Sun, May 13, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Chinese billionaire plans to stay in France’s Bordeaux region

By Philippe Bernes-Lasserre  /  AFP, SAINT-LAURENT-DES-COMBES, France

Hong Kong-based CITIC Resources Holdings Ltd chairman Peter Kwok poses for a photograph in the wine cellar at Chateau Bellefont-Belcier in Saint-Laurent-des-Combes, France, on April 11.

Photo: AFP

Over the past decade Chinese investors have conquered dozens of chateaux in Bordeaux, France’s famed wine-growing region.

Some left after seeing their investments wither on the vine, but Peter Kwok (郭炎), who owns seven vineyards, said that he is there for the long haul.

The 69-year-old Hong Kong-based billionaire has been in southwest France for the past 20 years, recently snapping up Chateau Bellefont-Belcier, a Saint-Emilion grand cru.

Some in France’s winemaking community are sniffy about the Asian investors who have bought up 140 chateaux in Bordeaux.

The acquisitions — although making up only 1.5 percent of the region’s 7,000 vineyards — have stirred sensitivities about growing foreign investment, particularly Chinese, in strategic or heritage sectors.

In February, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would work to prevent foreign investors from buying French farms after it emerged that a Chinese fund had bought nearly 3,000 hectares of wheat fields in the country’s center.

The Chinese tycoons present in Bordeaux see wine mainly as a way of diversifying their fortunes.

But Kwok, who has invested 60 million to 70 million euros (US$71.76 million to US$83.72 million at the current exchange rate) in the region, insists he is not in it for the money — although as an investment banker he keeps a eye on the numbers.

“Other friends who own vineyards warned me the only way to make a fortune in wine is to invest an even bigger fortune,” said Kwok, who is chairman of CITIC Resources Holdings Ltd (中信資源), the energy subsidiary of Chinese investment group CITIC Group Corp Ltd (中國中信集團).

It was not his love of a plummy merlot that took the Vietnamese-born businessman to Bordeaux.

“My children study in the United States, so I was looking for a place halfway for vacations. France is halfway,” he said in an interview.

However, there was also a touch of whimsy in his decision to set up shop on the other side of the world.

Growing up in Vietnam under French colonial rule — living in the capital’s sprawling Chinatown — he said he was enthralled by “images of De Gaulle, black coffee, baguettes and dreams of Paris.”

However, instead of buying a pied-a-terre in the French capital, Kwok opted for a house in the country.

“I pictured a French country house, and it just so happened that it had 8 hectares of vines around it,” he said.

That was his first chateau, Haut-Brisson in Saint-Emilion, which he purchased in 1997, without ever having sampled the fruits of the vine.

He quickly learned that winemaking is not just about planting and harvesting vines — it is a way of life.

And as in life, “there are many things that you cannot control. You do the best you can, but then you have to wait for nature,” Kwok said.

At first, he sold most of his wines in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

However, as the reputation of his wines has grown, so too has his global distribution.

With a few harvests under his belt, his goal now is to build his Vignobles K brand.

“The other aim is to make good wine, which will also take years, but not quite as many,” Kwok said.

At Bellefont-Belcier, something of a sleeping beauty in Saint-Emilion, one of his first tasks would be to clean up the woods that dot the limestone hills over which the estate is spread.

Kwok has earned his chops when it comes to revamping older chateaux, having restored the 18th-century dry masonry terraced vineyards at the Tour-Saint-Christophe estate he acquired in 2012.

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