I was privileged to attend the Domaines Barons de Rothschild vertical tasting held in London recently. Organised by The Institute of Masters of Wine and hosted by my good friend Charles Chevallier, Wine Director of Château Lafite-Rothschild, on the agenda were 6 vintages of Lafite-Rothschild, along with additional vintages of Carruades de Lafite and Château Duhart-Milon for good measure.
Moderated by Master of Wine Mark Bingley and with an enlightening introduction by fellow Master of Wine John Salvi (who has served as AWC’s consultant in Bordeaux for the past 20 years), the tasting provided some superb insight into the history, viticulture and winemaking practices of Château Lafite-Rothschild and various Bordeaux estates under the management of Domaines Barons de Rothschild. It is difficult to express just how exquisite these wines always prove themselves to be – concentration, structure, fruit and tannin, all in perfect harmony - and this occasion was certainly no different.
Above: Our moderators. (l-r) John Salvi, MW, Charles Chevallier, Mark Bingley, MW
Key discussion points covered by Mark and Charles during the introduction and opening remarks:
- During the harvest, the pickers do no selection whatsoever. They pick absolutely everything and the fruit is then triaged by hand in the chai just before it is crushed. Optical sorters have been experimented with in the past but they have not been implemented thus far as they remain somewhat cost-prohibitive. If necessary, green harvesting is conducted in July, however it is not done to reduce the crop size (this is achieved through careful pruning during the winter months) or for the purposes of increasing concentration, but is instead relied upon to increase intra-row aeration and to adjust sun exposure. Today, all of the fruit for Lafite-Rothschild, Carruades de Lafite and Duhart-Milon can be processed in as few as 8 days, a remarkable feat. Up until the early 1990s, harvest was a 3-week long, non-stop operation.
- All of the red wines are fined in the traditional manner, by hand, with fresh egg whites. Filtration prior to bottling is utilised, but only to, as Charles noted with a wink, “Remove the mosquitoes.”
- Following success of certain estates and the fact that the trend is growing globally, Lafite-Rothschild has already experimented with both organic and biodynamic practices. Charles stated however, that, at the end of the day, the goal is, “Not just to have a ‘bio label’. We want to help the vineyards be protected, but we want to do it with minimal intervention and with the minimum quantity of chemicals necessary.”
- Between the Grand Vin, Carruades de Lafite and Duhart-Milon, there is almost no technical difference in production techniques, with the exception of the oak treatment and the ageing processes. Lafite-Rothschild receives 100% new oak in each vintage, whereas Carruades de Lafite is held in 10% new oak and 90% second year/used barrels which are recycled from the Grand Vin. Duhart-Milon receives 50% new wood and 50% second or third year barrels from both Lafite and Carruades. Starting from the 2011 vintage, some pyramidal, concrete vats will be used for certain Merlot parcels. These vats are fairly small in size and their use is purely experimental at this point.
- Domaines Barons de Rothschild owns and operates their own cooperage with 5, full time coopers who build, toast and maintain all of the barrels that the various estates use. Interestingly, when the discussion turned to the barrels, Charles commented that they have been conducting extensive research on the toast levels for each property and have come to some clear-cut conclusions. Rieussec’s barrels, for example, are toasted at low temperatures for a long period of time, whilst L’Evangile’s barrels are toasted at the exact opposite end of the spectrum – briefly, but with very high heat.
- As a rule, Carruades de Lafite is ready to drink several years earlier than Lafite-Rothschild. On average, 30% of the vineyard production from the Carruades plateau makes it into the Grand Vin and 50% is deemed of a high enough quality for production as Carruades de Lafite on its own. The remainder of the production is sold off in bulk to various (unnamed) negociants. In the many decades since its purchase, in 1845, the terroir of the Carruades vineyard has been found to be less well suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon. So, there is now always a greater percentage of Merlot in the Carruades de Lafite blend, versus the Grand Vin of Lafite-Rothschild.
