Lafite's Chinese wine unveiled at last

A shorter version of this article about a long-awaited launch in China is published by the Financial Times. 

Château Lafite is the most famous of the Bordeaux first growths, so is arguably the most famous wine in the world. It is by far the best-known wine name in the world’s fastest-growing, most brand-conscious wine market China, where fakes have been so commonplace. 

So now that Lafite is finally launching its own Chinese wine, after 11 years of preparation, this is a big deal. 

I visited the winery back in February, the first outside visitor, but was sworn to secrecy. And nothing was more secret than the name of the new wine. None of Lafite’s Bordeaux staff, and not even the team in China who make it, a mix of nationalities but mainly French, knew what the new wine would be called, or how it would be labelled, until this week.

To ensure neither loose Chinese lips nor skilled Chinese counterfeiters were involved, the labels were printed, under heavy security and many a non-disclosure agreement, in Bordeaux. They are impossible to detach from the bottle, and the foil over the neck is lined with a banknote-quality anti-counterfeit graphic.

The wine was launched on Wednesday with a small but luxurious lunch for the all-important local officials at the Chinese winery. Baron Eric de Rothschild, his daughter Saskia and the president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild Jean-Guillaume Prats all flew out specially. After all, this was the culmination of a project that has not been easy.

When the first rumours that Lafite intended to establish a wine estate in Shandong were heard back in 2008 they raised some eyebrows. Shandong on the east coast was the initial focus of the modern Chinese wine industry because it is convenient for shipping, and winters are mild enough that vines don’t need to be painstakingly buried every autumn. But it has the not inconsiderable disadvantage that it is routinely plagued by monsoons between late July and mid August, which encourages the vine scourges rot and mildew. Fortunately the climate here is tending to get warmer and drier, so much so that they are considering installing irrigation for the dry springs. Nevertheless, midsummer spraying is essential, and the landscape is dotted with flapping leftover silver foils, applied to the ground by the locals to ward off excessive moisture.

[Chris Ruffle, a neighbour at Treaty Port wine estate,  corrects me here: 'One small mistake to correct. The silver paper you saw has nothing to do with moisture. The apple farmers mostly produce Fuji apples for the Japanese market. They grow the apples in paper bags to avoid insect blemishes. Two or three weeks before harvesting, the bags are removed and silver paper laid beneath the apple trees to give the apples a nice tan blush (think Californian surfer dude...)'

He adds: 'I think you are right about the shift in climate. Both 2017 and this year have seen the worst drought conditions on record. Having spent most of the last 15 years adapting to late July/early August rain (thicker-skinned varietals, grapes trained 90cm off ground, grass cover, preventative spraying before bunches close etc), I find myself buying water!'

There were also rumours of considerable challenges in the initial state of the soil on the estate, and the oldest planting, on a series of carefully created terraces, was only in 2011. The original estate director, the late Gérard Colin, poached from Grace Vineyard, producer of the first fine red wine in China, left to establish another venture in the far west of China. The first vintage made in any quantity at all was 2014, but it and the two succeeding vintages have been despatched to a distillery to ensure that they never reach the marketplace as wine to create confusion with the debut vintage, 2017.

With a triple nod to the significance of the number eight in China, the Lafite team (who made much of their 2008 vintage Pauillac) originally wanted to hold the major launch for the Chinese wine trade on 8 August 2018 but have had to postpone it to 19 September this year. Numbers are crucial in China.

For a period Lafite joined up with one of China’s biggest trading companies CITIC for this venture (they are named on the stonework shown top right), but wine seems to have lost some of its shine for such enterprises and now the Rothschilds are going it alone, albeit with the support of the mayor of the local village, who left his civic duties to work for Lafite.

The countryside here between Yantai and Penglai is extremely hilly and Lafite have taken full advantage of the many different exposures available. There are a few other wineries around about, such as Chris Ruffle's Treaty Port modelled on a Scottish castle, and there are likely to be even more now that Lafite has blessed the area, but Chinese-owned vineyards tend to be on fairly fertile soils on the flat (and their winery buildings considerably showier). Lafite instead aim for the thinnest of soils on the local granite base, encompassing a total of 360 terraces on 43 plots in less than 30 hectares (74 acres) of vines.

