A 150-Year-Old Wine and Its Descendants Reveal Their Secrets
Posted June 12, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT
PAUILLAC, France— I have never been able to afford a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, which for centuries has been among the world’s greatest and most coveted wines. But Lafite does seem to have a way of coming to me by chance.
Back in 2004, my good friend Jason found a 1986 Lafite impériale — eight standard-size bottles in one huge vessel — while inventorying his late father’s belongings in Seattle. It was enough wine to compel a group of people to fly across the country for a memorable dinner party (two actually, as the wine was too much to finish in one go).
More recently, it was an invitation in a stack of mail that, because of renovations to our newsroom, did not catch up to me until weeks after it had arrived. Did I want to taste 16 vintages of Lafite at one of a series of small dinners at the chateau in Bordeaux commemorating the 150th anniversary of the estate’s purchase by the Rothschild family?
If you love wine, there is only one answer to that question. So I found myself here in Pauillac in early May at the turreted chateau, with a few other writers as well as artists, actors and filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola. We were welcomed by Baron Éric de Rothschild, who has overseen the estate since 1974, and his daughter, Saskia de Rothschild, who this year took over as chairwoman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, which manages Lafite and other properties.
It is a rare privilege to taste 16 vintages of any wine, much less Lafite. Yet such a vertical tasting — as distinguished from a horizontal one, in which many wines from a single vintage are sampled — offers invaluable insights into some of wine’s greatest mysteries, which, even with all the advantages of modern science and technology, have yet to be understood.
How and why does wine age? We know that the gradual exposure to air over time softens the tannins in a firm red like Lafite, made primarily of cabernet sauvignon with varying degrees of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Powerfully fruity aromas mellow, harmonize and evolve, as the wine gains nuances, depth and dimension.
How do the conditions of a vintage year affect the wine? Experts boldly predict how wines will evolve over time. They make broad judgments about the quality of a particular year. But these are often matters of opinion and taste, and the predictions don’t always hold true.
Does a wine show consistent characteristics that transcend the vintage variations? How is this character derived? Is it a matter of nature, the place in which the grapes were grown? Or nurture, how the wine was made? Or a combination of the two?
Bordeaux is among the longest lived of wines, and so lends itself to vertical tastings, especially since Bordeaux is one of the few wine regions in which producers traditionally keep libraries of old vintages. Nonetheless, luxury wines like Lafite, which cost many hundreds of dollars a bottle, are not necessary for tastings like this. It would be equally fascinating with fine, though far more modest, bottles.
In a recent Twitter discussion about expensive wines, Lyle Fass, a wine importer, suggested more down-to-earth vertical tastings, like Muscadets from Domaine de la Pépière or Mosel rieslings from Joh. Jos. Prüm, among others. Why not?
At Lafite, we tasted recent bottles from the 21st century, but also quite a few spanning the 20th and at least one from the 19th, the 1868, marking the vintage 150 years ago when Baron James de Rothschild, head of the French branch of the Rothschild family, bought Château Lafite and renamed it Lafite Rothschild. Even then, Lafite was widely known and admired. Its vineyard traces back at least to the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson visited Bordeaux in 1787, and was a great admirer of Lafite, but that did not save Lafite’s owner, Nicolas Pierre de Pichard, from the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Though Lafite passed through several hands before 1868, it was still ranked at the top of the top in the 1855 classification, a five-class ranking of 60 Médoc chateaus (and one from Graves, the famous Haut-Brion) that is still influential today.
Our tasting was divided into two parts. First, 10 vintages would be tasted in the circular, vaulted barrel cellar, designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and opened in 1988. The remaining six vintages would be consumed with dinner.
We sat in the cellar at tables arranged in a square and illuminated by candles. We were joined by Jean-Guillaume Prats, the chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, and Eric Kohler, the technical director, who discussed the vintage conditions and the production of each wine.
2010 and 2009: The wines came in flights, arranged by vintages that would benefit by comparison, or, in some cases, solo or blind. The first was a pair, 2010 and ’09, back-to-back years that many critics considered great but which were completely different.
For me, the 2010 epitomized the character of Lafite. It’s a wine known for its finesse, elegance and subtlety, as opposed to the power and majesty of Latour and the flamboyance of Mouton Rothschild, owned by a different branch of the family. The ’10 Lafite was fresh and understated, though rich, with fine tannins, great harmony and a scent of violets. It was very young.
