WINE: Sipping a 1799 Lafite

International Herald Tribune

July 24, 1979

What are the oldest bottles of natural, unfortified wine in existence? Perhaps even more important, what are they worth, both on the market and in the mouth? It is possible today to give reasonably precise answers to these questions thanks to two extraordinary tastings, one in the United States, the other in France.

Marvin Overton, a Dallas neuropsychiatrist, decided to open his collection of Château Lafites recently in the company of friends and wine experts. He had at least one bottle from each decade from 1803 to the present. When Barons Elie and Eric de Rothschild, the former and current general manager of Lafite, respectively, heard of this tasting, they offered a bottle of 1799, and Elie de Rothschild flew to Dallas to take part in the tasting.

This month, another bottle of 1799 was offered in a tasting at the Rothschild bank in Paris to a small number of wine and food writers: Robert Courtine of Le Monde, Christian Millau of the Gault-Millau guide team, Michel Piot of Le Figaro and this reporter.

The oldest bottles of wine in the world, it turns out, are all in the cellars of the Château Lafite-Rothschild: seven bottles of 1797, three of 1798 and 11 of 1799. The list goes on with 1801, 1802, 1803 and 1805; nearly every year from the end of the 18th century is available, often in remarkable quantities.

What are they worth? A lot, to wealthy collectors. Two months ago, an 1806 Lafite was sold for $28,000 at auction in Chicago. At the rate, if Elie and Eric de Rothschild were to put one of their 18th-century bottles up for sale, it might reach $50,000. But the Rothschilds don't sell their rarest bottles; they give them away.

For the Paris tasting, a long-necked (the "traditional" Bordeaux bottle shape was introduced only about 1850), wax-sealed bottle of 1799 was opened at Château Lafite-Rothschild and decanted into a carafe, leaving the small amount of sediment behind. The bottle was thoroughly rinsed and drained. The wine was poured back in, the bottle recorked and flown to Paris, to be opened and poured the same day.

No one knew just what to expect, especially as the notes of the time called the 1799 harvest small in quantity and bad in quality. Would it be rose-colored water? No, the color was sound – very brown but still giving off highlights of red. It was quite clear.

The first smell was very dry, which led to a fear that it might be dying. But again, no, there were still hints of fruitiness, cedar and mint. In the mouth these also came through, together with a certain touch of elegance and a very light structure that somehow still held the wine together. It was, in fact, still recognizably Lafite.