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Wine Legend: Château Lafite-Rothschild 1959

A legend because…

Despite stiff competition from the 1961, 1959 was widely regarded as one of the great Lafites. In the view of wine writer Edmund Penning-Rowsell, it was ‘probably the best 1959’ from Bordeaux.

Looking back

In 1959 Baron Guy was the major shareholder of Lafite, but since 1946 Baron Elie had been running the property. Andre Portet was the general manager while Georges Revelle was cellarmaster.

The vintage

1959, a very hot year, has long been recognised as a great vintage. According to Bordeaux négociant Frank Mähler-Besse, it wasn’t appreciated for a decade or more. His firm re-released the wine in 1975, which happened to be the first year that Decanter’s Michael Broadbent tasted the 1959. The summer was fine, and rain in mid-September was welcome as it brought the grapes to full ripeness and the harvest began a week later. The wines were rich in tannin and quite high in alcohol, but low in acidity. The year is often cited by those who argue that high acidity is not an essential component in a fine red Bordeaux, and that low-acidity years such as 1959 can age splendidly. However, the wines can exhibit a dry, almost raisiny character, since the tannins remain prominent.

The terroir

The vineyards lie on a plateau that rises to the majestic height of 27 metres, and two-thirds of the vines occupy a single parcel surrounding the château buildings. There are more parcels south of the main vineyard. The soil is well- drained gravel up to 4m deep. Further down is a layer of limestone to which some attribute the extraordinary finesse of Lafite. There was less Cabernet Sauvignon at Lafite than at its neighbour Mouton: about 65%, the remainder planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The relatively high proportion of Merlot, which tends to be planted in lower- lying sectors, was retained to soften the wine and make it more supple. The 1959 contained 16% Merlot.

The wine

The harvest began on 23 September and André Portet notes in the château records that the year gave ‘très grands vins’. 158 tonneaux were made, equivalent to about 190,000 bottles. After destemming, the must was fermented in large oak vats. Temperature was adjusted by either heating some must separately and adding it to a vat, or by pumping cold water into coils piping around the vats. After fermentation the wine was decanted into new oak barrels, coopered at the estate, and aged for about 30 months with racking every three, before being egg white-fined and bottled at the château. Portet and Revelle would have discussed how much press wine to add to the blend, and it is likely that in 1959 very little would have been required.

The reaction

James Suckling, tasting the wine from magnum in 1991 for The Wine Spectator, said ‘Its hallmark is a minty juniper aroma backed by luscious, rich, elegant flavours of black cherry so ripe and intense that they’re almost pruney. Complete and delicious.’

In 1994, Robert Parker asserted that this wine ‘is unquestionably the greatest Lafite that has approached full maturity’. He added: ‘The bouquet of flowers, black truffles, cedar, lead pencil and red fruits is followed by one of the most powerful and concentrated Lafites I have tasted …a testament to what this great estate can achieve when it hits the mark. Drink to 2024.’

In 2000 Michael Broadbent cited ‘its extraordinary ability to exude not only an immediate cedary perfume but, very much a Lafite speciality, the way it opens up further avenues of fragrance and subtle by-paths, lingering in the mouth.’ Five years later, tasting from magnum, he noted: ‘Very deep, with dark cherry core. Nose at first holding back, unreleased fragrance, touch of iron. Sweet, glorious, mouthfilling flavour; great length, spicy, with teeth-gripping tannins. For Lafite, mammoth. And superb.’

Clive Coates MW in 1999 wrote: ‘This has exceptionally classy fruit. Really lovely depth. Quite fantastic. Rich and voluptuous on the palate. Ripe and inviting on the follow-through.’

In 2013, Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider, recorded: ‘Superb. The cedar, tobacco, cigar box, smoke, cassis and fresh herb nose was close to off the charts. A perfect blend of sweet and tart, black and red fruits, silky, elegant textures, ending with along cassis note.’

The facts

  • Bottles produced 190,000
  • Composition N/A
  • Yield N/A
  • Alcohol content N/A
  • Release price N/A
  • Price today: £1,500 – £3,165, $2,500 – $4,000

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