Change Agents

How Château Lafite Changed the World of Wine

A single night in Hong Kong in 2010 proved a turning point in the history of wine

Roger Morris By August 17, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

The mood inside the Mandarin Oriental, one of Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotels, was anxious. As the room filled up, Christoph Salin must have wondered if his bold strategy would pay off, because the stakes could not have been higher.

It was October 2010, and auctioneer Jamie Ritchie of Sotheby’s was in the room, preparing to open the bidding on top wines of Bordeaux. On this, the first day of the auction, Ritchie had 2,000 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild to put under the hammer. The bottles had been shipped directly from Lafite’s own cellars; among them, a bottle of 1869 Lafite, its price estimated at $8,000. There was also plenty of the 2008 vintage on offer, but its fate was less certain. The 2008 was a good, but not great, vintage and the scores it had achieved from the all-important wine critics reflected that. It was predicted to earn about $666 a bottle, assuming there were buyers.

It was going to be a tough day, and neither Ritchie or Salin, the CEO of DBR Lafite, the company behind Lafite, were certain the wines would attract anything like the prices they were hoping for. The Global Financial Crisis was still in full swing, and collectors across the world, including in the all-important U.S. market, had abandoned expensive wines. Not only that, but while Hong Kong had its share of wealthy collectors, wine drinking was not yet widespread in mainland China.

To stimulate interest, Salin had pulled out all the stops. Those 2,000 bottles covered 169 vintages taken from the personal family cellar of Baron Éric de Rothschild. Salin had also created a special label for the 2008 vintage.

There was a lot at stake. If this first auction day failed, it forecast doom for the châteaux offering their wines on subsequent days. And it would be a public humiliation for one of the wine world’s premier châteaux.

Ritchie took his place and the bidding began.

What makes Lafite so important

Although Lafite was still somewhat unknown in China, it had been a household word around the world for centuries, dating its history back until at least the 1200s. More importantly, it was one of only four Bordeaux wineries given the top First Growth rating when the region’s wine merchants drew up a quality classification in 1855. The designations remain in force today, putting Lafite at the pinnacle of Bordeaux. When Salin joined Lafite as its new director in 1985, he intended to use Lafite’s reputation to full advantage.

Château Lafite in Bordeaux. Photo courtesy of DBR Lafite.

In 1994, Bordeaux was experiencing a sluggish sales period, so châteaux were raiding cellar reserves and selling previous vintages cheaply. Salin reached into Lafite’s caves and pulled out 1,000 cases to sell of the 1982 vintage, arguably the best of the century. Robert Parker said “the wine reveals considerable tannin as well as amazing, atypical power and concentration for Lafite,” and rated it “100.” Half of those cases went to China.  

Bordeaux — and French wines in general — had made a practice of catering to large wallets and fine palates around the world, always with an eye on the next market. Having already established a presence in Japan, Taiwan, and the more independent Asian mainland cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai, they saw China as the next big market, as soon as Communist rule permitted it. 

“In China, they wanted to drink Lafite with Sprite.” Salin remembers. “I told them, Sprite tastes better without Lafite, and Lafite tastes better without Sprite.” Nevertheless, the 1982 sold well among government dignitaries and oligarchs looking for the perfect gift, even if they never really intended to drink it. The move helped establish Lafite as a leader in the market.

But it was a small market, complicated by the way that top Bordeaux is sold: Bordeaux’s custom is to sell its wines two years before they are bottled. Each spring after harvest, an event called En Primeur takes place, to which wine merchants and journalists are invited to taste the wine while it’s still in the barrel. The châteaux take these reactions into account when they come up with the wine’s release price. The wines are then released to wholesalers, who get it at a lower price than everybody else. 

“The problem was that the Chinese had never bought much at En Primeur,” Salin recalled recently. Instead of committing early, the Chinese preferred to wait until nearer the time when the wine was actually ready to ship before jumping in. 

But Salin had something up his sleeve that he hoped would give the auction a boost. He knew the  number eight is considered extremely lucky in Chinese culture, so he’d arranged to have the Chinese symbol for the 8 in 2008 – – discreetly engraved in the lucky color red, just above the label.  “When we discussed the ‘08, I said, ‘Why don’t we do that?’” Salin recalls. “It looks like a hill, and Lafite is located on the slope of a hill. And it was our thank you to China for helping us through the years.”  

It worked.

The first two bottles of the lucky 2008 vintage, with an estimated lot price of $6,000 to $8,000, sold for $34,316 each. The bottle of 1869 with an estimated price of $8,000? It became the most expensive wine ever sold when the hammer went down at the final price of $233,972. The night had turned into a bidding frenzy, with price after price shattered.

But what happened that night wasn’t just a coup for Lafite. The price of other Bordeaux wines rose as well

A bottle of 1869 Lafite had an estimated price of $8,000. When it went for $233,972, it became the most expensive wine ever sold.

The world of fine wine shifts

The next morning, the price of the 2008 Lafite jumped 20% on the key London markets. “With the 2009, it turned out, the Chinese wanted to buy more of it than we had to sell,” says Salin, who retired in 2018.  

Christoph Salin. Photo courtesy of DBR Lafite.

Since then, the overall Chinese wine market has become globally significant. Although it eventually cooled after reaching about 80 million cases of wine in 2017, China had — in a few short years — asserted itself as a wine-buying nation equal to anywhere in Europe or the Americas. More importantly, Chinese consumption caused Bordeaux prices to rise so high, that it priced many of its traditional British and American fans out of the market.

And Salin had another plan in motion. In 2011, he moved forward with planting grapes in China’s Shandong Province and soon after built a new winery named Long Dai. DBR Lafite was not the first major French company to invest in Chinese terroir, but its presence was an important vote of confidence in China’s future as a wine producing country. In October 2019, the 2017 vintage of Long Dai — its first —  went on sale in Europe. Soon after, it was available in the United States at $300 (now $600). Salin had not only helped open up the Chinese market for fine wines, he was now helping to open Western markets to prestige wines made in China.