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Is Bordeaux Becoming France's New Chinatown?

Plus, a not-so-sweet sugar scandal in France, Mouton's new artist label, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, presents a nightmare wine before Christmas

Posted: December 8, 2011

• The Chinese spending spree in Bordeaux real estate continues at a brisk pace, with more than a dozen châteaus either recently acquired or in the final stages of closing. On Nov. 30, movie star Zhao Wei and her real-estate magnate husband, Huang You Long, purchased the 17-acre St.-Emilion grand cru Château Monlot for around $5.4 million. According to the former owner, Bernard Rivals, the glamorous couple is passionate about wine. “They fell in love with the estate,” he said. Rivals will stay on for two years to help them learn about running a Bordeaux château. Other transactions are less transparent, but word has leaked out that the elusive tycoon behind the Haichang Group, Qu Naijie, is in the process of closing on four châteaus—Château Branda, Château de Grand Branet, Château Laurette and Château Thebot. That makes five total for the Dalian-based oil baron, real-estate developer and amusement park owner. Qu purchased Château Chenu Lafitte, located in Bourg, for $4.3 million in 2010. The current acquisitions follow the same pattern begun with earlier Chinese investments: low-key appellations, lovely historical buildings, relatively unknown labels. Luxury real-estate broker Eric Groux, who handled the Monlot deal, said his Chinese clients want castles with vineyards, preferably in Bordeaux. “They can buy a Bordeaux château for the price of a Paris apartment.”

• A small neighborhood grocer in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, France, population 900, has been found guilty of selling more than 170 tons of granulated sugar, without receipts, mainly to winegrowers, over a two-year period. The French fraud squad—Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF)—caught up with Therese Solano, owner of Le Montecrucien, but the names of her clients were not disclosed. Le Montecrucien advertised sugar at “exceptional prices” on the front door (the sign has since been taken down). Solano claims the sugar was used by villagers to make jam. “Her explanation is not all credible,” argued assistant prosecutor Catherine Figerou. According to the DGCCRF, Solano sold enough sugar to satisfy the sweet tooth of a city of 10,000 for an entire year during one three-month period in 2007. “The spikes in sales can be seen at harvest time, particularly in 2007, the year the wine wasn’t as good,” observed the judge. Bordeaux’s wine estates are allowed to enrich the must during difficult vintages, but the amount is carefully controlled by the state, and there's a tax on “enrichment.” Solano and her clients were allegedly operating below the government’s radar by dealing in sugar sacks weighing 20 kilos (44 pounds). Sugar sold in sacks weighing 25 kilos (55 pounds) or more requires an invoice with the purchaser’s name. Even at discounted prices, 170 tons provided brisk business for Solano, and her clients dodged taxes and restrictions. “She was happy. The winegrowers were happy. The only one not happy was the government,” said deputy mayor Bernard Janthieu. Meanwhile, the local wine syndicate is indignant that their little appellation of 50 winegrowers looks guilty by virtue of proximity. Syndicate president Nicolas Solane told Unfiltered that the quantity of sugar is “too enormous to only concern the winegrowers of our appellation,” which is just 40 minutes from Bordeaux. In the end, there was sweet news for Solano, however: She received a slap on the wrist—a $6,700 suspended fine.

• Bordeaux first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild unveiled the label for its 2009 vintage this week. The newest in Mouton's ongoing series of artist labels features a vibrant red and black gouache by British artist Anish Kapoor, chosen by Mouton’s Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. “At once, austere and flamboyant, the gouache he has created for Mouton-Rothschild 2009 expresses the fertile thrust of plant life, the result of an intense encounter between matter and light,” read the château's press release. Kapoor, born in Mumbai, India, is a sculptor and painter whose works include the Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. He won the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize for contemporary art in 1991. He just completed Britain’s largest piece of public art, ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 377-foot steel tower, with restaurant and observation deck, which is the landmark sculpture for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Rothschilds first decorated their label with artwork in 1924, but it didn’t become an annual event until the 1945 “V” for victory label. Sixty-five vintages later, Kapoor joins an illustrious group that includes Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, a passionate art lover, is currently renovating Mouton’s Museum of Wine in Art as part of the château’s larger renovation project that includes the cellars. Per tradition, Kapoor will be paid in wine, about 10 cases split between two vintages of Mouton-Rothschild, including the 2009.

• Unfiltered loves a good ghoulish gimmick, though we tend to expect them in late October, so this post-Thanksgiving announcement caught us off guard: “Mistress of the Dark” Elvira, the black-clad late-night TV host with the punky vibe, campy valley-girl wit and canyon-esque cleavage, is making wine. In tune with her penchant for bad puns, it's called Macabrenet, and the folks at Sort This Out Cellars in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country made 2,000 cases of the $25 Temecula Cab. Unfiltered couldn't resist the invitation to attend Elvira's launch party for the inaugural 2008 vintage at Terra Avant's winemaking facility in Buellton, Calif., last weekend. According to Sort This Out Cellars' Michael Cobb, Elvira autographed nearly 500 bottles featuring her slinking figure strapped to an oversized spider's web for a line of fans that snaked through the tasting room, down the stairs and out into the parking lot. Cobb said he'd met Elvira at a vintage rockabilly event in Las Vegas in 2007. Unfiltered readers likely remember her stint as Coors Light's spokesmistress in the early 1990s; Cobb approached her about making a wine, and a year later they were sourcing grapes for Macabrenet. This may have been the last public appearance ever for Elvira, who's been played for 30 years by Ojai resident Cassandra Peterson. “That's what she says!” claimed Cobb, but he also realizes that this promotion probably would have played even better a few months ago, when tricks and treats were the order of the day, so he may try to lure her out of retirement: “There's always next Halloween!” Cobb said. For now, we'll settle for a nightmare before Christmas.

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