Time in a Bottle

In life, as in wine making, patience is a virtue

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Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Christophe Salin started life with a drop of wine, thanks to his grandfather. The champagne vintner reminded his daughter-in-law: “Don’t give him too much milk. We don’t want to raise him like an animal.”

The Frenchman, born in Epernay, grew up to deviate slightly from his grandfather’s expectations. He became the president and chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of world-famous wine label Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

The first-growth estate in Bordeaux has been in the Rothschild family since 1868. Banker Eric de Rothschild, now acting as chairman, is the fifth generation.

Salin joined the winemaker in 1985 after a stint in construction. Thanks to his job, he has developed a sophisticated palate for red. He only drinks good wines. His most memorable was a non-selling vintage bottled in 1959.

“Bad wines should be illegal. If you find one, you should call the police. Wines have to be good,” the Champagne native joked. “I also like to enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time. This is my contribution to communism.”

It’s often said that the vintner’s personality has a big effect on how the wine turns out. If that is true, the richness of Lafite will come from Salin’s dry sense of humor.

“Eric de Rothschild went to engineering school. As an engineer, he likes to be precise and as a wine lover, he knows exactly the style he likes,” Salin said.

“But we did not change Lafite. Lafite changed us. You have to listen to the vineyard and follow its advice. Viticulture is a long term business. To get the best out of a vineyard, you have to wait 25 years. We are only viticulturists. God decides and we execute.”

The 30-odd years of Salin’s career has been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. The business has expanded beyond Bordeaux, and now owns chateaux in other wine regions in France, Chile, Argentina, and China.

In those years, the industry has gone through dramatic changes, marked by the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. A taste for fine wine, introduced by British merchants two centuries ago to the country, has become a widespread phenomenon.

In 2000, Eric de Rothschild consigned his private collection to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, sold at US$233,972 (HK$1.82 million) each, became the world’s most expensive wine ever auctioned. The entire lot fetched over US$8 million.

However, that fascination has evolved. “Before, people were buying labels. Now, they are drinking the wines. They are not buying to offer as business gifts. That happened in Japan and Korea. It’s a normal evolution,” Salin said.

“Hongkongers are very knowledgeable about wine. And the mainlanders are fast learners. I have seen them, especially those under 35, moving from all the top chateaux in the 1990s and 2000s to the cheaper wines.”

In 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first Chinese vineyard in Penglai, Shandong province, in partnership with state-owned enterprise, CITIC Group.

“We did our first harvest in September. The quality, so far, meets our standards. Hopefully, we will release our 2016 vintage next year.”

The weather conditions in the past year saw a heavenly opportunity for all Bordeaux winemakers. On the fine wine front, Salin said the 2016 vintage will be a highlight in the history of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Affordable wines from other Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s vineyards will also be carried in local restaurants and wine shops. A case in point are Chateau Duhart- Milon and Chateau Moulin de Duhart – produced in a vineyard near Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Salin has learnt to enjoy a good life through winemaking. And like making good wine, the secret is being true to yourself and having the patience to wait for plans to come to fruition.

“Be honest, be open to opportunities and be balanced,” he said of his philosophy in life. “Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry. Think twice, and always make your plans long term.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 9, 2017.

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