- Duhart-Milon is expected to mature even earlier than Carruades. However, due to the terroir, it must be produced in a style that can seem almost stern in the first few years of its life. Charles likened the tannic seriousness of Duhart-Milon to “a young officer candidate, fresh out of the military academy, who doesn't yet know how to smile.” He also noted that, despite this youthful austerity, there are very few vintages of Duhart-Milon which will keep for more than 20 years. The fermentation temperatures for Duhart-Milon are kept purposefully lower and the number of pump-overs is reduced to prevent over-extraction and allow the wine to open up. Shockingly, prior to 2001, Duhart-Milon was a vineyard that the picking crews and Domaines Rothschild staff picked on an ad hoc, “when they had time” basis, nearly as an afterthought to Carruades and Lafite-Rothschild! Now it is a much more focused effort and has a specific team dedicated to its production.
- Château Rieussec, which was purchased by Domaines Barons de Rothschild in 1985, operates under a completely different philosophy than the other estates, embracing and cohabitating with botrytis. Charles chuckled at the thought of how difficult it was for him to adapt to this alternate way of thinking when he first showed up to manage the property. Ultimately, quality control in the vineyard and the success of the wine each year is simply down to monitoring the evolution of the botrytis through the vineyards and reacting accordingly and at the appropriate times. A very specific and unique product, fermentation is done in small casks and ageing is conducted in 50-60% new oak barrels for 24 months. Charles commented that, although the estate has experimented with cryo-extraction (freezing the grapes prior to crushing), they do not believe it allows the wine to express itself in the best fashion, so cryo-extraction is never utilised with the Grand Vin.
Above: Charles discourses on the vintages of the past decade.
- Of the various, recent Lafite-Rothschild vintages, Charles noted that, “2005 is probably a ‘100 year’ wine. It is very closed down at the moment but I’m sure it will last almost indefinitely. 2004 is much more open and it is ready to drink already. It is a classic vintage. 2009 has phenomenal potential, but there is the possibility that it may head in the same direction as the 2003 in terms of its evolutionary timeline. The 1990 is very similar to what I expect the development of 2009 to resemble, actually. The exoticism that the 2009 displayed at En Primeur is now changing back to something a bit more classic. 2010 is still difficult to grasp at the moment and I cannot predict where it will head in its evolution. It is certainly a great vintage, with classic fruit flavours. The acid levels, as measured in the laboratory are exactly identical to the 2009, yet it tastes completely different. This leads me to believe that the 2010 will probably last longer.”
- On the advancements in technology, Charles further commented that, “There are no bad vintages now. The truly great vintages are the same as the great vintages of the past but new technologies in production mean there are no more bad years. 1968 was the last, truly disastrous year and it is a perfect example of what can go horribly wrong.”
- To fight counterfeiting and forgeries, Lafite-Rothschild is now using Prooftag as an additional security measure. Starting from the 2009 vintage, all new bottles of Lafite-Rothschild and Carruades de Lafite which leave the winery will be fitted with Prooftag Bubble Seals on the capsules. Each Prooftag Bubble Seal is a unique, three-dimensional, proof of authenticity which is irreproducible. Château Palmer and Domaine Ponsot are two other notable estates which are already utilising Prooftags. At Lafite-Rothschild, these seals will also now be fitted on all older bottles that are sourced and supplied directly from the vintage library.
Above: Intense concentration when tasting.
Tasting Notes and Comments –
2006 Carruades de Lafite
Dark purple colour with slight rim variance. A soft perfume. Subtle tobacco smoke and cedar aromas on the nose. This is a lighter bodied wine, which, while quite nice, is not particularly powerful. A reminiscence of incomplete lignification is overridden by pleasing cranberry and raspberry fruit. Medium acidity. Lasts on the palate. A solidly made wine, but from a vintage that was marred by heavy spring frosts. 90 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Bright purple core turning to ruby at the edges. Clean, bright, fresh nose of red fruit. Delicate and open in the mouth. A relatively light wine that is already developing well. Ready to drink at this point but will continue to last another 5 to 10 years. Plenty of fresh acidity and integrated tannins. A gracious and charming vintage rather than a powerful one.”
Brighter red and with less purple at the core when held next to the Carruades – perhaps maturing a bit more rapidly. Similarly, the nose is a bit more open and expressive but has fewer nuances to it. Darker plum and black raspberry fruits in cohesion. Broad and mild in the mouth, with noticeably lower acidity than the Carruades but more primary fruit flavours. Charming. 91 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Colour a bit more mature than the Carruades, still bright and vivid though and perhaps a bit deeper. Nose is very gentle. Creamy red and black fruit aromas. Plenty of vigour on the palate with fresh, spicy acidity and firm, strong tannins. Again indicative of the vintages charm. Will last, but it is certainly approachable already.”
