It would be hard to find anything more rooted in France than Chateau Richelieu. King Louis XIIIs minister,Cardinal Richelieu,bought the vineyard in 1632 and installed his favorite mistress in the chateau. A generation later,the wines of Fronsac,Chateau Richelieu prominently among them,became standard fare for feasts at Versailles under Louis XIV.
But times have changed,even in Fronsac. Chinese real estate investors based in Hong Kong and Beijing plopped down a small fortune last month and bought the place upvineyard,chateau and pedigree included.
The deal was the second such purchase in just over a year. Another Chinese company gobbled up Chateau Latour-Laguens,in early 2008. It has since launched a multimillion-dollar renovation aimed at turning the middling wine into a high-end marque and the 500-year-old chateau into a destination for well-heeled Chinese wedding parties.
According to specialists involved in the negotiations,the Chinese buyers sought precisely what France is richest in: history,elegance,tradition and savoir-faire. If they were interested in this chateau,it was because it has a long history, said Sophie Roussov,a wine marketing specialist hired by Longhai International Trading Co. of Qingdao to manage Chateau Latour-Laguens and its renovation. Not to mention that it looked like a good way to make money.
In both cases,winemakers reported,the Chinese investors have laid plans to market the pedigree of their newly acquired Bordeaux wines to the nouveaux riches back home. There are 1.3 billion consumers in a China just starting to get reacquainted with the finer things in life,including wine.
For many producers here,the investors and particularly the potential consumers of China have come to represent a new horizon,perhaps a source of wealth that will pull the region out of a slump brought on by overheated prices,competition from New World wines and the recession.
Surprisingly,in a country often jealous of its patrimony,the Chinese incursion has not generated any protests of note,local producers said. In part,this is because Bordeaux has long been fertile terrain for foreign involvement. Aquitaine,the historical region that includes Bordeaux wine country,once belonged to the English crown. Dutch and British businessmen and engineers participated in its early economic development. British drinkers eager for claret have long been good customers.
Here as a foreigner,you feel like a fish in water, said Arjen Pen,a Dutch national and the principal investor in Chateau Richelieu until its sale to A & A International Group,a Hong Kong-based holding company.
For instance,when Latour-Laguens went up for sale,a Luxembourg countess,a Belgian investor and a Maltese businessman were Longhais main competitors. In addition,Chinese companies are hiring experienced local specialists to guide them in planning for renovations.
Toutounji,for instance,has been retained as an oenology consultant for both chateaux. Pen said he has been asked to stay on as manager until the end of the year.
Since taking possession of the chateau,Longhai has named a hotel after it in Qingdao and launched a chain of wine bars with the same name.
Pen said the woman who made the purchase on behalf of the A & A holding,identified as Mrs. An,seemed more interested in the chateaus historical heritage.
One of her first decisions,Pen recalled,was to change the modern-looking Chateau Richelieu bottle label that had been redesigned years ago. In its place,An decided to return to an old-style label with prominent mention of the year 1632,the year of Cardinal Richelieus purchase.