Not-so-idle speculation: Wine, scarcity and China

By Jim Boyce

Four people have asked me in the past few weeks for info about how to buy from ten to fifty cases of a specific wine. Is that wine from longstanding Bordeaux favorite Chateau Lafite Rothschild? No. Is it from new Burgundy darling DRC Romanee-Conti? No. How about the new and pricey Yao Ming wine that dribbled through last week? No. Then maybe the Penfold’s Bin 620 that launched in China a few weeks ago and aroused the skeptic in some people given it was the first release of this label in over 40 years and was priced at 1000 Australian dollars per bottle? No.

The wine is Chinese: Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Dry Red 2009. It is made by Helan Qing Xue, it comes from Ningxia, and it was the first Chinese wine to win an “international trophy” at the Decanter World Wine Awards. I’ve tried it over a dozen times and generally liked it. And it scored highest among the Chinese red wines, priced rmb150 to ~rmb300, in the recent North by Northwest China Wine Challenge, though it was not a unanimous winner (see results here).

On one hand, interest in Jia Bei Lan is skyrocketing — I get emails or calls about this wine almost every day. On the other, I am told production totals a modest 13,000 bottles. For the speculator, this is intriguing territory: There will only ever be one first Chinese wine to win that international trophy and there is a limited – and declining – amount of it. Thus, some people think it a good bet to put 10, 50 or more cases away as an investment. (We’ll ignore for now the possibility of counterfeiting, the possibility of production numbers being off, etc.)

The challenge at the moment is Helan Qing Xue has no China distributor. I have heard for weeks that a deal is on the verge of being signed but there has been no official announcement. And one can only guess what the price will be when a deal is done. During the past few years, I have heard the price of Jia Bei Lan is around rmb220. The most recent issue of Revue du Vin in China listed the 2009 at rmb498. And a friend told me he picked up a bottle of it at the Ningxia Provincial restaurant in Beijing a few weeks ago for over rmb700. Given this, the kudos for the wine, and that well-regarded Chinese wines like Grace Vineyard’s Chairman’s Reserve and Silver Heights’ The Summit are priced between rmb400 and rmb500, I’m guessing we won’t see rmb220 on the sticker. Then again, it is almost certainly guaranteed to be cheaper than this.

The bigger point is that we have a wine — a Chinese wine — that has investors interested. Arguably, it isn’t the first: for example, The Summit, with production of 3,000 bottles for its inaugural 2007 vintage, inspired some interest, too. But Jia Bei Lan has pushed it to a higher level….

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