‘Like many Chinese who have grown up in large industrial towns, the space out here feels like true luxury.’
Lina Fan told me this at the end of a morning chatting about everything she is doing in Bordeaux. Her skills and business plans are so varied that I was wondering if it wouldn’t be easier if she was living in the city centre, near to the airport (she travels back to China every month, spending almost half the year back in her home region of Manchuria), and near to the access roads to Saint Emilion, where she works in partnership with a local négociant company.
She shook her head, not hesitating for a second. ‘Home’ is now Chateau de Pic, a 12th century estate in the Côtes de Bordeaux Cadillac appellation that was bought last December by Chinese businessman Shou Rui Wu.
‘He started off buying French wine from distributors in China, but it was very expensive, so began buying direct from Bordeaux. When he visited supermarkets in France, he saw wine brands such as Castel on sale at one-tenth of the price he was paying in China, so decided to buy his own estate.’
So far, so normal – a large estate (44 hectares) with a beautiful chateau building, in an appellation where land is inexpensive (relative to Pauillac, Saint Emilion and other more prestigious names), and large quantities of wine can be produced with the intention of distribution through existing sales channels back in China. Wu has also hired a French winemaker, Jérémie Lurton (cousin of Pierre Lurton at Cheval Blanc) to ensure continuity, and is in the process of renovating the winery.
This is pretty much where the ‘business as usual’ story ends. For a start, Wu is just 33, as are both Fan and Wang, and he has bought with a clear strategy in mind. ‘The market for the under €2 Bordeaux wine is dropping, as it is for the higher-priced prestigious wines. But the mid-range, €5-€8 is still in full expansion, and that is where we see Pic sitting.’
And they are far from the usual profile of directors installed by new Chinese owners. Both from Shenyang, Manchuria, Fan and Wang studied wine business and production from 2004 to 2009, making them highly qualified, more so than many French managers running similar-sized properties.
‘We can thank the heat wave of 2003 for our first job in the vines. The weather had been so hot that they needed pickers urgently in August, and most of the usual pickers were still on holiday, so they had to relax their criteria a little. We did not speak good French at the time, and knew nothing about wine, but they needed all hands on deck. For the owners, it was their first time to have Chinese workers, and they were very kind, taught us the process, really awoke the love of wine in us.’
From there they went on to do a two-year professional qualification in commerce of wine at Tours University in the Loire Valley, followed by a move to Bordeaux, where they studied a masters in wine marketing and management at the prestigious INSEEC business school. Along the way, they did work experience in wine shops, chateaux, and barrel makers.
‘When we started studying wine in 2004, there were very few specialist courses on offer, and even fewer who were willing to take on Chinese students.’ There were just three of them that year – and the third has just moved to Bordeaux a few months ago, now working at Chinese négociant company Dynastie.
‘At the time, our parents were very surprised that we were even able to study wine at university (‘it’s a career?’). They worried about us finding work afterwards. In fact it was the perfect moment, just as China was becoming a major player, so by the time we finally graduated, we were very well placed to take advantage of the boom.’
And if all of that doesn’t keep them busy enough (they also have a four year old daughter, called Margaux), in 2009 Fan opened a wine shop back in Shenyang, with 300m2 of floor space selling French wine and Canadian ice wine. Her younger brother runs the shop full-time.
‘I hold tasting classes in China, and see the shop as a base for wine education, and for meeting clients back in China for the property company. It was tough to get the shop started back in 2009. I had been in France for so long that I had few contacts back home, but I had experience and I had good products – and the market was really exploding, so I just felt it was the right time.’
‘But now we are looking to build something stable and long term. Today there are many young Chinese in Bordeaux, but few with our experience. I would expect the property market to continue to be buoyant for another five years at least. One estate like this is the same price as a luxury house in China, but there you won’t be the actual owner, but just have the rights to live in it for 50 years. In France you can buy the land and pass it down to your children. I believe the number of Chinese-owned chateaux will easily get to 200 or 300 in five years, and then will stabilise. So I want to help clients buy vineyards over next two years, then concentrate on helping them run them for next 20 years.’
Jane Anson is Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter, and has lived in the region since 2003. She is author of Bordeaux Legends, a history of the First Growth wines (October 2012 Editions de la Martiniere), the Bordeaux and Southwest France author of The Wine Opus and 1000 Great Wines That Won’t Cost A Fortune (both Dorling Kindersley, 2010 and 2011). Anson is contributing writer of the Michelin Green Guide to the Wine Regions of France (March 2010, Michelin Publications), and writes a monthly wine column for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where she lived from 1994 to 1997. Accredited wine teacher at the Bordeaux Ecole du Vin, with a Masters in publishing from University College London.
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