SAINT-CIBARD, France (Reuters Life!) - Chateau owner Jean-Pierre Amoreau is a celebrity in Japan -- a privilege he owes to a wine-obsessed cartoon he had never heard of until diehard fans started calling him at home.
Amoreau, owner of the Puy Chateau near the village of Saint-Cibard in southwestern France, said he did not know what to think last year when he started getting calls from Japanese buyers who wanted to buy his 2003 growth bottles at any cost.
His agent explained the reason for the calls: a television show broadcast in Japan.
Named "The Drops of God," it is a cartoon about wine that has won a passionate following in Japan and has the peculiar trait of referring mainly to real bottles.
It tells the story of a famous oenologist who, upon his death, bequeaths a vast wine cellar to one of his two sons on the condition he can solve 12 riddles about 12 bottles.
After completing the challenge, the heir has to track down a 13th bottle -- the ultimate, perfect bottle of wine -- known as the "Drops of God."
"For the last episode ... millions of Japanese people were in front of their TVs about to find out the name of the chateau which Tadashi Agi thought produced the best wine of thousands he had tasted the world over," Amoreau said.
The cartoon gave birth to a comic book that boosted the success of his wine with Japanese consumers. "Today we are the best-known wine-makers in Japan," he added.
The owner of the 17th century estate is the 14th generation of wine-makers in his family, as well as being a firm believer in chemical-free agriculture in the tradition of his ancestors who banned chemicals in the 1930s.
Despite the frenzy surrounding the 2003 bottle named in "The Drops of God," Amoreau kept the 18 euro ($24) price tag even when bottles were selling in Japan for 1,000 euros.
"We stopped selling the 2003 until the excitement had died down to avoid penalizing our regular customers," he said.
Thanks to the cartoon, Chateau Le Puy gained access to lucrative Asian markets in China as well as Taiwan and South Korea. About 80 percent of the 120,000 bottles produced at Saint-Cibard are destined for export.
Among the other Bordeaux vineyards to have benefited from a cameo appearance in the cartoon are Chateau Calon-Segur, Saint Estephe, Chateau Palmer, Margaux and Chateau Poupille.
Philippe Carille, owner of the Poupille vineyard, is still enjoying the windfall, three years after his wine was mentioned in the fourth volume of the series.
"I increased my sales in Asia by 20-30 percent. In Taiwan alone, my business went from being close to zero to 100,000 euros this year thanks to the manga (cartoon)," he said.
Asia is now one of the main destinations for Bordeaux wines, which saw export volumes slump by 14 percent in 2009 and are just starting to recover from the financial crisis, according to the CIVB, a study group devoted to Bordeaux wines.
At end-June, exports beyond the European Union had grown 11 percent from a year earlier while exports to China -- now the top buyer of Bordeaux wines outside the EU -- grew a whopping 94 percent, the group said.
The fact that Chinese buyers showed up for the first time in April to taste the year's new wine is another sign of the trend. Japan, which for a period was the top Asian buyer, is now importing more wine from Bordeaux, the CIVB said.
The "Drop of God" effect, surely.
Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Steve Addison