St Emilion grapes
St Emilion grapes
Nathalie Silbert

BORDEAUX - The sale of the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin at the end of August has revived the specter of France's vineyards being transferred en masse into the hands of Chinese billionaires. However, in the Bordeaux region itself, these new investors seem to be rather well received by professionals in the field.

Until August 22 of this year, no one in France had heard of Louis Ng Chi Sing. But when Ng, an extremely wealthy resident of Macao who runs casinos there, bought himself the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy, there was a hue and a cry. The Front National, a far-right party, even gave the news a political turn, saying the sale was "emblematic of the danger threatening French heritage."

The feverish opposition was predictable. By acquiring one of the most renowned vineyards in Burgundy, Louis Ng roused the fears of vineyard owners worried that they will not be able to keep their land in the family. The sale also revived the specter of French vineyards being turned over en masse to Chinese billionaires.

A journey through the Bordeaux region sheds a different light on this "threat." There, the arrival of Chinese money is no novelty. In the past three years, Chinese investors as different as financier Peter Kwok of Taiwan, actress Zhao Wei, and agro-industry businesses like the state-owned conglomerate Cofco have bought up vineyards in the region, the only part of France up until
now to attract so many foreign buyers - without provoking any backlash.

"We are happy to welcome these buyers who pay for their purchases in cash, invest, and create jobs," says Stéphane Defraine, president of an organization to protect and manage the Entre-Deux-Mers wine appellation. It is true that the cosmopolitan city of Bordeaux has long been accustomed to English, German, Belgian and American investors, among others, and to selling its wines abroad.

In recent years, China has become one of Bordeaux's major markets. For the Chinese, who are just discovering wine, Bordeaux is the wine of reference and bears all the prestige of 
France's classic grands crus. Mainland China has become the number one importer of Bordeaux wines, far ahead of Germany or the UK. The Chinese bought 70 million bottles of Bordeaux-- 82.5 million including Hong Kong-- between June 2001 and the end of May 2012, according to the CIVB, the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wines. Hong Kong is currently the best
market in the world for the most expensive wines. In total, these sales brought in 650 million euros.

What “invasion?”

These Chinese commercial partners were even more welcome because their investments in the region rescued properties that were in serious difficulties or which were having inheritance problems, meaning they were not necessarily easy to sell. "There are a lot of vineyards for sale around here," explains Daniel Carmagnat, a real estate agent from Sainte-Foy-la-Longue.

Up until now, Chinese billionaires have mainly bought lands producing generic appellations or labels. The idea of an "invasion" of French vineyards by the Chinese makes local people smile, at least for now. They note that the Chinese
represent a tiny minority of the 8,000 listed vineyards.

Still, the Chinese are certainly making headway. According to the Aquitaine Atlantique Safer, a French government overseer of rural development, 11 domaines were sold in 2011, and 15 since the beginning of this year.

The Chinese who invest in French vineyards usually have similar goals. Patrice Klug, founding associate of MK Finance, which has sold four properties to Chinese investors, says, "They believe that investing in French real estate is a good diversification of their money. They are buying a little piece of French history and culture by becoming the owner of a vineyard, while at the same time it is a solid financial decision. To attract them, you have to show them a handsome building that they can show off in their country as an image of their social success." He remembers spending eight days traveling around the Bordeaux region with the daughter of the owner of the Longhai group, Daisy Cheng, as she is called in France. "She was thrilled by the turrets, the lake, and the legend that King Henri IV was arrested at the Château Latour-Laguens," he says.

Symbols of French luxury

The name is important too. It needs to sound French and, if possible, remind the listener of the grands crus, like the Château Latour-Laguens, which, since its sale, has been turned into a brand of stores, books, etc.

Once the vineyard has been bought, the idea is for the production to target the Chinese market. The Chinese know that they will attract consumers more with the symbols of French luxury.

The Château Grand Mouëys d'Au, in Capian in the Entre-Deux-Mers region, is surrounded by a lovely park and a vineyard of 60 hectares of Côtes de Bordeaux. Its new proprietor, the Ningxia Group, known in China for its wine flavored with Goji berries, would like to export to China half of the 350,000 bottles it produces every year.

