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Domaines Barons de Rothschild: a year of innovation

Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)’s Jean-Sébastien Philippe speaks to Gavin Smith about the benefits of collaboration amongst the Bordeaux Châteaux of Lafite, L’Evangile, Rieussec and Duhart-Milon

For many, the past 12 months meant working in isolation and big plans were shelved. At Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), it was an extremely proactive year of change.

These changes have resulted in the strongest line up of wines from the Lafite stable we can remember. Ch. Duhart-Milon has seen a massive step up in quality with their 2020, and Lafite has reached new levels of ethereal finesse – whilst their Pomerol property, L’Evangile, has found fantastic freshness and clarity without losing any of its Pomerol opulence. They are a unique line-up of wines, each brimming with personality.

As the demands for precision viticulture becomes more established in today’s top-flight Bordeaux, the leading First Growth estates know they must be at the forefront of these changes if they are to maintain their preeminent stature. Château Lafite Rothschild and its fellow Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) estates of L’Evangile, Duhart-Milon and Rieussec are no different.

In this dynamic period for Bordeaux such changes and improvements have taken many forms. Perhaps the most visibly apparent development at DBR Lafite is the new winemaking facility for Ch. Duhart-Milon right in the centre of Pauillac’s town centre. It fortunately came into operation just in time for the 2020 vintage.

DBR Lafite’s International Director Jean-Sébastien Philippe believes the exceptional state-of-the-art facility has brought “a new level of precision to the wine.” The introduction of temperature-controlled, smaller vats allows for plot-by-plot fermentation, picking the grapes only at optimum ripeness, rather than lumped all together in one vat. On tasting, it has clearly made a huge impact on the wine, with better ripeness to the tannins. It has really captured the finesse so typical of its bigger sibling Lafite. The clarity of fruit is fantastic and is a big step up for the estate.

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Vineyards at Ch. Lafite Rothschild

Perhaps less visible but no less significant is the new team dynamic now operating at the properties, where a heightened level of collaboration has been instilled to better circumnavigate the decisions made in the vineyard. Philippe is quick to point out that 2020 was what the French call “un millésime de vignerons”, in that the success or failure of the 2020 vintage lay firmly at the feet of those working in the vineyard. It was a growing season where many difficult decisions had to be made.

The 2020 vintage is in fact Lafite’s first full vintage worked organically (and L’Evangile’s third) – no mean feat considering the outburst of mildew that threatened the vineyards in the wet spring. Never has collaboration and specialist know-how been more essential.

“We needed to question ourselves a lot,” admits Philippe, “and no one is right alone”. “It was a vintage where the vigneron was forced to question themselves every day. It was a vintage of contrast and team spirit. We had to think collectively across the team,” he adds.  

It is the first year that the two flagship properties of L’Evangile and Lafite have had two separate dedicated Technical Directors with Eric Kohler remaining in charge of Lafite and Duhart-Milon, whilst Olivier Trégoat was able to focus on L’Evangile and Rieussec. Beyond the permanent staff at each Château, the team was able to make use of a shared research and development team headed up by Manuela Brando. It was Brando’s crucial role to co-ordinate data, empirical research, and lead improvements while working collaboratively with the different teams in the vineyard. Something she has been doing with the Lafite team since 2015.

This additional level of research has enabled the teams to make some bold decisions, resulting in some truly unique wines in 2020. Although Lafite is consistently lower in alcohol than most other Pauillac properties, for the wine to come in at just 12.8% abv in what was a dry, hot vintage is staggering. Beyond that, the wine is no less detailed or impactful for it, bringing a level of the ethereal into the Pauillac structure. It is an extraordinary wine – so light on its feet, yet deceptively structured with fantastic depth. There are few estates with the confidence to produce a Pauillac of such finesse, but it remains Lafite’s signature.

At L’Evangile, their courage was displayed at the harvest. Philippe is proud to admit they were the first Château out picking in the vineyards of Pomerol – determined to capture the freshness of the vintage. They had picked 80% of the entire crop prior to the heatwave that hit the Right Bank on the 12-14th September.

“With the natural richness and maturity of the grapes, we are always looking for freshness and balance”, says Philippe. “Always trying to make wines that seem younger the older the wines get.”

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Ch. L'Evangile

At L’Evangile, they also took another brave step and reduced the cuvaison period from 28 days maceration on skins down to 21-23 days. This was another way to increase freshness in the wine. They also reduced the new oak down to 50% (previously it made up 80%). But the key for Philippe was “to be very precise at assemblage”. “It is important to have as many lots of wines as possible to taste when blending,” he says. “2020 is a vintage which required tough decisions – there was no room for compromise.”

L’Evangile is undoubtedly very special this year. Perhaps even better than 2019, which was already very good. The wine has great generosity, so typical of Pomerol, but is more elegant in 2020. What is so impressive about the wine is its sustain on the palate. It has incredible length, and the clarity of fruit just stays with you right to the finish.

Changes are far from over at Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), as plenty of further experimentation continues behind the scenes. But what is abundantly clear with the 2020 wines is their investment and commitment to collaborative viticulture is setting a precedent amongst the elite of Bordeaux – and the wines have never been more precise.

Explore Bordeaux 2020 

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