My rare day off started with a visit to Chateau Lascombes and then moved on to a visit at Chateau Cos d’Estournel, which was unfortunately cut a bit short as we had another rendez-vous. So we trekked across the street to the chateau that was the real reason I dragged myself out of the house: famed First Growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
I’ll also be perfectly honest and say that I was sadly disappointed. Our visit was a bit perfunctory.
Chateau Lafite Rothschild, owned by the French branch of the family, not to be confused with the English branch which owns Chateau Mouton Rothschild, was one of the four original estates classified First Growth in 1855. But it’s rich history dates back much further, to 1234. It was overseen by a nearby Abbey and takes its name from a derevation of “la hite,” meaning a little hill. Of course, as you can imagine, the vineyards are perched on a small hill in Pauillac. It was also at one point owned by the “Prince of Vines,” Nicholas-Alexandre the Marquis de Segur, who was the owner of Calon Segur, Latour, Mouton, Pontet-Canet, d’Armailhac and Montrose. (Let’s just take a small second to appreciate the irony of the uproar that would exist in the wine industry if one man owned all of these estates today.)
But eventually the estate was sold to the Baron James de Rothschild in 1868. While the aristocratic family once took a distant and … aristocratic interest in the estate operations, modern history has proven the family to be more engaged. Following the Second World War there has been greater interest and Baron Eric de Rothschild, the current owner, has been investing heavily in the cellars and in the vineyards.
But it is not just the rich history that sets the estate apart from its fellow First Growths. Uniquely, thanks to an extended history, the estate is the only one in Bordeaux that uses grapes produced in two appellations in their Pauillac Bordeaux Blend. A small parcel of the Lafite vineyards lies in gravel soils in Saint Estephe. Planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, the dominant grape at the estate, it forms only a minuscule percentage of the final blend, but it remains a unique feature. Considered the most highly sought after wine in the world, experts say it is likely that there are more cases of 1982 Lafite in China than were actually produced by the chateau, thanks to a booming counterfeit production.
I could go into more detail about the estate’s history, but there isn’t anything else I can say that hasn’t already been said. So let’s get back to the visit. As I said earlier the visit was a bit perfunctory. We were greeted by our guide and lead into the cellars. Where we had a brief and almost inaudible explanation of the estate’s history and terroir. We were then lead to the fermentation tanks and the heart of the winemaking cellars. What struck me most was the smell. They had been painting and also transferring some wine so the whole area smelled of Mulled Wine. Obviously this was a chemical smell and driven by the maintenance work, but it struck me at the time. These winemaking cellars, which had been updated in 2010 were surprisingly plain. Of course, it is not necessary to have fancy tanks and equipment to produce stunning wines, in fact these items can often be the hallmark of overworked and rather uninspired wines, but for a First Growth estate there was no pomp and circumstance.
After another uninspired and rote lecture about the vinification process we made our way into the heart of the cellars: the wine library and the multiple barrel rooms via a secondary barrel storage. What struck me about the first barrel room was the cellar rot on the walls. While not exactly the best thing to look at, cellar rot is a sign of the perfect storage conditions. Then there was the 1950’s cellars which run under the parking lot and were complete with even more cellar rot. Next up there was the impressive and extensive library. With wines dating back to the 1797, supposedly all of which is still drinkable thanks to recorking sessions, it was an impressive look at the past.
Then finally we made our way to the famed circular barrel cellar. Designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, this cellar is as renowned for its 2000+ barrel capacity as it is for its acoustic properties. In fact twice a year, the cellar plays host to classical music concerts and of course wine tasting. Sadly on the concert held in July is open to the Public, but I am sure it proves time and again to be an amazing experience.
But more importantly, the cellar also played host to our tasting. We were lucky enough to enjoy the 2001 of the estate’s first wine (just for a little perspective this bottle retails in the United States for over $1000 a bottle). Back lit by beautiful white tapers in ornate candelabras we were each handed a glass of this precious nectar.
Slightly cold and maybe in a slightly repressed phase, this wine was, which the estate readily admits is quite young and requires at least another 10+ years of aging, rather less complex than I expected. Beautiful, rich, endlessly smooth yet with good structure and plenty of acid, the wine delivered notes of black currant and forest floor, clay and pencil shavings, clove and licorice. As it warmed the bowl of the glass, swirled, swirled and swirled some more, the aromas did begin to reveal themselves. And at one point I was transported back to my child hood and the humidor my dad keeps on the antique desk in our living room. Rich tobacco, cocoa, coffee and wood. But despite that moment of nostalgia, the wine, which was admittedly very good and lingered with me, fell flat.
Perhaps one day, 20 years in the future, I’ll be lucky enough to revisit this vintage and really discover the magic that is Chateau Lafite Rothschild. In the meantime, I’ll have photos and the memory of a great day spent with school friends.