Crème de la Crème

A glimpse at Chateau Lafite's prestigious vineyards

I have toured countless wine estates at home and abroad, but nothing prepared me for the rarefied world of Bordeaux First Growth chateaux. Merely gaining access is a considerable feat.

At the prestigious Château Lafite Rothschild, they don’t “sell” wine, they allocate it. With only 2,000 cases produced every year, demand far outstrips supply. I spent several days in Bordeaux with Michel Negrier, export director of the company’s umbrella, Domaines Barons de Rothschild. While Château Lafite’s annual production could easily be snapped up by China, he explained, longstanding agreements still dictate where most of the allocations go. China will have to wait.

The chateau stands on a hill overlooking rose gardens, ponds and weeping willows. The subterranean wine “library” holds treasures going back to vintage 1797. I walked past bottles from the years of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era and the Belle Époque. There before me was the legendary 1947, made at the close of WWII. I was awed that this liquid has lived for centuries and rests silently in this hidden room keeping its historic secrets—the last vestige of a bygone age.

That night I dined on a feast prepared by Baron Eric de Rothschild’s private chef on the upper terrace of the great lawn. We sipped Lafite Champagne while discussing the baron’s plans for expansion in Asia. That very week (it was mid-May), the Rothschilds had planted their first 60 acres in the Shandong region of northern China.

With the main course came a bottle of Chateau Lafite 1990. Negrier called it “exuberant” with a fresh nose. He said it was an uncharacter-
istic vintage since the classic style of Chateau Lafite is austere and elegant with aromas of leather, eucalyptus and tobacco emerging in older vintages.

I visited three more Rothschild-owned Bordeaux estates (whose wines are all pre-sold to négociants during Bordeaux en primeur). The most prestigious vineyards are all about location. And the Lafite estates couldn’t possibly have more impressive neighbors. Their Sauternes, Chateau Rieussec (one of the eleven First Growths from the 1855 Classification), looks out onto Chateau d’Yquem. Its Pomerol estate, Chateau L’Evangile, borders Petrus on one side and Chateau Cheval Blanc on the other—a breathtaking trio. Chateau Duhart-Milon, a Pauillac fourth growth, is near Chateau Lafite and its next-door neighbor, Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

As I toured the estates, Lafite’s general manager, Charles Chevalier, shared insider tips on what makes these wines great. Their power comes from the Medoc’s alluvial subsoil—fossilized fish bones and seashells. The vines struggle through the sandstone layer, driving 20 feet down. Their fight makes for superlative wines, and so do the oak barrels they’re aged in, toasted to order in Lafite’s own in-house cooperage.

Inside Chateau L’Évangile’s circular cellar, fresh egg whites are stirred into each barrel by hand. This process helps “clean” the wine, turning it translucent. For Lafite’s own production, Baron Eric sends his chauffeur to an organic farm to fetch the 7,000 eggs used in each vintage—six eggs per barrel (the leftover yolks are used by local bakeries to make Bordeaux's famed cannelés).

My trip ended with a tour of their Languedoc property, Chateau d’Aussières, on 1,360 hilly acres dotted with wildflowers and cyprus. Winemaker Eric Kohler, who also runs Lafite’s China project, hopes to make Languedoc’s equivalent of a prestigious First Growth—and to do the same with his wine made in China. Perhaps in the not too distant future, China will get its Lafite allocation, albeit from its own Shandong vineyards.