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DBR Lafite, Bodegas Torres and the Future of Wine in China

lafiteAt the end of March, Decanter.com broke the news that Domaines Barons de Rothschild – more often referred to in China as DBR Lafite or merely ‘Lafite’ – has teamed up with CITIC, China’s largest government-owned investment company, to produce a ‘Chinese Grand Cru’ in Shandong province’s Penglai peninsula.

CITIC hails from the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping; and its remit from the outset was to attract foreign investment. Decanter would have first heard about the venture from importer Summergate, DBR’s Chinese distributor. Summergate partners Ian Ford and Brendan O’Toole were apparently involved early on in a project whose origins stretch back some fifteen years. In 2006 O’Toole and Ford also visited Penglai with DBR’s Christophe Salin (when site selection and grape sourcing was no doubt on the minds of all involved).

Since the story broke, journalists and bloggers have gone mad with speculation as to precisely what this joint venture will yield. No one can be blamed for getting excited or even voicing some scepticism (especially those sceptics who have been exposed to Chinese wines, some of doubtful provenance, before). There are real questions involved as to what kind of wine or wines will eventually be produced, whether exclusively Chinese grapes will be used and what kind of price point(s) v. quality Chinese consumers can expect from whatever DBR-CITIC eventually bottles.

At the same time, the speculation-fuelled fire has, well, run wild. It is surely more constructive to wait to see what DBR Lafite produces for its nominal ‘Chinese Grand Cru’, whilst concentrating on more immediate phenomena: for example, the dominance of France in the Chinese import wine business. Consider also the cross-cultural exchange of perceptions in which France’s ‘Chinosierie’ has been projected back onto the French by a Chinese wine-drinking public whose love of tradition, ancient narratives and wine-making dynasties easily chime with what France can offer.

True enough, most emerging wine markets begin with France. That the majority of the grape varieties deemed ‘international’ originate from that country also clearly plays a role. Although a depressing amount of distinctly average French wine reaches Chinese shores, the créme de la créme are also present (even if ‘Grand Cru’ is something of an abused term in China), mainly in the shape of Bordeaux. But some domaine Burgundy and even more eclectic gems from other French regions are beginning to appear.

On the face of it, anything labelled ‘Lafite’ could sell in China. But why not equally the other Bordeaux first growths or other French properties that have made wines in countries outside France before? (These don’t do too badly, admittedly!).

grace-deep-blueDBR Lafite was, of course, swift to translate its website into Chinese and has clearly been visiting China from early on (the argument that ‘Lafite’ is easy for Chinese consumers to pronounce does not actually wash when ‘Margaux’ is even easier for them to say). Much consists in names. But not only Lafite grabs attention in this respect. The Chinese translation for Chateau Beychevelle (??Longchuan, meaning ‘dragon boat’) has helped that property’s wines do particularly well here. Our own company Dragon Phoenix has also played a modest role recently in helping Chateau La Lagune find an evocative Chinese name (one that both ‘transliterates’, i.e. sounds similar in Chinese, but also captures the meaning of ‘La Lagune’ itself: hence ??? LangLihu, i.e. ‘the beautiful lake’). But with Sopexa on hand, the rest of France is hardly doing all that badly here either.

Less trumpeted, but as intriguing, however, is the presence of Torres in China, not only in the form of distributor Torres China, but in a winery called Silver Heights. Silver Heights is located in Ningxia province, a good deal west and in a much drier part of the country than the rain-soaked Shandong (which receives most of its precipitation post-flowering and, frequently, during harvest).

The vineyard is at high elevation (1,200m above sea-level) in the Helan Mountains; whilst the winery has garnered the expertise of returning Chinese winemaker Emma Gao (who completed stints at Châteaux Calon-Ségur and Lafon-Rochet). Admittedly, these Bordelais ‘origins’ are not absent from Torres China’s literature – why should they be? – but it will be interesting to see if a Spanish influence as well as the Bordelais one comes to bear.

Torres China is also making wine together with Grace Vineyard of Shanxi province under the ‘Symphony Series’ label. To date, an off-dry Muscat designed to partner with different forms of Chinese cuisine promises potential. Grace Vineyard, especially in its 2006 and 2008 vintages, is also going from strength to strength and has recently opened a Beijing wine club with other wineries planned in other Chinese regions.

So, at the risk of speculation, what does the future hold? Will the Lafite-CITIC wine be able to sell on name and association alone? It’s worth bearing in mind that, for better or worse, a lot of wines are sold in this way in many a country besides China. But judging by the quality of what DBR Lafite has produced in other parts of the world, the DBR side of the equation is unlikely to be happy with an underperforming wine (in quality terms). True, CITIC probably doesn’t have to worry from competition from local producers in the form of Great Wall, Dynasty or Changyu now they have Lafite on their side. But the distribution and sale of the wine, of course, remain to be seen.

A final thought: if this ‘Chinese Grand Cru’ is anything like young red Bordeaux, what kind or kinds of Chinese cuisine will it suit? Red Bordeaux generally needs considerable bottle-age to match well with certain Chinese dishes (e.g. certain Cantonese classics or the lighter dishes of Huaiyang cuisine). But whatever the scenario, I hope this new venture produces a Chinese wine in the best sense of that phrase.


Edward Ragg

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