Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) is now planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah vines at its 62-acre property on China’s Penglai Peninsula in Shandong Province, and while local wine production has taken place for years, Lafite expects its first Chinese wines to premier as soon as 2015.
The company already owns wine estates in Bordeaux, Sauternes, the Languedoc, Chile and Argentina. What motivated it to pioneer modern wine production in China?
“The goal of Domaines Barons de Rothschild is to create a first growth everywhere it can establish a vineyard, and now it’s China,” says Eric Kohler, technical director of the company’s China project. “Planting a vineyard in China is like working on the moon—there is no history of quality wine there. We made the biggest, most complex agronomic study we have ever done as a company and arrived at the conclusion that the climate is not so different from the south of Languedoc, temperature-wise, but the soil is very interesting because of lots of granite and schist—very good soils for wine quality,” he says.
The difficulty, however, will be to manage the period of rain in June and July, according to Kohler. “Our big challenge is to fight against this rain. We adapted the terroir and the vineyard blocks by building lots of terraces to mitigate the effects of the rain.”
The China property is about 300 miles from Beijing in Shandong Province. “It’s just beautiful,” says Christophe Salin, managing director of Domaines Barons de Rothschild. “There is a lake surrounded by a wall. My best hope is that by the end of 2012, we’ll have a winery building and a residence built on the property and our first wines released by 2015.”
The company plans to purchase local grapes to experiment with how its Chinese wines will take shape. “Everything depends on the quality of what we come up with, but we plan to work according to our standards and create an ‘A’ wine and a ‘B’ wine like we do at Lafite,” said Salin. “It could take as much as 15 years to get to a final decision about our wine.”
Salin says it has been a long-held dream of his to plant a vineyard in China, where Lafite is highly prized by China’s burgeoning crop of millionaires. “China is an agricultural country but the wine they make there is not yet good enough. It is like Chile 20 years ago,” he says. “We know that if we showed with our know-how, our time and our hands how to make good wine, they’re going to learn and they will make good wine, drink it, and eventually buy the best wine in the world, which is French."
Since 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild has been working on the project in partnership with CITIC Group, a state-owned investment company of the People’s Republic of China. Domaines Barons de Rothschild is one of a number of other foreign companies planning to make wine in China, including France’s Moët Hennessey.
China, with its population of 1.3 billion, is projected to become the world’s largest domestic market for wine consumption within a few decades.