Château Lafite-Rothschild contains the most ancient collection of bottled dry, unfortified red wine in existence. It goes back to seven bottles of the 1797 vintage and includes others from every good crop since then.
The collection is living testimony to Lafite's position as the No. 1 red wine of Bordeaux and thus, arguably, the best red wine in the world. Whatever the merits of the other first growths – Château Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion in the Graves and, since 1973, arch-rival Mouton-Rothschild – Lafite was consecrated first among equals by heading the list of premiers crus in the 1855 classification.
That its position was fixed long before that classification is shown by a framed placard in the vestibule of the château. It announces the sale on Fructidor 25, Year 5 of the French Republic (1797) of le domaine de Lafite, premier cru du Médoc, et produisant le premier vin de Bordeaux. The estate had been confiscated by the state when its owner, president of the parliament of Guyenne, was guillotined in 1794.
In 1868, Lafite was bought by Baron James de Rothschild for his three sons and is still owned by their descendants, now entering the fourth generation. Baron Elie de Rothschild, 61, has begun turning the reins of active management over to his 38-year-old nephew, Eric.
Last weekend, a tasting for a party of 10 went back to the first full year of Rothschild ownership in honor of the new generation. Much has been made in recent years of former second-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild, as Baron Philippe de Rothschild finally made his way into the ranks of the premiers crus, where few will deny it belonged. The rivalry between the two Rothschild cousins is very real.
The wines, in any case, are very different. Mouton is a full, powerful wine whose high percentage of Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes give it a characteristic smell of cedar and even mint in older wines. Lafite grows 70 per cent of Cabernet-Sauvignon vines, 15 per cent Cabernet-Franc and 15 per cent Merlot, of which Mouton has only about 5 per cent.
The Merlot, a delicate grape whose proportion of the crop ranges from 10 to 25 per cent according to weather conditions, gives Lafite much of its renowned suave elegance.
Although Lafite is the largest of the classified growths with 90 hectares of vines, it produces an average of only 18 hectoliters to the hectare (a little more than half the authorized yield), which works out to 20 centiliters, or one glass, of wine per vine.
Such concentrated production has a lot to do with Lafite's reputation of No. 1.
Last weekend's tasting, which included Baron Elie and his wife, Lilliane, at the château spread over two meals and one morning's tasting of "young" wines going back to 1953. We were offered an extraordinary opportunity to try old wines against one another.
The first dinner began with a good fourth growth, 1967 Duhart-Milon-Rothschild. From that we went on to a very well-preserved 1934 Lafite. Deep, slightly brownish-red, it had a rich fruity bouquet. Still tannic but very elegant, it was a complete, great wine.
The third wine took us 109 years back to an 1869 Lafite. It was unbelievably young for so old a wine. In a blind tasting I would have guessed it to be from the '20s or '30s, old to be sure, but less than half its actual age. It was turning brown but was still very red.
At the first sniff it had an old-wine smell of dry leaves but after a few minutes in the glass it opened into a rich fruity bouquet.
This was followed by another 1869, a premier cru of Sauternes, La Tour Blanche. It was a dark coffee color with a strong bouquet of vanilla, chocolate and coffee. It was almost like a liqueur, still sweet with a taste of bitter orange. A remarkable wine.
After a century-old Grande Fine Champagne Cognac, we toddled off to bed. The next morning, after a tour of the chais (wine buildings) and cellars of old wines, we ran through a comparative tasting of younger vintages from Château La Cardonne, a Haut-Médoc, Château Duhart-Milon and Château Lafite, all Rothschild properties.
The Lafites were all good with one unfortunate exception: The 1974 was hardly worth the name. The 1975 Lafite, on the other hand, was as promising as a wine could be A deep purplish-red, it had a complex, balanced aroma of great distinction. Although very tannic and hard to taste, it will develop slowly into a truly great wine. The '76, '71 and '53 Lafites were all very good wines, if not quite up to the promise of the '75.
At lunch we went back to a couple of great old wines: 1949 and 1929 Lafite. My own favorite was the first, deep brownish-red with a complex bouquet mingling vanilla, red fruit jam and tobacco. It was smooth and full in the mouth with excellent balance and structure.
The 1929 was nearly as good, too good in some ways. The color was a very dark brown-red. It had a rich bouquet of jam. The taste was extraordinarily deep, full and smooth. Perfectly preserved, it was almost too voluptuous.
The meal and tastings ended on another premier cru of Sauternes, 1904 Rayne-Vigneau. It was amber in color with at first a honeyed bouquet that soon changed to bitter orange. The bitter orange reappeared in the taste and lingered on long after we had left the table.