Origins and the Ségur family
While the first known reference to Lafite dates to 1234 with a certain Gombaud de Lafite, abbot of the Vertheuil Monastery north of Pauillac, Lafite’s mention as a medieval fief dates to the 14th century. The name Lafite comes from the Gascon language term “la hite”, which means “hillock”. There were probably already vineyards on the property at the time when the Ségur family organised the vineyard in the 17th century, and Lafite began to earn its reputation as a great winemaking estate. Jacques de Ségur was credited with the planting of the Lafite vineyard in the 1670s and in the early 1680s. In 1695, Jacques de Ségur’s heir, Alexandre, married the heiress of Château Latour, who gave birth to Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur. The wine histories of the fiefs of Lafite and Latour were thus joined at the outset.
The “new French clarets”
From the early 18th century, Lafite found its market in London. It appeared in the very official London Gazette of 1707 as being “sold at public auctions in the City of London, after being offloaded from foreign merchant ships seized by British corsairs as well as by the vessels of the Royal Navy” (the era was in the grip of the Spanish War of Succession). The London Gazette described the Lafite wine and its counterparts as “New French clarets”. Between 1732-1733, Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, purchased a barrel of Lafite every three months. It was only much later that France began to take an interest in Bordeaux’s red wines.
The King’s Wine and the Wine Prince
From 1716, Marquis Nicolas Alexandre de Ségur consolidated Lafite’s initial success. He improved the winemaking techniques and above all enhanced the prestige of fine wines in foreign markets and the Versailles court. He became known as “The Wine Prince”, and Lafite’s wine became “The King’s Wine”, with the support of an able ambassador, the Maréchal de Richelieu. In 1755, Maréchal de Richelieu was appointed Governor of Guyenne, and consulted a Bordeaux doctor, who advised him that Château Lafite was “the finest and most pleasant of all tonics.” On Richelieu’s return to Paris, Louis XV told him, “Maréchal, you look twenty-five years younger than you did when you left for Guyenne.” Richelieu responded “Does his Majesty not know that I have discovered the Fountain of Youth? I have found Château Lafite’s wine to be a delicious, generous cordial, comparable to the ambrosia of the Gods of Olympus.” Soon, Lafite was the subject of much discussion at Versailles, honoured as it was by the King’s high approval. Everyone sought to procure Lafite’s wines. Madame de Pompadour had it served with her supper receptions, and later, Madame du Barry made a point of drinking “only the King’s Wine”.
The Marquis did not have any sons, and his property was divided between his four daughters. Lafite was thus separated from Latour, despite its remaining in the family and being governed by the same steward until 1785. Lafite was inherited by Count Nicolas Marie Alexandre de Ségur, the son of the Marquis’ oldest daughter, who had married a cousin, Alexandre de Ségur, who was provost of Paris. In 1785, the anonymous author of a memoir on the “Lafite Seigniory” spoke of the “finest vineyard in the world”. Things did not turn out so well for the Count de Ségur, though. With outstanding debts, he was forced to sell Château Lafite in 1784. As a relative of the seller, Nicolas Pierre de Pichard, the first president of the Bordeaux Parliament, used the “kinship rights” legislation to purchase the estate.
On the eve of the French revolution, Lafite was at the height of its winemaking legacy, as witnessed in the exceptional writings of Thomas Jefferson, future President of the United States. While serving as ambassador for the young United States Republic to the Versailles Court, this multifaceted individual – farmer, businessman, politician, lawyer, architect, diplomat and founder of the University of Virginia – acquired a passion for winemaking and thought about developing it in his own country. He stayed in Bordeaux in May 1787, five days was enough time for him to visit the major Chartrons merchants and gather a mass of information that he would report in his travel memoirs. He detailed the hierarchy of the growths, highlighting those that would go on to be the four leading wines. Château Lafite was among them. Jefferson remained a steadfast customer of Bordeaux’s wines until the end of his days.
The Ségur family’s stewardship of Lafite ended brutally with the execution of Nicolas Pierre de Pichard during the chapter of French history known as “the Terror”, on the 12th Messidor of year 2, under the short-lived Republican calendar (30 June 1794). In the lobby of Château Lafite is an ancient poster announcing the public sale of the property on 12 September 1797. The estate was then described as “the leading Médoc wine, producing the finest wines in all of Bordeaux”. The purchaser, Jean de Witt, was a Dutch citizen, who was soon forced to sell Lafite to three merchants, who were also Dutch. After Jean de Witt’s short ownership, Château Lafite hosted a remarkable line of stewards, whose greatest was Joseph Goudal. Goudal was masterful in his supervision of the estate in the early part of the 19th century. As of 1800, the three owners were Baron Jean Arend de Vos Van Steenvwyck, Othon Guillaume Jean Berg and Jean Goll de Franckenstein.
The Vanlerberghe mystery
In 1818, the new owner of Lafite was Madame Barbe-Rosalie Lemaire, whose husband was Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe, a leading grain merchant and supplier of Napoleon’s armies. A mystery came about upon the death of Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe, when Mme Lemaire officially sold the Lafite estate to the British subject Sir Samuel Scott in 1821. Scott and his son would effectively manage the estate until 1867. In reality, Samuel Scott Senior and Junior were only representatives of Aimé-Eugène Vandelberghe, son of Madame Lemaire and Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe. During the inheritance of Aimé-Eugène Vanlerberghe in 1866, the title was produced to prove the deceased’s ownership of the property. After a half-century of secrecy, the name Vanlerberghe would be written into Lafite’s history of owners. In this period, vintages that made history include: 1795 and 1798, of outstanding quality, 1801, 1802, 1814, 1815 and especially 1818.
