Past Becomes Now: Lafite-Rothschild 1874-1982 


For those who enjoy my voluble prose, apologies, but I am keeping this account of last September’s retrospective of Lafite-Rothschild relatively brief. That has nothing to do with the grandeur of the subject in question, nor should you infer that it is a measure of my appreciation for this First Growth. It is simply because I composed a lengthy piece six years ago on numerous vintages back to 1868, the year when the Rothschild family picked up the front door keys to the château. Now, this vertical doesn’t travel so far back in time, though it only falls six vintages short.

The same group of wine lovers undertook parallel Latour and Lafite-Rothschild verticals on my previous visit to Hong Kong in 2018. On that occasion, Latour made a much greater impression, and I recall some attendees unconvinced by the reverence afforded towards Lafite-Rothschild. I empathized with their opinion, even if it was not one I shared. To quote the indefatigable David Peppercorn in his Bordeaux tome, apropos Lafite, he writes: “Its successful and great years were not so frequent until after 1975 as were those of Latour, and its lesser years tended to be exquisitely pretty but decidedly small wines.” Added to this, some vintages, even great ones like the 1953, were bottled over a period of months, hence greater bottle variation vis-à-vis its peers. Given this backdrop, the group’s expectations leading into this dinner were modest. A friend leaned over just before the first was poured and confessed that Lafite-Rothschild was not his bag. He was here out of curiosity more than anything. After the tasting concluded, I asked whether his opinion had been altered.

He smiled and said: “Now I get it.”

You could argue that forming an opinion on a château based on century-old bottles is absurd, like buying a house based on a Victorian survey report. How can these wines be germane to the present day? I would argue that Lafite-Rothschild has remained stylistically consistent throughout its history, a paragon of finesse and understatement whatever the season’s vagaries. It never shouts or stomps its feet, demanding attention. It abhors ostentation. Lafite-Rothschild is never going to blitz your olfactory senses. Instead, it politely asks you to let it open, like a daisy on the first warm spring morning, which might explain why some more impatient Bordeaux lovers overlook its delights as being too hasty to cast judgment. Perhaps it’s out of sync in a world enamored by glitz, a world where wines are predesigned to seduce as soon as their umbilical is cut. Its deceptive lack of structure vis-à-vis Latour and lack of pizzazz vis-à-vis Mouton cause some to doubt its longevity. However, in my experience, concentration and power are not prerequisites for wine to transcend time. And Lafite does it with unequaled panache.

Broaching bottles chronologically, everybody eagerly looked forward to the 1870 Lafite-Rothschild. A couple of attendees reminded me that I once bestowed a perfect score for this ancient wine (not that I need reminding – such bottles are indelibly imprinted in one’s vinous memory). Despite sound provenance, this bottle belonged to the morgue and rapidly oxidized in the glass. You could almost hear the groans from the audience, but you have to take these things on the chin, say a silent prayer and move on to the next wine.

This happened to be the 1874 Lafite-Rothschild. The doyen of wine writers, André Simon, rated this wine second only to Haut-Brion that vintage. Estate manager at the time, Émile Goudal, described it as a “large volume, high quality” vintage, a total of 224 tonneaux produced, a large slice bought by English merchants. As readers of The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide might have noticed, this is a vintage that I have never drunk before. It could only happen in Hong Kong, but 24 hours earlier, this same wine, from a completely different source, had been served blind as a last-minute addition. Alas, it was oxidized and volatile, intriguing despite its blatant faults. With this bottle fresh in my mind, I forewarned attendees not to raise expectations too high the following night. Blow me down; this second bottle, from a Bristol merchant’s sale in 2016, was ethereal. Aromatics floated from the glass and tickled you under the chin. It mesmerized its audience, the palate exuding Burgundian transparency.

As the saying goes: Only great bottles, never great wines.

