For the first time ever, the proprietors of two of Bordeaux’s first growths agreed to come together for an exclusive interview. STEPHEN BROOK unearths the common ground – and the differences – between Mouton Rothschild and Lafite
Philippine de Rothschild, with Eric de Rothschild at her side, sits in state at a simple trestle table within a vast tent, where 700 of her Mouton-Rothschild harvesters tuck into a lunch of pot au feu. She grabs a napkin, scribbles ‘Happy Birsdé!’ on it and passes it to her cousin.
PdR: ‘He’s 68 today! You see, Eric, I have even written you this card in French.’
EdR: ‘In Médocain.’
PdR: ‘Absolument, Médocain. You know, Eric, I feel this interview we’re about to do could be a complete flop.’
With that encouraging prediction, we retreat to a quiet salon where I do my best to confound the prophecy. If there was any rivalry between the two families, it is scarcely in evidence.
In the past, relations had been frosty, which was hardly surprising given that the opposition to Mouton’s promotion to first growth was spearheaded by the owner of Lafite. But that battle ended 35 years ago.
The present proprietors speak of each other as ‘cousins’, although the relationship is more distant, given that they come from separate branches of the dynasty (see panel, p38). Mouton and Lafite are neighbouring wine estates, but as wine businesses, they are very different.
Eric de Rothschild maintains his day job as a private banker in Paris, and keeps an eye on his family’s other properties in Bordeaux (Duhart-Milon, L’Evangile and Rieussec) as well as other ventures in the Languedoc, Chile, and Argentina.
Philippine de Rothschild is the sole owner of Mouton and its two classed-growth neighbours in Pauillac (d’Armailhac and Clerc-Milon) and also monitors her New World outposts: Opus One in Napa and Almaviva in Chile. Not to mention a substantial négociant business, best known for Mouton Cadet.
I begin by asking them when they first met.
Philippine de Rothschild: ‘That question makes me scream with laughter!’
Stephen Brook: ‘Why?’
PdR: ‘Because it’s been so long. I suppose I was around 20 – Eric is a few years younger than me. In fact, I first saw Eric at his bar mitzvah! He was very witty and we liked to laugh at the same things. We got on immediately, loved going to the theatre together, and his sister Béatrice became one of my very best friends. Naturally, this was long before we knew we’d be running these properties.’
SB: ‘Which began when?’
Eric de Rothschild: ‘I was looking after Lafite from the mid-1970s.’
PdR: ‘And I from the 1980s.’
EdR: ‘Even as a teenager, I often visited Lafite, for weekends, for holidays. So I got to know Baron Philippe [Philippine’s father] very well. For one thing, there were usually plenty of pretty girls staying with me, so he went out of his way to invite us over to Mouton for dinner. There was one girl on his right, another on his left. He loved it. I also used to tease him, by saying what a fine businessman he was. He didn’t like that at all, and would tell me
emphatically: “Nonsense, I’m a poet, I’m an artist!”’
PdR: ‘For me, too, Mouton became a retreat from Paris. For both of us, the châteaux began in our lives as holiday homes.’
SB: ‘When did you realise you would be taking over?’
EdR: ‘There really wasn’t anyone else in the family who wanted to. And my holidays at Lafite had made a deep impression. I really loved Lafite.’
PdR: ‘And I was the only child, so it was always clear that if I wanted to run Mouton and our other properties, then I could. But my relationship with Eric was already solid, and when he started to look after Lafite, that just added another dimension to our friendship. We’ve always got on, often talk things over together, and sometimes argue. Our friendship was on top of Lafite and Mouton.’
EdR: ‘Of course, there is a major difference. Philippine is the sole owner, whereas I am one of six members of my family with a share in Lafite and our other properties. I soon discovered a side benefit to running Lafite. I call it rent-abaron. There are a lot of organisations out there that occasionally need a baron to meet special guests or put a head
of state at ease. I get requests all the time!’
SB: ‘Do you ever work together?’
EdR: ‘Yes, but only as part of the group of first growths.’
PdR: ‘I don’t believe that joint promotion of the Rothschild properties would be a good idea, anyway. It’s not that we’re incapable of working together – it’s just that we both need to cultivate and promote our own interests.’
