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Château Lafite Rothschild | The Finesse and Elegance of a Pauillac First Growth

Château Lafite Rothschild

The epitome of elegance and finesse in the world of Bordeaux fine wines, Château Lafite Rothschild needs no introduction. Boasting an illustrious past, this prestigious estate has carried the banner for classic Pauillac wines for centuries, even before it was ranked a First Growth in the Official Classification of 1855. One of the brightest crown jewels of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild family, Château Lafite Rothschild today reigns over an impressive 110 hectares of vineyards, where deep, fine gravel soils upon limestone bedrock provide the ideal environment for exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon. In the winery, a strict plot-by-plot winemaking transforms perfectly ripened grapes into world-class wines, wines admired by wine lovers everywhere for their perfect balance between richness and finesse, their luscious red and black fruit, earthy nuances and tell-tale cedar. 

 

The Fascinating History of Château Lafite Rothschild

Undoubtedly one of the most recognised names in the world of fine wines, « Lafite » is believed to originate from the Gascon term “la hite,” meaning “hillock.” The first reference to “Lafite” in Bordeaux dates back to 1234, when a certain Gombaud de Lafite served as abbot of the Vertheuil Monastery, north of Pauillac. Lafite is mentioned also as a medieval fief in documents from the 14th century. In the 17th century, the property where Château Lafite Rothschild now stands was purchased by the Ségur family. While it is widely believed that the land was already planted with vines at this time, Jacques de Ségur organised the vineyard and planted the first official vines of Lafite in the 1670’s and early 1680’s. In 1695 Jacques de Ségur’s heir Alexandre de Ségur married Marie- Thérèse de Clauzel, heiress to Château Latour. Their son, Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur (nicknamed “Prince des Vignes”) thus joined prestigious Lafite and Latour, which remained joined under the family name until his death.

Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre was credited with the development of the vineyard, improving winemaking techniques and further enhancing the prestige of Château Lafite wines both abroad and in the court of Versailles. Under his leadership, the wine of Château Lafite became known as “The King’s Wine,” especially popular with British Prime Minister Robert Walpole (who is said to have purchased a barrelful every three months) and Louis XV (who came to regard these wines as a kind of fountain of youth). In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, at this time the US ambassador to France, visited Bordeaux and tasted many of the region’s wines. In his memoirs, Jefferson ranked the growths by quality, selecting Château Lafite as one of the very best wines of Bordeaux. In a way, Jefferson had predicted the outcome of the 1855 Classification seventy years before it happened.

As Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre did not have any sons, his estate was divided between his four daughters and Lafite was eventually inherited by Count Nicolas Marie Alexandre de Ségur, the son of the Marquis’s oldest daughter. Due to mounting debts, the Count was forced to sell the estate, which was purchased by a relative and first president of the Parliament of Bordeaux, Nicolas Pierre de Pichard, in 1784. The history of the ownership of Château Lafite by the Ségur family ended quite brutally, with the execution of Nicolas Pierre de Pichard on June 30th, 1794, during a period known as the “Reign of Terroir” which took place at the time of the French Revolution.

 

Château Lafite Rothschild, vineyards
© François Poincet - Château Lafite Rothschild

 

Château Lafite, at this time considered the leading wine of the Médoc, was sold to a Dutch citizen named Jean de Witt, who shortly after sold it to three Dutch merchants. The estate was passed on through a line of stewards who took care of the estate. In 1821, Madame Barbe-Rosalie Lemaire and her husband Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe sold Château Lafite to British subject Sir Samuel Scott, who managed the estate with his son until 1867. As it turned out, however, Sir Scott and his son were actually only representatives of Aimé-Eugène Vandelberghe, the son of the château’s previous owners, a secret that was revealed upon his death. It was during this time, that the official Classification of 1855 took place, requested by Emperor Napoleon III as a way to rank the wines of Bordeaux for the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. Château Lafite received, along with 3 other Bordeaux châteaux, the title of “First Growth.” This prestigious new title, along with the purchase of the estate by the Rothschild family a decade later, brought Château Lafite into its most glorious chapter of its history.

It was Baron James de Rothschild, head of the French brand of the Rothschild family, who purchased Château Lafite on August 8th, 1868 and renamed in Château Lafite Rothschild, the name that wine lovers around the world know and admire today. The Baron James passed away shortly after the purchase, leaving his estate to his three sons, Barons Alphonse, Gustave and Edmond de Rothschild. The three brothers had just 15 more years to enjoy the “golden age” of the property before the suite of disasters that would characterise the end of the 19th century in Bordeaux. First, heavy mildew in the Médoc forced Château Lafite Rothschild to declassify several of its vintages. Then, the phylloxera crisis set in, followed by World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. During World War II, the Germans confiscated the Rothschild properties and a German garrison was stationed at both Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild. Lamentably, the two châteaux suffered painful losses to its stock during this time, with many of its most cherished old vintages ransacked.

In 1945, the Barons de Rothschild took back Château Lafite Rothschild and Baron Elie reestablished the estate’s operation. Inspired by the monumental success of the 1945, 1947 and 1949 vintages, Baron Elie de Rothschild carried out massive restorations of the vineyards and estate buildings, even adopting a herd of dairy cows during the 1950’s to provide organic fertiliser with which to treat the soil. Following a harsh frost in 1956, Château Lafite Rothschild produced a series of exceptional vintages (notably, the 1959 and 1961), expanding to the United States market in the 1960’s.

