Risky business | DBR Lafite doubles down in Shandong

It’s tough to be number one. As the most famous foreign wine brand in China, Lafite has instant name recognition and an eager consumer base that forks out the big bucks. It also faces a steady flow of copycats, fierce competitors and high expectations.

Expectations are notably lofty for its China wine, Longdai, a decade in the making and just now reaching buyers at an equally lofty rmb2500 (EUR / USD 350) per bottle.

(Expect fellow China wine producers to buy bottles and stage tastings to see if they can “beat” Lafite. Year after year after year.)

Longdai is in Shandong province, 20 km from the coast, near Treaty Port Vineyard; the grapes hail from 360 plots spread over 30 hectares; 2017 production was 15,000 bottles of wine aged 18 months in French barrels made by Lafite. Pernod Ricard is exclusive distributor.

DBR Lafite’s China head Anna Song and I were to meet in Beijing in mid-October but when our plans didn’t work out, she invited me to Shanghai for a Vinexpo tasting that included not only Longdai but also Lafite’s Argentine, Chilean and French labels.

This was bound to be interesting. Ten years ago, Lafite’s Shandong project raised eyebrows given the region’s reputation for humidity. It was also a time when local producers often stressed marketing over quality. And China’s wine KOLs were more familiar with Lafite than most any other label and likely to give it extra harsh scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, the cynical believed Lafite sought to cash in further on its name at a time when China was Bordeaux crazy.

Anyway, many expected those first bottles to reach the market in five or six years, but harvests came and went with no release. Meanwhile, the China wine scene quickly changed.

Wine consumers grew more knowledgeable and curious: many moved beyond buying Bordeaux for status. Burgundy was heard on more lips. Aficionados began trying fine wine from Italy, Australia and the United States. The rise of online retail and smart phones made exploration far easier.

Producers were changing, too. More pursued quality. They won global awards and kudos from top critics. Regions set their sites on becoming “China’s Bordeaux.”

Ningxia, little known when Lafite began in Shandong, quickly gained attention. Hebei wineries steadily grew in quality. In Yunnan, LVMH launched its own project and released several well-received vintages of Ao Yun, while all remained quiet on the Lafite front. The market was going full speed but Lafite seemed to move at a snail’s pace.

Then the market hit the brakes. Local production plummeted these last few years and import volumes eventually followed, with France and Bordeaux losing major share to Australia and Chile. Now, just as local wine is fast improving, consumers are ever curious and the market is struggling — Lafite decided to release its wine!

(On a positive note, the timing does fit nicely with recent efforts by France to boost its China position. I’ve written about this in posts re Bordeaux Fete Le Vin here and here, Vinexpo Shanghai here and Michel Bettane here and here. Plus, this comprehensive Wine Searcher piece here. Still, I doubt that Lafite ten years ago expected to release its first Chinese wine in such a situation.)

The intriguing thing is Lafite had an easy escape route. When it’s local partner CITIC withdrew from the project a few years ago, Lafite had a perfect excuse to leave, too. Instead, it doubled down.

Fast forward to October 2019 and we are sitting in a Vinexpo Shanghai tasting about to try Lafite’s wines from four countries.

I’m no Bordeaux guy. I’m not refined enough to distinguish chateaus or know whether or not a certain vintage has an extra flutter of elderberry. I had dinner with Song and DBR Lafite’s strategy & development head Jean-Luc Vincent the night before. Vincent said a crucial factor is Lafite makes the barrels for all of its properties. Look for that consistency, he suggested. Noted!

Song started the tasting by saying it was the first such Longdai event beyond Shandong.

(They’ve had events in Shandong, including to announce the winery name, an occasion that upset some uninvited China wine KOLs.)

DBR Lafite CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats, who previously helmed that LVMH project Ao Yun in Yunnan, led the proceedings.

“It was born from nothing, from a white piece of paper,” Prats said of Longdai. “There were no grapes before, we started from scratch, and we planted on terraces.”

