For Richer, For Poorer
Champagne native Christophe Salin has devoted his life to the business of Bordeaux. The CEO of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) tells Madeleine Ross of planting in China and the market’s changing tastes
hristophe salin was six hours old when he first tasted wine. His grandfather had prescribed a drop of Champagne on the tongue—de rigueur for any self-respecting newborn in the eponymous region. Supposedly Salin’s lips curled into some semblance of a smile, at which point the patriarch was satisfied. “Okay, okay,” his grandfather conceded, “now you may drink milk—but never forget that you are Champenois!”
As CEO of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of the revered Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Salin has strayed only slightly from his roots—about 600km to the southwest. Lafite is arguably Bordeaux’s most storied first-growth estate—and one of the world’s most famous wine brands. “I drink red wine every day. For me it’s like taking vitamins,” muses the Gaul. “It keeps me young. You know I’m 92?”
Salin’s humour is drier than a Burgundian chardonnay so it’s hard to decipher fact from fiction. Thirty of his however many years have been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. Since joining in 1985 he has driven the expansion of the company, which now encompasses chateaux in France, Chile, Argentina and China.
In that time, Salin has witnessed dramatic changes in the industry, most notably the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. Lafite’s early—and unparalleled—success on the mainland, documented exhaustively in the 2013 feature documentary Red Obsession, was part of what Salin refers to as the “first cycle” of the nation’s love affair with wine. This cycle was marked by a fascination with luxury brands. Prices for the Bordeaux first growths soared in excess of 600 per cent as a result, according to wine trading platform Liv-ex.
Prices have since dropped—or, as Salin says, “normalised”—due to the government’s crackdown on corruption and gift-giving. The result is that consumers’ tastes have diversified, something Salin considers positive. “Now we don’t just sell Chateau Lafite. We have other properties, some of which are less expensive, which people are now discovering. It’s not just the elite drinking wine in China these days,” he says. “I’m quite happy with what’s happening. Every time I visit China I see proper glasses are being used in restaurants and people understand how to properly pour wine.”
Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first property in China in 2008, in Penglai, Shandong Province. The terroir, says Salin, is reminiscent of that of Bordeaux and Languedoc, so they planted cabernet sauvignon and syrah, both of which flourish in these regions. It’s been a challenge. “If you think it’s difficult to build something here, go to China. You see my grey hair?” Salin points to his salt-andpepper shock. He doesn’t yet have a date for the first vintage—it will depend on when they produce a harvest they consider good enough.
The biggest challenge has been procuring accurate data about the soil and weather. In Mainland China, he notes, it’s difficult to ascertain whether the information fed to you by the authorities has been manipulated. “We take a very scientific approach to the land so we have had to do everything ourselves, even set up our own weather forecasting station.” Education is also a major focus. Each year a master vigneron from Lafite is sent over to train the local team to graft and prune.
How else has the industry changed during his long tenure at Domaines Barons de Rothschild? The rise of viticulture—the science and study of grapes—has shot to prominence. “Now we know much more about how to take care of the vineyard. We are much cleaner; we don’t use fungicides or herbicides.”
Some things, though, will be forever beyond the control of humans. In the end, winemakers are at the mercy of mother nature. “We pray for cold winters, for nice summers, for some rain in spring but not in September. Everything comes down to the weather; you can be rich, you can be poor. We are not the masterminds; the mastermind is upstairs.”