On Tuesday I met with Charles Chevallier at Château Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac. Mr. Chevallier is the Director of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). He is personally in charge of four of the Domaines’ estates—Château Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), Château Rieussec (Sauternes), Château L’Évangile (Pomerol), and Château Duhart-Milon (Pauillac). All four estates are under the ownership of Baron Eric de Rothschild. Three of the estates are Grand Cru Classé (Pomerol doesn’t have an official classification of course). And the first three are listed in Robert Parker’s “The World’s Greatest Wine Estates”.
Let me briefly sum up Rieussec and L’Évangile, because the true focus of this blog is Lafite Rothschild. Château Rieussec is a Premier Cru Classé (1855 Classification), dating back to the 18th Century. Although the estate was always recognized for its world-class wine, Albert Vuiller, who acquired the estate in 1971, is acknowledged for having achieved the most notable improvements in the quality of the wine. The estate manages 92 hectares of vines, composed of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. Rieussec is d’Yquem’s direct competition, making powerfully rich, botrytized Sauternes wine. The most interesting note I picked up after the visit was that since 2001, Mr. Chevallier initiated a new vinification method, where the grapes undergo the complete fermentation in the barrel.
Château l’Évangile dates back to 1741. The estate passed through many hands before being acquired by Paul Chaperon in 1862. Paul is noted for achieving significant improvements in the quality and reputation of the wine. After Paul’s death in 1900, Paul’s descendants, the Ducasse family, maintained control of the estate until 1990 when Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) took over the ownership. Today, most critics consider that L’Évangile is producing wine comparable in quality to the rock star wines of Pétrus and Cheval Blanc. The size of the estate today is 16 hectares and the vine breakdown is roughly 78% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc.
So as I said the focus of this post will be on Lafite, for no reason other than because the visit and interview was conducted at Lafite and naturally my discussion with Mr. Chevallier focused on our surroundings. Château Lafite Rothschild is located in the Pauillac Grand Cru AOC and was classified in 1855 as a Premier Cru Classé. The estate is comprised of 107 hectares of vines—70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. The vine density (similar to Lynch-Bages, referencing my previous visit to Pauillac) is roughly 8,500 vines per hectare, with yields of 50 hectoliters per hectare in a typical year. After a rather long maceration of up to three weeks, the wine is aged for roughly 18 months in 100% new oak barrels. When questioning how Lafite avoids over oaking their wine, Mr. Chevallier explained that the key is to find the perfect marriage between the grape tannins and the tannins in the oak. One problem with the “oak monsters”, all too often found in the $10 and under wines of Napa and Australia, is that the quality of the grape selection and harvest simply does not match the power of the tannins in the new American (or French) oak. So it’s more like a Las Vegas marriage, quickly ending in divorce, if I dare to over embellish the metaphor. Of course, the real equation is much more complex than this. Regarding the second label, Carruades de Lafite, a mix of new and old oak is used, which is required in order to find that “perfect marriage”, since the grape selection is different.
Another important point of reference, regarding the oak issue is that Lafite is the only estate in Bordeaux that owns an on-site cooperage. 100% of the barrels used at Lafite come from their cooperage and more over, no barrel is sold to any estate outside of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Mr. Chevallier spoke at length about the importance of this detail. An on-site cooperage allows Lafite to maintain direct quality control over the oak they use. Lafite pays close attention to the fabrication of each barrel. Each barrel is aged for 2 years and is toasted at a cooler temperature and over a longer period of time than what is typical. When all is said and done, the average annual production of both the first and second label is 18,000-25,000 cases.
Lafite’s history dates back to the 13th century. At least this is the first known reference to the name of the estate. However, the property’s real reputation sprung out of the 17th century when Jacques de Ségur planted the Lafite vineyard. By the early 1700s Lafite was gaining success in the London market. Under Marquis Nicolas Alexandre de Ségur, the winemaking techniques improved significantly, ultimately earning de Ségur the nickname “The Wine Prince.” Furthermore, with the help of Maréchal de Richelieu, who maintained a strong relationship with Louis XV, the estate earned the nickname “The King’s Wine.” In 1784, de Ségur, who was in considerable debt, was forced to sell the estate to Nicolas Pierre de Pichard. Nonetheless, by the late 1700s, Lafite had reached international stardom with followers of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who was actually inspired by Lafite (among other esteemed estates in France) to return to the United States to begin planting French grapes. Unfortunately nothing significant ever came of it. De Pichard’s reign ended suddenly and sadly with his execution during the French Revolution. However, the eminence of Lafite continued to grow, culminating in 1855 at the Universal Paris Exposition when Lafite was officially classified as a First Growth, along with Haut-Brion, Latour, and Margaux.
