Through the grapevine: Gerard Colin to leave Lafite project in China

By Jim Boyce

Word is Gerard Colin, who staked his claim to fame in China as the first winemaker at Grace Vineyard, will soon leave as managing director of a joint venture established about four years ago in Shandong between French producer Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and China company CITIC. When the project was launched, Decanter reported that “Lafite proprietor Baron Eric de Rothschild said he was particularly excited to be part of the creation of what he called an ‘exceptional Chinese Grand Cru.’”

Back then, I wrote a post called “Lafite in lala land?” and explained four of the story lines from the project that I consider intriguing. An excerpt:

1. Several Chinese wine experts have told me that excessive humidity and insufficient sunshine in Shandong make it difficult to grow wine grapes. They say it might be possible to make good wine, but doubt the area has “Grand Cru” potential. (See Li Demei’s “pros and cons” of China’s wine regions.) Maybe Chateau Lafite knows something they don’t know or is planning to use some untried technique?

2. One trend among Chinese producers is to favor marketing over wine quality to justify high prices. Consider Chateau Junding, also in Shandong. It charges hundreds of dollars for wines that, at least based on a tasting I attended, are wildly overpriced (though the bottles look nice). Given the brand recognition of Lafite in China, the present market must seem like a money-making opportunity akin to shooting fish in a wine barrel.

3. Blending laws in China are lax. About 20 to 30 percent of the wine bottled here is imported bulk that is blended with locally made stuff. Is it not possible that imported juice from France could be brought in if the vineyard in Shandong does not prove up to snuff? Then again, there is plenty of time to think about that, since the story does not say when we can expect Lafite to wow us.

4. If Chinese wine writers know any part of the vino world, it is Bordeaux, not only because it is the best-known in China but also because many of them have visited there (ask a few and you will find a large discrepancy between the number of trips to Bordeaux and those to, say, Napa Valley and Barossa Valley). This puts these writers in the position – barring interference from advertisers or other interests – to give the utmost public scrutiny to Lafite’s China wines.

All in all, we have a world-famous French winery with excellent brand recognition in China establishing itself in a part of the country that faces substantial grape-growing challenges and in a market where wine writers know Bordeaux better than any other wine. This should get very interesting.

Much has changed in the past four years. While Lafite / Bordeaux retain high status in China, the market is getting more sophisticated and more competitive. While Shandong remains a major producer, other areas, particularly Ningxia, are pulling farther ahead in terms of quality while increasing quantity. And the recent government austerity initiative doesn’t bode well — at least for now — for high-priced wines. I’m not saying Lafite planned to charge high prices, only that if the winery did so and released the wine today, it would be a tougher sell than even last year.

I’ve only been to the Lafite vineyard once — two years ago, before any vines were planted — and the project seemed highly ambitious given the location. But if this interview with Colin is any indication, a great deal of work has been done.

In any case, it looks as if a key player in China’s modern wine scene is moving on — word is Xinjiang might be the next stop — and I will try to get more details on what is happening at one of the more intriguing projects in the country.

(Issue 2 of the Grape Wall e-newsletter GWoC Talk is out. You can sign up here here and see a sample here. You can also follow me on Weibo here and on Twitter here and here.)

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