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Made-in-China Lafite? It costs 2,388 yuan

The company behind Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) is now the maker of a world-class wine made entirely in China.

Saskia de Rothschild (above), who succeeded her father to become chairman of Lafite last year, at the Domaine de Long Dai vineyard in Penglai, Shangdong province.

Each bottle of Long Dai (above) is equipped with a special chip technology to guard against counterfeiting - a major problem for Lafite in China over the years.

Penglai, China

IN China, the stories about Château Lafite Rothschild are as notorious as the Bordeaux wine estate is legendary.

There are the tales - often repeated, never confirmed - of wealthy Chinese businessmen chugging Lafite mixed with Sprite. Or the time a Chinese official reportedly said at least half the Lafite sold in China was fake. More recent was a government crackdown on corruption that turned up huge stashes of the wine, worth tens of thousands of dollars, in the hands of local officials.

But the latest chapter in the saga of Lafite is something quite different: The company behind the famous name, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), is now the producer of a world-class wine made entirely in China.

Last month, Lafite released its first vintage from grapes grown at Domaine de Long Dai, its estate in Shandong province. The centuries-old French winery is betting that it can ride out China's economic slowdown and turn nationalistic headwinds to its advantage with a locally made product.

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Wine has been made from grapes in China for centuries, but it was never as popular as other drinks and the country has not been known for its winemaking. It wasn't until recently that the country's producers began to aim for a higher quality that might appeal to oenophiles, mostly on a small scale.

"When I was starting to visit, a lot of the high-end collectors were saying, 'We're never going to drink Chinese wine,'" said Saskia de Rothschild, who succeeded her father to become chairman of Lafite last year.

Still, Lafite's winemakers have been at work during a difficult time for companies catering to China's elite. President Xi Jinping's campaign against corruption dampened extravagant spending for years, with sales of wine - a favourite gift among the nation's political and business leaders - hit particularly hard.

Last year, China's wine imports by volume declined for the first time in five years, according to a report by Wine Intelligence, a research firm in London.

Saskia de Rothschild, a former journalist who has written for The New York Times, was speaking at the new estate, which is nestled among vineyards and apple orchards in Shandong, a coastal province. On a visit in mid-September before the official launch, bright red signs extolling the Chinese Communist Party dotted the drive through terraced vineyards up to the estate.

The 2017 vintage from Domaine de Long Dai is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and marselan grapes. Marselan is a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache that is popular among Chinese wine drinkers.

In a July review of the first vintage, British wine writer Jancis Robinson called it "suitably Lafite-like". On her website, she wrote it was "as bone dry as the Bordeaux first growth, utterly correct if not absolutely stunning". With 74 acres of vineyards, production at the new estate is modest. Only 2,500 cases of the 2017 vintage will be sold, mostly in China, compared with the 16,000 that Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux produces on average.

Each bottle is equipped with a special chip technology to guard against counterfeiting, which has been a major problem for Lafite in China over the years.

Bottles of the 2017 Long Dai are priced at 2,388 yuan (S$460). That is comparable to a bottle of high-end baijiu, a grain liquor known as China's national drink, though far less than some older vintages of Château Lafite Rothschild, which can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Residents near the vineyard heaped praise on the Lafite estate for bringing jobs and distributing gifts during the holidays. But when asked if he would be drinking the wine, Huang Chuanjun, 70, a regular beer drinker, shook his head.

"It's more expensive than gold!" he said. "I wouldn't even spend 100 yuan on it. I can't tell the difference anyway."

The 2017 wine is the culmination of a project that began 10 years ago, when the Lafite brand was at the peak of its popularity in China. "Lafite" has been used in the names of Chinese apartment complexes and even barbecue restaurants, said Jim Boyce, founder of Grape Wall of China, an English-language blog about Chinese wine.

The company chose Shandong for its temperate winters and proximity to transportation hubs, bucking a trend among other wine producers that gravitated toward China's western regions.

But the site came with challenges. The winemakers have had to find a balance between the heavy monsoon rains in the summer and the dry spring seasons. There have also been recurring thefts of grapes by locals. Now, five guards watch over the vineyards at night.

And, as is often the case for foreign companies in China, managing relations with the government was tricky at times. Patience and precision, both crucial in making great wine, can be anathema to local officials who often have short-term growth targets.

In Penglai, hopes are high that the winery will spur the development of a tourism area similar to Napa Valley in California. Already, a medley of projects, including a Roman Colosseum look-alike, a development called Napa Village and a French-inspired chateau have sprung up in the area surrounding Domaine de Long Dai.

"We had a lot of pressure from local officials to open," said Olivier Trégoat, technical director of Lafite's properties outside Bordeaux. "I would definitely have waited." NYTIMES

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