Château Lafite Rothschild is rightfully revered. The Pauillac First Growth crafts some of the most refined wines in Bordeaux. At a recent dinner hosted by our sister company FINE+RARE, we had the chance to explore the fingerprint of this special estate and its extraordinary ability to age
Few wine estates have the history or pedigree of Château Lafite Rothschild. Grapes have been grown on the estate’s hallowed ground in Pauillac since 1707 and the property has been in the same family (the Rothschilds) for over 150 years. It is the First Growth that became the most desired and collectable, loved for its elegance. Lafite, more than any other estate, had a huge influence in drawing Asian customers to Bordeaux – who, with their immense buying power, have been instrumental in transforming the region over the last 25 years.
With such a reputation, the expectations of tasting benchmark Lafite vintages back to 1960 at the Rothschilds’ 19th-century Buckinghamshire estate, Waddesdon Manor, couldn’t be higher. The vintages on show were hand-selected by Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s International Director Jean-Sébastien Philippe who has an encyclopedic knowledge of every vintage back to the 1920s. Philippe wanted to show how Lafite has an extraordinary capacity to age and an incredible ability to retain freshness, even 50 years or more into its maturity.
The main event would pitch the more modern vintages of 2010 and 2005 against the 1990, 1982 and the elusive 1960 – all epic vintages for Lafite. Every wine was sourced directly from Lafite’s cellars and all were served from either magnum or double magnum. Philippe believes magnums are without question the ideal size for maturing wine and, by pouring from larger formats, it meant all the guests got to experience each vintage from the same bottle and therefore avoided any potential bottle variation across the table. Alongside these legendary vintages of Lafite, Philippe also wanted to showcase mature vintages of the neighboring Château Duhart-Milon, also owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild.
With the same winemaking team at both Lafite and Duhart-Milon, it was fascinating to taste both the 1990 and 2005 Duhart-Milon against the same vintage from Lafite. The vines at Duhart abut Lafite’s own vineyards and are known for their quality, if not quite the same level as Lafite. It is a little unfair on Duhart-Milon, but tasting them side by side beautifully highlighted the extraordinary depth and sustain you find at Lafite, that the terroir of Duhart just cannot match.
Duhart-Milon has been rewarded with plenty of investment from the Barons de Rothschild group in recent years, both in the vineyards and with a newly built winery. The 2022 is arguably their best vintage to date and the 2020 was also outstanding and surpassed any vintage prior. The estate since 2018 really has been on an impressive trajectory. For Philippe, Duhart is the epitome of Pauillac terroir – Cabernet-driven, with great linear structure and a distinct graphite minerality. While the 2005 and 1990 were not from the property’s heyday, they have matured beautifully. There was a touch of brettanomyces (a yeast that gives savory, barnyard or even fabric plaster notes) on the 1990 which the guests were all in agreement was no bad thing, joking that everyone loves a touch of brett in mature Bordeaux. But the wines were fresh, vibrant, classic in style and impressively structured. Against the Lafite, they were no competition. Each vintage of Lafite fanned out so much more on the mid-palate, the dense, layered tannins are so plush and refined, while the freshness on the finish leaves the palate salivating.
There was a debate at the table whether to start with older vintages and finish with younger ones or the other way round. It became clear with all the wines poured, why it’s so important to taste younger vintages first. In isolation, the 2010 was outstanding. The tannins were still firmly clenched but the depth and the Lafite elegance was all there. It was brooding but still beautiful. Philippe is convinced it is one of the greatest Lafites ever to be made and with maturity will compete with the 1959, 1953 and 1982.
Tasting the 2005 alongside the 2010 shows how much more the latter wine has to give, with the 2005 that little bit less tightly clenched on the palate. The 2005s are famously tight and only now starting to unfurl, but while 2005 Lafite has fantastic depth and extraordinary length you just know it still has so much more to give. This wine has decades ahead of it, but several commented how much the 2005 has opened up in the last year. Philippe believes the 2005 still has at least another five years before this is going to even start to show its full potential. It is a wine whose peacock-tail finish started to get the adrenaline pumping, in perfect preparation for what was arguably the wine of the night – the 1990.
Just dipping your nose in the 1990, you realize this is Lafite in top gear. Beautifully exuberant, a perfect blend of primary fruit, tertiary notes, cedar wood and earthy, mineral tones – you could smell it all night. The density found in the 2010 and 2005 was present too, but the tannins have relaxed and the wine fully unfurls on the palate bringing extraordinary depth. And it is here where the freshness hits you. This 33-year-old wine has such vibrancy, an energy that just lifts the wine and gives it a wonderful ethereal quality – not a description I would normally equate with Pauillac. The finesse is breathtaking. Having tasted the 1990 almost 15 years ago, it was fascinating to return to it and see it has only improved in that time. At 33 years old, this wine is at its peak.
The 1982, the most eagerly awaited vintage of the line-up, could perhaps not live up to expectation despite its arresting nature. It is a terrific wine and, again, the freshness in what was a hot vintage is hard to believe. Philippe noted that the ’82 – despite its mythic status – is not a perfect wine, but is a testament to Lafite’s ability to excel in hot vintages. Philippe believes this is because the terroir at Lafite means the vines naturally close down in hot vintages, reducing sugar production in the grapes. It also gives a contrasting menthol freshness to the wine, which means it remains moderate in alcohol and yet does not taste phenolic or underripe. What is perhaps more extraordinary is that the ’82 was in fact a bumper vintage, with Lafite cropping at 80hl/ha. That is double the production at Lafite today (in a good year), which goes some way in realizing the qualitative measures that have been taken at the property over this time. Despite the high production levels, the ’82 is stunning. This bottle didn’t quite have the vitality of the 1990, so it’s worth cracking on with any bottles you are lucky enough to have in your cellar.
The final vintage was the elusive 1960. With a table of avid Lafite fans, no one present had tasted or knew much about the 1960. For Philippe it is arguably better than the legendary 1961. It features in a rare consecutive trio of exceptional vintages in the estate’s history. Philippe explained the phenomenon has only happened three times in the history of the estate: with 1959, 1960 and 1961; 1988, 1989 and 1990; and 2018, 2019 and 2020. In the oldest trio, Philippe actually thinks the ‘59 is perhaps the greatest vintage ever at Lafite, followed by the 1960 and then the 1961.
My tasting notes for the 1960 started with “surprising freshness”, but perhaps I should have known better by this stage that Lafite’s ageability is not really in question. The wine was in exceptional condition and poured from magnum. It had fantastic structure, classic mature Cabernet linearity but with a plushness to the mid-palate that is typically Lafite, but still a surprise at such maturity. The wine was full of tertiary notes, dried fruits, savory spice and cedar wood. It was so vibrant, so energetic, it seems that the 1960 is likely to see out its centenary in style. What a wine!
To taste so many mature vintages of Lafite Rothschild is a rare and special treat – offering unforgettable insight into a Bordeaux legend. Now, where can I find that 1959…?