If you ask Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages who was recently in Hong Kong, what is their secret to the wine’s success in China, he will likely answer, “There is no secret.” Cazes, like his father before him, works the market and even holds a Hong Kong frequent travelers card, which allows him to avoid the long immigration queues at the airport. The criteria for obtaining the card? “A minimum of about three trips to Hong Kong per year and I meet this criteria easily,” says Cazes, who is in Asia nearly every month.
Jean-Charles Cazes’ father Jean-Michel Cazes was a tireless ambassador of Lynch Bages and of Bordeaux wines in Asia since he joined his father in the family business in 1973. During the 1970s and 1980s, the wine cellar as well as the vineyard went through major upgrades. This was the same for many quality-conscious chateaux in Bordeaux during the 1980s – a period of great progress: Old vats were replaced with stainless steel tanks or tailor-made wooden vats that reflect the size of different vineyard plots; new technology such as vacuum evaporators that remove excess water from rain-affected vintages were in experimentation; cellars were expanded; the vineyard’s density, clones and rootstocks were all re-examined if necessary.
Savvy chateaux owners know that the work in the vineyard and cellar is not enough to generate sales. Jean-Michel Cazes’ worked in key markets as much as he did in the cellar and the vineyard. His greatest contribution to this region is the dedication and focus he brought to sharing the wines of Bordeaux, which includes his family’s wines as well as the insurance company AXA Millesimes’ portfolio of wines, to Hong Kong and China. Cazes was among the first Bordeaux chateaux owners to visit China and make the effort to visit regularly for the past two decades. Lynch Bages’ success in this part of the world is due as much to the winemaker’s footsteps in the vineyard as it is to their accumulated air miles.
Since 1989 Lynch Bages has been served on board Cathay Pacific’s first class cabins and this has no doubt raised the profile of the chateau. Simon Staples, Sales Director of Berry Bros & Rudd who recently relocated to Hong Kong from London, believes Lynch Bages is always a solid wine, whether for investment or drinking. He said recently, “It is very difficult to second guess the market, but every vintage from 2000 onwards of Lynch Bages has moved upwards over the past few months.”
The fact that Lynch Bages is rated a Fifth Growth, the lowest category among the classified Medoc wines in the 1855 classification, has made no difference. Their Chinese name, “Lan Chi Pat” was adopted as a tribute to the famous 20th century Cantonese opera singer of the same name and is easy to pronounce. Cazes knew early on what other chateaux took another decade to figure out – that the Chinese name is crucial to its success in this market and so is its label.
While Lynch Bages’ success can be attributed to air miles and investment in the market, others find it easier to succeed through packaging. Just go to any wine section of a major Chinese department store in Beijing or Shanghai and it is clear that packaging is crucial. No self-respecting Chinese red wine sold for above 1,000 Yuan, of which there are now dozens of choices, would not come in its own individual heavy wooden box or leather case. Premium wines from Changyu or Dynasty are placed in boxes that are heavier than the bottle.
While outer packaging is important, what may be more essential in a wine’s long-term success may be its label. Chateaux like Beychevelle are becoming more and more popular and this is reflected in the prices over the past few years. Look closely at the Beychevelle label and notice that the boat closely resembles Chinese dragon boats. This is not the only element contributing to Beychevelle’s success, they are certainly making better wines, but the distinctive dragon boat labels help consumers to remember the wine. Also look at how packaging alone made the 2008 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and 2008 Chateau Lafite jump in price after it was announced that Chinese artist Xu Lei had created the Mouton label and Lafite placed the Chinese character for number 8 on all of its 2008 bottles.
In a sea of wines, it helps that a wine stands out by making a connection with its local, Chinese consumers. This may be done intentionally, like Cazes did by adopting the name of a famous Chinese opera singer, or it can be unintentional like the case with Beychevelle. But it is this connection that is important. Many wine lovers do not have the luxury of being able to travel and build a personal connection through experiences and memories in wine regions. To make wine more than just another alcoholic beverage, we need to be able to relate to wine in more than just a sensorial way. Prescient wine owners know this very well and reap the benefits in the markets where they now have special frequent travel cards.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post