The Journal / Roots

A question of etiquette

A family tree of Lafite labels.

Why not join us on a little label tour, from first to latest: via Bombay, Supreme, and a light touch of make-believe.

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Close your eyes for a second, and imagine the Lafite label.

What comes to mind? Is it the Château framed by trees – the scale of the cedar, the drape of willow? Is it the colours – the deep red, the clean cream? Perhaps you remember the two women in the foreground, with their pinched bodices and wide overskirts,- or the working men, tools in hand, who glance back toward them?

Whatever you may or may not have recalled, our own imaginations may well be our best bet for deciphering the roots of Lafite’s enduring label. Strangely, almost nothing in our archives records its development. The artist of the original gravure remains unknown, as is their reason for arranging the intriguing scene as they did; the balance and tension, between the two pairs of characters,- and and the playful indication of story, within both scene and the bottle itself.

Wine labels have depth beyond their refined finish. If a vintage is a time capsule of a year, then the label is an accompanying paper postcard, narrating changing winemaking mores, and noting special moments. They offer key information – appellation, vintage, maker – offering those who read labels like musical scores the ability to conjure aroma and taste on sight alone. Then, through their condition and authenticity, they add further tasting notes, which in turn affect price. Not simply due to aesthetics, but for the indication of how the wine has been stored, – and, of course, whether or not the contents of the bottle are genuine.

Interesting fact: in French law, a label can only feature a Château if it’s the original house, and still standing. Ours, of course, very much is. Sartorial choices may have changed a little, and storms have stolen once-tall trees, but the view seen in the original gravure remains mostly unchanged to this day.

What remains too are the label’s many mysteries… who were the two women? Who are the two men? What was their business that day? Inspired by the questions it had always sparked, our 2018 label – celebrating 150 years since the Château’s acquisition – was embellished with a little airborne ‘easter egg’: a delicate hot air balloon, hidden within the scene. But we’ll get to that later.

Lafite’s label is a finishing touch that has been there almost since the very starting line. If, in its older age, it has had any ‘work done’, it was only once, – very subtly, in 2005, when artist and aquafortist Eric Desmazières reworked the etching to give new depth to each line. Preserving the image exactly, this work  simply infused the scene with new life: a touch more precise, a touch more defined.

And on that life-giving note, why not join us on a little label tour?

Purchased by Baron James in 1868, Château Lafite’s label (as we know it today) first appeared on the following year’s vintage. In the words of Le Sommelier, reporting on an auction held decades later, “The tremendous success in England of the 1869 Château Lafite Rothschild wine bottle at the Château was the real starting point for the intense public demand for wines bearing the Château’s authentic bottling label.” ‘Deposé’, on the bottom left corner, means trademarked.

 Message in a bottle: Retour des Indes (Return from India) refers to a practice that conferred added value on bottles that had traveled back and forth to India, as the voyage was said to age the wine faster. This is an unused label intended for a bottle aboard a steamship fittingly named The Precursor, which was to set sail from Bordeaux for Bombay and Madras on October 31, 1878. 

A label, yes, but this time not of wine: instead the title page of an ‘energetic’ piano quadrille composed by Hermance Vallet-Chaintrier.

By 1889, Pauillac, and the Pauillac appellation contrôlée, made its appearance on the Lafite labels. From the same year, this is an invoice for the label printing — found in box no 43 of the Lafite archives. E. Andrieu, lithograph specialists and label makers, are no longer in business, but their former headquarters, 61 Rue des Trois Conils, is almost a straight shot along the Cours de Verdun from our offices.

In 1902, the Rothschild Suffix is missing from the Château’s name, and likewise the ‘mise en bouteille au Château’ from the bottle. The gravure is changed, the border is gone, though we do see two of the “flèches”, or arrows that will later unite to become the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite emblem.

Over a fifty year period, Châteaux rarely bottled their own wines, and there was no obligation to do so. This mean that for a multi-decade stretch, Lafite labels became varied, with negociants putting their own spin on things.

In 1924, Phillipe de Rothschild finally convinced the 1855 Premiers Crus Classés châteaux to make bottling at the Château compulsory. An “informal coalition” recognising “the interest of bottling the entire crop at the Château… so that only bottles with the estates’ authentic seal are sold with their appellation” was created. Everyone joined but Lafite, who signed up the following year.

The free-for-all negociant labels, as seen above, had had their day in the sun.

A painted label – fresh blue, with curved Deco sides, artist unknown. From box number 97, of the archives.

A return to gravure and ‘mise en bouteille au Château‘, yes, but a special mention for the glass to which the label’s affixed. The glass used in wartime bottles was much lighter in hue, due to a lack of lead-reserved at the time for ammunition.

A classic label, but a ‘cut above’ – to commemorate the Armistice, bottles from 1945 were engraved with the year. Special shoulder embossing has been used on several select occasions : in 2008, as 8 is lucky in China, and the year was chosen to start work in Long Dai. In 1985, to mark the passing of Halley’s Comet and the birth of Baron Eric’s oldest son James. And in 2016, with a golden hourglass, as a nod to a superb vintage that came as a surprise – and was thus dubbe; ‘l’Année de l’Attente’.

100 years of Lafite – a slightly modified label, gracing the cover of war reporter-turned-wine writer, Cyril Ray’s commemorative tome.

An advertisement for Lafite – a label and nothing but – in the English-speaking edition of Le Monde.

A bottle of 1846 is sold at record price ($5000 dollars, or close to $36,000 in today’s money). The 125-year-old wine was graced with a new label for the occasion. Older pre-acquisition bottles had a simpler label (see 1974 Broadbent with an 1864 Lafite jeroboam), or no label at all. These were kept in crates in the cellar, with vintage ‘number plates’ as labels above them.

A Parker advert with a label that surely didn’t exist – the 1868.

Forget Beaujolais nouveau, this is Bordeaux nouveau. The next generation,sure to think outside the box – and each with a very official label celebrating their personal vintage.

An advertisement for the IWC diving watch created by Nicole Wisniak (who also art directed the Francois-Marie Banier shoot of 3 Lafite bottles in a bed) in the cult magazine Egoïste.

Supreme, famous for its “borrowing” of images from popular art and culture, takes the liberty of designing a “Château Lafite Supreme 1949” for its Fall 2017 collection.

A lightly re-imagined label to celebrate 150 years of Lafite. The letters CL, emblazoned on the hot air balloon, are actually numerals, marking the anniversary.

In 1868, hot air balloons were the absolute symbols of modernity and adventure. In 2018, we still see them fly but they have become the symbol of slowing down, of taking the time to move more steadily. With no rush. Just what we have been doing at Lafite for 150 years: steadily standing the test of time as we head towards the future.

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