The King’s Wine

Today’s Story: Château Lafite Rothschild

Château Lafite Rothschild is a world-renowned First Growth Bordeaux wine estate located in the left bank appellation of Pauillac. Though the winemaking prowess of Lafite came centuries later, the estate traces its roots to the year 1234 under ownership of Gombaud de Lafite and is labeled as a medieval fief during the 14th century. Though vines certainly existed on the property by the 17th century, it was Jacques de Ségur who is credited with planting the vineyards in the 1670s and 1680s and setting Lafite on its way to producing highly regarded wines. By the early 18th century, Lafite’s wines found a loyal following in the London market and, during the 1730s, became a darling of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. During that time, Jacques’ son Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur improved the winemaking process and enhanced the quality and prestige of Lafite as he marketed it in France to the court of Versailles. By the mid-1700s, Lafite became known as “the King’s Wine” and found its place among the royal and aristocratic families of France.

Though Lafite was arguably the pinnacle of Bordeaux winemaking at the time, even becoming a darling of Thomas Jefferson following a later visit in 1787, the estate experienced some difficulties with changing ownership for a number of reasons. First, Alexandre de Ségur did not have any sons so he divided his estate (which included Château Latour) amongst four daughters. His grandson, Count Nicolas Marie Alexandre de Ségur, inherited Lafite but he was forced to sell to relative Nicolas Pierre de Pichard in 1784 due to financial difficulties. This ownership, however, was also short-lived because Nicolas Pierre was executed as part of the Reign of Terror in 1794 during the French Revolution. Lafite fell into public ownership for a few years, until Dutchman Jean de Witt purchased it in 1797 and set off a string of changing ownerships until Baron James de Rothschild purchased Lafite in 1868.

Though the end of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s were quite turbulent for Lafite, the Rothschild family maintained ownership of the estate and brought it back to prominence after World War II. This period included the phylloxera and mildew crises, WWI, the Great Depression, and occupation by German forces during WWII which saw ransacking of the cellars and theft of historical bottles of Lafite. When Baron Elie de Rothschild regained control at the end of 1945, Lafite was once again on the path to greatness with fantastic vintages in 1945, 1947, and 1949. As Baron Elie restored the vineyards and buildings, improved farming methods, and opened the winery to new markets including the United States, Lafite prospered and continues to do so to this day.

The vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild today consist of 112 hectares planted in the classic, well-draining, deep gravel soils of Pauillac (though this includes 4.5 hectares in Saint Estèphe). They are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (3%), and Petit Verdot (2%) with an average vine age of 39 years. For the Grand Vin, however, they do not use fruit from vines younger than 10 years old so the average vine age for the Grand Vin is closer to 45 years. Lafite practices traditional viticulture based on strict yield control and manual harvests, and they use little to no chemical fertilizers and are transitioning to organic viticulture. Vines are typically re-planted when they reach an age of about 80 years.

In the cellar, Lafite practices traditional vinification methods and ferments their wines separately plot by plot. Some of the fermentation occurs in traditional large oak vats, while some occurs in stainless steel vats before the wines are tasted and drawn off into wine vats. Malolactic fermentation then occurs before the wine is transferred into barrels by batch. Blending occurs after the first racking of these barrels, and then the wines age for 18-20 months. The wines are fined with egg whites and then bottled.

Today’s 1st Wine: 1981 Château Lafite Rothschild

Bordeaux Blend (no details on Lafite’s website); 12% ABV

The 1981 Lafite is translucent medium to deep garnet in color. Keeping with the cellar master’s practices at Lafite, I double decanted this and served it 3 hours later. The nose is rather feminine and took some time to open up, showcasing aromas of redcurrant, licorice, cigar box, pencil shavings, tilled earth, earthy mushroom, graphite, gravel, and cedar. Meanwhile the palate is certainly still kicking, offering notes of blackcurrant, redcurrant, violets, tobacco, forest floor, black truffle, cracked black pepper, graphite, and cedar. This is very well-balanced and medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, well-integrated medium (-) tannins, and a medium (+) length finish. I don’t see this improving, so drink up if you have any.

Price: $750 (though we acquired it years ago for much less). It is always a special occasion to drink a bottle of Lafite, and the pricing is certainly justifiable based on how perfectly balanced and complex these wines can be. This bottling, however, seems to be past its prime and I wouldn’t suggest spending the money on it at this point.

Today’s 2nd Wine: 1985 Château Lafite Rothschild

65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc; 12% ABV

The 1985 Lafite is translucent deep garnet in color, definitely a shade deeper than the 1981. I also double decanted this 3 hours before serving and it really came alive in the glass. The nose showcases classic aromas of blackcurrant, black cherry, black raspberry, lavender, cigar box, forest floor, black truffle, graphite, wet gravel, and grilled herbs. Meanwhile on the palate I get notes of cassis, redcurrant, dried plum, violets, tobacco, pencil shavings, scorched earth, black truffle, graphite, underbrush, and crushed rock minerality. This is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, dusty medium (-) tannins, and a long finish. Impeccably balanced with much more power than the 1981 vintage (no shock) tasted side-by-side.

Price: $985 (though we acquired it years ago for much less). This is perhaps the best vintage of Lafite I’ve tasted to date, and while the near four-digit price tag is seemingly outrageous I think it’s worth it for a special occasion.

The Winner Is…

This should come as no shock, but the 1985 absolutely steals the show here. The 1981 vintage is certainly alive and kicking, but is very feminine and I think past its peak in the plateau phase or start of the declining phase. The 1985 is showing its Comet Vintage pedigree, still offering incredible power and a structure that suggests there is still plenty of time to enjoy this bottling. Both wines are incredibly well-balanced and an absolute pleasure to drink, but the 1985 is simply the more perfectly wrapped package.