Chateau Lafite Rothschild Interview

By Gavin Smith

Mar 29th, 2020

From one of the most prestigious and world-renowned wine estates, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, we spoke with Technical Director Eric Kohler and Commercial Director Jean-Sebastien Philippe of Domaines Barons de Rothschild about Bordeaux’s continued relevance in an ever-expanding and competitive global fine wine market. We discuss the unique elements that define Chateau Lafite as well as their personal insight into the latest 2019 vintage...

Three of the five First Growths are situated in Pauillac - what is it that makes this appellation so special? As Chateau Lafite neighbours St Estephe does it share an affinity with both appellations?

We can only be very biased when making comments on the Pauillac appellation, having two Chateaux in the appellation (Chateau Lafite & Chateau Duhart Milon) - we are Pauillac lovers and defenders! It is deeply rooted. The capacity to combine density, complexity and elegance is unique. The capacity to age the wines is remarkable, such is the potential to seduce wine lovers with captivating aromas. One phrase, not from us, that we feel symbolises Pauillac’s wine is “an iron fist in a velvet glove”.

When it comes to St Estephe we are also very biased as we have four hectares planted next door to Cos d’Estournel and Lafon-Rochet. Those four hectares produce remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon which goes into the Lafite Grand Vin nearly every year. It is part of the original estate of Chateau Lafite, which is one of the reasons why we have a specific authorisation to include it in our final blend. Ripeness, structure, capacity to seduce are really what makes our St Estephe grapes so special.

In the past you have talked about how well the terroir of Lafite manages with warm vintages – why do you think that is?

The Lafite terroir is extraordinary, it is such a privilege for us to work on this very particular piece of land. The density and depth of gravel, the capacity to restrain water, the quality of the vegetative material, the high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon… all those elements combined are certainly part of the answer. Cabernet Sauvignon is a fascinating grape in that regard, the resistance and capacity of never becoming too extreme is very fortunate.

But Lafite is not only one terroir. People think about the hill of Lafite of course, but we have Anseillan which is a very interesting territory to explore, we have Bel Air on the South West not far from Duhart-Milon which is a bit more arid, we have the Plateau des Carruades -  a playground for Grands Vins for a century, and we also have the Caillava in the St Estephe appellation which makes us a bit unique in that regards. Our fortune is to be able to play with this diversity in the final blend, always challenging ourselves every year.

Tell us more about the five defining terroirs of Chateau Lafite?

Plateau de Lafite:

Located just outside the Chateau from our cellar up to the hill of Lafite down south on one side, and up to the villages of Milon and Loubeyres going west on another side. This plateau, from the quaternary period is a mix of very deep Clayey-gravel on top of the hill, sandy-gravel closer to the Chateau on the western part, and some parcels planted on aoelian sandy soil. All is mainly planted with old Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the backbone of Lafite Grand Vin nearly every year. It is giving fruit with elegance, texture, and exceptional density. The magical playground for us.

Plateau des Carruades:

The iconic and historic terroir des Carruades nestled between The South of Duhart-Milon and Mouton, is one of the most extraordinary pieces of deep clayey-gravel soil from the quaternary period. This plateau is planted with great Cabernet Sauvignon but also with the best Merlot of Lafite. It is today a terroir of experimentation for us where we conduct most of our biodynamical analysis. As for the Plateau de Lafite it is a core component of our Grand Vin blend nearly every year bringing structure.

Plateau de Lafite Vineyard at Chateau Lafite

Le Caillava:

Le Caillava is unique and is one of the reason why we believe Lafite has something special. Le Caillava is located in St Estephe between Cos d’Estournel and Lafon-Rochet. A wonderful terroir of deep clayey-gravel soil from the Quaternary period. Planted in 1927, Cabernet Sauvignon on this terroir gives spicy, ripe and structured grapes entering every year in the final blend of Lafite Grand Vin.

Bel Air, Passe-Temps, Berret:

Our most southern and arid terroir, located south of Duhart-Milon vineyards, next door to our cooperage. Most of the terroir is a gravel soil from the quaternary period, with some blocks mixed with more sandy soil. Grapes from those two terroirs are very expressive, generous, and sometimes more hard than other plateau, but always useful in blends. Our plot of Cabernet Franc is also planted in this part.

