When bordeaux first growth Château Lafite announced that it was to feature the Chinese symbol for the figure eight on every bottle and magnum of its 2008 vintage in celebration of its new vineyard venture in China, case prices for the wine went up by nearly 20% overnight. The number eight in China is considered especially lucky, as the Chinese word for eight (ba) is similar to the word for prosperity (fa). Eight is considered so auspicious that the Beijing Olympics began at eight minutes and eight seconds past 8pm on 8 August 2008.
With less than 1% of the Chinese population (10 million) able to speak English fluently, the power of symbols as communicators cannot be underestimated. Able to transcend language, a symbol can be instantly absorbed and understood. “Symbols can be very powerful and immediate communicators in their own right,” says Roddy Kane, director of Hugo & Henry. “Take the Nike ‘tick’ – you don’t have to see the Nike name to know what the image is and, more importantly, what it stands for.”
With China now the most important market for Bordeaux – a case of Lafite ’82 sold for £70,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong last October – the Bordelais are taking interesting measures in a bid to get noticed in China, from renaming and repackaging to reinventing their brands. Already the darling wine of China, Lafite’s savvy decision to capitalise on Chinese interest and take a risk to enter a new market has made the 2008 vintage almost the sole preserve of Chinese buyers.
Before the announcement, a case of Lafite 2008 was trading on Liv-ex at £8,500. By lunchtime the day after, it had risen to £10,160, with some London merchants completely running out of stock. At the time, a spokesperson for Lafite said she didn’t know what impact the design decision would have on the value of Lafite ‘08 in China, though the suits at the château must have known that their astute move was marketing gold, and a red rag to the bullish Chinese market. Six months on, the wine is trading at around £15,000 a case, up almost a third in value since the initial price spike.
luck and respect
“To the Chinese, Lafite 2008 is the most prestigious gift you can give – a way of giving luck and respect to the recipient,” says Simon Staples, buying director at Berry Bros & Rudd. The London fine wine merchant is selling its remaining cases of Lafite ‘08 at £15,888. “We’ve manipulated the price a bit, but it’s seen as super-lucky for our Chinese customers,” says Staples. Was it a crass move on the part of Lafite? “No,” he says. “Lafite has shown it understands its consumer and is at the top of its game. I’m not aware of other châteaux changing their labels, but it’s going to happen. Call it the Lafite effect – we haven’t seen anything yet.”
However, not everyone is equally applauding. Kevin Shaw, founder of drinks design and packaging agency Stranger & Stranger, is more cynical about the move: “It’s marketing at its absolute crassest – an opportunistic ploy to drive up prices. The Chinese believe they can influence their fortunes with a few well-known talismen: the number eight, the colour red and the metal gold. They don't like white space because emptiness is unlucky and black reminds them of death. So good luck to them, and a big, fat, gold and red lucky eight to the Bordelais too. I’d have preferred to see Lafite spend its budget on tamper-proofing so a consumer would have a greater chance of drinking a real bottle of Lafite in China. Bordeaux has its eye on Asia these days – we’re going to see many more labels done by the Chinese printer.”
On the subject of fakes, Staples believes that the Lafite figure eight symbol could be easily faked, and will in no way protect the château from counterfeiting. Such is the demand for fake Lafite in the Far East that at a recent wine trade fair in China, people were openly selling fake Lafite – as you would Louis Vuitton handbags at a market – in a small room next to the main tasting room. But it’s not only Lafite which has got creative with its labels in a bid to curry favour with the Chinese. Château Mouton Rothschild chose Chinese artist Xu Lei, director of Beijing’s leading contemporary art museum, to design its 2008 label. Based on an ink drawing, the blue-hued label features the château’s signature ram standing on a rock between two moons.
Last January, rumours alone that a Chinese artist would be chosen for the ’08 label saw case prices rise from £1,800 to £2,200 overnight. When the news was officially announced last November, Mouton ’08 became the most traded wine on the Liv-ex exchange. “China has become a major consumer of fine wine, so it seemed a natural choice to select a Chinese artist,” explains Mouton Rothschild managing director Hervé Berland. Last year, wine design agency Barlow Doherty rebranded La Source, the top cuvée of right bank Bordeaux winery Château de Sours, with the Far East in mind. “The new gold label has gone down really well over there,” says director Abigail Pitcher. “We also created gift boxes for the château to help attract the Far East buyer.” The company has since created specific Chinese labels for both a Southern French and an Italian winery. “Bespoke labels for China are definitely on the rise, and red and gold figure heavily in the design brief. ‘Bling’ is still big out there, despite us having moved on in the West,” says Pitcher. The Chinese love of gold may explain why Château Palmer and its second wine, Alter Ego de Palmer, have done so well in the Far East. Both wines have gold labels, making them ideal business gifts.