Before its sale, the domaine, then held by the Bömers family, had been in trouble due to the loss of some of its larger clients in Germany. "The Chinese market will help us return to financial health," says Guy Durand Saint Omer, the general director hired by Jinshan Zhang, the head of the Ningxia Group.

It will be even more profitable because the conglomerate, like other Chinese companies, is able to rely on its own distribution network to sell its wine in the Chinese market. By bypassing middlemen and importers, it increases its profit
margin. And that can be considerable. In Beijing, a bottle of a minor Bordeaux that costs between 2.5 and 3 euros at the vineyard can be sold for between 15 to 40 euros.

Ambitious projects

The ambitions of Chinese investors go further. They arrive in Bordeaux with ambitious projects and the desire to improve their wine. Chinese movie star Zhao Wei, an actress who has sold 80 million box office tickets in her country, bought the Château Monlot from Bernard Rivals. The actress plans to spend five million euros more in improvements to the seven-hectare vineyard, which produces a Saint-Emilion grand cru. "To improve the quality of her wine, she has asked for help from Lydia and Claude Bourguignon, who are specialists in wine cellars, and from Jean-Claude Berrouet, the wine historian of Pétrus," says the former owner.

Moreover, "they often add eco-tourism projects to their investment," says Guy Chateau, general director of the Aquitaine region for the Crédit Agricole bank. Jinshan Zhang, for example, plans to fill the bedrooms of the Château du Grand Mouëys with paying Chinese guests. He also dreams of creating a golf course. Some wealthy Chinese are buying several vineyards in order to organize wine tours.

These investors are shrewd businessmen, often from Hong Kong or Singapore, which makes currency transfers easier. "They do not over-pay," Guy Chateau observes. Taking advantage of the low price of land in the Bordeaux region, which is at its 1990 level of around 15,000 euros per hectare, they have usually spent "only" a few million euros.

Wary and thorough, the Chinese surround themselves with people they trust, who speak excellent French, and they go through all the documents carefully. "They want to understand our social regulations and our tax system," explains Guillaume Rougier-Brierre, associate at Gide Loyrette, which negotiated the sale of the Château de Viaud to Cofco. "They go as far as to have the wine tasted by a third party to make sure they are not being cheated," adds Bernard Boireau, a Libourne notary who managed the sale of the Château Monlot.

Where next?

The Chinese buying fever could just be getting started. According to Safer, 15 dossiers are currently being considered by Chinese buyers. As an indicator of what is at stake for business, Diva Bordeaux, a wholesaler specializing in the best grand crus, was acquired this summer by Bright Food, an agribusiness heavyweight owned by the municipality of Shanghai. According to Jean-Pierre Rousseau, general director of Diva who sold his shares to the group, the sale gave Bright Food "history, an image, and also authenticity" in a Chinese market undermined by fraud, but which is also booming.

The developing Chinese middle class promises steady future growth for wine consumption. Bright Food owns 230 stores and 20 or so department stores in which salespeople receive training in the art of wine. Like Cofco, it hopes to ensure its supplies.

In the future, will the Chinese covet the prestigious grands crus that their billionaires are already snatching up? It is possible. But the prices will then be in the range of hundreds of millions of euros, and they will find rival buyers in
their path. Their appetite for vineyards could also go beyond the borders of the Bordeaux region. After Cognac, where a Chinese has just bought the insolvent Menuet brand, they could be interested next in the châteaux of Languedoc-Roussillon, which are still reasonably priced and whose wines are prized in China. The wines of Burgundy are still little known in China. They will not be a target except for certain numbers of aesthetes, ready to pay a high price. "The only way to succeed on the Chinese market is to sell large quantities," remarks David Balzan, general director of Cordier-Mestrezat, a major Bordeaux wholesaler. The Burgundy wine region is composed of wine appellations scattered across multiple properties, which are much smaller than the vineyards of the Bordeaux châteaux. Largely pre-empted by European buyers, it is too small to provision the huge Chinese market. In any case, the political turn of events since the acquisition of the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin has shown the Chinese how sensitive the subject can be. In 1988, Henri Nallet, François Mitterrand's agriculture minister, refused to allow the Japanese to invest in the domaine of Romanée Conti.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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