Anseillan: 

Located on the eastern side of the estate, the closest to the river side, on the other side of the road from Pauillac to St Estephe. Some terroir of clayey-gravel soil on top of Anseillan surrounding the village. On the lower part of Anseillan down the road and up-north closer to St Estephe border the terroir is alluvial-clay-limestone from the tertiary period. It is relatively evenly planted in Cab Sauv and Merlot, and with our parcel of Petit Verdot. It is a new terroir of exploration for Carruades looking very promising. An even more precise “laser-cut approach” towards parcel management enabling us to pick lovely grapes bringing us joy and confidence for the future of this terroir that we better master.

Technical Director - Eric Kohler

Making a wine for such an historical estate, do you feel the pressure to maintain the status quo?

Making wine and working in such an historical estate is a privilege, first of all. And because it is such a privilege, we have a moral duty of not maintaining status quo and always challenging ourselves. What can we do better? How is Bordeaux evolving? What is driving wine lovers’ appetites today?...

Great companies and Chateaux are led with an entrepreneurial spirit. We work for the long term, to prepare the estates for the next generation, the decisions we take when it comes to investment or vineyard management are really long term. This is strongly rooted in values of Lafite and the Rothschild family.

How do you balance this with your own desires as a winemaker to make an impression on the wine?

It’s a very good question! It was a little bit difficult at the beginning for a young agronomist/oenologist arriving at Lafite. At this age, you always think that you will be able to start the revolution and change everything and have a huge effect on the wine. But, rapidly, you understand that Lafite is not yours and belongs to the family of course, but also to the World, to the great clients, and to the History.

Thus, when that is understood, your action is only focused on increasing the quality step by step, but in respect to all those who are waiting for Lafite.

With the 2019 vintage what do you feel are the most important elements behind the vintage?

The vintage started beautifully with a dry and mild winter. Fine weather continued early spring with an early vegetative cycle. Cold came between March and May and we crossed our fingers/held our breath 6 times fearing that frost might hit us badly. Careful vigilance from the team was key, so was the use of candles.

The first flowers appeared in Pauillac around 28th May. This flower was unfortunately capricious due to important rains arriving during second part of flowering, leading to small amount of “coulure” and “millerandage”.

Early summer was the warmest recorded since 2003, fortunately relatively short, and the vineyards showed beautiful resistance. Rain miraculously arrived on 26th July with 45mm in Pauillac – ideal for “veraison” to start. August was then fine, with average temperatures and some rain.

Early September was dry, enabling us to start the harvest on 19th September in Pauillac, 13th September at L’Evangile and 8th October in Rieussec.

As always at Lafite we follow our philosophy and DNA of wine with freshness, tension and beautiful ageing capability. We have a viticulturist approach to winemaking, 80% of a great wine comes from the quality of the fruit and the investment we put in the vineyards.

What have been some positive surprises of the vintage?

This year we had lovely surprises from “outsider vineyards” producing pure and elegant wines which have been replacing some typical vineyards in the final blend – as always testing is key, such as the capacity to always question ourselves. This is particularly true for the Merlots planted on more gravely-clay terroirs showing beautiful tension this year.

For Carruades (the second wine of Chateau Lafite), the very important work done over the last year of precision and exploration of our Anseillan terroir is really paying off. The Merlots of Anseillan and our Cabernet Franc are giving a lovely density and elegance to the pure Lafite DNA.

Overall for Lafite, this is a vintage that we call “modern-classic”. In the pure Lafite style, very Cabernet led, very pure, very precise, with some ripeness. This is reflected in the final blends that is 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot for Chateau Lafite Grand Vin, and 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc for Carruades.

Our gut feel is that just as there will always be a discussion between 2009 and 2010, we will have the same between 2018 and 2019. 2018 being closer to 2009, and 2019 being closer to 2010.

What are the most important factors in regards to Chateau Lafite’s winemaking philosophy?

When it comes to winemaking, we have a very traditional and, we could say, “hands-off” approach to preserve the quality of the fruit and reflect the vintage conditions. As an example, we always use a high proportion of press wine as we don’t go for “maceration pre-fermentaire à froid” or even “maceration post-fermentaire à chaud”. We don’t do “delestage”, we have always been very gentle on vinification at Lafite.  We don’t push on the dregs/marc - we are always very soft and traditional. This explains why we then have super high quality press wine that we can include in the final blend, this year up to 15% of the blend comes from the press wine! Normally this is closer to 10-12%.

Have you made any changes at Lafite due to global warming?

We are already very well equipped at Lafite in the context of global warning. The extraordinary terroir we mentioned previously, our strong Carbernet Sauvignon planting, the quality of vegetative materials are strong assets.

