France's Leading Wine Company Trades Up

Castel buys half of Bordeaux's Château Beychevelle, signaling a shift to luxury brands
Feb 22, 2011

Castel, France’s largest wine and beer producer, has acquired a 50 percent stake in Château Beychevelle, a second-growth in St.-Julien. The deal was one of several acquisitions Castel announced last week that will enable the Bordeaux-based company to extend its business to luxury wines. Japanese drinks giant Suntory now owns the other half of Beychevelle, which will give Castel a strategic partner in Asian markets. “[Beychevelle] will be a valuable asset in emerging markets such as China, where Castel is already the leading seller of bottled wine,” said Franck Crouzet, a company spokesperson. The terms of the deal were not announced.

Beychevelle was just one of Castel’s acquisitions last week. It also purchased Château Beaumont, a Cru Bourgeois in the Haut Médoc, and Barrières Frères, a Bordeaux négociant specializing in fine wines. Castel acquired a 50 percent stake in all three companies from two shareholders—wine company Grands Millésimes de France and insurance firm Ethias.

Suntory, which has owned part of Beychevelle for more than 20 years, increased its stake from 37 percent to 50 percent. Castel also bought three estates from another insurance firm, MAAF—Châteaus Tour Saint-Christophe and Tour Musset in St.-Emilion, and Haut Caplane in Sauternes. The Savour Club, a mail-order wine operator in financial difficulty, was also included in the transaction. All of these acquisitions are awaiting approval from European regulatory agencies.

Established back in 1949 by nine brothers and sisters, Castel remains a family company, currently overseen by 84-year-old Pierre Castel. The group sells around 587 million bottles of wine worldwide, representing an annual turnover of $1 billion. Even though it owns 19 French wine properties, including 15 in Bordeaux, it is first and foremost a merchant house specializing in mid- to low-priced brands, such as Baron de Lestac and Malesan.

These latest investments indicate a major change in strategy for the group, partly unveiled last year, when Castel bought Bordeaux merchant house Barton & Guestier, a major international player in prestigious wines. Beychevelle is Castel’s first investment in a Cru Classé and is likely to become the group’s new ambassador on the export front.

Suntory purchased one of China’s leading wine importers, ASC, last year, which should guarantee that Beychevelle has access to Chinese consumers. “This deal gives Castel deeper ties to China,” the proprietor of a neighboring château told Wine Spectator. “That was undoubtedly a big part of Castel’s thinking.” With its dragon boat label, the château is already popular in China.

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