Country houses for sale

Buying vineyards in France

Forget the yacht and the artwork -for rich wine aficionados, the new must-have acquisition is their own French vineyard. The growing wave of well-known néo-vignerons (new winemakers) includes Gérard Depardieu, Carole Bouquet, LVMH supremo Bernard Arnault, Christie’s proprietor François Pinault and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, as well as some ultra-discreet British billionaires. There is even a wild rumour that The Queen has a Var vineyard whose produce is served to her Buckingham Palace staff. And Haut-Brion connoisseur Johnny Depp is said to be still on the search for his own vines.

Starting slowly over the past 15 years, but picking up speed in the past decade, numbers of British néo-vignerons reached a peak in 2007 when they accounted for 70% of the lifestyle clientele-as opposed to commercial purchasers-of specialists Vignobles Investissement in Montpellier. The recession and sterling’s decline brought that boom to a standstill. But now, realtors from Provence to Bordeaux agree that, fed up with putting their projects on hold, the ever-resilient British buyer is making a comeback.

Investing in a vineyard can take the form of a ‘hobby’ vineyard (the most common for first-timers), mark a lifestyle change or be a business investment-or a combination of all three. Although the Chinese have moved in as commercial buyers, mainly in Bordeaux, the new breed of néo-vignerons -an international mix of French, British, American, German, Dutch and Scandinavian- is buying for immediate pleasure rather than planning a long-term investment to be handed down over generations.

‘It’s important to understand your objectives for the vineyard from the start,’ explains Paul Humphreys, head of Knight Frank’s French desk. ‘What most people who come to us are looking for is a villa, a lovely old farmhouse or a château with a “hobby” vineyard of several hectares that’s run by a local winemaker and gives a “wine income”.’ This means you’re paid in bottles of your own private-label wine, although you can opt for money instead. Mr Humphreys adds: ‘People soon realise they don’t want to go from busy jobs in the City or as hedge-fund managers to running a vineyard business in France.’ France has many celebrated wine regions, but the néo-vigneron action mainly centres on Provence and south-west France.

Provence, the Rhône valley and Languedoc

‘It’s terribly difficult to find an investment that will always have value, be tremendous fun and also be quite a cool, chic thing to have to entertain and impress your friends. A beautiful house in Provence with a vineyard has all these things. It’s a trophy you can enjoy,’ believes Knight Frank associate Hugo Skillington in Grimaud.

Together with ‘capital security and probable capital growth -if it just about breaks even-you have a substantial property that isn’t costing you anything to run’. He estimates Provençal AOC Côtes de Provence wine-estate prices to start at about the €1.8 million mark (the cost of a recent ‘simple house with 18 hectares [45 acres], of which eight were down to vines), to almost anything-the sky’s the limit’.

The price for a big Saint-Tropez estate privately on the market is €30 million. In between, for €11.4 million, he offers the Domaine du Moulin outside Grimaud, with 18 hectares (45 acres), of which 3.4 hectares (8½ acres) are a working AOC vineyard, and a ‘delightful’ 19th-century bastide’, and, for €15 million, ‘the enchanting 172-hectare (425 acre) estate, Le Canadel, near Brignoles, whose 4.2 hectares (10 acres) of AOC vines produce the most lovely wines’. (And you’ll share a winemaker with Brad and Angelina.)

Saint-Rémy-de-Provence-based French oenologist Stéphane Paillard, who established his Bureau Viticole real-estate agency specialising in vineyards almost 20 years ago, makes almost 95% of his sales to wine-making neophytes-many successful businessmen in their fifties and sixties. He invented his ‘wine residence’ service to blend oenological counsel with the residential aspect. ‘The vineyard is for Monsieur, but the house is for Madame, and just as important,’ he maintains. M. Paillard’s Club du Vin is an after-sales service, advising the client on such matters as buying the right materials to designing the wine and brand image. M. Paillard reports the return of big budget buyers, including the British, who are looking to diversify their investments by acquiring large, exceptional estates in Provence, Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Burgundy, together with the professionals, who are back in the hunt. ‘Prices for top properties are still very, very high,’ he notes, ‘but the rest of the market has fallen and there is much more on offer.’

Everyone agrees that vineyard transactions take time, sometimes up to two years. M. Paillard gets ‘about 300 enquiries a year’ and reports that, although hundreds fantasise, only about three to eight follow through to buy. And, he warns, ‘although it’s true you make wine with money, you rarely make money with wine. The strength of Provence is that 70% of the wine (two-thirds is vin rosé) is sold locally. You can set your price and get an immediate return’.

