CHRISTOPHE SALIN, the man at the helm of the wine world's most celebrated label, talks to GERRIE LIM about running the pride of Pauillac
AN OLD JOKE comes to mind when I meet the man behind the myth. “Château Lafite – the people who buy it don't drink it, and the people who drink it don't buy it.” However, I don't ask him about it, because I don't need to. The immediate impression that Christophe Salin conveys, after all, is as I had imagined. Wearing his silver-fox hair tousled insouciantly in a manner that some women might swoon over, he bears at age 58 the kind of sophisticated mien you wouldn't trifle with.
“I've heard that,” he says, shrugging, as I bring up instead the issue of counterfeit Lafite in China – empty Lafite bottles that themselves were sold for HK$10,000, which were then refilled with cheap plonk to be sold at an exorbitant price up north. “I haven't seen it. I can only comment on things I know. I've heard so many stories like that.”
We're in the 4,000-square-foot, temperature controlled Hung Hom cellars of wine distributor Omtis Fine Wines drinking one of his creations, the velvety 2007 vintage of Château Duhart-Milon, the fabled Fourth Growth stablemate of his more celebrated Château Lafite-Rothschild. Salin had just flown in three hours ago from Paris, to host a wine dinner at The Peninsula Hong Kong in his official capacity as President of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), though he's more casually known as “CEO of Château Lafite” to people in the know.
“I travel about five months of the year,” he discloses, “to run the show – in Bordeaux, Languedoc, Argentina, Chile and now in China.” The following Monday, he's due in Shandong to check on his vineyards in the Penglai peninsula, an ambitious project he initiated back in 2008 with the Citic group in China. “We're happy with the place, we're happy with the first plantings, and now we need to get the wines. For the Chinese, ‘long term' is five years, but for me ‘short term' is 25 years. What we've been doing in Chile in 1998 is still for me a new venture. That's the difference.”
By that, he means Viña Los Vascos, a 580-hectare vineyard in the Colchuagua Valley, while in Argentina he co-owns Bodegas Caro, which produces Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon blends in Mendoza. The company's holdings also include Château D'Aussières in the Corbières appellation of Languedoc (which he acquired in 1999), Château L'Évangile in Pomerol (bought from the Ducasse family) and their celebrated bubbly, Champagne Barons de Rothschild (Salin himself was born in the Champagne region, in Épernay). Still, it's that singular place in northern Pauillac acquired in 1868 by Baron James de Rothschild that he's always asked about.
Having run the company since 1990, I wonder what are his own cherished vintages of Château Lafite? “I prefer to talk about favourite times rather than favourite years,” he replies. “You have favourite times to drink the more classic vintages and other times to drink the very complex, big vintages. For example, I think of 1987 as a ‘lunch wine.' I would drink 1987 before I would drink 1982, which is a big vintage that can wait. There is a time to drink a wine. Some can be drunk sooner rather than later. In Bordeaux, we are drinking the 1990 before the 1988, which can still wait. That's the fun of it and why you need to taste from time to time.”
Then there's the Hurun Chinese Luxury Consumer Survey 2013 (reported January 16, 2013 in the China Daily), which tabulated the “best brands for gifts for men” among Chinese millionaires. Perhaps predictably, the list was headed by Louis Vuitton, Apple, Hermès, Chanel and Cartier, with only one brand that wasn't a fashion or technology name: at number 10 was Château Lafite-Rothschild. “I heard about that – no cigars, amazing!” he muses. “It has to do with the way people see education, how they live, and definitely something coming from the Western countries. The rich and educated people, they want to use and consume things they see when they travel to the West, so that when they come back, they do so with some style. It's a lifestyle, to drink wine. You're not drinking wine every day, so if you drink wine you have to drink some very good wines. I am happy for Lafite as a brand, that it means the same as ‘luxury wine,' you know.
“Otherwise, for men, what other options are there? Besides the fact they can buy a boat or a plane or a car, things they can't change every day – like women, you know?” He offers a nonchalant Gallic grin, revealing he has been married now for 30 years. (“To the same woman,” he's quick to add.) His longevity in the business, he believes, lies in his work ethic. “I live for projects and to follow through on them, with the land and the people. Am I concerned about the weather in Bordeaux this year, people ask me. I say no, I am concerned about the weather every day. Because we are farmers – or, as they say in the United States, we winemakers are ‘farmers deluxe' – but still we cannot control the weather conditions. That aside, I can say I am never bored. I am always busy. I think I have never been bored in my life.”
And with that, he obligingly poses for his portrait, leaning against wooden crates actually filled with that famous benchmark vintage, Château Lafite 1982. “The production of Lafite is scarce and we cannot produce more,” he explains, “which means that sometimes this makes the price climb.
“The production of Lafite is now about 15,000 cases a year, in a good year. This year I don't think we're going to make that much but that's about the average for the last 20 years.” A span he decrees short term, as he'd said, so by way of parting I ask if he would ever change anything. “No, with all modesty, I don't think I would. I have no regrets. Except maybe I should have drunk more wine.” He heaves an enigmatic, almost elusive sigh. “There are some vintages that I should have drunk more.”