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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life | Profile -

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.”

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