A New Era Begins at Château Lafite as Baron de Rothschild Hands Leadership Over to His Daughter
"Delighted to meet you,” says Eric, the Baron Rothschild, greeting me with a hearty handshake in the entryway of Château Lafite. It occurs to me almost immediately that it is a lapse of manners on my part to remind him that we were tablemates at a wedding a few years ago, especially after he is so gracious in his subsequent apology. Clad in a slightly rumpled double-breasted navy linen blazer, he exudes a warmth that helps counteract his imposing height, good looks, and pedigree. His wife Beatrice also apologizes on his behalf; she is equally hospitable, though her manner and attire are far more casual.
Tonight I’m one of 10 guests who have been invited to help celebrate the 150th year of the Rothschilds’ ownership of Château Lafite, the most celebrated property in Bordeaux. The milestone coincides with a transition of power, as Eric and Beatrice’s daughter Saskia, 31—who appears a few minutes later—begins to take the reins from her 77-year-old father. (She was appointed co-chair of Domaines Barons de Rothschild and Lafite in 2016.)
If she’s at all daunted by the illustrious company, or the prospect of being the youngest person to lead a Bordeaux first growth estate and the first woman chair of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, the family’s global wine empire, Saskia is certainly not showing it. Dressed casually in a white shirt and jeans, she seems serene and self-confident as she makes her way around the room.
Saskia expressed interest in Lafite at an early age, joining the winemaking team that blends the grand vin and working at sister property L’Evangile at 22. But like many a Rothschild, she has also pursued other interests, attending Columbia Journalism School and reporting for, among other publications, the International New York Times. In 2015 she put out a well-received first novel, Erable.
Saskia de Rothschild and her father, Eric, the Baron Rothschild.
The château itself is a curious blend of homey and grand. It sits on a hillock visible from the road, rising above a balustraded terrace and topped with two heterogeneous towers. The entrance lacks porch or pediment, or even a single step—the front door opens on the same level as the gravel drive.
Inside, the rooms look as they might have at the time the Rothschilds purchased the property, decorated in Second Empire style, with walls adorned in velvet and family portraits. It has a distinctly lived-in feel, and Beatrice tells me the family spends many weekends here. They are, in fact, expecting a raft of houseguests.
Much of the current château dates from the 16th century—although the square tower in which I spend the night allegedly once hosted Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died in 1204. The history is sketchy until the late 17th century, when the vineyards were planted.
The grounds and cellar at Château Lafite Rothschild
From the early 18th century onward, Lafite was judged one of the top four growths, along with Haut Brion, Margaux, and Latour—an opinion enshrined in the official classification of Bordeaux properties in 1855. In 1868, Lafite was purchased by the Baron James Rothschild, a few years after his cousin Nathaniel had purchased the neighboring Brane Mouton (renamed Mouton Rothschild).
This initiated one of the great rivalries of the wine world, although Lafite Rothschild indubitably had the edge for most of the past century and a half. (Mouton was ranked as a second growth until 1973, when relentless lobbying by Baron Philippe resulted in its elevation.)
Lafite was long considered first among the first growths, commanding the highest prices of any Bordeaux. In 1815, Bordeaux’s leading broker noted that of the three top wines of the Médoc (Haut Brion being situated farther south), “Lafite is usually lightest in taste and color, but as a consequence its sap is finer and more pleasing. I have ranked it as having the most elegance and delicacy, and possessing the finest sap, of the three.”
One of the more extraordinary aspects of Bordeaux is that the ranking of the various properties has remained fairly stable and that characterizations of the châteaux made in the 19th century remain relevant today.
Lafite has always been a wine prized more for its finesse than its brute strength. Many attribute its signature style to the complex geology of the land. As Eric leads us down into the estate’s vast, sepulchral circular cellar (designed by Ricardo Bofill), which gives the impression of an underground Pantheon, he describes how alluvial soils and granitic gravels washed down from the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.
The inside of Château Lafite
Our group, which includes Japanese manga writers Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, former French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, and British wine critic Jancis Robinson, sits down at tables studded with glasses to taste the liquid essence of this hallowed terroir. There, we work our way through 10 vintages, starting with the 2010 and 2009, two beautiful infants with brilliant futures ahead of them.
Generally speaking, Lafite takes about 25 years to blossom in a strong vintage; the 1999, from a less powerful year, is just starting to develop secondary nuances, the herbal and savory notes that make mature Lafite so compelling. The dazzling 2005 is in transition between primary and secondary, showing the scent of lead pencil, often noted as a signature aroma of the wines of Bordeaux’s Pauillac region.
The trio of 1983, 1985, and 1986 are served single-blind: We are given the vintages but have to guess which is which. I manage to identify them based on past experience, but I’m not even close on the wine served after the ethereal 1976. Saskia tries to keep a straight face when I guess 1966; in fact, it’s a 1934, a delicate beauty and easily the best wine of the flight.
Fortunately, we don’t have to work as hard at dinner, where most of the wines are identified on our menus, including the legendary 1982 (boldly paired with lobster), which has become the object of a cultlike obsession in China in recent years (at one point the price of a bottle there was well above $4,000).
The 1982 is indeed an excellent wine, although not quite as sensational as the 1959 that follows, one of the greatest Bordeaux ever made, in my opinion, and a great pairing with agneau de sept heures. (Lamb and Bordeaux are a match made in Hedonia.) I can’t help loving the 1955—a fine year that produced our hostess, as well as myself. But the showstopper is the 1881, a haunting, complex wine with an incredible silky texture and a lingering kiss of fruit. It was an awkward vintage: The previous year the devastating phylloxera louse had hit Bordeaux.
The Rothschilds fought back for many years with expensive sulfur treatments before finally adopting the practice of grafting onto American rootstock. “Happily,” Eric informs us, “we could afford it, unlike many of our neighbors.” This no-expense-spared approach continues to this day. It’s a strategy you will have to emulate if you wish to experience the singular pleasure of Lafite.
This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors