No Grapes of Wrath for French Vintners in China

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Terril Yue Jones Beijing

In a few remote corners of China, two of France's top wine makers have more on their minds than a trade row with their most promising export market.

In three far-flung provinces, a world away from Beijing's allegations of European wine dumping, makers of such lofty French brands as Ch*teau Lafite Rothschild and Dom Perignon Champagne are investing millions of dollars to produce vintages they hope will put Chinese wine on the world map.

In a country where cheap plonk and overpriced mediocre wines define the domestic industry, the French are partnering with Chinese investors to make super-premium wines for increasingly discerning drinkers at the market's top end.

They will probably charge hundreds of dollars per bottle when the wines start appearing in a year or two, turning out deeply rich reds and elegant sparkling wines for the wealthy, who they hope will be proud to serve local vintages that are the equal of their imported collections.

"China deserves the production of great wines," said Christophe Salin, the president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which owns the vaunted Ch*teau Duhart-Milon, Ch*teau Lafite and Ch*teau l'Evangile, among other French labels. "Without wanting to copy Lafite, we wish to produce a great wine on Chinese soil."

DBR is investing 100 million yuan (R160m) with partner the China International Trust and Investment Corporation, a state investment firm, to develop 25ha of vineyards in eastern Shandong province to produce super-premium red wine for the domestic market.

Moet Hennessy, the wine and spirits arm of luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is also looking to make a top-end Chinese red and is planting 30ha of grapes in remote mountains of southern Yunnan province.

Moet Hennessy studied climate and soil conditions at hundreds of locations around China before settling on an area the government calls "Shangri La", abutting Tibet, to grow cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot grapes.

Moet Hennessy chief executive Christophe Navarre will not divulge the investment but says the group carries two-thirds and the other third comes from its Chinese partner, wine maker VATS.

"I dream one day to go back to France with a bottle of red wine produced in the region of Shangri La and I can say it's the best wine in the world," Navarre said in announcing the venture last year.

Moet Hennessy's wine portfolio includes the vaunted Ch*teau Cheval Blanc and Ch*teau d'Yquem, the world's most coveted dessert wine. …