EdR: ‘One thing we share is a high regard for the whole structure of Bordeaux and its wines. We’re both familiar with the world of wine, as we have properties in different countries, but we still feel Bordeaux is a treasure to be fostered.’
SB: ‘Do you like to get involved in the nuts and bolts of wine production, such as blending?’
EdR: ‘It amuses me immensely. One of my favourite moments is when we sit down to create the blends. I bow to the expert opinions around me, but I am still part of the consensus. I’m not indispensable, I know that, but I still like to participate. I am happy to let my winemakers be bold and try different things, even though some of them will never make it into Lafite. And-’
PdR: ‘Tu as fini?’
(Baron Eric gives her an indulgent smile, and lets her respond.)
PdR: ‘I don’t interfere or participate in the winemaking. I find it very difficult to taste very young wines. My primary interest is the commercial side. My winemakers know I can’t
make a real contribution, but they know that I want an elegant wine. I think you need to have confidence in your team, and not constrain them.’
EdR: ‘When you’ve been drinking Lafite all your life – and I learnt to love Lafite at minus six months, in the womb – you know the style of the wine by osmosis. We make our final choice without knowing the size of the lot. So we may prefer a wine that represents only a third of the crop rather than one that consists of half. But that doesn’t matter. The best wine
SB: ‘Do you have a shared vision of what your wines should be like?’
PdR: ‘We’re both devoted to superb quality. That comes first, before quantity.’
EdR: ‘I do dislike strong, jammy wines.’
PdR: ‘Yes, we ban them. Mouton must, first and foremost, be an elegant wine, not a blockbuster.’
EdR: ‘I like to say that Lafite is a wine that offers the least resistance to being drunk.’
PdR: ‘Not Mouton. Mouton demands to be drunk!’
EdR: ‘It depends when. As a banker, I organise many business lunches, and I never serve great wines on those occasions.’
PdR: ‘Oh, I agree. If you give a great wine to somebody whose mind is on something else and they sip it like water – well, that drives me mad. You need to concentrate on enjoying a great wine. But I don’t agree with those who say you shouldn’t pour a great wine to someone who isn’t a connoisseur. That’s ridiculous. I can tell by looking at the leftover bottles which wines were enjoyed most. It’s the best test – the empty bottle.’
SB: ‘How do the two wines differ?’
PdR: ‘Their tastes and flavours are really different even though the vineyards are contiguous.’
EdR: ‘I certainly hope so. Actually, I think it is possible to confuse Lafite and Mouton in a blind tasting. Even so, the wines seem to be stronger than their owners. One has a mental expectation of both wines, and indeed they do have their own personalities. Lafite is more classic, Mouton more bumptious, more gay.’
PdR: ‘I’m not sure I agree. There is some truth in the saying that Lafite is all violets, Mouton all blackcurrants. But it varies according to the vintage. I’m not sure these generalisations mean that much. You need to have an individual wine in the glass so you can discuss it. After all, both Lafite and Mouton are classic and elegant, wines with depth, length, and complexity.’
SB: ‘Tell me about why you began expanding into other regions, with Opus in California, and Los Vascos in Chile?’
PdR: ‘It started out as fun, a great idea. And then it became a serious business. My father loved the idea of a joint venture in California. What was unusual was that we have only ever produced a single wine at Opus. There’s no Opus Two! The Californians were highly competent winemakers, but we could really contribute something in the vineyards. Bob Mondavi was acutely aware of the importance of terroir, and made sure Opus could use grapes from some of Mondavi’s top vineyards.’
EdR: ‘We bought Rieussec in 1983 because we loved its elegance. And the same was true with L’Evangile in Pomerol, which was only bought in 1990.’
SB: ‘How did your fellow Bordeaux proprietors react when you began your New World ventures, especially Opus One in Napa?’
PdR: ‘They were horrified, absolutely horrified. They thought we were giving the secrets of Bordeaux to the Californians. Actually, Opus One wasn’t the original name for the project. One day my father excitedly phoned Bob Mondavi. “I’ve found it,” he said. “I’ve got the name for our venture! We’ll call it Gemini!” Bob roared with laughter. This puzzled my father until Bob explained that Gemini was a notorious gay bar in San Francisco.’
