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Anson on Thursday: The new normal

One of the largest and most reclusive chateau owners in Bordeaux, China’s Haichang Group, gives Decanter columnist Jane Anson rare access to its operations. Read her report here.

Christian Delpeuch – former president of the Bordeaux Wine Bureau and CEO of Ginestet wine merchant, faint smatterings of a beard, one of the most cheerful smiles in the business – began working for the Haichang Group, or its winemaking subsidiary Lamont, in 2011.

The group had already owned Château Chenu-Lafitte in Bordeaux’s Bourg appellation since 2010, but after meeting with Delpeuch and taking him on as an advisor it began rather swiftly acquiring new properties – eight in 2011, ten in 2012.

Today the Haichang Group owns 20 Bordeaux châteaux making two million bottles per year across 60 labels (around three-quarters of which went into China in 2014).

To put that into perspective, the Castel Group, one of the largest and most high profile French wine businesses, has 18 châteaux in Bordeaux owned directly by the family, plus a further three (Beaumont, Beychevelle, Magnol) as part owners, making 21 in total.

And yet, despite this making Lamont one of the most significant players in Bordeaux, for years journalists would routinely run out little more about Haichang than to describe its owner Cheng Qu (also referred to as Qu Naijie) as ‘mysterious’.

More recently there has been a little more to get their teeth into, as the Haichang Group was named in the 2013 Annual Audit Report in China among several companies who misused government funds – allocated by the Dalian government in Liaoning province – intended to invest in overseas tech companies to instead buy French vineyards.

So far no one has been charged with any wrongdoing, or any action taken, but what is certain is that a few of the Lamont châteaux were quietly put back on the market in 2013 – reportedly sold on to other Chinese buyers (I was told by the real estate agent at the time that renovation and resale had always been the express intention of the owner, who anyway she wouldn’t confirm as being Cheng Qu).

The Dalian Wine Fair, which had been organised annually by Haichang since 2012 and heavily supported by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, also didn’t happen in 2015, although it is expected to reconvene next year.

Haichang, which was founded 20 years ago by Mr Qu, is a vast conglomerate in China with interests in maritime transport, petrol, tourism and real estate, and is clearly still booming (one of its current projects is the opening of a vast Polar Ocean World theme park in Shanghai) and the planned International Wine Park in Dalian, which was signed into existence in December 2011 with plans for Asia’s largest wine museum and theme park in the city, is still going ahead according to Delpeuch – although the last hit on google specifically referring to the park dates to 2012.

I have been trying to get an interview with Delpeuch off and on for the past four years but it has proved surprisingly difficult to do so. So I was pretty delighted/astonished when it was Lamont who reached out to me, just before this month’s Vinexpo, to arrange a meeting.

This time around, Delpeuch is presented as the group’s spokesperson and PR representative. His previous role (he tells me only for the first two years of his work with the group) involved setting up the vineyard and cellar team and overseeing winemaking operations for the ever-expanding list of chateaux. He has gone on record several times stating that he was never involved with the financial side of the purchases. And the reason for the lack of access earlier? ‘We were concentrating very heavily on communication within China itself’.

We met up at the smartly presented Lamont stand at the Vinexpo wine fair, and I then yesterday headed out to Cadillac-en-Fronsadais to visit Château Branda, the company’s headquarters, and one of its three flagship estates (the others being Château d’Argan in the Médoc and Château l’Enclos in Saint Foy la Grande).

I first visited Branda around six years ago when it was lauded for its wine tourism programme. The visitor museum and tours have been closed for some time but it is still a magnificent building, an early 14th century stronghold built on the vestiges of a Gallo-Roman villa with turrets that rise high over the surrounding landscape. It’s not hard to picture the place being occupied by the armies of Edward III of England during the Hundred Years War in 1360, and still-less-difficult to see why its wild, magisterial beauty would still exert a pull on international arrivals to Bordeaux.

One thing very quickly became clear, both from the Vinexpo meeting and the Branda visit. Whatever questions were raised by the 2013 audit report, the Haichang Group has clearly not decided to back away from its commitment to its Bordeaux vines, and instead is making a great effort to show just how far it is integrated into the landscape here, and committed to making the best wine it is able to.

The company has six technical directors, all French, who run between two and four estates each, arranged by geographical location (the châteaux are in clusters in the Médoc, Entre deux Mers, Côtes de Bordeaux and Saint Emilion/Fronsac/Saint Foy la Grande). I spoke to several of them, plus a sommelier who spends large amounts of time educating clients across China about the range of wines and how best to serve or food-match them.

I was told to only quote Delpeuch as the spokesperson, so am happy to do so, but if this is because the company is worried about going off message, they needn’t be – the main impression I got from speaking to the rest of the team was how serious they are about doing a good job.

This was the first time that the group had taken a stand at Vinexpo. What has changed, it seems, is that Lamont’s new strategy is to sell the wines not only in China but also on the European market ‘due to the quantity of bottles they have to sell,’ as Delpeuch put it with admirable understatement. It may also be due to the need to create cash flow in France, as Delpeuch said, ‘moving funds out of China to buy land is no problem, but funds for ongoing running costs can take more time’.

New labels have appeared with the 2013 vintage that are aimed specifically at the European market, alongside ones that were created for China. They are tentatively starting to work with local French négociants to put the wines into stores and restaurants, while in China everything still goes direct through their own networks (increasingly through internet sales).

What’s fascinating is just how quickly has happened, and that the new normal for Chinese companies operating out of Bordeaux is to become like, well, any other wine group operating out of Bordeaux; concentrating on the product, getting that wine to market by a number of different routes, and realising that no one market, even one as important as China, should be relied upon to the exclusion of everything else. For now the high end is still heading there – so in the Médoc the cru bourgeois Château d’Argan has an alluring silver label for the Chinese market and an unusual 70% of merlot in the blend, while its sister property Château Hauterive has a more traditional label aimed at Europe and higher cabernet sauvignon.

But the excellent Château l’Enclos Reserve, which is made in 100% new oak barrels, always kept its European clients while developing new ones in China, and this no doubt shows the likely future direction for the best properties.

‘Lamont is at the stage now where it can say ‘look what we have achieved’,’ says Delpeuch. ‘That’s the key message – that this is an investment for the long-term’.

Read more Anson on Thursday columns:

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