France's renowned Chateau Lafite Rothschild officially produces 240,000 bottles of wines annually, 50,000 of which are shipped to China. Yet as many as two million bottles of so-called Lafite wines were sold in China last year, according to estimates by industry data collectors.

So where did the remaining 1.95 million bottles of Lafite wines come from? Or more precisely, what on earth did those 1.95 million bottles contain?

The commerce and industry watchdog in Zhejiang, a province in the Yangtze River Delta that is responsible for one-third of China's wine consumption, found lots of "Lafite" wines sold in the province were actually just drinks labeled with Lafite's Chinese name by Hong Kong-registered companies that use French-sounding Chinese names.

"As a matter fact, they were not even wines," said Pan Wei, a senior official with the Zhejiang Provincial Administration of Commerce & Industry. "They contained zero grapes, but just chemical substances."

A port city in Zhejiang imported 400,000 liters of wines valued at $1.17 million from France, Spain, Italy, Romania and Montenegro in 2011, figures from local customs bureau showed. If 750 millimeters filled one bottle, it would cost $2.19, or just ¥15, on average. By contrast, the wholesale and retail prices were ¥312 and ¥562 respectively per bottle in the city, according to a survey.

Vanity is to blame for the hugely inflated prices, experts argue. China's new affluent consumers, many of whom are unfamiliar with Western luxury items, prefer pricey things over cheap goods because the latter cannot showcase "social status," retail experts say. For example, a fast-track rich shopper with no knowledge in wine would go for the most expensive French vintage. Therefore wine retailers have no reason not to multiply the price.

Through much of its history, China's most popular alcoholic beverages have been baijiu (or "white liquor", a beverage containing usually at least 50% alcohol) and huangjiu ("yellow liquor", a drink similar to wine in terms of alcohol content), neither of which contains grapes as an ingredient. Despite this tradition, the nation is currently the world's fifth largest wine consumer and is expected to be number one by 2020.

 

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