The ’09, on the other hand, was voluptuous and powerful, quite tannic yet more advanced than the ’10, with an aroma of tobacco rather than flowers. As one taster put it, “The ’10 represents the heart of Lafite, the ’09 the flesh.”
2001: This arrived as a solo flight. The 2001 was one of my favorite recent Bordeaux vintages to drink. Coming after the much-hyped 2000 vintage, the ’01 was considered something of a letdown by many critics. But I’ve been very much attuned to its charms. After 18 years, the 2001s have given me a lot of pleasure while, for me at least, the 2000s have always seemed amorphous.
“It’s probably the youngest, drinkable, open Lafite,” Kohler said of the ’01. It was fresh, complex and subtle, with aromas of violets and that perfume of Pauillac, somewhere between pencil lead and cigar boxes, for those who can remember such things.
“It doesn’t have the length of the best vintages,” one taster said, but I was hard-pressed to find any fault with it at all.
1996 and an Older Vintage: The 1996 was served with an unidentified vintage. The ’96 was deep and complex, with harmonious mineral flavors, intense but weightless, a great wine at first, though the complexity seemed to dissipate in the glass with prolonged exposure to air. The other looked older, with a brownish rim to the color. It was delicious, tasting lightly of fruit and pencil lead, but lacking intensity. By itself, it would have been a lovely wine, but in this company it seemed a bit dilute. I identified it as a ’93, ’94 or ’95, but was not able to pinpoint it as the ’94, as some of the tasters did.
Blind Tastings: Three wines from ’88, ’89 and ’90 vintages were offered blind. We did not know which was which. These were three good but differing years, and Kohler said Lafite enjoyed seeing guests work out the identities.
One, which turned out to be the ’90, was full-bodied, rich and exotic, seemingly uncharacteristic of Lafite. The next was a bit more evolved, linear and complex, the ’89, and the last was the firmest, with the most energy and minerality. It was the ’88, my favorite of the three.
1983 and an Older Vintage: The 1983 was spicy, fresh, harmonious and gentle, a beautiful wine, and an older vintage served blind. The latter was the color of Madeira and, sadly, more enjoyable by imagining what it had once been rather than what it was today, with hints of Pauillac tobacco dominated by the acetone aroma of volatile acidity. It was the 1920, which connoisseurs of old Bordeaux have called a great vintage. It posed one more mystery. The ’20 had been stored at the chateau under superb conditions, and another bottle tasted earlier had been superb, Saskia de Rothschild said later. It proved the truth of the old saying, “There are no great vintages, only great bottles.”
From there, it was on to a room decorated with gilded portraits of Rothschilds past, and dinner: beef consommé with quenelles and truffles, egg parfait with morels and a simple, brilliant sea bass with sauce vierge, olive oil, tomato and herbs. Fish with Bordeaux? With older, more delicate vintages, it was a perfect choice.
But first we started out with a glass served blind, a rich young wine, heavy but deficient in acidity and finesse. It was not hard to identify it as a 2003, one of the hottest, driest years on record.
After that came only wines worth dreaming about. First 1982, a great vintage marking the end of some difficult years and inaugurating the current era of Bordeaux as a luxury good. At almost 36 years of age, it was still youthful, ripe and a bit exotic, yet balanced and harmonious. Next was the 1961, another great year, smelling entirely of pencil lead, pure and lovely. Then the 1945, a legendary vintage from the end of World War II, which was surprisingly youthful and fresh. The rich wine was elegant rather than powerful, very much of a piece with the ’61 and ’82.
Two more were to come. First, an extraordinary 1905, delicate yet energetic, pretty and fragile yet with a tensile strength that kept the wine vibrant. Then, finally, the 1868, 150 years old. Its aroma had a fruity sweetness, and the wine seemed to have an inextinguishable life force and intensity while staying completely in character.
“It’s a miracle, this wine,” Baron Éric said.
Perhaps he was right. No wine is meant to last so long; if it does, it’s almost accidental. Baron James, who bought Lafite, died not long after the 1868 harvest. In the United States, President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives but survived a trial and finished out his term.
Through the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and II, depressions, multiple governments, the invention of cars, planes, rockets to the moon and the internet, this wine survived to tell its story. A miracle, maybe, but entirely Lafite.