Inside this is a full working Chinese winery. Do you know its name?
The news that Chateau Château Lafite Rothschild (aka Chateau Lafite), an exalted first growth Bordeaux woud be planting vines in the Shandong Peninsula of China, sent Tweets around the world. This announcement was effectively akin to a visit from the Pope or Karl Lagerfeld setting up a rural Chinese atelier, but what it signified in fact was a major boost for Chinese wine.
Since the passing of Chairman Mao and the opening of Chinese trade, western wine producers and sellers have been salivating over the potential--1.5 billion potential drinkers who hadn’t yet experienced the sensual delights of a glass or two a day.
The importers rushed to bring in brands, mostly French. Their work was done with missionary zeal. Now, the market is beginning to appreciate the efforts of a corkscrew. Yet, the idea of making wine in that vast land across the Pacific is not alien. There’s been evidence of fermenting grape juice since the Tang Dynasty and what’s more, China is currently the #6 producer in the world. But fine wine?
1980 was the year that Remy Martin became the first big foreign investor, developing their Dynasty brand into one of the country’s giants. Wine Spectator's ex-critic writer, James Suckling dates the beginning of the ‘fine wine revolution’ in China to 1987 when an English ex-patriot, Michael Parry brought over French vines and a vision. Parry died in 1991 when his adopted country was still known for mostly were thin, sweetened and fortified white plonk. Awful? Sure, but more suited to the Chinese palate than the ‘sour’ western wine. It is not all that surprising that as the China reached for a western notion of sophistication, they became infamous for blending the likes of Chateau Lafite with either Sprite or Coke to make the wine more palatable.
This is a country where 1000-acre vineyards are not uncommon, high yields of unripe grapes are status quo. One isn’t sure what’s in the bottle, as with no wine laws, much of what is bottled as Chinese wine is supplemented with Chilean or Australian product. The Changyu winery, said to be the world’s largest pumps out 80,000,000 bottles. In the past outside investors also focused on volume and hooked up with existing wineries.
Enter phase two. Ouside vinters are following in the steps of Grace Vineyards (started with French know-how in the vineyard) and Jade Valley both in the Province of Shanxi and recently highly touted by wine writer Jancis Robinson. The tactic is boutique and quality.
In light of those massive vineyards, Lafite is planting a practicaly petite sixty acres of vines on the peninsula of Shandong, home to about 140 wineries. A new neighbor Great River Hill, is being funded by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hauptmann, co-founder of Europe Capital Management, also the co-owner of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere and Bulgaria’s Bessa Valley.
These two have long been importing their wines into China, so they weren’t surprised when in a March 26th Wine Spectator article reported, “Foreign businesses are complaining of increasing government interference.” But outside players aren’t the only ones. With over a decade in the business, native winery Grace Vineyards still has to deal with the level of bureaucracies, such as fighting off the chemical plant that was intended to set up shop next door. CEO Judy Leissner, (her father owns Grace) spoke to a reporter about the challenges, “We deal with 35 government departments regularly. Multiply that by five times – village, county, city, province and national. Each time they come with between five and twenty-five people. “ She said she has employed a team purely to deal with them.
Cristophe Salin, Lafite’s managing director explains that the Lafite Rothchild, that also owns other properties in Portugal, Argentina and Chile, went into China in the Lafite tried-and- true way, with a domestic, partner. Though their reasons for chosen the humid Shandong, they picked and wooed their mate wisely. CITIC, China's largest state-owned investment company agreed at the Pauillac Chateau over a bottle of 1949 Lafite (the year of the Chinese Republic). Concerend about China’s environmental record, Lafite took precaution. Salin said, “We have an agreement with the local government to ban any polluting industry in a zone of 1200 acres of the vineyard. It was the sine qua non condition before renting the land and committing to the project.”
An hour south of Lafite is the Great River Hill venture, at present is without partner, but thankfully, not without friends. The project manager and Bordelaise winemaker Marc Dworkin was in China to start the second planting of their 70-acre plot. The ten million dollar startup relies on the help of owner, Dr. Dr. Karl-Heinz Hauptmann’s local connections, without whom Dworkin, believes their effort would be impossible. “There are officials at every level and each one of them needs to feel important and that means a lot of money. “As if on cue, he divulged, “My 150,000 vines are lost somewhere between Laxi and Beijing. Nobody knows where they are.” Then he laughed, snickered, really. “Difficult is too light a term for this country. Welcome to China.”
Two days later, the vines were found in Beijing and a colleague was dispatched with some undisclosed amount of cash.
There are other problems. The natural environment of the Shandung peninsula, which lacks sufficient sun. The winters are frigid, necessitating burying the vines in the winter for frost protection. The summers are humid scorchers necessitating many treatments to keep the grapes from rotting. Machinery is rare, but there is ample man power. Dworkin, who makes wine in five countries including Bulgaria and Ukraine is excited, lost vines or not. “ I fee like Christophe Columbus,” he said.
So, with the current make -wine –can-be-made- anywhere –practice, what all serious geeks will want to know is if there’s any great terroir in China? “Maybe yes, maybe no. Ask me in forty years,” said Lafite’s Salin.
It might take forty vintages but a magical year is soon coming up. By 2013 the county is slated to be the 7th largest consumer of wine. Seven is no big deal, it’s the growth that captrues the attention--a 32% leap in four years. At that rate it will not be that long before all of that missionary work pays off and China turns into the #1 wine consumer, and just in time for the debut of Great River Hill Winery and Lafite to debut their Bordeaux-modeled wines extracted from Chinese soils. Dworkin reflects, “Things are changing. All around me I see people sniffing their wine first.”--Alice Feiring