 

Chateau Lafite Rothschild
©François Poincet

 

Bringing Château Lafite Rothschild into the modern age was the nephew of Baron Elie, Baron Eric de Rothschild, who took over in 1974. Over the course of the next few years, Baron Eric would gradually bring in a new technical team, replant and restore the vineyards and reduce the amount of chemicals used to treat the soil and vines. He would also expand the cellar with the addition of a stainless steel vat complex alongside the traditional oak vats, and commission Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill to design an innovative and uniquely styled circular cellar in which to age the estate’s precious wines. Baron Eric’s efforts were rewarded with the fantastic 1982, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995 and 1996 vintages, followed by several very successful vintages in the first decade of the 20th century (notably 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010). Baron Eric expanded the family holdings through the purchase of the neighbouring Château Duhart-Milon in 1962, Château Rieussec in Sauternes in 1984 and Château l’Evangile in Pomerol in 1990. He also expanded Château Lafite Rothschild to abroad, establishing the Domaine de Long Dai winery in the Chinese province of Shandong. In 2019, Domaine de Long Dai debuted its very first vintage, made from vine stocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Marselan brought directly from France.

 

Out in the Vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild

Situated in the far north of the Pauillac appellation, just a small stream away from Saint-Estèphe, Château Lafite Rothschild is one of the largest estates of the Médoc region, on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. The vineyard, some 110 hectares in total, can be divided into three main areas: the hillsides surrounding the château, the Carruades plateau to the west and a small 4.5-hectare parcel in Saint-Estèphe. Here, the soils consists of deep fine gravel and Aeolian sand upon a subsoil of tertiary limestone. The easy-draining gravel soils and excellent sun exposure make this the ideal terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety that dominated the plantings of Château Lafite Rothschild at 70%. The vineyards are also home to 25% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. While the average age of the vines at Château Lafite Rothschild Is around 39 years old, no fruit born from vines aged 10 years are younger are used in the estate’s namesake Grand Vin (First Wine), which puts the average age of vines used in their First Wine at 45 years. One of the most precious plots at Lafite Rothschild, La Gravière, was planted in 1886, shortly after the Rothschild family’s acquisition of the estate.

 

Chateau Lafite Rothschild
© Château Lafite-Rothschild

 

Currently overseeing both Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Duhart-Milon is Technical Director Eric Kohler, assisted by winemaker Christophe Conge and vineyard manager Louis Caillard. Out in the vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild, strict measures are carried out to limit yields and only organic fertilisers are used to treat the soil.

 

In the Cellars of Château Lafite Rothschild

Following a manual harvest in the vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild, the grapes from each plot are fermented in separate vats in order to preserve the identity of each microterroir and grape variety. The fermentations then take place in two different vat rooms, in traditional oak vats and modern stainless steel vats, both with strict temperature control. After alcoholic fermentation is complete, the base wines are tasted and transferred to other vats. The free run juice and pomace are separated and the pomace pressed to release the press wine. Malolactic fermentation then takes place before the base wines, still separated by parcel of origin, are transferred into barrels. Very meticulous care is taken to maintain plot selection from the beginning to the end of the winemaking process. For example, a separate Merlot vat room with concrete tanks of 50 to 120 hectolitres of capacity is used just to care for all the various plots of Merlot. And another vat room is home to stainless steel vats of 30 to 70 hectolitre capacity and fully dedicated just to malolactic fermentation.

 

Chateau Lafite Rothschild
©François Poincet

 

The wines of Château Lafite Rothschild age in barrels from the estate’s own cooperage, with the level of “toasting” specifically adjusted to the needs of each vintage. In deciding the final blend of the estate’s namesake Château Lafite Rothschild Grand Vin, the base wines are tasted several times. After a first racking of the barrels, the blend is created and then aged for a period of 18 to 20 months, with regular racking, in 100% new oak barrels. The wines are fined in the traditional Bordelais manner, with egg whites, and is then bottled in June.

The Second Wine of Château Lafite Rothschild, named Carruades de Lafite, is similar in style to the estate’s First Wine, but with a higher percentage of Merlot in the blend. It is actually one of the oldest Second Wines of Bordeaux, first produced in the mid-1850’s and reintroduced in the mid-1960’s as Moulin de Carruades, changed to Carruades de Lafite in the 1980’s. Like its older brother, Carruades de Lafite is aged for 18 to 20 months, though in 80% oak barrels (of which only 10% is new).

 

The Signature Style of Château Lafite Rothschild

The wines of Pauillac First Growth Château Lafite Rothschild are some of the most elegantly styled in all of Bordeaux. While revealing great power when tasted young, these Lafite wine should be aged for at least 15 years before opening, depending on the character of the vintage. Many vintages can keep perfectly well for even 50 to 60 years. Perhaps the most intensely aromatic of all the Bordeaux First Growth wines, the wines of Château Lafite Rothschild exude aromas of cedar, violet, tobacco and mint along with red and black fruit, including strawberry, blackberry and blackcurrant (though specifics, of course, depend on vintage). On the palate, these wines combine freshness, harmony and length, offering a beautiful balance between richness and finesse. A fantastic Bordeaux wine to pair with the noblest of meat dishes: roasted game, aged beef or lamb seasoned with rosemary and sage.

 

Carruades de Lafite
© Château Lafite-Rothschild

 

Carruades de Lafite offers a wine that is more approachable in its youth, which will reveal its best after 10 to 15 years of age. Though dependent on vintage, black cherry and cedar tend to dominate on the nose, while the palate opens quickly to reveal a very pleasant structure, finishing with slightly savoury, mineral notes.