“It took us 10 years, a lot of mistakes, a lot of learning,” he said, before getting some chuckles: “When it comes to producing great wines, the most difficult part is the first 100 years.”

One hundred years. The message: Lafite is there for the long run.

We tasted.

Los Vascos 2015 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenere) from Chile had ripe cherry, cola and sweet grass aromas, plus restrained fruit, good acidity and decent tannins. “It’s not a big Chilean wine. It’s fairly restrained and extremely elegant,” said Prats. We were getting our footing.

We crossed the Andes to Argentina for Caro Cabernet-Malbec 2016 from Mendoza, a region Prats compared to Ningxia. I found bing cherry, smoky cola, touches of dry grass, nut and menthol. It was juicy, then chewy, with tight tannins, and slightly tart at the finish.

Next stop: France and Aussieres 2015, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache blend. Vibrant: riper darker red fruit with hints of potpourri (sandlewood?), wild flowers, and cherry liqueur. Every time I sniffed, I picked up a new aroma. Violet. Smoke. Mint. Hawthorn.

“It has a beautiful nose of Indian curry spiciness,” said Prats. Twice. Maybe that’d be a good pairing?

It was juicy, again with tight tannins, and a nice tangy chewiness at the finish. “Very purple,” I wrote. I was thinking about Vincent’s comment on consistency.

Then, we headed for home.

First, Bordeaux’s Duhart-Milon 2016, with whiffs of ripe berries, pencil lead and violets. More than violets? “Summer flowers.” And an intense brambly fresh berry jam edge.

This one tasted of dark berries and a touch of umami. I wrote pencil lead again. (I know that taste from schoolboy experiences.) The berry and oak character intensified by the minute.

Then Carruades de Lafite 2016. Ripe fruit, vanilla, smoke, a similar berry richness to Duhart-Milon. I picked up a bit of eucalyptus, blue cheese and something arcane, like a blend of chartreuse, spearmint gum and Absorbine Jr. That all sounds weird but this went down so smooth (thank you, Merlot). Juicy, fruity, a slightly dusty character.

And finally Lafite-Rothschild 2000. After the previous wines, those ripe berry, vanilla, cola and liqueur aromas were familiar. As were the whiffs of violet and menthol. This was quite a mouthful with that fruity smoky oak-y character. As rich as it sounds, this was an elegant wine. Not big or heavy, just well-crafted and balanced.

Whew! So what about the Longdai? We actually tried it first and I rationed my pour so I could go back after each of the other wines.

Longdai is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and China fave Marselan. I asked Prats why they chose Marselan.

“Since Marselan was performing well in Shandong with our neighbor, we tried it,” he said. “It turned out to be a very good idea.”

There you go. (Also, check out my World Marselan Day project.)

Longdai had a punchy nose: fresh ripe berry, vanilla, smoke, graphite, hints of violets and eucalyptus. The same words I used in so many of the previous notes. Vincent was vindicated!

Longdai was nicely balanced, fruity, with a grainy / chewy character, and a sense of minerality: I want to say coal but that’s not quite it. A pleasant tartness at the end reminded me of hawthorn. I liked it.

Was it China’s best wine? I don’t know. My taste is all over the place these days. I mean, I just gave a Chinese wine one million points.

Anyway, I went back to Longdai after each wine — 20 minutes after my glass was empty, I had a last sniff. Caramel nougat with vanilla and pipe tobacco. That’s some oak!

“We’ve only had ten years, so we still have time,” Prats told us at the start. I had a feeling that his message then and a few other times was: Don’t judge us too harshly just yet.

I don’t feel anyone did. And for many, it might have less to do with respect for what was in the glass than for what happened a few years ago. When Lafite’s partner departed. When Lafite could have taken the easy way out and followed. And didn’t. No, Lafite didn’t leave. Lafite doubled down.

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