While on a helicopter tour of Bordeaux vineyards he had just purchased, a Chinese businessman, his 12-year-old son and two other people plunged into a wintry river and died, authorities said Monday.
Hong Kong-based Lam Kok, who built a fortune in fine tea and luxury hotels before taking an interest in French winemaking, drew attention in the French media when he offered to buy the Chateau de la Riviere.
It was one of a string of Chinese purchases of French vineyards and wines in recent years, which has demonstrated China's global economic strength, and raised concerns in economically-stagnant France and elsewhere that cultural heritage — such as grapevines linked closely to the French identity — are being sold off to richer foreigners.
Hours after a news conference Friday announcing the vineyard purchase, the former owner of the chateau took Lam Kok, his son and an interpreter up in a helicopter to tour the estate, said Vincent Corbel of the regional gendarme service.
The helicopter soon dived into the Dordogne River, for reasons that remain unclear. Emergency workers recovered the boy's body and most of the helicopter, but are still searching for the other victims, Corbel said Monday.
The former owner of the Chateau de la Riviere vineyards, James Gregoire, owned the helicopter and appeared to have been piloting it, Corbel said. He added that the helicopter, a Robinson R44, had undergone maintenance checks two days before the crash.
Lam Kok headed Hong Kong-based high-end tea and hotel company Brilliant Group. The chateau's director, Xavier Buffo, told reporters Friday the new owner wanted to "create an esteemed place for cultural exchange around tea and wine."
China has become Bordeaux's largest export market, picking up the slack as sales to other countries slip.
Buffo and the mayor of nearby town Libourne seemed to be seeking to convince doubters that outside purchases of French vineyards are good for Bordeaux business, and no threat to its prestige.