After a very hot August, this was an incredibly difficult vintage to manage. Many vines suffered from excessive heat stress which retarded both their production of sugars and their complete phenolic evolution. The resulting wine was quite high in alcohol and the tannins remain unusually disjointed in their presentation on the palate. Nearly a decade on, the wine is now quite uniform in its ruby colouration, with lots of remaining particulate – the use of minimal filtration is readily apparent. Roasted fruits, baking spices, and mild Christmas cake aromas all swirl in the glass. This presents as having great width in the mouth with broad, soft tannins. For better or worse, along with the remaining cassis flavours, this has the subtle taste of roast Arabica coffee beans. Soft and round, with understated yet integrated fruit. Begin drinking it now. 93 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Young, bright colour which does not appear appreciably different than the 2006. Core has slightly more depth. Nose is full of power and youth. Restrained and spicy. This is a deeply concentrated and solidly constructed wine, yet is almost austere at present. Needs time still but is developing at a rapid pace. Surprisingly well balanced given the vintage’s heat.”
Picked 5 days before the Duhart-Milon. Interestingly, and despite the severe heat, Charles noted that the fruit from the Grand Vin blocks was quite regular and required less triage than the berries from either Duhart-Milon or the Carruades plain. He chalked this up to the fact that the Grand Vin vines have roots which penetrate nearly 7m into the gravel subsoil. Additionally, as they are older vines, they are prone to fewer problems and the heat has markedly less effect on them. This has a similar colour but darker core when held up next to the Duhart-Milon. Softer and somewhat tighter on the nose as well. Smells quite ‘smart’. Whiff of pine grove and cedar, hint of charcoal dust, and slight baking spice aromas. You can sense the hidden, explosive power in this. Toes the line in terms of balance, yet just holds back. Impressive. Expansive. A really lovely wine but one which is developing rapidly. Lasting, lasting, lasting in mouth. 97 Points
John Salvi, MW - “The ‘jump-up’ out of the glass on this is impressive. The 2003 Duhart-Milon pales next to it. There is just more of everything here and it is clearly at an entirely different (and much higher) level. Colour is still young with traces of purple around the edges. Nose is powerful, intense and resplendent with black fruits. Perfume is exotic and clearly has further development ahead of it. Palate follows the nose, with concentration and intensity. Spicy tannins. Needs to sit for a few more years, but will last for some time still. Skilful winemaking was definitely vital here in order to counteract the effects of the vintage. This has retained a fine level of acidity and will live on into a graceful maturity. The grand terroir of Lafite is undeniable!”
Upon tasting this, Charles commented that, “In 2000, the weather was really great. Maturity was complete. It is a real pleasure to enjoy this today and I expect that it will be nearly impossible to destroy this wine. This is an indestructible wine that people can keep in their cellars for many, many, many years.” The wine is a dark, consistent, reddish-purple colour. The nose is pure. Black cassis in spades. An absolute beauty. Fruit aromas are still presenting themselves as being quite young. On the palate, the fruit, tannins, and medium acidity are all in perfect balance. This is so hard to achieve. An incredibly difficult and applause-worthy performance. Truly exceptional. Tannins are unbelievably fine and you can really taste the primary essence of the Cabernet Sauvignon skins, in a fantastic and pure expression. Alcohol is nominal and completely unapparent. 98 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Colour still hinting at youth – ruby and surprisingly fine and bright. Generous, ripe and heavily fruited. Now this is really beginning to show what it’s made of. Tannins are powerful and quite severe. Palate remains less developed than the nose and the tannins need further time to soften. Eventually these will blend with the remaining fruit and all the fine flavours will be revealed. This still needs time in spite of its ripeness and superior phenolic maturity. A very complex and complete wine.”
