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Andrew Jefford: ‘Is there any duty on fine-wine producers to “be accessible” in some way?’

The landscape of price and quality in wine was always undulating. It had peaks and summits as well as lowlands. Access, though, was open; we had the right to roam. Most of us could make our way out of the valleys and strike off up the slopes occasionally.

In the last 20 years, that landscape has changed. The finest wines are now luxury goods: tokens of exclusivity. Exclusivity means exclusion. The high peaks are sealed off by fencing; only extraordinary wealth will get you through the gates. What used to be said of yachts (to move our metaphor offshore) is now true of grand cru Burgundy or luxury Champagne. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.

Is there any duty on fine-wine producers to ‘be accessible’ in some way or other? Luxury-goods executives would chortle. There are no cheap Ferraris or Rolexes. François Pinault’s Artémis Domaines exemplifies this approach: a glittering diamond necklace of fine-wine properties (Château Latour, Domaine d’Eugénie, the Bouchard domain, Clos de Tart, Château-Grillet, Eisele, Jacquesson), each new purchase deepening the moat between it and its peers. Even William Fèvre was, it seems, not quite glittering enough, and has been disposed of. Poor Chablis.

I don’t doubt the search for quality at Artémis is unremitting. Few wine lovers, though, can do more than peep through this particular fence.

Maybe, though, there’s another way. A Bordeaux first growth whose owners also sell $10 Chilean wine, Entre-deux-Mers and Corbières? Yes, it exists: Lafite.

After visiting its Corbières property Château d’Aussières to get the latest updates for Decanter Premium, I chatted to Saskia de Rothschild, the now 36-year-old president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, about Aussières itself, her family’s approach and ‘the money problem’ in the fine-wine world.

‘We’ve never,’ she said, ‘looked at shiny things or things that have already been done.’ Aussières was in ruins when Saskia’s father bought it in 1999. Almost a quarter of a century later, it’s achieved organic certification, and will debut on the Place de Bordeaux in September 2023. The family is just beginning to talk about it. ‘We have this motto,’ said Saskia. ‘Silent until proud.’

A Rothschild proud of a Corbières? ‘We love the fact,’ said Saskia, ‘that we have a balance between icons and more accessible wines. It’s interesting, it allows us to reach people and to tell stories. And keeps us humble. If we were only in charge of Château Lafite, we might become big-headed. Los Vascos in Chile is almost 700ha. We don’t have to be ashamed of it. It doesn’t have any effect on Lafite. The key is to clearly identify each of these estates and their story. The wine lover of tomorrow wants to be told stories.’

It’s no coincidence, this concern for narrative: Saskia formerly worked as a journalist for the New York Times International Edition (having studied journalism at Columbia) and has written a strange but skilfully narrated novel called Erable (2015). Can storytelling keep wine real?

‘That’s my absolute obsession,’ she says. ‘I’m with you on the marketing of luxury via mystery. We’re not trying to be mysterious; we’re trying to communicate shared values. We’ve banned pack shots on our social media; we’re only showing what’s behind the scenes. We even created characters for our properties for en primeur this year: Lafite was the oddball grandma.

‘People probably think we’re insane. For sure the négociants think we’re insane. But how do we stop Lafite being just the wine of the ultra-privileged? To me there’s an answer. Make it the wine of a moment – when a child is born, turning 18, for a wedding – a wine of family and of transmission. If someone buys Lafite just once in their life, I’m happy.’

Even once, of course, is a big ask for most of us – but at least there’s Château Duhart-Milon, Los Vascos and Aussières.

By the way, guess who stepped in to acquire the Chablis domain of William Fèvre from Artémis? Domaines Barons de Rothschild.

In my glass this month

I had the chance to Zoom-chat to Philippe Rolet and Raquel Calatayud of Los Vascos in 2022, so this month I thought I’d try the Le Dix de Los Vascos 2018, from Colchagua Valley (£45 Waddesdon Wine). Produced in the best years only, this is 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Syrah, and has striking purity of fruit: a cascade of curranty Cabernet with admirable poise and energy. Barely perceptible tannins, sustained acidity – and long in flavour.

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