Lafite in lala land? Bordeaux bigwig to make ‘Grand Cru’ in China

By Jim Boyce

About ten days ago, Decanter posted an “EXCLUSIVE” story to tell the world what pretty much anyone with a friend in the local wine industry here has known for ages, namely, that Chateau Lafite – the most esteemed foreign wine brand in China – will set up shop in this country:

In a historic move, Bordeaux first growth Chateau Lafite is developing a vineyard in China.

The renowned Pauillac estate has gone into partnership with CITIC, China’s largest state-owned investment company, to develop 25ha of vines in the peninsula of Penglai in Shandong province.

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.’

This is an interesting story for many reasons. Here are four of them, the last being to me the most intriguing:

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.

Finally, a note on Decanter’s reporting: The only people quoted in this story are the investors and the Decanter editor, yet this “EXCLUSIVE” would seem to beg for named outside sources.

It states, “Shandong province is regarded as one of China’s most promising wine-growing regions”, but doesn’t say by whom. It states, “Some commentators are referring to the peninsula… as ‘China’s Bordeaux.’“, but again there is no attribution.

I would guess pretty much every wine-making region of China has been called “China’s Bordeaux” at one time or another, from Ningxia in the west (“dubbed ‘China’s Bordeaux'”) to Hebei province outside Beijing (a Newsweek story about Gernot Langes-Swarovski’s Bodega Langes project is titled, “The Bordeaux of China“). Maybe it would be easier to simply follow the lead of Chateau Junding, the aforementioned neighbor of the new Lafite’ operation, and simply refer to the area as “Nava [yes, “Nava” with a “v”] Valley.”

More posts by Jim Boyce

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