Chateau Lafite Rothschild unfazed by slowdown in demand in China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 3:59am

If you think the producer of the world's most sought after Bordeaux is worried about a slowdown in sales in China, think again.

With the craze for Chateau Lafite Rothschild having peaked two years ago, now is the time to reach out to Chinese drinkers and build a sustainable relationship, says Michel Negrier, export director of the wine's producer, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR).

The first thing Negrier wants people to know is that the family-owned private company has much more to offer than Lafite - among the first names that springs to mind for beginners just dipping into the world of fine wines, including many of China's newly rich and powerful.

After three years during which they helped bid up the price of Chateau Lafite to stratospheric levels at auctions in Hong Kong, and quickly bought up city retailers' stocks of the wine, buyers finally realised prices could go no higher. The 2008 vintage was released at £1,950 per 12-bottle case in bond, and peaked at £14,043 per case (HK$172,000 at the time) in January 2011, according to Decanter magazine. This past January a case was priced at £8,108, according to The Drinks Business.

Although Burgundy star Domaine de la Romanee-Conti stole the limelight in auctions over the past year, Negrier believes the name Lafite still speaks for quality. And China, including Hong Kong, was still the top export destination of DBR in Asia, he said.

At a stopover in Hong Kong last week at the end of a tour of China, he was keen to stress the company produced a lot more than Chateau Lafite. Lining up five glasses before him, he gently holds one up and says: "This is an introvert."

The wine, a 2010 vintage of Legende Pauillac, gives off an aroma of tobacco at the first encounter. Its inner self only unfolds when you give it more time - that is, through more decanting or a few more years in a cellar.

In comparison, a Chateau d'Aussieres of the same year is much more expressive - it blossoms with vanilla and ripe cherry shortly after it is uncorked.

There is no definite answer as to which wine is better - each wine drinker has a favourite of their own, the result of numerous personal trials.

"Lafite is only the top of a pyramid," Negrier said, adding that the company offered a mix of brands all over the world, such as Vina Los Vascos in Chile, Caro in Argentina and Legende Bordeaux. All have different price ranges and characters. Now the company is working to develop its first vineyard on the mainland - in Penglai, Shandong province - with the Citic group. The first vines were planted last year, and it will take a few years before the first wines are ready.

"The potential for making good wine in China lies in its soil. The winery is designed to produce high-level wine," he said, adding that he saw potential in developing vineyards further inland, away from the populated coast.

He has some advice for wine lovers: take things slowly. Appreciation of wine is very much like getting to know a friend, he says, and shouldn't be rushed like a speed date.

Also, says Negrier, make sure you are getting to know the real thing. Counterfeiting of Lafite in China has been a big problem for the brand.

"We have been aware of the problem on the mainland for the past six years," said Negrier, adding that the situation was improving.