“This is a great expression of a [still] young, drinkable Lafite,” commented Charles. This had slight bricking near the edges - a similar colour to the 2003, in fact. Sublime nose, yet a bit shy. Cigar box, but you have to work at finding it. Silky, delicate and seductive. Has a confidence and certainty to it that is enviable. Very fresh in the mouth, it dances across the palate. Incredibly difficult to spit out! Lasts and lasts and lasts. The additional Merlot in this particular cuvée is readily apparent. Drinking now. 98 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Maturing, with a ruby/browning edge. Unsurprisingly, more developed and less concentrated than the 2000 on both the nose and palate. However, the nose remains showy and delightful, fresh and fragrant, with lots of pure fruit aromas. Open and juicy in the mouth, the tannins are totally integrated. This is wonderfully expressive and attractive.”
High temperatures in this vintage resulted in the final assemblage being nearly all Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 3% Merlot made it into this cuvée due to the heat damage the vines suffered. Much more bricking than the 1999, although the colour is still uniform. Powerful nose. Wild herbs and a bits of dried bramble coming out, along with dust and tea leaves. Tertiary aromas and flavours really coming out now. A true older Bordeaux that is really starting to expressing itself. Wow. Exceptional stuff. Has now aged enough to be really interesting. Sweeter than expected. Bruised plum flesh. A fabulous winner. 99 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Magnificent. Bright, classic maturity. A fragrant, elegant nose of first class cassis fruit and loads of spice. Palate is wonderfully pure. Mouth-filling dark berry flavours and sublime acidity. Long. This is now a wonder to behold and an honour to drink. Will still keep for many more years due to the fine, silky tannins. A lovely and finely bred Lafite of great beauty, opulence and expression.”
Noticeably lighter colour than the 1990. Very brick. Really quite focused and Cabernet Sauvignon-centric on the nose. A sweet, kind, gentle wine. Pleasant pepper aromas and on the finish. An exceptional Cabernet expression. Nuanced. Medium acidity still. Lasting. Tannins still present but absolutely at their finest. “This is definitely what you expect in a great Pauillac,” said Charles. 96 Points
John Salvi, MW - “A visibly denser wine than the 1990, however the colour around the rim is a little more evolved. Truly a perfect example of what a Lafite is and can be. A great wine. Fruit-driven fragrance that is rich but also classical and restrained. Palate is deep, structured, lengthy, powerful, and complete. Breeding and elegance. This wine can be kept for many, many more years and is still far from its best or its peak. This will outlast the 1990 and reach great heights.”
Similar colour to the 1989. Subtle, attractive, complex perfume. Soft and drinkable. Medium high acid and certainly more present than in the 1989. Tension continues across the palate. Another good expression of ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon, but somewhat less interesting than the 1989. 94 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Not quite the same power or body as the 1989, yet it is a pure, classical Pauillac at its very finest. Perfect balance and structure but less opulence or richness when set against the prior two wines. Wonderfully pure fruit on the nose with a delicious spicy fragrance. Expressive, bright acidity on the palate. A wine of great beauty, elegance, finesse and harmony. Will last as long as the 1989, but longer than the 1990.”
The tasting concluded with a selection from what is, undoubtedly, the top Sauternes vintage of the past 20+ years, the supremely elegant 2001.
This is the only possible threat to Chateau d’Yquem’s reign over the 2001s. Absolutely leaps from glass. A religious experience. Spicy, botrytis nose. Just cut button mushrooms and chopped sultanas. Fresh. Beautiful. Brings a tear to your eye. Candied apricots for days and days on the palate. Long, long, long. Hint of an espresso crème tinge on the finish brings the whole package together. Lovely acid and sugar in complete balance. 99 Points
John Salvi, MW - “Brilliant golden hue. Pure, bright and crisp. Powerful demerera sugar, pungent botrytis and lemon pith bouquet. Toasty and opulent. Very long and mouth-filling. Lingers beautifully in the aftertaste. Liqueur-esq nectar. Sweet and sultry yet spectacularly fresh and airy due to the acidity. A superlative Sauternes of unmatched grace and style.”
On their global brand strength and the legendary history of their flagship estate, the properties and wines of Domaines Barons de Rothschild remain incomparable in the fine wine world. What a pleasure it was to enjoy these fabulous examples and reflect on the remarkable capacity of great Bordeaux to age, develop and evolve.
Contact us to enquire about our current availability of Château Lafite-Rothschild, Carruades de Lafite, Château Duhart-Milon, and Château Rieussec.