There is no doubting the most revered name in mainland wine circles, especially among the Bordeaux-loving, money-splurging, face-seeking nouveau riche. Any entrepreneur wanting to give an ostentatious display of his wealth at a banquet simply has to order a bottle of Chateau Lafite, preferably a sought-after vintage that is priced at a lucky 88,888 yuan (HK$109,000).
In a few years' time, less affluent restaurant customers will be able to order a genuine bottle of wine made by the same producer, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), for considerably less. The drawback? It will be a China-made wine, albeit one involving the mighty Bordeaux vineyard and a veteran French winemaker.
DBR (Lafite) took the joint-venture plunge a few years ago, teaming up with state investment giant Citic to establish a ch?teau in the coastal province of Shandong. It is something of a gamble, but the boardroom rationale no doubt took into account the finite amount of Lafite in the world, the value of the name in China and the strong likelihood of the mainland market continuing to expand rapidly.
There is, of course, a danger of diluting the brand's reputation for exclusivity, but if the end result is anything like the quality of winemaker Gerard Collin's earlier efforts - his previous job was making China's first international-level wines at Grace Vineyard - it is likely to fly off the shelves.
DBR (Lafite) is far from the only big-name player eyeing up the lucrative rewards that will come from producing a top-class wine on the mainland. The terroir undoubtedly exists, as small winemakers such as Silver Heights in Ningxia province have shown, but it is impossible to play catch-up the way the nation has done with manufacturing and infrastructure; vines take time to mature and the overall cost, even with cheap labour, is significant.
There is also the inherent risk of becoming involved in a mainland joint venture, where the foreign investor is at a disadvantage from knowing little, or nothing, about the Chinese system, which at the best of times is opaque. Language difficulties, disagreements over business practices and cultural clashes are almost inevitable.
That formidable list of potential hurdles is well known to Mihalis Boutari, who comes from one of Greece's major wine families, but it failed to deter him from investing in the joint-venture Sunshine Valley winery, teaming up with the established Mogao Wines.
The Gansu province producer, which makes cheap wine for the mass market, is a partner in Sunshine Valley, which has the stated ambition of making high-quality wine. To demonstrate his total commitment, Boutari moved his family to Shanghai, allowing him to pay regular visits to its out-of-the-way vineyard, where production is due to start in three years' time. Bourati jokes that he is on a mission from the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, to produce wine in China.
'Sometimes you see a train passing in front of you and you just jump on it,' says Bourati, a fifth-generation winemaker whose family has nine vineyards in Greece and one in France.
'That decision often determines the difference between succeeding and failing to meet your destiny. Unless there is an already established business, joint ventures don't work anywhere really, much more so in China. Alone, I wouldn't stand a chance. Better to go ahead with problems than not go ahead at all. My partners provided ground support and I gave them some celestial tips, hence we can make wines that actually taste good and have found a place where we can actually grow great grapes.'
To establish the Sunshine Valley brand - and generate cash flow - Boutari has helped supervise production of bottles using grapes that his partners harvest. The Sunshine Valley pinot noir retails for HK$237, with the cabernet sauvignon selling for HK$357.
Another joint venture, involving giant Spanish winemaker Torres and Grace Vineyard, owned by Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Chan Chun-keung, resulted in the production of Symphony wine, made from the muscat grape.
The two parties are well known to each other - Grace wines are distributed by Torres - but had never collaborated on producing a wine. Torres provided the expertise with its winemaker from Chile, taking advantage of the southern hemisphere off-season, and senior executive Mireia Torres Maczassek, who helped supervise the grape harvest and production.
The first batch was just 10,000 bottles, which retail for HK$237 each. Positive feedback has encouraged the partners to continue the venture, with production of a red wine, possibly a merlot, as the next target.
'We work on a small scale; it is always better to be prudent,' says Damien Shee, vice-general manager for Torres, which has revenue of Euro25 million (HK$255 million) annually from its mainland wine business.
'We had good reviews for Symphony. The idea was to give help and pass on technology. We are distribution partners of Grace and we are looking into perhaps a joint venture in the future. Grace is a family company, as is Torres, so families always stick together.
'China is so big that there must be many plots of land suitable for viticulture, but what is lacking is the technical aspect of making it and support from agricultural ministries, given that wine is not such a big thing in China, where rice and grain take priority. It takes time to develop an industry.'
In recent years, the dirt-poor province of Ningxia has attracted the attention of serious winemakers. French-trained Emma Gao, who runs the family-owned boutique vineyard Silver Heights, has proved that the region's rocky mountain terrain and year-round sunshine make for ideal grape-growing conditions.
The giant Pernod Ricard group is a partner in the joint-venture Helan Mountain, a vineyard that produces a variety of wines that include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling. Retail prices range from HK$93 to HK$273.
To ensure consistent quality, the vineyard has two full-time Australian winemakers on site, with overall supervision from Philip Laffer, a former Australian winemaker of the year, and specialist local staff.
The formula seems to work well. A special reserve chardonnay from Helan was nominated the best wine from China at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair in 2009. The winery also picked up a silver medal at the Chardonnay of the World competition in Burgundy.
All of which puts even more pressure on veteran winemaker Gerard Collin, who is the man in charge of the DBR (Lafite) project in the Penglai area of Shandong province. The Frenchman has already notched up a major milestone as the founding winemaker at Grace Vineyard, generally held to produce the most consistently excellent Chinese wine, and is confident of repeating his magic tricks.
The joint venture has 70 per cent investment from DBR (Lafite) and 30 per cent from state investment giant Citic. The 50 hectares of vines under cultivation include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and petit verdot.
Collin is quick to dispel fanciful speculation that the wines produced will be mentioned in the same breath as Lafite, even though mere association with the name does tend to raise wine lovers' expectations.
He says: 'There is no will to produce a Lafite; there is only one and it is in Pauillac. The aim is to get a production base in China and also a reception and public relations centre promoting the whole DBR range. On a long-term basis, this project's ambition is to show that to make great wines you need time and patience. A [piece of] land needs time to take form and reveal itself. This will be a long story.
'We are looking for the best expression of the soil's diversity and wish to produce complex and elegant wines worthy of the DBR signature. The difficulty is to get everyone to understand that we actually need seven years to carry through this project.'
Be that as it may, there will be a mighty hullabaloo when the veteran winemaker does finally offer up his wines for tasting. The 70-year-old is aware that he has a chance of short-term glory and a long-term legacy if he manages to pull off the feat of producing vintages that earn the approval of oenophiles.
When Collin first came to China in 1997, the very notion of a Lafite-backed winery in Shandong - or anywhere, for that matter - would have seemed absurd. Friends chuckled at his seemingly overambitious goal of making a decent wine in China at Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province, but he had the last laugh. The vineyard now turns out two million bottles annually and is generally rated as the most consistently excellent local wine.
Collin says: 'When I came, my friends thought I was crazy. But China has a huge potential consumer base and is also becoming a leading world producer. It is evolution. Consumers are gradually embracing wine, but one cannot yet say that there is a wine culture like in France. It is a learning process that takes time and to which we hope to contribute.
'I am participating in an exciting adventure in a country where anything is possible. I love working out here in the countryside. I have worked for 50 years in the wine business and enjoyed every minute.
'If I did not look forward to work when I woke up in the morning, I would stop.'