Ultra high-end Bordeaux has had a difficult time in China over the past year, but historic winemaker Château Mouton Rothschild is going full-speed ahead in courting its Chinese connoisseurs with an unconventional approach to auctions, focus on the connection between wine and art, and emphasis on Chinese cultural ties.
For the brand’s first-ever ex-château wine auction in Asia at Sotheby’s Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year in late January, it raised HK$31.8 million ($4.1 million), a number far above the high estimate of HK$20 million. The auction sold 100 percent of its lots with 93 percent of lots sold above their high estimate. The positive results were a breath of fresh air for China’s Bordeaux sales, which declined in value by 13 percent year-on-year in 2014.
Since the vineyard has only put its wines up for auction directly from its properties once before in its history, the decision to hold the Chinese New Year sale marked Château Mouton Rothschild’s recent efforts to reach out to its vitally important Chinese collector base. According to co-owner Philippe Sereys de Rothschild in an interview with Jing Daily, “The Chinese market is clearly a very important market for us. It’s a very knowledgable market now with many refined connoisseurs of wine and it is clear that people in this market now expect the best.”
Such strong China sales of Bordeaux in this price range are unusual at a time when Burgundy has been gaining ground against Bordeaux in Hong Kong and global wine auctions. Bordeaux has lost its perch at the top of the Hong Kong wine auction hierarchy in recent years as buyers have feared rampant fakes in the China market, with Burgundy now often achieving the top lots.
In addition, China’s anti-corruption campaign has taken its toll on high-end wine and spirits sales as purchases for official “gifting” and banquet purposes recede.
Sereys de Rothschild remains unconcerned about these trends. “Though China’s anti-corruption campaign [is ongoing], we’re not really concerned with the market recession,” he said. “We recently found out that our sales performed perfectly well in China. China is one of the most active markets in the world, structuring itself with curious wine buyers and a great enthusiasm shown especially by Chinese consumers for fine Bordeaux wines.”
Château Mouton Rothschild has several things going for it that help it stand out to Chinese buyers. Known among connoisseurs for featuring the work of a prominent artist on each year’s bottle, the vineyard has selected Chinese artists on two separate occasions. Its first Chinese artist was calligrapher Gu Gan, who was chosen back in 1996—a time when the link between China and wine “was not as strong as it is today,” noted co-owner Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild. In order to celebrate the Chinese Olympics in Beijing, the winery selected Chinese artist Xu Lei for its 2008 vintage. The date was especially optimal for a Chinese artist due to the fact that the number eight is auspicious in Chinese culture. According to de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, the vineyard isn’t stopping there, and plans to “choose a third—and why not a fourth?—Chinese artist” for future bottles.
The winery is highly cognizant of Chinese culture in other respects. For its Chinese New Year auction, it offered one lot with all the painters who have featured a ram on the label, one featuring only vintages ending in the number eight, and one from its year 2000 vintage with a gold ram on the bottle.
The most important selling point for the wine, however, is likely one that appeals far more to Chinese collectors’ pragmatic, investment-minded approach to buying. Château Mouton Rothschild’s decision to hold an ex-château auction allayed fears of ending up with a fake bottle that have been especially prevalent for brand-name Bordeaux coming from individual sellers. While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much fake fine wine is on the market in China, one Chinese wine inspection official has said that up to half of all Château Lafite in China is fake (a claim that has been disputed by Christie’s).
For the future, the brand is doubling down on its China commitment and is open to the idea of investing in a China vineyard, following in the footsteps of its forays into Californian and Chilean wine. Although it isn’t revealing how far along such considerations are, Sereys de Rothschild noted that “maybe one day our history will see the creation of a China-produced wine.”
For Sereys de Rothschild, China’s long-term potential is massive. “We are confident that fine French wines have a bright future in Asia, especially China,” he said. “More and more buyers are wine-lovers and discerning collectors, and more and more gourmets consider that the refinement and elegance of a great claret provide a perfect match to the subtle flavors of Chinese cuisine.”