The call of the vine: Ch. Lafite Rothschild

As we continue to take you behind the scenes at Bordeaux’s top addresses, our latest feature shines a light on Ch. Lafite Rothschild. We caught up with one of its vineyard team, a vigneron who has dedicated over 30 years of his life to the First Growth’s vines
The call of the vine: Ch. Lafite Rothschild

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The air is cool and crisp, with the radiant blue skies that only late winter can provide. On the crest of the hill in front of me, a troupe is studiously pruning Ch. Lafite Rothschild’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines, their roots sinking deep into the precious gravel soils that define the First Growth’s wines. Looking over a junior member of the team’s shoulder is Luís Pinto, making sure that no mistakes are being made as they shape the vines for the future, laying the groundwork for not just 2024, but the vintages beyond that.

Sporting navy-blue Domaines Barons de Rothschild overalls (vintage, sadly out of production and unavailable for purchase – I asked), Pinto has been working at the estate for over 30 years, and now leads one of the vineyard teams. As you might guess given his name, his family is Portuguese, although he was born and raised in Bordeaux. In fact, his mother even worked the harvest at Lafite, and Pinto has pictures of himself as a child at the on-site nursery the château then had for workers’ offspring – perhaps sewing the first seeds of his future profession.

As Louis Caillard, Vineyard Manager at Ch. Lafite Rothschild and Ch. Duhart-Milon, explains, Pinto isn’t an anomaly. Caillard heads up the 80-strong team which works across both properties (and are managed identically when it comes to the vines). The vast majority of this team are extremely local, coming from within a 20-kilometre radius of the château, and once they join the team, few ever leave.

Top of page: Luís Pinto amongst the vines. Above: one of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Lafite's oldest parcel, averaging 60 years in age

Much has changed over Pinto’s many years working these vines – offering an on-the-ground view of viticultural trends. He remembers a time when they would rip out hedges and trees to make room for vines, focused more on yield, now coming full-circle to reinstate the biodiversity that existed before. Today there’s more appreciation of the craft and calling of a vigneron, or vine-grower – a return to traditional vineyard management.

Looking at pruning, for example, Pinto explains how there are no set rules: “Each person prunes a vine as they wish,” he tells me. They respond to each vine, its needs, looking at the sap flow and thinking about its long-term future, rather than just the next season. It’s very Simonit&Sirch in approach – although Pinto is bemused by such a suggestion; for him, it’s how he learnt to understand vines. “All it is, effectively, is that we think,” says Caillard. “It’s always existed; it’s just that we had forgotten it a little.”

The challenge is teaching this sort of instinctive approach to managing a vineyard. “I don’t follow a recipe anymore,” says Pinto. It’s not just knowledge he is trying to pass on to his team, but “a way of thinking”, he says, one that inevitably comes from experience, from making mistakes and learning from them. There’s a drastic difference between studying the theory from a book, and standing in front of a vine, secateurs in hand. Of course, the idea of making mistakes when the wine commands the reputation (and price) that Lafite does might seem daunting – but it’s this that sets top addresses apart. Lafite’s scrupulous approach to quality, declassifying any fruit that doesn’t meet its very high standards, is a luxury that not all producers can afford.

A tractor basks in the February sunshine at Lafite

For Pinto, it’s this dedication to quality and long-term view that has kept him at Lafite all these years. There are plenty of properties that will rip vines out once they reach a certain age, all in the name for better crop loads, but at Lafite, the philosophy is to see “how far we can take the vine”, nurturing parcels into old age.

His work might be cyclic, following the vine’s yearly progression, but there are changes every year – an effort to constantly evolve and improve. This, perhaps, is what – for me – is most interesting about Lafite. It’s not just the finesse and elegance of its pinpoint Grand Vin that sets this estate apart, but the way in which it has quietly been changing the way Bordeaux works, pushing forward in its pursuit of excellence.

For over a decade, they’ve had Manuela Brando leading their Research & Development; talking to her is fascinating, with trials on everything from biodynamics, rootstocks and treatments to umbrella-like covers as an alternative way to combat mildew. If successful, these trials are transferred to the wider vineyard – with training that means the team never stops learning. Just the other day, Pinto tells me, they had a session on agroforestry – something that he’s clearly fascinated by.

Looking out across the vines at Lafite

Pinto seems relaxed, joking lightly with us, but is also quietly serious when it comes to his work, knowing that every decision they make in the vineyard is critical to the quality of the wine that eventually emerges from the cellar. “Every decision has an impact,” echoes Caillard – “and, in fact, nothing is simple.”

Difficult it might be, but Pinto is pleased with the progression he has seen over the years. “You can feel the terroir a bit more again,” he says. The shift to organic, re-introduction of hedgerows and trees to the vineyard, which in turn has brought an array of fauna – butterflies and ladybirds, for example, has transformed the property. As an apiarist, he’s acutely aware of the wildflowers that now blossom and abundant bees they attract. At the end of the day, however, there’s no wizardry, he suggests, to what they do – it’s simple: “We respect the vines a bit more.”

With the gloss of an estate like Lafite, a First Growth whose reputation is so immense, it’s easy to forget the work that happens behind the scenes. But, as Caillard knows all too well, “You cannot achieve anything technical without the people; people are key to everything we do.” People like Pinto, so clearly at one with their calling, the place and vines, are what make truly great wine – separating the excellent and exceptional. As our conversation draws to a close, Pinto returns back to his team, his stocky frame receding down the row of vines and weathered face turned once more to the bright sunshine, as deeply rooted in this terroir as the Cabernet Sauvignon that surrounds him.

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Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.