THE 1855 Classification
In 1815, Mr. Lawton published an initial classification of Médoc wines in his brokerage house log. It was apparently an accurate assessment, as it was very similar to the 1855 classification. Lafite was already at the top of the list: “I ranked Lafite as the most elegant and delicate, with the finest fruit of the three (leading wines).” He added that “its wines are the most superb in all of Médoc.” The 1834 vintage was particularly successful, as was 1841, and especially 1846. The vintage rankings of the Universal Paris Exposition in 1855 officially gave Lafite the rating as “Leader among fine wines”. This ranking would be the benchmark for a new and astonishing era of success for Médoc vineyards. The period’s finest vintages include 1847, 1848, 1858, 1864, 1869, 1870 and 1876.
Baron James de Rothschild
On 8 August 1868, Baron James de Rothschild purchased Château Lafite, which had been placed under public sale through the inheritance of Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe. Baron James, who was head of the French branch of the Rothschild family, passed away just three months after purchasing Lafite. The estate then became the joint property of his three sons: Alphonse, Gustave and Edmond. The estate then boasted 74 hectares of vineyards. As a sign welcoming the new owner, the vintage produced in 1868 went down as a record on several counts. It was the highest priced wine of its vintage year (6,250 of that period’s francs, or 4,700 of today’s euros the ‘tonneau’ of 900 litres). This early wine’s high price would remain a record for the entire century, before being far surpassed at the end of the 20th century. Fortunately for Barons Alphonse, Gustave, and Edmond de Rothschild, the “golden age” of Médoc would go on for another fifteen years after the purchase of Lafite.
Disasters, wars and crises
The end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were turbulent. The phylloxera crisis and mildew severely impacted the vineyard. Then came World War I and the Great Depression which led to a freefall in prices. Suffering heavily from mildew, Château Lafite Rothschild took measures and declassified certain vintages from 1882 to 1886, and also 1910 and 1915. Bottling at the Château was also implemented for more effective combating of fraud. During World War I, the estate was severely impacted by the draft and by supply restrictions. The Great Depression of the 1930s would also be painfully felt in the vineyard, with the market riding a sustained low, and an unprecedented financial crisis that led to a reduction of vineyard area. A few exceptions to this dark period include 1899, 1900, 1906, then 1926 and 1929, which are of excellent quality.
World War II and occupation
World War II caused an ordeal in a different league, with the June 1940 defeat leading to the occupation of the Médoc. A German garrison was stationed for the entire length of the occupation at Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild. The Rothschild family properties were confiscated and placed under public administration. To avoid German greed, and through the care of provisional administrators, the winemaking estates were finally dismissed in 1942 to serve as agricultural vocational schools. The shortages and restrictions were made worse by requisitions and veiled ransacking of ancient vintages: these were painful blows to the Château. The Barons de Rothschild recovered possession of Château Lafite Rothschild at the end of 1945, and Baron Elie was responsible for re-establishing the estate’s successful operation. A series of excellent vintages in 1945, 1947, and 1949 gave strength to the reconstruction effort.
Baron Elie: restructuring
Baron Elie led a programme to restore the vineyards and the buildings, and to fully restructure the property’s administration. He took practical steps, like adding a herd of dairy cows in the 1950s in order to use the fields below the château as a supply of organic fertilizer. Baron Elie was a major shaper of events in the difficult reconstitution of the fine wine market. He was an active member of “tasting” events in London, and one of the founding members of the Bordeaux wine guild, the Commanderie du Bontemps of the Médoc, in 1950. The very fine 1955 vintage was evidence of the wine’s rebirth, but the Bordeaux vineyard suffered terrible frosts in February of 1956 before producing a new cycle of exceptional vintages in 1959 and 1961. The 1960s rounded out the renaissance with new markets, particularly in the United States. Prices rose, do in part to a healthy rivalry between Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild.
Baron Eric: renewal
After the 1973-1976 mini-crisis that hit Bordeaux, the recovery was confirmed by the very fine 1975 and 1976 vintages and the management of Château Lafite Rothschild by Baron Eric de Rothschild, Baron Elie’s nephew. Baron Eric’s management of the estate made strides forward with a search for excellence and the gradual addition of a new technical team. In the vineyard, replanting and restoration work was mirrored by re-evaluation of fertilizing and reduced herbicide treatments. In the cellar, a stainless steel vat complex was installed alongside oak vats, and a new circular ageing cellar was constructed under the supervision of Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. This new design style was acclaimed for its innovative character and uncompromising spirit, and can hold 2,200 barrels. In the same artistic spirit, in 1985 Baron Eric began a tradition of inviting fine-arts photographers to photograph Château Lafite. These include such artists as Jacques Henri Lartique, Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, and Richard Avedon. He also extended the horizons of the Domaines through new acquisitions both in France and abroad. Very fine vintages for the 80s and 90s decades, were notably 1982, 1986, the trilogy 1988, 1989 and 1990, and then 1995 and 1996, these were greeted with soaring prices.
A remarkable decade around THE year 2000
There was a remarkable series of vintages, helped by rather dry weather during the growth season. Among them, 2000, 2003 (the heat wave year), 2005, 2009 and 2010 will reveal their splendour with age! The turn of the century went smoothly with some very promising vintages ageing in the cellars. This cautious optimism is based on the ongoing search for excellence that is so much a part of Château Lafite Rothschild’s history.