Prices of properties in his portfolio start at about €3 million to €5 million, with Bordeaux a bit less and Provence more at €5 million to €10 million. For example, the 50-hectare (124 acre) Provençal estate Vallon des Sauges in Bandols, with a 16th century bastide and an AOC vineyard, is priced at €5 million plus €2 million estimated restoration costs. He also lists the Cistercian Abbey of Fébus with a seven hectare (17-acre) vineyard in a 70-hectare (173-acre) valley in Gascony at €3 million plus €1.5 million restoration costs, and the Vignoble des Desmoiselles in Beaujolais, a 16th to 19th-century house with a 35- hectare (86-acre) vineyard for €6 million. Vignobles Investissement (VI), which covers the Languedoc and the Rhône Valley, has a predominantly British néo-vigneron clientele.

‘People have seen that the economy isn’t getting worse, and so they’ve decided to take the plunge,’ says VI’s resident Scotsman, Adam Dakin. ‘A City guy just bought a small vineyard with a modern winery near Mont Ventoux that produces about 70,000 bottles of AOC Côtes de Ventoux a year.’ The agency created the Vinea Transactions network, which recruits professionals, to help such néo-vignerons.

His client, Guernsey-based British financier Graham Shore, who already had a Lúberon house, bought the vineyard to make a wine that reflected his taste for full-bodied Gigondas wines over crisp rosés. ‘The 11.5 hectares (28½ acres) of vines are close to the boundary of Côtes de Rhone, between the Dentelles de Montmiral and Ventoux, so I’m renaming it Entre Deux Monts,’ he confides. ‘I plan to produce a Gigondas style wine, and sell it from the old winery on the main Carpentras-Mont Ventoux road. I hope to make it a successful business, but if it breaks even, I’ll be happy.’ Mr Dakin says prices have come down, and quotes properties around €1.5 million as the ‘heart of our market’. But, he adds: ‘Some of the Châteauneuf du Pape vineyards of 100 acres would sell for €50 million to €100 million. We limit our offer to €15 million tops.’ On his books, a 106-hectare (262-acre) vineyard estate ‘just on the brink of taking off’ on the Mediterranean coast with a 19th-century château and 65 hectares (160 acres) of Côteaux de Languedoc wines, rated 93/100 by wine guru Robert Parker, costs €5.4 million. Another 72-hectare (178-acre) organic wine estate with a 350 square metre bastide and a ‘first-class’ 12.5 hectare (31 acre) vineyard picturesquely planted like waves on a hill in a private valley near Carcassonne, is going for €2 million; an 80-hectare (198 acre) Languedoc property with 44-hectare (109-acre) vineyard and an 18th-century house near Montpellier and the sea is priced at €3.9 million.  

Bordeaux, the Dordogne, Gascony

Many famed Bordeaux wine châteaux have been British-owned, and the affection for what is called ‘claret’ in the UK is legendary. As British wine expert Hugh Johnson writes in the preface to The Heart of Bordeaux, the affinity dates back ‘many centuries; eight, at least, and, if Roman records can be believed, perhaps even 19 or 20. In the Middle Ages, it was our national drink.’

‘Mythical properties get mythical prices,’ explains Michael Baynes of Maxwell-Storrie- Baynes, a Christie’s Great Estates affiliate in Saint Emilion. ‘Above €100 million, it’s not a case of balance sheets, assets or profits,’ he says of the grand names, ‘but what someone will sell it for and what someone will pay for it.’ The agency-which covers real estate from Cognac through the Gironde region and the Dordogne Valley for a clientele that is now 50/50 between lifestyle and commercial clients-offers properties at more accessible levels. ‘Prices start at €742,000 for a charming little vineyard in Castillon,’ says Mr Baynes, who cites about €3 million to €8 million for the average lifestyle vineyard estate. ‘If you bought something in the Napa Valley, you would be spending two, three or even four times the amount per hectare. ‘We’ve seen a considerable uptake on last year,’ he says of the market. ‘There is a terrific growth in inquiries from outside France. The release of the 2009 Bordeaux vintage (tipped to be exceptional) got an enormous amount of press, and we think that was what turned the tide.’

