Of all Bordeaux first growths, perhaps none is as well known, both inside and outside of the wine world, as Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  Its name transcends wine, standing as a symbol of luxury.  How did it get this lofty reputation?  And, more importantly is, it deserved?  The answer to the second question is a definite yes.  This article will explore the first question in more detail.

The History:
Records of this estate stretch as far back as 1234 when Gombaud de Lafite, abbot of the Vertheuil Monastery north of Pauillac, owned the property.  The name Lafite comes from "la hite", a Gascon expression meaning "small hill."  Records from the 14th century indicate that it was not a vineyard, but what the French call a seigneurie.   This is an estate run by a lord and others who are effectively sharecroppers.  The manor house was constructed in the 1500s and still standing today.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Read part one of the First Growths Series.

The Ségur family bought the property in the 1600s.  Jacques de Ségur planted the vineyard in 1680 although grapes were no doubt grown before that.  By the early 1700s, thanks to Nicolas-Alexandre, Marquis de Ségur, Chateau Lafite wines were very popular with those wealthy enough to afford them, first in English Society (where it was a favorite of Prime Minster Robert Walpole) and later in French society. 

In the mid-1700s, the Royal Physician Marechal de Richelieu Thomas ordered Lafite to be served at the royal court at Versailles.

Thomas Jefferson visited the property in the later part of the century and was known to favor the wines.  In 1784, Lafite was again put up for sale as the owners had been more interested in spending money than in investing profits back into the winery and fell into debt.  The property was sold twice in the next few years before being nationalized during the French Revolution (the owner Nicolas Pierre de Pichard being guillotined in 1794).

The estate went thru a number of owners before being finally purchased by the Dutch Vanlerberghe family.  In 1855, when the wines of Bordeaux were classified, Chateau Lafite, still owned by the Vanlerberghe family was given first growth or premier cru status, one of only four chateaus to achieve such ranking.  

In August of 1868, the Chateau was purchased by Baron James Mayer Rothschild for 4.4 million Francs.  He renamed the estate Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  There is some speculation that he purchased the winery out of a rivalry with another branch of the Rothschild family who had recently purchased Brane Mouton (now known as Mouton Rothschild).

In any event, it was a good investment as land prices in Bordeaux were skyrocketing.  Unfortunately, the Baron died three months after purchasing the estate and the property passed to his sons, Alphonse, Gustave and Edmond.  At that time, the estate had 74 hectares of vineyards.  

The late 1800s were a difficult time for the wine industry in France.  Among a host of natural problems, Phyloxera and downy mildew, were most problematic.  The vineyards were recovering at the beginning of the twentieth century when a new problem arose.  War.

The First World War and especially the Second made running a vineyard difficult.  The shortage of labor and the German occupation were devastating.  In fact, the Germans occupied the Chateau and plundered its cellars during the Second war.  When the war ended, Baron Elie de Rothschild regained possession of the winery now known as Chateau Lafite Rothschild for his family.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, many found this winery to have under achieved its potential.  Indeed, in 1961, a mythical vintage and one of the five or so best of the century, Lafite made good, but hardly outstanding wine.  

In 1974, Elie’s nephew, Baron Eric de Rothschild assumed control of winery.  Eric modernized the Lafite estate and infused not just needed capital, but needed energy.  By the 1980’s, Lafite was again making wines as good as any winery in Bordeaux and better than most.  The 1982 and 1986 are legendary wines.

Since 1994, the estate has been managed by Charles Cuvelier.  Under his direction Lafite soared to a reputation of being “first among firsts.”  The 1996, 2000, 2003 and 2005 vintages have been especially impressive

The Estate Today:
Chateau Lafite’s holdings are one of the largest in Bordeaux at 178 hectares including 107 with vines.  The vineyards are composed of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot.  The final blend is different in each vintage but Cabernet Sauvignon  will be predominate, usually close to 90%.   The 1961 vintage was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1994 was 99% (and one percent Petit Verdot).

They produce about fifteen to twenty thousand cases each year of their famous Grand Vin Chateau Lafite Rothschild Premier Cru.  

The wine that is not deemed worthy of being in the premier cru blend is bottled and released as a second wine called Carruades de Lafite.  While this wine sells for a fraction of its big brother, it can also be very good.  It is worth noting that a fraction of a lot of money can still be a lot of money.

Carruades de Lafite contains 50%  to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon  and 30% to 50% Merlot.  Also, 0% to 5% of the other three grapes may be added.  Carruades sees 10% new and 90% old oak barrels.  Production is also around 15,000 to 20,000 cases.  

The vineyards sit on the highest mound in Pauillac.  There are three main plots of grapes; those surrounding the Chateau, those on the Carruades plain to the west and a small vineyard of 4.5 hectares in St. Estephe.  The oldest plot, called “La Gravière,” was planted in 1886. The soil is a mix of deep gravel with aeolien sand sitting on limestone bedrock.

The average age of the vines is more than 35 years old.  However, since the 20 hectares of replanted vines are not used in the Grand Vin; the average of those vines is 45 years old.  

