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The European property portfolio of an average billionaire might, for some time, have included a lateral apartment in London, a villa in le Midi and a ski chalet in the Alps – but increasingly collectors of trophy homes are adding a vineyard to the list.
Demand from wealthy Russian and Chinese buyers for French vineyards is well documented. Now the international elite is extending its interest beyond Bordeaux and the Médoc to Tuscany, either because they wish to add a prestigious Italian variety to their collection or because they prefer the Italian lifestyle – not to mention the government’s more lenient approach to individual wealth.
Nikolaus Barnewitz, of Casa in Toscana, estate agents specialising in the Chianti region, says over the past eight months four major vineyards, priced between €25m and €30m, have been sold. Three went to Russian or eastern European buyers and the fourth was snapped up by an Argentine – an example of how emerging markets are homing in on a region that was once the preserve of western Europeans (and the odd North American) with a passion for viniculture.
“These are oligarchs,” he says. “They have the planes, the yachts, the houses . . . the only thing that is missing from their collection is a winery.”
Jan Niklas Riegelmann, co-founder of Jaklin Riegelmann, a Munich-based company that deals mainly with German, Swiss, Austrian and Italian buyers, has seen Russian and Asian clients muscle in over the past two years. Riegelmann suspects vendors raise their price when they discover an eastern European buyer is involved.
If true, an influx of enthusiastic, equity-rich buyers is a rare piece of good news in Italy’s struggling property market. Figures provided by the research institute Nomisma show prices floundering across key winemaking regions.
In Turin, for example, second-hand house prices peaked in the first quarter of 2008 at €2,005 per sq metre, but are now languishing at €1,768 per sq metre. The same pattern can be seen around Genoa, within the Liguria wine region, and in Tuscany itself, where Barnewitz estimates prices for vineyards are 15 to 20 per cent down on peak levels.
Local agents have noticed that their new clients have very different wish lists to the British, German and US wine enthusiasts they are used to dealing with.
Diletta Giorgolo Spinola, head of sales at Sotheby’s International Realty in Tuscany, notes that Russian clients want impressive (but completely restored) historic villas or, preferably, castles, surrounded by major estates in prestigious wine regions. By comparison, the British tend to be hobby winemakers content with a ramshackle farmhouse to do up and enough land to grow wine and press olive oil for themselves and their families. Chinese buyers are not looking for a beautiful holiday home as much as a business opportunity to make large quantities of wine to export and sell back in China.
Though architectural tastes may vary, all the agents agree that, when it comes to location, Tuscany is, was and forever will be, in a league of its own.
“It has the cachet [and] several of the most famous wine denominations – Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti and Bolgheri on the coast,” says Bill Thomson, chairman of Knight Frank’s Italian network of estate agents.
Thomson estimates that vineyards in Chianti sell for about €100,000 per hectare, while in Bolgheri the price soars to €300,000-plus.
Riegelmann says it is possible to buy a registered vineyard from €70,000 per hectare and produce a generic, entry-level quality of wine without a particular appellation. To raise Sangiovese grapes around the town of Montalcino, expect to pay between €300,000 and €500,000 per hectare.
However, the quality and scale of vineyard accommodation varies wildly – and a vineyard with a grand house attached can be worth more than the sum of its parts.
Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a historic estate comprising of a neoclassical villa, farmhouse and Renaissance chapel, in 154 hectares, 15 of which are vineyards producing 90,000 bottles of Chianti Classico each year. There are also olive groves, forest and arable farmland. It is on the market for €17.3m.
While some buyers are seeking a large commercial winery, most clients, in Barnewitz’s experience, want to pay about €5m for a “boutique” winery, incorporating a villa, cantina, plus around 30 hectares of land including five or six hectares of vineyards, capable of producing about 40,000 bottles a year.
A prime example of a small-scale vineyard in the Chianti Classico region is on the market with Savills for €5.5m. The property has a three-bedroom villa, guest house and staff apartment, plus a small winery. It is set in 82 hectares of land of which five are planted as vineyards. Meanwhile, Knight Frank is selling a 14-bedroom property in the Arbia valley close to Gaiole in Chianti for €3.25m. The property dates back to 1200 and has just under 67 acres, including vineyards growing Merlot, Cabernet, Sangiovese and Alicante grapes.
Another option is to buy a country house with a few vines. Lynne Davie, director of the Florence office of Beauchamp Estates, says most small-time owners do a deal with a local winery which will tend and harvest their grapes and give them a few cases in return. Owners can design their own labels and have the fun of sharing “their” wine with family and friends.
“That is what most people want – they want to see it growing but they don’t want to look after it,” she says.
Outside of Tuscany, Thomson struggles to think of anywhere else in Italy to recommend to overseas buyers.
The Veneto region, which includes Venice, produces fine Soave and prosecco, but Thomson says that the landscape is flat, the winters can be foggy and the summers excruciatingly hot.
Liguria, on the west coast, produces great wines such as Vermentino, but Thomson says this market is dominated by local buyers willing to pay €700,000 per hectare to enlarge their existing holdings at a price inflated by the scarcity of land.
Back in Tuscany, Spinola is busy ferrying clients from Thailand, Hong Kong, mainland China and Russia on vineyard viewings.
“Before, these people only wanted fancy properties on the coast. Now they want vineyards,” she says. “It might be that one or two have done it and now all the rest are following. It was like that after [Roman] Abramovich bought in Sardinia and all the others followed. Perhaps now they are bored of the seaside, and they want something new to show their friends.”
What you can buy for . . .
€1m A villa in Liguria with enough land for a “private” vineyard
€5m A sizeable five-bedroom property in the Roero region with a winery able to turn out 40,000 bottles per year
€10m A large villa or restored estate in Tuscany with about 30 hectares, including vineyards