Since it’s inauguration in 2008, the world’s most eagerly awaited vinicultural venture has been the subject of much speculation.
There were questions about why the Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) China project had picked the unremarkable Shandong province over the well-known Ningxia wine region, why the project had been stalled in its infancy, and why it was taking so long to release the first wines.
And while the Lafite team has worked hard to maintain its professional air of discretion, the beans are slowly, inevitably, starting to be spilt.
“Everything takes time in China”, CEO Christophe Salin told Decanter back in September. “Simply for the legal rights to import vines back in the early days of the project we needed agreement first at a national level, then regional and then finally local. You need to be extremely patient.”
It now seems the inaugural vintage will almost certainly make its debut on the world market in autumn 2018.
Fine wine terrain: Shandong province
Known as Domaine de Penglai, the Lafite China project is located near the city of Penglai on the Shandong Peninsula in eastern China.
While this may seem a world away from the Médoc – Shandong’s coastal breezes and well-drained terraces act as a tradeoff to the hilly terrain and hot, rainy summers – the region does boast some history of winemaking as the place where Zhang Bishi founded China’s first modern vineyard in 1892, alongside his coconut, pepper, coffee, tea and opium farms.
“It’s larger and more varied terrain than the Médoc,” said Salin, “But the latitude is similar, somewhere between Bordeaux and Piedmont, and where our vines are situated there is less annual rainfall than in Bordeaux, even if we do have the challenge of it falling in summer.”
“We have spent a long time teaching the culture of high level viticulture to our 50 local workers here, just as we did from 1988 onwards in Chile – so lowering yields, ensuring fully drained blocks, adapting the correct varietals to the right soils, adapting rootstocks and so on.
“For past four years the vineyard manager from Lafite has been out there regularly showing how to prune and train the vines.
“In the cellar, trials are ongoing with Lafite, Duhart and even Rieussec barrels to see what they bring out in the wine. This is not a romantic project but a scientific one – soil studies, climate studies, analysis.”
This year’s vintage marks the fifth harvest and is the third to be fully completed, while the 2016 harvest was said to have the best yield, physiological balance and quality level so far.
The split is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Syrah, 10% Marselan and 10% Merlot. After current soil studies have been completed, a further 25ha is due to be planted in 2018.
Final decisions over release of the wine will be made in early 2018, and even then it is likely to be no more than 2,000 or 3,000 cases.
Until we have the wine in our glass, we won’t know whether the location, climate conditions or soil quality were indeed the right ones for this ambitious venture – but at least we can now look to the opportunity with a little more anticipation.