The estate manager Charles Treutenaere, whom Prats worked with before in the spirits business in Asia, has devised software to keep track of each plot. But the real key to the project is Juliette Couderc, the exceptionally capable 27-year-old French vineyard manager who has worked in Chile and New Zealand as well as in France and seems to be as beloved by her young team as by the stray hound who follows here everywhere. ‘It’s much easier to be a woman boss in China than in France', she assured me. ‘The Chinese have a real respect for hierarchy.’

She arrived only in 2017 but I was hugely impressed by a handful of samples of 2018s from various and varied plots that I was allowed to taste in February.

So what of the all-important 2017 that will hit the market in September at the carefully calculated price of 1,100 RMB (since amended by Jean-Guillaume Prats to 'at least 1,500 RMB and more in some distribution channels') a bottle to the consumer? Jean-Guillaume Prats, when working for LVMH, was responsible for the launch of the rival French-owned fancy Chinese red. Ao Yun, from Yunnan in the south of China, was launched in 2017 at an ambitious 2,800 RMB, the equivalent of about £320 ($400). Presenting a bottle of the new Lafite wine air-freighted from China and carried to London from Paris on Eurostar, Prats noted that Grace Vineyard’s top red, Chairman’s Reserve, is priced at 800 RMB. 

The name first. I have no idea how many possibilities were considered but Long Dai, meaning ‘chiselled mountain’, is a bit of an anti-climax to English speakers, but doubtless it's a very different matter in Mandarin and the Chinese characters were doubtless chosen with great care. But perhaps names don’t really matter anyway. The liquid, and the Lafite connection, are certainly far more important.

Yields in 2017 were only 20 hl/ha so there are only 2,500 cases of a dozen bottles to go round, although they expect to get to 4,000 cases over the next five years. (There can be 20,000 cases of Château Lafite in a good year.) The 2017 blend is half Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc and Marselan, a Chinese favourite. Long Dai will initially be aimed at the status-conscious Chinese market, but they plan to target Chinese expatriate communities in places such as Vancouver and Sydney towards the end of the year.

The winery building is a low-key, admirably sustainable, modern grey stone edifice on which London-based architect Pierre-Yves Graffe has worked since 2009. The visitor centre is shown immediately above, below is a detail from the great hall, designed for entertaining. 

As for the wine, it is suitably Lafite-like. Half of it aged in new casks fashioned in Lafite’s own cooperage in Pauillac, it is as bone dry as the Bordeaux first growth, utterly correct if not absolutely stunning.  My tasting note below.

 

Long Dai 2017 Shandong

Domaines Barons de Rothschiild's new Chinese red, to be offered to the Chinese trade, after many years' preparation, from September 2019. Roughly 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Marselan and 1% the local teinturier Yan. pH 3.61. Half was aged in new barrels from their Carruades tonnellerie (which produces about 2,000 barrels a year).
Deep blackish crimson. There's something quite spicy on the nose. Lots of acidity – its certainly fresh! Not as sumptuous as the 2018 samples I tasted in February 2019. Fine tannins. Impressive length. All new oak. Fine tannins. Drier rather than sweeter. Finishes defiantly dry. When I tasted it initially I was worried that it was too austere, but it developed most impressively in an open bottle overnight to demonstrate some of the qualities that distinguish a fine vintage of Lafite, which promises well. A very good debut effort indeed – even if much drier than most Chinese reds. Definitely worth aerating/decanting before serving – preferably in my young wine decanter of course.

14%
Drink
2019
2029
17

I expect the 2018 to be even more beguiling. Compared with many of China’s most ambitiously styled reds, Long Dai is notably subtly packaged and styled.

Will it be too subtle for the Chinese? ‘I have some experience of this sort of thing', Prats told me, ‘but I have no idea what will happen. Will people go crazy or be a bit sceptical? I just don’t know.’

The good-quality images of the estate shown above are the work of professional photographer Richard Haughton. I think you can probably work out which ones are mine...

CHINA’S TROPHY WINES

Ao Yun, Yunnan
(owned by LVMH)

Long Dai, Shandong
(owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild)

Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve, Shanxi
(owned by the Chan family of Hong Kong)

Legacy Peak, Ningxia
(owned by Liu Hai of China)

Domaine Franco-Chinois, Hebei
(owned by Cher Wang of Taiwan)

Chateau Changyu, Changyu-Moser XV
(co-owned by the management of China’s oldest winery and ILVA of Amaretto di Saronno fame) 

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