Beijing’s salvo this week at European wine exports has brought into focus simmering French unease about the growing power the Chinese wield over their cherished vines, as consumers, investors and even chateaux owners.
Responding to a European Union move to impose duties on Chinese solar panels, China launched an anti-dumping inquiry into European wine sales on Wednesday that could lead to exporters in France, along with Spain and Italy, being hit with retaliatory duties.
The French government reacted angrily and the indignant producers of Bordeaux – for whose produce the Chinese have a seemingly unquenchable thirst – declared they had nothing to do with solar panels.
Sniffy remarks from Parisian sommeliers and Pyrenean vineyard owners betray a culture clash between a nation fiercely proud of its wine heritage and uneasy about displays of wealth, and a Chinese nouveau riche, for whom wine drinking is more about status than gastronomy.
EU wine exports to China excluding Hong Kong, which EU officials said was not covered by the announcement, reached 257.3 million litres in 2012 for a value of nearly $1 billion (£650 million). More than half – 139.5 million litres – came from France. China is now the top destination for Bordeaux reds.
Millionaires shell out thousands of euros at auction for the dustiest bottles. Chinese entrepreneurs have also snapped up several dozen of the less illustrious chateaux, most of them in Bordeaux, out of the several thousand in France.
“The high-priced wines [they buy] are trophy wines more than anything else,” said David Ridgeway, the British head sommelier at La Tour d’Argent, a lavish four-centuries-old Paris eatery. “The Chinese have pretty amazing parties where they open up hundreds and hundreds of very expensive bottles to perform and show off their money, a bit like the Russians a few years ago.”
In the south-western village of Labastide-Saint-Pierre, near Toulouse, brother and sister team Anne and Gerard Arbeau, the fourth generation in their family producing a “Frontonnais” wine, fear a trade war would undermine their work trying to break down barriers.
They export one third of their annual production of 1.8 million bottles, under labels such as “Amiral Louis” and “Seigneur Coutinel”, to China, and feel they have been taken hostage by the Beijing government’s threat.
“It takes a while for them to understand the product,” Anne Arbeau said at the 130-year-old vineyard. “They have different customs, different ways of doing things. We’ve had to adapt to their mentality, to their culture and their taste.”
“We shouldn’t be the ones that have to pay for the solar panels,” she added.
She said she got an order yesterday morning for 42,000 bottles from a Chinese client who said he wanted more in before any new duties were imposed.
Ms Arbeau, who travels to China four times a year and welcomes Chinese clients each month, accepts China is where the money is.
The phenomenon is ever more visible in Paris, where rich Chinese customers pack luxury shops, Chinese textile businesses whirr away in quiet backstreets and tobacconists are increasingly run by Chinese people.
Chinese owners are even setting up wine shops in Paris,
“Chinese wine is cheaper and of poorer quality. French wine is more romantic, we often drink it at romantic dinners,” explained Yang, 30, a cashier at a Chinese wine shop in Paris.
“Chinese wine is mainly used for cooking,” she added. “The only ones who buy it to drink are men who drink it together.”
If the Chinese are starting to appreciate French wine, it could be years before the French get a taste for what Chinese growers produce at their chateaux.
“They have large planted areas but most of what I’ve tasted so far has not been particularly brilliant,” said Mr Ridgeway.