Château Lafite-Rothschild is once more earning its place among the first-growth châteaux, thanks to the hard work of owner, Eric de Rothschild. ERIC RIEWER meets the man behind the famous name.
The first growths of Bordeaux are now so close in quality that it is a moot issue each year to declare one or another the wine of the vintage. But Lafite-Rothschild has the pedigree of being considered in 1855 the ‘premier des premiers crus’. However, as was frequently the case in the post-war years, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, certain châteaux, including the illustrious Lafite, went to sleep on their laurels, content with the status quo, as Robert Mondavi was fond of saying after a trip in 1962. A wake-up call came in the 1980s that has not stopped resonating since in the echo chamber of the overly hyped garagiste wines of the Right Bank.
Such change comes, of course, in the wake of human decisions, even in the context of historically great terroirs such as those of Pauillac. In the case of Lafite-Rothschild, the turning point was the advent in 1974 of Eric de Rothschild, an erstwhile partygoer, once berated by his uncle Elie (then head of the estate) for ‘swimming in Lafite’ with his fellow fêtards. What better way of knowing a grand cru down to its depths? In any case, Eric surfaced as a grand seigneur in his own right who has steered the domain back to its rightful position as ‘first of the first growths’. My appointment for this interview was at his Paris office, not at the Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) but at Rothschild & Cie Banque. The carpeted corridors of the investment bank are suffused with a blue that is reminiscent of Bordeaux mixture, and lead on to sober wood-panelled conference rooms. Eric’s office is in stark contrast, with its elegant, eclectic disorder of sprawling documents and a plethora of family photos and art objects. Playing back the recording of our interview, it strikes me that our ‘chat’, to use his term, began with laughter as well as a mild protest that his technical director Charles Chevallier would be ‘so much more able to answer’ my questions. This mix of merriment and modesty is in keeping with his character known for its tremendous charm, but it can belie a very keen business sense.
The latter is obviously a Rothschild inheritance that serves the interests of his precious heirloom, Lafite. The current ownership of the famed wine estate is shared in six parts by the male descendants of James de Rothschild, who purchased it in 1868, but Eric has brought in his own style of management. To describe the change he chooses his words carefully, in order to temper his remarks with the proper tact. ‘When you take over a property like Lafite, which for lots of reasons had not been loved passionately enough or managed with attention to detail – perhaps it had been run by people who looked at the financial side of it more than at the necessary work in the vineyard – it takes a long time to get over that. You have to rethink the vineyard completely.’ It certainly doesn’t happen overnight just because you bring in new people of the stature of Emile Peynaud, the renowned oenologist who did so much to nudge Bordeaux toward a more modern style, well before a certain American lawyer bobbed up on the scene and was held responsible for such trends. At the time, Bordeaux was less quality-conscious than it is today, ‘because competition didn’t exist before the 1980s, when journalists started saying this wine is better than this one. Americans began drinking wine in greater numbers and in their characteristic, thorough manner began to pursue the subject with application. They love competition and classification, and with Bordeaux they were well served with both. Bordeaux already had an easy-to-understand classification system, and journalists started to spur the properties into competing with one another. On top of that, California began to show first-class Cabernets, and the Bordeaux monopoly began to lose its hold. Bordeaux realised it had to make better wines.’
That is what Lafite under his stewardship set out to do, but it did take time. If the wine has new weight and power in recent vintages without losing its ineffable elegance, it is due ‘in great part to the better state of the vineyard today. We replanted as much as 30 hectares from the mid 1970s, and the 20-year-old vines are only now in their prime.’
I suggest that the impending 150th anniversary of the 1855 classification could be the occasion to classify anew for a level playing field in today’s ‘quality-conscious’ Bordeaux. Eric demurs: ‘You have a monument that is still standing and serves its purpose. Everyone knows it, though basically the classification has become the first growths, followed by some super seconds, then very good wine, followed by wines that shouldn’t be in it. It has actually reclassified itself. I wouldn’t change it, because it works out in the end. Besides, it would create a lot of ill feeling.’ How does he judge this brash new world in which price no longer seems to be calibrated on the double benchmark of quality as well as track record and historical standing? In today’s topsy-turvy world, the latest California cult Cabernet or Right Bank garagiste wine can fetch a higher price than a first growth. Eric concedes that given today’s context, price alone may well not be the only criterion for a new classification, should there be one. ‘Look at Anthony Barton. Even if his prices are lower than some wines that are not as good as his, he still has the aura of being in the top category.’
It is easy to think that the nationalisation of his family’s bank in 1982 galvanised Eric into concentrating on the family wine activities, a new focus, perhaps made easier at the time by 1982’s great vintage for Bordeaux. Eric downplays the political factor, maintaining that 1982 was not a turning point for Lafite. ‘It was a good vintage but you must put this into the context of everything we were doing to bring Lafite back to the top. We went from being a traditional, perhaps not precise, instrument to an artistic, professional one.’The early 1980s saw the development of the wine activities of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), commonly referred to as DBR. During that period there were acquisitions he did not make, and which he rues today. ‘Vineyards were very cheap at that time, and my regrets are those vineyards we did not buy because of deals that broke down. There are several which, if we had them today, would be very exciting properties.’ But DBR was far from idle. Today the group, more than half of which is controlled by Lafite, has in its Bordeaux portfolio alone the fourth-growth Château Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, purchased in 1962, as well as Château Rieussec in the Sauternes appellation, co-owned since 1985 with Belgian financier Albert Frère (who recently bought Château Cheval Blanc in partnership with French businessman Bernard Arnault of LVMH). In 1990 the Rieussec entity in turn bought Pomerol estate Château l’Evangile, since 1999 under DBR management with Charles Chevallier at its helm, ‘an artist who has a gift for making wine’.
To this rich and varied Bordelais treasure chest of jewels has recently been added what some consider to be a tarnished trinket of a decidedly lower calibre: a négociant line of wines in partnership with Castel, a large producer of brand wines. It is reported that some relatives are all aquiver over the use of the Rothschild ‘Five Arrows’ logo to adorn the label of a négociant wine that is not directly controlled by the family, as is the case with Mouton-Cadet. Eric brushes aside the issue of family friction while firmly defending his strategy. ’When you reach a certain size, you’ve got to offer a complete range of wines. We needed a négociant line as an entry level wine to what we do as “vignerons”. We didn’t want to launch a large-scale operation so we turned to Castel whom we consider to be the most technically efficient partner for blending and bottling. We choose and buy the wines, while Castel provides the technical equipment and serves as agent for the supermarkets. In the context of all our DBR operations this négociant line represents only 5% in terms of value.’
That context is global, and allows them to mix Lafite gravel with Rutherford dust and the red soil of Maremma. DBR has holdings around the world including Chalone in California – this is famed for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and has just acquired the Hewitt Ranch vineyard in Napa, replete with Cabernet Sauvignon. Another recent project is a Super Tuscan winery in partnership with Castellare di Castellina in the coastal area of Maremma. These new ventures join a line-up that comprises Los Vascos in Chile, Quinta Do Carmo in Portugal, and a soon-to-be-unveiled wine from Argentina. It is quite apparent that the famed five arrows continue to point in new directions.
Eric Riewer is an expert on French wines, based in Paris.
Written by ERIC RIEWER