A guide unlocks a heavy wooden door and leads visitors down into a Bordeaux chateau wine cellar. Along the vast network of underground rooms and corridors, thousands of bottles age for decades in the cool darkness.
Today, many of the tourists visiting this French wine making region are Chinese.
Retired couple Wang Jiawei and Cao Juanjuan are visiting Europe for the first time. They are traveling to London and Paris, but say Bordeaux is also a must see.
“We enjoy drinking wine,” they say. “And for us Chinese, Bordeaux is wine. Everyone who likes wine wants to come to Bordeaux to experience the long wine history and to see how it’s made.”
Chinese consumption of wine has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. This is having a profound effect on the world’s wine making regions like Bordeaux. But some Chinese are interested in more than just tourism in the region.
Daniel Li is the estate manager for a Chinese industrialist who bought two Bordeaux chateaux five years ago. We meet at the massive Chateau Bel Air, lying about 45 minutes outside Bordeaux in the rolling, vine-covered countryside.
Li said her boss was already importing wine from Bordeaux and loved to drink it. Then he wanted to know exactly how to make it.
Chateau Bel Air produces about 230,000 bottles of wine every year. According to Li, they have kept all the original French workers and are continuing to make the wine in the same way. The only thing that has changed, she says, is the marketing and export strategy, which is now geared toward China.
“China is now a huge focus and we have increased exports there to around 70 percent of our production,” Li said.
Li estimates the former French owner exported about 20 percent of his wine to China.
Chinese businesswoman Lina Fan has been in France for 14 years, staying after earning a business and wine management degree.
Fan was one of the first agents to help a Chinese businessman buy a chateau. She says it all began around 2007 when the demand for Bordeaux red wine in China skyrocketed.
“At that moment, more and more Chinese importers began to think: ‘Why not buy a chateau in Bordeaux?’” says Fan. “So investors began to ask me questions: ‘How much does a Bordeaux chateau and vineyard cost?’ And when they found out they were surprised: ‘Oh, it’s not so expensive!’ they told me.”
Fan says about 85 percent of Chinese investors purchased chateaux that cost $3 million to $6 million.
According to Fan, there are two kinds of Chinese chateaux buyers: The first kind loves to drink wine, is an importer and wants to learn how to make it. The second is a millionaire looking to burnish their image.
“It’s not just about economics,” says Fan. “Sometimes it’s just for image. France, for Chinese people means the luxury life; the lifestyle.”
The Chinese are Bordeaux’s biggest investors, owning 140 chateaux. Longtime investor Belgium falls in second place with just 40. But with 10,000 wine chateaux spread across the region, 140 remains a drop in the bucket.
Some Bordeaux residents have grown uneasy at the sudden and huge influx of Chinese investment. Anne Largeteau is closing up a wine shop in a 16th century chateau that has a new Chinese owner. Generations of Largeteau’s family have worked in the Bordeaux wine business.
“The thing is, you know they’ve got the money,” Largeteau said. “And unfortunately we (French) don’t have any. But they invest, they do the restoration of chateaux, etcetera, so that’s a good thing. But still, it’s unfortunate because the estates are not French anymore. We would have liked to keep our patrimonial treasures.”
Journalist Laurence Le Maire said she wrote her book “Wine, Red and China” after becoming disgusted with the tone of the local press towards the Chinese buyers.
“It was always so negative, spouting stereotypes and talking about the ‘yellow peril,’” Le Maire said. “Bordeaux’s reputation was made by foreigners over the ages – the English, the Dutch – and the Chinese are no different.”
Christophe Chateau, head of communications for the Bordeaux Wine Board, agrees the region has always welcomed foreign investors and owes much of its success to them. But he says people were caught off guard by the rise of the Chinese. In the year 2000, Bordeaux exported less than 400 thousand bottles to the small Chinese market. Today, China is Bordeaux’s number one export market – at 80 million bottles a year.
“They (the Chinese) are investing a lot, and they are developing tourism,” says Chateau. “They are creating a richness for the Bordeaux region. So this is helping Bordeaux, not destroying Bordeaux.”
Jean Pierre Leydet, 60, is not so sure. He lives in a tiny house amidst the rows of leafy grapevines, laden with clusters of dark grapes this time of year. Leydet has been working the in the vineyards his whole life. He says Bordeaux wines are top quality, but now other wines are giving Bordeaux competition — South African wines are especially good.
“My big fear is that the Chinese will use what they learn here and cultivate millions of acres of vineyards in China,” Leydet said.
Then, he adds, the French market will be flooded with Chinese wine — just as good as a bottle from Bordeaux.