Nevertheless, we try to anticipate these changes. We have an internal research and development team running some tests with different plantings, with grass development (enherbement) in vineyards, with canopy management.

We are not sure that the future will be the introduction of new grape varietals, given the Cabernet Sauvignon is already a very resistant grape. The topic of density of plantation is more important, and we are working on a slow decreasing of it.

The main change in Bordeaux is the succession of extraordinary vintages. In the past, once every 5 years we had a great vintage and every 10 years an exceptional vintage. Now nearly every year the vintage conditions are such that we can produce very good wines.

How we can sustain beautiful vintages year on year in the markets is one of the big questions for the future. But it is a great challenge to have – we prefer to have amazing wine every year, it will always be drunk at some point! It is our duty as owners and producers to create the moment for wine lovers to open our bottles. Something that Bordeaux Chateaux have not been particularly active on in the past.

How do you feel Bordeaux’s reputation has changed in the world of fine wine in the last 20 years?

20 years ago Bordeaux was by far the leading region in the world of fine wine, maybe followed by Napa and Piemont. Then Burgundy and Northern Rhone were under the spotlight. Today we have seen the rise of other regions like Tuscany… Cabernet Sauvignon was the acclaimed varietal also, now Pinot Noir is trendy - of course from Burgundy but also from Central Otago in New Zealand, and from Oregon State. The world is more open, wine lovers are maybe more curious, the loyalty to big names in the world of fine wine (as in other categories) is also weaker. This can explain why today younger generations may enter the world of fine wines through other regions, when in the past Bordeaux was the point of entry.

What is also striking is how Bordeaux is modernising itself with more professionalism in many Chateaux, more willingness to travel and meet wine lovers, more open to welcome people at the property, a better understanding of the world of fine wine.

With the quality of the wines produced, with more willingness to travel and understand consumers, with greater attention on crafting experiences and creating occasions for people to open bottles, there is no reason to doubt that Bordeaux will continue to shine and seduce the younger generations of wine lovers that today might not consider Bordeaux as a preferred choice.

Eric Kohler & Manuela Brando

What is Bordeaux greatest asset?

We don’t see many regions in the world like Bordeaux that have the capacity to produce extraordinary wines year on year with significant volume to create a very capillary distribution. The investments that are made both in the vineyards and in the cellar are absolutely impressive in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is one of the greatest and most dynamic cities in France today, very well reachable from Paris, London, Amsterdam, Geneva…, with many things to do for a week or weekend in the region. Many Chateaux have invested in great hospitality experiences to provide customers with a memorable experience.

Bordeaux has everything in its hands to really stand out and continue to seduce wine lovers from around the world, we just need to communicate it!

What is Bordeaux’s biggest challenge?

Its lack of capacity to communicate the assets discussed previously. There is no other region in France and in the world that is experiencing so much “bashing” over the last few years. Are all the criticisms unfair? Certainly not, but everything is exaggerated, and Bordeaux is not able to speak with one voice on some big topics, to have a consensus, to unite forces to make people realise how Bordeaux has changed, how modern and open to world things are now, on top of the extraordinary quality of the wines produced!

How have you been affected by Coronovirus?

We have been observing the evolution of this terrible pandemic for several weeks, and we have been taking immediate measures in line with the authorities. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of our people in our Chateaux, in our Bordeaux and Paris offices, in our Domaine of Aussière, but also in our properties in China, Chile and Argentina.

The second priority has been to maintain minimal staff in the properties for mandatory activities – we are right in the middle of harvest in South America, we were planning the bottling of Duhart-Milon 2018, we were finishing the blending of vintage 2019 in our Bordeaux Chateaux…

We hope strongly that this terrible situation will pass very soon for everyone.

With En Primeur tastings postponed how will this affect the release of Chateau Lafite 2019?

You know that we are very strong believers in the en-primeur system as it is a unique platform for Bordeaux wines enabling the Chateaux to have the best reach and international spread possible. However as with every system it needs to be fine-tuned, recreating a sense of magic to maintain desirability, and needs to provide a customer incentive to purchase en-primeurs. So yes, postponing the en-primeurs is not a decision taken easily, but given the circumstances it is a choice that had to be made.

It is almost impossible to have a clear view of when this terrible crisis will end and thus when we would be able to reorganize the en-primeurs. One thing is for sure, as soon as the conditions are in place for people to travel safely, which we all hope to be in June/July, we will be delighted to meet them for tastings (either in Bordeaux or around the world) to share the wines of the 2019 vintage, and share our passion and dedication to produce some of the best wines in the world!

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