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The Grapes of Prosperity


When the 2008 Olympics turned the global spotlight to China, it also opened the eyes of wine producers around the world. Already famously popular in China, Chateau Lafite Rothschild added an embossed red Chinese character “八” (meaning “eight,” an auspicious number in Chinese culture) to its vintage 2008 bottles.

Lafite’s adoption of Chinese elements is not just coincidence. Perhaps connoisseurs don’t all consider Lafite the pinnacle of wine, but for novices, Lafite is more attractive. In China, the brand has come to symbolize wealth and social status, attracting a growing legion of followers. Along with increasing demand, its price has soared dramatically. Even the price tag for Carruades de Lafite, a second label, has eclipsed card-carrying wines of other First Growths, frustrating and confusing the chateau’s overseas rivals.

At recent years’ Bordeaux wine auctions and wine futures trading, the target market of high-end wines shifted from U.S. and U.K. to China, and Hong Kong wine auctions now attract highly competitive Chinese millionaires. In the industry, some laugh that every label is “either in China, or on the way to China.”

An interesting anecdote has recently been circulating among insiders: When British wine author Jancis Robinson visited Hong Kong-based wine critic Jeannie Cho Lee, he asked, “Why on earth do the Chinese love Lafite so much?” Lee replied with a sly grin, “Because its Chinese name is easy to pronounce.” Humor aside, the story sheds light on the reason why many foreign chateaus are working to replace the original awkward-sounding Chinese names of their products with new characters that are easy to read, speak, and remember while injecting connotations of good fortune.

Purchasing vintage wine has become a new option for investors in China’s cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai. A senior Bordeaux en primeur trader (investing in wine before it is bottled) once revealed to Decanter magazine that according to the usual practice, a new en primeur barrel tends to experience an initial price rise before entering a period of stagnancy. Five to seven years later, when the wine is good for drinking, its price will rise again. However, the wine frenzy in China is another story — the abrupt, explosive demands for fine wine go far beyond what the chateaus can supply, and the buyers with deep pockets will not miss the chance at any bottle, regardless of whether the wine is ready for drinking. In recent months, prices for many chateaus’ second wines, including Les Forts de Latour, Petit Mouton de Chateau Mouton, and Pavillon Rouge de Margaux, have appreciated considerably. Some Guangdong-based investors went on a spree collecting Pavillon Rouge de Margaux, showing a tendency to hoard and speculate.

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