Meanwhile, last year Margaux second growth Château Brane-Cantenac revamped its label for the 2007 vintage, simplifying the striking signature gold design, and turning the capsule from red to black and gold. According to Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, there is a strong rumour that Margaux second growth Château Rauzan-Ségla, bought by Chanel in 1994, has commissioned Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld – who recently designed a trio of limited edition Diet Coke labels for Coca-Cola – to design its 2009 label. A Lagerfeld label would have immediate appeal in China – now the fastest-growing consumer of leather goods and jewellery worldwide, where Chanel is the second most lusted after luxury brand behind Louis Vuitton. “Rauzan-Ségla hasn’t been selling well in China, so a Chanel label would certainly give it a boost,” says Staples.
But getting a fashion designer or artist to create a bespoke wine label is nothing new. “With their latest antics to attract interest in Asia, the Bordelais are only doing what the Champenois have been doing for centuries,” says Jack Hibberd, research manager of Liv-ex, in reference to Champagne’s savvy hook-ups with artists and fashion designers. Since 1983, Taittinger has commissioned contemporary artists to commemorate vintage years for its Artist Collection series – both Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg have created signature labels for the Champagne house – while last October, Dom Pérignon released a limited run of Andy Warhol-inspired bottles with pop art-influenced red, yellow and blue labels for its 2000 vintage, designed by Central St Martins School of Art and Design students.
Another way the Bordelais are attracting the attention of the Chinese is by streamlining their second wines with their first. In a country where being seen to be drinking the right wines is crucial, the more a second wine looks like a first the better. Take Carruades de Lafite, or “baby Lafite” as it’s known in China. The label is almost identical to that of Château Lafite, differing only in the wording, while third wine Duhart-Milon’s label also bears a striking resemblance to the first growth. To the Chinese, drinking Carruades is the next best thing to drinking Lafite – “all our Carruades has gone to China. It’s been such a success because it looks so much like Lafite”, says Stephen Browett. “The Chinese want the best or the closest approximation to it. To them, drinking Carruades is drinking Lafite,” agrees Simon Staples.
In 2008, Château Haut-Brion gave its second wine a makeover, changing the name from Bahans Haut-Brion to Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, revamping the label to incorporate the château and rehousing the wine in Haut-Brion’s signature wide-shouldered bottle, making it incredibly similar to the original. Meanwhile, Château Lynch-Bages, known as Lan Chi Pat in China after a famous Cantonese opera singer, went down a similar route to Haut-Brion in 2009, changing the name of its second wine from Château Haut-Bages to Echo de Lynch-Bages, redesigning the label and tidying up the Lynch-Bages label while they were at it. Co-owner Sylvie Cazes says the rebrand has “made a big difference” in the Asian market.
ahead of the curve
One of the first châteaux to market its wine in Asia, Lynch-Bages was ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the needs of the Asian consumer. “I learnt very quickly that in order to be successful, it was essential to market wine with easy-to-pronounce names because consumers don’t often speak foreign languages,” says Lynch-Bages co-owner Jean-Michel Cazes. Most of the top châteaux have nicknames in China – Château Beychevelle, which has proved popular in Asia due to its distinctive Viking ship label, is known as “dragon boat wine”, while Calon-Ségur is called “flying dragon wine” because “tianlong” means celestial dragon in Chinese. Meanwhile, Ducru-Beaucaillou has been translated to “bao jia long”, meaning “treasure”, “good” and “dragon”.
The most successful wine packaging in Asia marries elements of Western sophistication with Chinese culture. The French are cornering the market with a culturally aware approach to marketing and an understanding of the importance of thinking locally. “The Bordelais have always been in tune with their customers, whether it be the Brits in the 19th century, or the Americans in the ’90s. They move where the demand is,” argues Liv-ex’s Jack Hibberd. But a word of warning to those looking to make over their brand for the Asian market: “Don’t underestimate the Chinese,” says Simon Staples. “They're an extremely savvy nation and any interlopers will be sussed out immediately.”