inheritance taxes, often can’t afford to pass their properties on to children, he argued.
“The Chinese have a lot of liquidity, so they are helping these owners have a decent retirement,” Amoreau said. “And they are helping to preserve the chateaus.”
Jean-Marie Garde, a producer who heads the winemakers syndicate in the storied Pomerol district nearby, agreed, to a point.
“For the Chinese, we say, ‘Why not?’’’ Garde said. ‘’They are present, but not that present.”
Still, “We’re all a little disconcerted by this name-changing,” Garde said. “And what’s a bit disconcerting, too, is that you never meet them,” he said of the new Chinese proprietors.
Yet they have not been entirely invisible, either. It was startling, for some, to see the red Chinese flag floating above the Clos des Quatre Vents, within sight of the famous Chateau Margaux in the Medoc, maker of the highest ranked of all Bordeaux wines.
Recently, celebrated writer Philippe Sollers wrote a reproachful open letter to the mayor of Bordeaux, reflecting the anxiety coursing through the region and protesting what some saw as audacity in changing the names of historic chateaus.
“I’m not excessively curious to know about the life of these animals, never having encountered, during my childhood in Bordeaux, the slightest ‘imperial rabbit’ or ‘Tibetan antelope,’ ’’ Sollers wrote. “Is there no way to rededicate this wine to its legitimate source, affixed by the centuries?”
Loic Grassin, whose grandfather bought the magnificent white-stone mansion of the Chateau Senilhac in the Medoc in 1938, was not too keen on the name change either, after he recently sold to a Chinese buyer. He had never even seen a “Tibetan Antelope,” as the estate was newly named.
“Look, I took it very badly,” he said. “They debaptized it. It’s bizarre. Animals, I’ve got nothing against them. But, come on, ‘Tibetan Antelope’? Where are they coming from with that one?”
They are coming from a desire to draw an important link to China, which has become the destination for some 20 percent of the wine produced in Bordeaux. As much as 80 percent of the wine produced by the Chinese owners goes straight to China and is never seen in France.
‘’This is not about traditional Chinese culture,’’ said a leading French Sinologist, Jean-Philippe Beja of Sciences Po. ‘’It is about marketing.”
But he disputed that the strategy was in fact a good one.
“This is imitating ‘Made in China,’ which doesn’t even have a good reputation,’’ he said. “The interest, for the Chinese, is to have something foreign that belongs to them.”
Perhaps for that reason the Chinese invasion has been limited to perhaps 3 percent of the roughly 6,000 chateaus in the Bordelais region. The Chinese also have not bought any of the most celebrated wine producers, opting instead for the middling and lesserranked.
The Chinese imprint on the style of the wine has been muted, too, in the view of local producers.
“I see no change in style,” said Amoreau. “Nobody is going to take the risk of changing this style, for a style that doesn’t really exist,” he said, referring to Chinese wines. The Chinese owners, in fact, leave much of the actual winemaking in the hands of the French teams already in place.