Lifestyle clients include Americans in their early fifties who have sold their companies and Europeans whose financial success came in their forties and don’t want to retire, but want to try something new in France, as well as British citizens living abroad who want to move closer to home. Buyers can choose the extent they want to be hands-on or-off the wine-making from a Managed Estates option. One attractive Côtes de Bordeaux estate on the books is an elegant château and a 43.8-hectare (108-acre) vineyard producing red, white, rosé and Sauterne wines is priced at €3.51 million; another, in the Dordogne Valley outside Saint Emilion, has an 18th-century maison de maître and a six hectare (15-acre) Saint Emilion grand cru vineyard at €5.45 million. A third spectacular spread of 170 hectares (420 acres) boasts a 10-room château with views over the hills of Entre Deux Mers and a 64-hectare (158-acre) AOC 1er Côtes de Bordeaux vineyard, plus boar and deer hunting (price on application). Anne-Valérie Devèze of Demeures & Vignobles, a Sotheby’s International Realty affiliate, confirms ‘more demand for vineyards and more transactions’ in the first six months of the year in Bordeaux, where she only handles vineyards with residences.

‘Prices depend on the appellation,’ she says. ‘They go from about €30,000 per hectare (2½ acres) for a Bordeaux wine estate up to €1 million per hectare in the Pomerol.’ But, she adds: ‘Prices are still discussed down. People have stopped waiting for them to fall further and now understand they’re getting a good price.’

One alluring 60-hectare (148-acre) estate put on the market by its English owners, who are retiring, has a 19th-century château atop a hill overlooking striking views and the 45-hectare (111-acre) Premiers Côtes de Bordeaux vineyard. ‘The owners have done a wonderful job,’ she says. ‘The wine is good and marketed well.’ Another beautifully renovated 67-hectare (166-acre) domaine with an 18-hectare (44-acre) AOC Bordeaux Superieur vineyard costs €2.385 million.

For Mlle Devèze’s high-flying international clientele, including Americans, Belgians and French people living abroad, a vineyard estate is one of several homes and may not be the main vacation residence. ‘They might come to this one only three weeks a year. For example, during the vendange (wine harvest) from mid September to October.’ She also offers management guidance. ‘A vineyard doesn’t make much money,’ she admits, ‘but, today, it offers the kind of capital protection that people are looking for. In the past 10 years, a wine-producing property would have gone up in value by about 10%.’

The Dordogne has long been a quintessential residential destination for British buyers, but demand for vineyards is a relatively recent development. ‘The residence is still the most important element,’ says Knight Frank’s representative Stewart Cook of Classic French Homes in Eymet. ‘The addition of a vineyard makes it a holiday home with a twist, offering social kudos at dinner parties when the bottle on the table comes from your château in south-west France.’ He’s opening a new office in Bordeaux to take advantage of the increasing market. ‘Bergerac doesn’t have the reputation of Bordeaux, so although, in many cases, the terroir is the same and the quality of the wine is good, prices are significantly lower, from €2 million to €4 million for a château and decent vineyard,’ he says. The 121-hectare (300-acre) Château Monestier-La-Tour with a restored 14th-, 17th- and 19th-century château and 31-hectare (77-acre) AOC Côtesde Bergerac vineyard, making red, white and sweet wines, is a new star on his list.

Another niche lifestyle vineyard market is developing in Gascony, where Savills associate Edward Landau of Le Bonheur in Maubourget explains: ‘The British are still the mainstay of our clientele and a vineyard can give an “in” to the community on a sophisticated level.’ Because of the downturn, he says, ‘more stock is now available and prices are attractive, from €600,000 to €5 million or €6 million’. He deems Château Mazelières, a 40-hectare (100-acre) wine estate with a six-hectare (15-acre) gold, silver and bronze medal-winning AOC Buzet vineyard near Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne, ‘a rare find. The 17th-/18th-century Chartreuse-style château is the most exceptional one I’ve handled in my 16 years of property.’ The price is €2.7 million, and a further 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of AOC Buzet vines nearby are available by separate negotiation.

NEED TO KNOW: Buying a vineyard

* Values for wine-producing properties have gone up 10% in the past 10 years.
* Provence Estates start at about €1.8 million, and 70% of the wine is sold locally- set a price and get an immediate return
* Châteauneuf du Pape Vineyards start at €50 million
* Languedoc An area where things are on the move-and prices are lower
* Bordeaux Wine estates start at €3 million, but can go up to €1 million/hectare
* Bergerac Vineyards cost from €2 million