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Top Stories

Will Lafite Remain Emperor of Wine Forever?




Story By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

The answer is 'No'. History reminds us that no emperor lives forever.

Qin Shi Huang Di (259–210 BC), the Middle Kingdom's first emperor, had one of the shortest reigns in Chinese history. Proclaiming himself the "First Sovereign Qin Emperor" or Qin Shi Huang Di, King YING Zheng of the State of Qin during the Warring States Period (403-221 BC), ruled from 221 to 210 BC, a period of just 11 years.

For a man who fought so many battles in order to realise his dream of uniting China, Qin Shi Haung Di's death was less than glorious. On a tour of the eastern part of his empire, he was taken ill after, it is believed, ingesting mercury pills. Qin Shi Huang Di died on 10 September 2010 BC. (Obsessed with immortality, the king, ironically, thought that such pills would give him eternal life).

Following the death, the prime minister, who was part of the imperial entourage, feared that if news of the emperor's death leaked out, rebellion would spread in the young kingdom. As it would have taken the entourage two months to return to the capital, there would have been no way to suppress any uprising.

Prime Minister LI Shi, therefore, decided to keep the emperor's death a secret, sharing the news only with the emperor's younger son YING Hu Hai, Chief Eunuch ZHAO Gao, and a few others of the inner circle. However, because it was summertime, fearing that the emperor's corpse would start to smell, LI ordered two carts containing rotten fish to be placed immediately before and after the wagon carrying the emperor. This was to deflect the stench from the emperor's decomposing corpse.

When the entourage finally reached the capital, the death of the emperor was announced. Qin Shi Huang Di's eldest son Fu Su was next in line to the throne. However, Prime Minister LI Shi and Chief Eunuch ZHAO Gao feared that if YING Fu Su became emperor, that they would lose their power and positions. The two forged a letter purporting to be from the emperor. This ordered his eldest son (and Fu Su's favourite general) to commit suicide. Tragically, the plot worked and younger son Hu Hai was crowned the new emperor at age 21 in 210 BC.

The second emperor was a mere puppet of the eunuch ZHAO. When he was deposed three years later in 207 BC, the Qin Dynasty had lasted only 14 years. So was ushered in the new Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is of course not an emperor nor a dynasty. However, if Bordeaux represents the king of wine in China, then, Lafite can be described as the emperor since it is the most popular amongst the five First Growths of the 1855 Médoc Classification. Indeed, Carruades de Lafite, its second wine, fetches prices almost as high as one or two of the other First Growths.

How did this happen?

LAFITE ASCENDS THE THRONE

Robert SHUM, founder of Aussino Wine (with, arguably, the largest chain of retail wine shops and wine bars in China), has the most credible explanation. This is his answer when I asked him, back in 2008, why Lafite-Rothschild is so famous in China.

Lafite was the first First Growth to enter the Chinese market. It was brought here by Remy Fine Wine of Hong Kong more than 20 years ago. The second reason is that of the five First Growths, Lafite is the most silky, round and most suitable for the Chinese palate. Because of those two reasons, Chinese leaders, senior government leaders and big business leaders, when one needs to ask for help and when presents are given, Lafite is the choice because everyone knows the value. If I were to entertain 10 people and serve Lafite, all 10 will know it. With Latour, only five or six out of 10 and only 3 for Margaux. However, since 2007 those other chateaux are catching up.

To sum up the situation, Lafite is the most sought-after of the five First Growths in China because the present communist aristocracy, power brokers and business fraternity deem it the most desirable.

CHANGE WILL COME

When another generation replaces the present lot, the ground will shift. Recent history provides an instructive lesson.

More than 20 years ago, when Chateau Lafite-Rothschild was first introduced to China, the most expensive and desirable alcoholic beverage in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore was not wine but cognac. Today's wine drinker won't even touch cognac because it is seen as the drink of their grandfathers or fathers. For these people, cognac is passé and wine is hip.

Wine will, most likely, stay hip and probably become part of their lifestyle just as coffee, French handbags and Italian suits have become globalised consumer products.

In today's world, change does not need a generation to occur. Already, Madonna and Britney Spears are yesterday's goods. Stefani Joanne Angelina GERMANOTTA, styled as Lady Gaga, is all the rage. Her first album was only in 2008.

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is one of the greatest wines of Bordeaux and, for now, the First of the First Growths. It will not, however, stay emperor of wine indefinitely.

History again reminds us of this eventuality.

The great landscape painter GUO Xi was a favourite of Emperor Shenzong of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). When Shenzhong (reigned 1067-85) was alive, he had one of the walls of his palace covered solely with GUO Xi's paintings. Following the rule of his son Zhezong (reigned 1085–1100), another son Huizong (reigned 1100-1125) ascended the throne as his brother had no heir.

The new emperor could not stand his father's taste for the art of GUO Xi and had all his paintings replaced. Worse still, an historian of the day recalled bumping into a palace worker using a discarded landscape painting by the great artist as a cleaning rag.

























All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013
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