China's trade threat leaves bitter taste in French wine world

Thu Jun 6, 2013 10:26am EDT
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By Muriel Boselli and Catherine Bremer

PARIS (Reuters) - Beijing's salvo 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 an EU move to impose duties on Chinese solar panels, China launched an anti-dumping inquiry into European wine sales this week that could lead to exporters in France, along with Spain and Italy, being hit with retaliatory duties.

The French government reacted angrily and indignant producers of Bordeaux - which China's wealthy have developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for - snorted that 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 ceremony-laden wine heritage and squeamish at shows of wealth, and a Chinese nouveau riche for whom bagging a grand cru is more about status than accompanying a roti de porc.

EU wine exports to China excluding Hong Kong, which EU officials said was not covered by the announcement, reached 257.3 million liters in 2012 for a value of nearly $1 billion. More than half - 139.5 million liters - 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 as famous for its wine cellar as for its signature duck dishes.

"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."   Continued...