In some ways, China has become a savior for some French vineyards, although few in France are willing to say that out loud. China is now a major buyer of wine, picking up the slack as sales to other countries slip. Indeed, China has become Bordeaux’s largest export market.
But Burgundy is not Bordeaux. It is inland, with smaller family farms and a stronger sense of tradition. People here have cherished their simple way of life for centuries.
In an email, Ng, a serious wine collector and connoisseur, says it was the quiet, enduring traditions that first drew him to the Burgundy region and he promised not to ruin that. He describes his purchase of the chateau not as a business opportunity, but in the way most people explain why they bought their summer house.
‘‘While I can appreciate their concern to some extent, I honestly don’t see my purchase would constitute the beginning of a radical change of an age-old tradition,’’ he writes.
Still, Guillon says that, because of China’s reputation for counterfeit products, he worried that Ng would slap the Gevrey-Chambertin label on any old wine — though France has extensive protections against such fraud and there’s no suggestion Ng has such plans.
Others see the sale as an opportunity. The vineyard has never produced great wines and the respected local vintner whom Ng has hired is likely to raise their quality. Most important, Ng’s interest in the village will shine a spotlight on its wines, another local winemaker, Gerard Quivy, says. ‘‘This can only help increase the value of Burgundy’s wines.’’
A similar battle is playing out in New Zealand’s rural Waikato region, where winding roads thread across one-lane bridges, past giant ferns and sprawling farms. Life in the town of Reporoa is much like it has always been. It’s a place where a mother pushes a stroller down the middle of the road, her pet cat prancing along behind. Where twice a day, children help round up cows many times larger than themselves for milking.
Yet things did change in the boom before the global financial crisis. Banks let Allan and Frank Crafar leverage their farm to buy more and more land until they owned 20,000 cows and had become the biggest family dairy farmers in the country. When the market for dairy products plunged, the brothers were caught out with massive debts, and their operation was forced into bankruptcy in 2009.
Last year, Chinese developer Jiang Zhaobai stepped in. His company, Shanghai Pengxin, won a bid to buy and fix up the Crafar’s 13 dairy and three cattle and sheep farms with an offer of more than 200 million New Zealand dollars ($165 million).
Like in France, the outcry was quick and loud.
‘‘New Zealanders have every reason to feel outraged and betrayed,’’ opposition lawmaker Winston Peters said. ‘‘Our country is being run for the benefit of foreign companies and the international money industry.’’
Farmers in New Zealand, like the vintners in France, fear for the integrity of their brand. They worry that Chinese milk will be sold under a New Zealand label. Adding to their worries is a 2008 case, in which six babies in China died and another 300,000 were sickened by infant formula that was tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical added to watered-down milk to fool tests for protein levels.
A local consortium of businessmen, farmers and indigenous Maori appealed the sale in court, arguing it didn’t meet requirements that sales of farms to foreigners benefit the country and that the investor has relevant business experience and acumen.
The group put in a counter offer: 171 million New Zealand dollars, which they claimed was a fair market price. Lower courts rejected their appeal and, in October, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case, allowing the sale to proceed.
For Shanghai Pengxin, the purchase was an opportunity to expand its fledgling farming interests. Among those who can afford it, baby formula made with New Zealand milk is highly valued in China because it is seen as pure, particularly in light of the melamine scandal.
Shanghai Pengxin spokesman Cedric Allan says he and the company were taken by surprise at the nationwide outcry.
‘‘There was no significant Chinese investment in New Zealand farms before, so that was a first. And the size of China makes people more apprehensive than they are about other countries,’’ he said. ‘‘There was also an emotional campaign run against the purchase, the likes of which I haven’t seen before. I guess in times of financial uncertainty, people say ‘Heavens. Should we really be selling farms overseas?'’’Continued...