SB: ‘You are custodians of the past, but also responsible for the future of your properties. How do you balance that?’
EdR: ‘They go together. We certainly need to think of the future, just as we do in private banking, where we try to conserve wealth over many generations. It’s similar with wine. It’s only after two decades that we can test the quality of the vines we plant, and then it’s another two before we can assess how good the wine is. It’s taken me 20 years to restore Lafite to the level I felt it ought to be at, and I just hope my successors will have the same energy and tenacity.’
PdR: ‘I feel differently. I feel we’re just passing through. Our children may do very different things with the properties after we’re gone, and over that we can have no control. I think we need to be modest about our capabilities and responsibilities. I’m the sole owner here, so I have a very strong sense of that. I need to direct my team in an intelligent, non-brutal
way. We’re kept humble by tasting the wines made by our predecessors. They’re still alive, they still speak of the land here, and they make me feel very small.’
EdR: ‘I share Lafite with the workers who have been here for generations. We have a family that is now at Lafite for its fifth generation.’
SB: ‘Bordeaux proprietors used to stay in their châteaux and rarely bothered to meet the trade, let alone consumers. That’s changed, hasn’t it?’
EdR: ‘Yes, because the perception of wine has changed. It’s not just a drink with a good dinner. It’s become a status symbol. So that’s why people love to meet the producers. But there’s another reason for travelling and promoting more than in the past: competition has increased. Thirty years ago, we had the field to ourselves.’
PdR: ‘Actually, there were wines of outstanding quality back then, but people weren’t always aware of the fact.’
EdR: ‘And that may be because a great Italian wine had a mostly local following. Competition has also made us produce better wines. It’s a huge pressure on us. But it’s not enough to make great wine; you need to sell it too, need to be in front of consumers and answer to them. In the past, just one narrow sector of society appreciated fine wines. Now, at a tasting event, I feel like a movie star mobbed by pretty girls.’
PdR: ‘I want to say…’
EdR: ‘Please don’t interrupt. I want to make an important point. Today there are people obsessed by wine, wine-buffs, that we didn’t have in the past–’
PdR: ‘Je peux parler?’
(Baron Eric smiles indulgently, teasing Philippine.)
PdR: ‘The wine world has expanded so much. Forty years ago, the US was waking up to fine wine. Today, it’s India, Russia, China. Of course that also has an effect on prices. We only have a limited production; we can’t increase it.
But I find it moving that this small patch of Bordeaux has become appreciated by the whole world.’ This seemed an appropriate moment at which to stop, although neither seemed impatient or was glancing at a watch.
If the friction of the previous generation is a thing of the past, it is, I suspect, because both cousins respect each other. They run different businesses, with different structures, but they evidently share the same priority: to continue to make the best wines of which they, and their vineyards, are capable.
The Rothschilds (from the Germanic, meaing ‘red shield’) owe almost everything to German Jewish banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild. He placed his five sons (the five arrows on the family coat of arms, reproduced on bottles of all Domaines Barons de Rothschild wines) in the five major European cities of Frankfurt, Vienna, London, Naples and Paris. The family motto is concordia, integritas, industria (‘harmony, integrity, industry’).
In 1853, Nathaniel Rothschild of the London branch (but then living in Paris) bought what is now Mouton Rothschild. In 1855, to Nathaniel’s annoyance, the property was classified as a second growth, prompting him to coin the phrase ‘Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis’ (‘First I cannot be, second I reject, Mouton I am’).
In 1868, his uncle James Rothschild bought first growth Lafite for a sum four times greater than Nathaniel had paid for Mouton. The flamboyant Philippe de Rothschild came to Mouton in 1922, and insisted that its second-growth status should change.
His austere cousin, Baron Elie de Rothschild at Lafite, took a different view, and the mutual antipathy was evident. By 1973, Baron Elie’s dogged opposition was becoming an embarrassment, and he finally allowed Mouton’s promotion to take place.
Nathaniel’s phrase was updated to ‘Premier je suis, second je fus, Mouton ne change (‘First I am, second I was, Mouton doesn’t change’). A year later, Elie’s nephew Baron Eric succeeded him at the helm of Lafite. Thereafter, relations between the two first growths were considerably more amicable.
Additional research by Oliver Styles
Written by Stephen Brook