The grapes are harvested by hand and the selection is very strict.  In some vintages, almost half of the fruit is discarded for not meeting quality standards.  The wines are fermented, each plot in a separate tank, in stainless steel.  The wine is then allowed to go thru malolactic fermentation in large Bosnian Oak vats.  The wine is aged for 18 to 20 months in new French oak barrels which are made at the Chateau.  Prior to bottling, the wines are fined with four to six slightly beaten egg whites per barrel which absorb floating particles and sink to the bottom of the barrel.  

The Wine:
To truly appreciate these wines they need to be stored in a cool cellar for a long time.  Depending on vintage, that period may be anywhere from a minimum of ten years to thirty years.

For example, the 1982 Lafite is only now, in 2010, approaching maturity.  Those who drank it younger were more often than not left disappointed and wanting.  My recommendation would be to wait another five years and then enjoy it over the next forty to fifty years.  The 2005 may be even more backwards (needing more time to mature).  No wonder the English said they drank from their father’s cellars and stored wine for their children.  

Other vintages can be more accessible.  The 2002 vintage is considered to be a more open and precocious vintage.   It is now close to maturity and there is no harm opening a bottle.  It will no doubt remain at peak for another decade.  Of course, the 1982 will be the much better wine when compared to the 2002 during the next decade.  It will show the depth and complexity that comes from ageing.  

These wines are a dense purple in color when young.  I suspect that the older vintages, even young, were more ruby as today’s winemaking styles extract great density and color.  With age they turn a deep ruby and with older age a lighter crimson in color.

In their youth, their nose is often dominated by oak with little fruit showing.  Age, however, leads to a wonderfully complex aroma earmarked (nosemarked?) by the tell-tale Lafite pencil lead component.  Besides the cassis, cherries, floral notes and spice, the signature distinguishing aroma for the wines of Lafite is that wonderful note of pencil lead.  The wines have a lush texture which makes them both easy to gulp and yet wonderfully contemplative.  

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Lafite wines has been the pricing.  Spurred on by investors and is popularity in the Asian markets the pricing for Lafite has gone thru the roof.

For example, the 1996 Lafite was released at a cost of $175.  That is a lot of money and even more so back then.  Now compare it to the 2000 Lafite, also considered one of the great vintages.  On release it had gone up to $300 a bottle.  Then the 2005 sold for $1,250 per bottle on release.

The most recent wine, 2008, only available as a “futures” order (a contract to get the wine once it is released at a hopefully less expensive price) is now selling for over $500 a bottle.  It should be noted that the 2005 pricing was a bit of an anomaly.  It was a perfect storm of an overheated market, good economic times and a great vintage.  One can now buy the 2005 in a retail setting for around $500.  

Why has the pricing escalated?  As was alluded to above, in the last decade many investors have entered the wine world, not to enjoy the wine, or even the status, but to make a profit.  Investors know that wines like Chateau Lafite are not likely to lose their value over time.  As the wine represents the best of the best, consumers (often buying thru auction houses) will continue to pay big bucks for older, properly cellared wines.  The 1996 vintage, purchased on release for $175, now routinely sells for over $1,000 a bottle.  The 2008 futures price has already about doubled for those lucky investors buying the wine immediately in May, 2009.

Another key component has been the Asian market.  The growth of the Chinese and Hong Kong markets and to a lesser extent the India and Russian markets has fueled the demand for Lafite.  These cultures, and especially the status conscious buyers at the top, only want the best.  In those markets, Lafite is considered to be the best of the best.

More than other first growths, Lafite has captured that rarefied place as the top Bordeaux.  In an ironic twist, many consumers in China have developed a reputation for mixing Lafite with Coca-Cola as their drink of choice.  

The relationship with China is of particular importance to Lafite.  Lafite has partnered with China’s largest state owned investment company, CITIC, to purchase over 60 acres of vines in the easternmost tip of Shandog province on the Penglai peninsula.  Interestingly, this puts the vineyards at the same 37º latitude as Bordeaux. 

When it comes to price, no story about Lafite would be complete without a mention of the most money ever paid for a bottle of wine.  In 1985, Christopher Forbes, son of Malcom Forbes, $156,000 at an auction for a bottle of Lafite.  To this day, it remains the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.  Although part of the reason for the high price may have been because it was a Lafite, the real reason was that it was alleged to have been a 1787 Lafite once owned by Thomas Jefferson.  I say alleged because in the years since the auction, some very compelling evidence has been unearthed suggesting the wine is a fraud.

Nevertheless, for those with sufficient disposable income, a mature bottle of Chateau Lafite is one of the truly sublime treasures in the wine world.  In the last 65 years, the top vintages and current values are:  1945 ($2,600 average price per bottle), 1959 ($4,000), 1961 ($1,600), 1982 ($3,600), 1986 ($1,500), 1996 ($1,200), 2000 ($1,600), 2003 ($1,000), and 2005 ($800).  If you don’t mind cellaring the bottle for a while, the best value may be the 2004 vintage which can be found for $400 a bottle. 

As for the Carruades, I don’t recommend them.  They are good wines, but in my opinion, there are better wines for the money.  As the blend is different from the Grand Vin, I do not think you get a glimpse at what the “real” wine is like. 

If you are lucky enough to own any of the Gran Vin, or better yet, have a generous friend open one for you, I would love to hear what you think.