That bottle was an augury for three inter-war vintages. None of these vintages are particularly renowned or rarely seen; many were consumed long before the more revered 1928 and 1929s. Peppercorn writes that this period was not a fecund one for Lafite-Rothschild. The 1919 vintage, hampered by an inclement July, produced light and acidic wine. Nevertheless, prices leaped due to the end of the Great War and increased demand. The 1922 growing season was overcast resulting in a late harvest, traduced by one Bordeaux merchant as “washed out wines with neither vice nor virtue.” No mincing words there. Meanwhile, 1926 witnessed widespread coulure and an extremely tardy picking that began on October 4. Given this context, you would expect the bottles to be past their mortal coils. On the contrary, to my own surprise, the 1919, 1922 and 1926 Lafite-Rothschild (at least the second bottle) were stylish, refined and articulated their respective vintages with utmost precision. They altered opinions in the room on that night in Hong Kong as if a veil of mystery was finally lifted. You could not argue against these wines’ longevity and ineffable complexity. Some might justifiably argue that we were broaching them long past their peaks, yet nobody could deny they give sensory pleasure, not just survivors but wines revealing in their dotage.

Alas, we hit choppy waters once again. The 1945 was oxidized, and the 1953 was muted and dull—nothing like what should have been one of the greatest wines of the 20th century. Indeed, my hit rate with the 1953 Lafite-Rothschild is extremely low—four duff bottles out of five.  

Better in this flight was the 1952 Lafite-Rothschild, a “useful” vintage with a propensity to exceed expectations since the feted 1953s immediately eclipsed them. The 1952 vintage was hampered by a cold September that estate manager Jean Mermillod suggested would have been too concentrated had it not rained and diluted the juice. It epitomizes the spectral beauty of Lafite-Rothschild: floral on the nose and less brutish and austere than some of its Médoc peers. Bottles with sound provenance are worth hunting down. The bottle of 1961 Lafite-Rothschild was poured at a different event the following week, an epic, mature claret dinner at the Hong Kong Golf Club, which will be written up in due course. This year saw the estate host the Fête de la Fleur, though it was, in fact, a rather challenging year that witnessed a late spring frost and diminished yields. This resulted in a very concentrated wine that was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I am not alone in suggesting that Lafite-Rothschild has never been the strongest First Growth in this auspicious year. It certainly lags behind Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion, and indeed, the imperious 1959 Lafite-Rothschild. However, this bottle acquitted itself supremely well and performed even better than a bottle served at the château. It doesn’t possess the concentration and depth of the finest 1961s, yet this was more cohesive and showed more grip than previous examples, hence my higher score.

We finished with a fine-boned 1966 Lafite-Rothschild, even if it was not the best bottle that I have ever drunk. The dark horse and a turn-up for the books was the 1970 Lafite-Rothschild. The season witnessed a torridly hot July but a cool September, though fortunately, clement conditions returned on the eve of picking that commenced October 2. This was a reliable vintage two decades ago when I drank 1970s Claret regularly, though I found that even some of the most reputed wines are beginning to dry out. This was easily the best bottle that I have encountered, endowed with more expressive aromatics and a beguilingly sweet core of fruit, tender but reassuringly long.

The most recent bottle seemed to be cut from a completely different cloth from those that preceded it. While the ones mentioned thus far hail from a bygone age, the 1982 Lafite-Rothschild comes from what could be described as the beginning of the estate’s modern era. This came from the sale of Tour d’Argent’s legendary cellar in Paris, ergo, perfect provenance. Magnificent from start to finish, though I would be inclined to give it longer in the cellar if you can resist temptation.

Final Thoughts

This had been yet another marvelous evening of exceptional wines. Given their antiquity, there was always a risk that dinner could have fallen flat on its face, and we were not spared misfiring bottles such as 1870, 1945 and 1953. Fortunately, these were compensated by other vintages from less renowned growing seasons where provenance played a key role. They epitomize Lafite-Rothschild and entranced those that hitherto had less appreciation for the First Growth. That trio from 1919 to 1926 formed the heart of the tasting, each one confounding expectations, while the 1874 was a time-defying Claret that, at 149 years old, still has a glint in its eye. Even though the vertical had hopped, skipped and jumped through decades, it was easy to find a common stylistic thread, even to their most recent vintages. It is pretty profound to consider drawing a line straight through all these wines to the present day, wines that fold time so that the past becomes now.

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