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Buying Up Bordeaux : Corporate Vintners Preserve Tradition

December 20, 1987| From Reuters

PARIS — Family wine makers in Bordeaux, the most famous of the world's viniculture regions, are shrugging off their traditional insularity and welcoming investment from large industrial concerns, many of them foreign.

The corporate investors, who come from as far away as Japan and the United States, have gone on a chateau buying spree and they have the approval of the head of the region's wine growing association.

"Those investors are wine lovers and they immediately hire local wine experts to perpetuate the quality of the wine," Hubert Bouteiller, head of the Bordeaux wine growers' association (CIVB), told a news conference.

CIVB figures show that 17 major industrial groups, most of them insurance companies and banks, bought Bordeaux wine estates in the past 12 months.

Eleven of them are French companies. But the list also includes Japanese, West German, Swiss, Danish and Belgian groups seeking to profit from the investment potential of the world-renowned chateaux.

Money Needed

The pace of outside investment has quickened from prior years, when mainly American and British corporate groups stepped in to buy the 17th and 18th century chateaux--which include not only the castle but the vineyards themselves--from their family owners.

Despite this investment, Bouteiller said only 1% of the region's 250,000 acres of vineyards was changing hands each year. "It would take two centuries for an overall takeover to be completed," he added.

He said outside capital from big companies was sorely needed by Bordeaux wine growers to modernize production methods and boost marketing efforts. Better worldwide distribution networks were also well overdue.

CIVB figures showed that exports of Bordeaux wines in the year to last September declined by 3% in volume and 14% in value from the previous year.

But Bouteiller said this was not cause for concern in the longer term. "The Bordeaux wine industry has always been through ups and downs. But we remain very serene. What matters is continuity in quality," he said.

In June, Bouteiller sold one of his own chateaux to French insurance group AXA for 260 million francs ($47.3 million).

The vineyard, in Pichon-Longueville, has a deuxieme grand cru Pauillac rating, the second highest of the region. It is situated next to Chateau Latour, which for many wine lovers is the epitome of Bordeaux perfection.

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