First Growth Focus – Château Lafite-Rothschild

In the final part of our series on the First Growths,  Kat Wiggins,  Fine Wine Advisor, discusses Lafite-Rothschild.

Arguably now one of the most famous wine “brands”, Château Lafite-Rothschild has long been one of the most sought-after wines in the world, achieving record prices at auction even in the seventeenth century. While today’s prices are perhaps more to do with speculation than libation, this is a property that is more than used to adapting to its market and is certainly now leading the way in the Far East.

While the estate surrounding Château Lafite has been in recorded existence since the fourteenth century, vines were not planted until the seventeenth, under the ownership of Jacques de Ségur – a famous name in Bordeaux vinous history. Jacques’ son, Alexandre, eventually married the heiress to Château Latour, adding not only that great property, but also Châteaux Calon and Phélan (now Calon-Ségur and Phélan-Ségur), to their holdings. Unsurprisingly, their son, Nicolas-Alexandre, was known as the Prince des Vignes, expanding the properties and pursuing trade with England, where Lafite was becoming popular with the great and the good.

The following few decades were less harmonious, as a combination of debt and the French Revolution led to Château Lafite changing hands several times. Nonetheless, the quality of the property, the wine produced and the prices achieved at auction, guaranteed Château Lafite’s entry as one of the original four Grand Crus at the 1855 Classification. The Rothschild family purchased the property in 1866 and no doubt hoped to capitalise on its success and popularity. Instead, the depredations of phylloxera, two world wars and a worldwide economic depression left the property in need of revival by 1945. Fortunately, Barons Elie (1945-1970) and Eric (1970-present) were and are more than capable and have overseen Château Lafite’s return to prominence and prestige (with the undoubted help of today’s excellent vineyard manager, Charles Chevalier).

Current Market
While there is no doubt that the quality of the wine produced at Château Lafite is exceptional, the recent demand and increase in market price is unprecedented. Largely this is due to its huge popularity in the Far East, particularly China. By some twist of fortune, the word Lafite apparently sounds like the Mandarin for “on the way up”, making the wine an auspicious one to both own and give. This has had a huge effect on the market for both the grand vin and its second wine, Carruades de Lafite. Even Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, only a fourth growth itself, has seen a huge increase in demand, simply due to its association with the ‘brand’ of Lafite.

Is this interest sustainable? Who knows? Certainly Château Lafite itself has been working very hard in China, cultivating this new market. They have recently begun developing vineyard in the Penglai peninsula in Shandong Province, the region most likely to be comparable to Bordeaux in terms of terroir and latitude. On a less practical and viticultural level and, arguably, simply capitalising on the more financial aspects of their popularity in China, they placed the (lucky) Chinese symbol for “8” on the bottles of their 2008 vintage. This seemingly simple gesture to the Far Eastern market led to the market price for the 2008 vintage rising 20% almost overnight – such is the pull and power of this brand in that market.

2010 Vintage
While it is now perhaps a slightly formal affair, tasting at Château Lafite is always a pleasure and the 2010 vintage was no exception. Initially closed on the nose, the wine opened out in the glass to give an almost heady note of fragrant white flowers and dark berry fruit. Structurally, the tannins are deceptively fine – silky-textured and yet providing a considerable framework for the core of fruit. A vein of minerality lends freshness and direction and there is an attractive note of roasted coffee bean on the finish. A very complete wine, with all the elements in perfect balance. Truly astonishing; power held in check, poise given expression – the epitome of fine, classic, frankly beautiful Cabernet.

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