In 1868 Baron James de Rothschild purchased the estate, beginning the Rothschild reign. Of course, as with everyone else, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century were treacherous with the triple blow of the phylloxera crisis, World War I, and the Great Depression. Following the German takeover of the estate during World War II, the Rothschilds did not regain control until 1945. Baron Elie de Rothschild took over and produced a few stellar vintages; however, the era of 1961 through 1974 was extremely disappointing. The estate failed to produce any vintage worthy of mention. I asked Mr. Chevallier about this mediocre period in Lafite’s history and he directly acknowledged Baron Elie’s failure to maintain the quality throughout this period. Although not confirmed (these are my words, not Mr. Chevallier’s) it is suspected that negligence was the main cause of the lackluster performance, considering that the Rothschilds resided in Paris and did not frequent the estate that often. Luckily Baron Eric turned everything around, taking over the management of the estate in 1975 and producing an epic vintage the same year. Three major changes were implemented by Baron Eric. One, Lafite had been aged for as long as 36 months in barrel, stripping the wine of all its fruity character. Under Baron Eric the aging was reduced to no more than 30 months and today the aging is never more than 20 months. Two, the grapes were harvest later and the selection became much stricter, resulting in riper and less acidic grapes. In many vintages, as little as 35% of the harvest is selected for the first label. And three, the bottling, which had originally dragged along for nearly a year, producing a marked inconsistency, was reduced to 3 weeks. Certainly things are on the up and up for this esteemed estate. In fact Robert Parker handed 100 point ratings to the 1982, 1986, 1996, 2000, and 2003 vintages.
Charles Chevallier stepped into the picture in 1983 as the number two man at Lafite. Mr. Chevallier was born in Montpellier, the son of a viticulteur. After earning a degree in agricultural engineering, Mr. Chevallier began working in the wine industry in Anjou in the Loire Valley. Once at Lafite, Mr. Chevallier quickly established himself and by 1985 the Rothschilds sent him to Chateau Rieussec where he worked as the General Director for 9 years. In 1994 Baron Eric asked Mr. Chevallier to return to Lafite, this time as the number one man. He retained his position at Rieussec and by 1998 a third estate, L’Évangile, was added to his portfolio. Mr. Chevallier impressed me quite a bit, as one might think that someone running one of the world’s most prestigious wine estates might come off as pretentious. NOT AT ALL! He spent the entire visit with me, showing me the ins and outs of Lafite, including a stroll around the vineyard. It was clear that he was passionate about what he does. Moreover, he made a point not to steal the limelight. He referred to his head viticulturist and winemaker as his collaborators—Regis Porfilet and Christoph Congé, respectively.
I asked Mr. Chevallier what makes Lafite so special. He noted without hesitation that it’s the terroir. In this case the Lafite vineyard is southwest oriented and the soil is composed of gravel, sand, limestone, and clay. Mr. Chevallier even went as far as to hypothesize that if at any moment the director of Margaux and him switched roles, after a short transition, everything would be back to normal. Lafite will always be Lafite. Mr. Chevallier is a strong believer in terroir and insists that wine is made in the vineyard, not throughout the vinification. Although he did elaborate quite a bit on the vinification process as well.
Mr. Chevallier considers that the two most critical factors in any given vintage are one, selecting the proper harvest date, and two, the selection of the blend. I asked him about the 2008 vintage. He remarked that it was a very difficult vintage to make; however, everything turned out quite well. He characterizes the 2008 Lafite as a wine showing a beautiful structure and balance, with well developed fruit and powerful tannins. He further noted that 2008 is definitely a wine that will age beautifully over a long period of time. Later I asked Mr. Chevallier if there was any particular vintage(s) that he considered his favorite. He responded that it would be impossible to put his finger on one specific year. He explained that vintages are like a family, some are better behaved than others, but in the end, he loves them all.
Below are the wines Mr. Chevallier and I tasted …
2008 Carruades de Lafite
Blend: 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) A green nose with subtle hints of grass and sour red fruits. This wine is very young, medium-bodied and acidic, expressing medium tannins and a simplistic, linear structure. There are an overall sourness with flavors of red fruits and berries.
Rating: 12-13/20 (WS 87-90)
2008 Château Duhart-Milon (4th Growth)
Blend: 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) A bigger, more fruity nose, showing black fruits, leather, tobacco, and cedar. This wine is full-bodied, more tannic, but maintains a good balance. The mid palate is fruit forward with notes of black berries, subtle herbs, and chocolate.
Rating: 13-14/20 (WS 87-90)
2008 Château Lafite Rothschild
Blend: 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) A much more complex and elegant nose, expressing notes of black fruits and leather. This wine has great balance even with the powerful tannins. The texture is smooth and silky from the attack to the mid palate, but then develops into an astringency that lingers a little too long, however that will disappear with age. There are flavors of currants, cherries, minerality and an all so subtle and very distant suggestion of apple. This wine should develop wonderfully for the next 10-20 years.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 91-94)
2004 Château Rieussec
Blend: 91% Semillion, 7% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscadelle
Tasting Notes: A very beautiful and complex nose with aromas of apricot, peach, and orange marmalade. Very syrupy in the mouth with a honey like texture. The acidity is lacking, making the wine quite cloying. However, the delicious factor and complexity wins over with notes of graham cracker, orange marmalade, and toffee. The finish never died and minutes later, while talking with Mr. Chevallier in his car, I still noticed hints of raisin.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 92-94)
Price: 32€ @ Snooth