Lafite Counterfeits Afloat?

China’s wealthy have been rapidly acquiring a taste for wine in recent years. The country has entered the world’s top five grapevine growers, and quality has also improved significantly, with a number of Chinese wines now “quite respectable”, according to Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. Imports, however, remain more prestigious: basketball legend Yao Ming has recently entered the high-end wine market, but with a Californian product.

Curiously, China appears to consume far more of the top foreign wines than it actually imports, with counterfeiting rising alongside the legitimate trade. Empty Château Lafite bottles are salvaged from restaurants to be illicitly refilled, and rumours speak of a floating wine factory hidden aboard a cargo ship. From Shanghai Daily, via Sinocism:

Liu Zhihui, vice chairman of the realty subcommittee of Asia-Pacific Urban Development Association, claimed on his microblog that he was told an agent was producing counterfeit Lafite wine in a secret wine factory on a cargo ship through blending low quality French wine in fake Lafite bottles and selling it to various outlets in China ….

“I estimate that 70 percent of the so-called Chateau Lafite Rothschild sold in China’s mainland is fake since the sales volume greatly outstrips the import volume,” said wine expert Frankie Zhao, who has worked in Chinese wine industry for more than 10 years ….

“Counterfeiters blend the real Lafite wine they imported from France with other middle-range French wine and pour them into original Lafite bottles recycled from restaurant trash at a price of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan each. Those bottles are now in short supply,” Yang [Wei, purchase director of G. Brand International Trading, Shanghai] said.

Opinions are divided over the Lafite fever driving this piracy, but most lie somewhere between scepticism and bewilderment. From Decanter.com, in the wake of frenzied bidding at wine auctions in Hong Kong last year:

‘I don’t think it’s a reflection of the market, but of the right buyer in the right mood,’ said Doug Rumsam, managing director of Bordeaux Index in Hong Kong.

‘There were probably two mainland Chinese businessmen who had just made their fortunes, competing against each other. This was not a case of 50 people bidding in the room. The prices were insane, nobody expected that – and we probably won’t see it again ….’

Simon Tam, Hong Kong-based wine consultant and educator, said non-Chinese observers would have difficulty understanding the mentality behind such purchases ….

‘The wine industry is too self-important to realise that there is a whole different world or values and desires outside its own suffocatingly traditional boundaries,’ he said.

Lafite naturally hopes to capitalise on its titanic brand strength in China, in part by patiently developing its own vineyards in Shandong. From Wine Enthusiast Magazine:

“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.”

See also A Lafite Bubble in China? from Zhongguo Wine, and The Rise of Binge Drinking in China and China Laps Up Luxuries, via CDT.