Tasting 114-year-old wine with the Rothschilds at Château Lafite

To whet bidders’ appetites for rare wine, feed them 1st


The long table in Château Lafite Rothschild’s dining room on March 15 was set with old silver, smooth white linen and polished crystal, all lit by the soft light of a grand chandelier. On a sideboard sat a selection of superlative vintages dating back to 1905, the year of the first Russian revolution.

On the cream-coloured walls, portraits of Rothschild ancestors in gilt frames looked on as 14 wine collectors and a solitary journalist slid into their seats alongside Saskia de Rothschild, the new chairman of the company, and her father, Baron Eric de Rothschild, to enjoy a family dinner. The idea? To let guests soak up the Bordeaux first growth’s atmosphere and encourage them on March 30 to bid big — very big — at Zachys’ auction of wines direct from the château’s cellars at Le Bernardin Privé in New York.

Lafite dug deep into its wine library for the 150th-anniversary auction, which includes vintages from every decade since 1868, the year their ancestor, Baron James de Rothschild, whose marble bust sits in a dining room wall niche, purchased the château for the then — astronomical sum of nearly five million francs (RM20.49 million).

Saskia and her father, Baron Eric de Rothschild, in the cellar

The auction and dinner would, as Saskia put it, allow collectors “to fall in love with Lafite, all over again”.

I first fell in love with Lafite’s rich, stunningly fragrant 1953, which I purchased at a Chicago tag sale long ago for US$2 (RM8.14)(!) a half-bottle.

Then came the deep, tobacco-scented 1961 and later, the fabulous 1982, first tasted out of the barrel in the château’s cellar and a half-dozen times since, including at a dinner right before a Hart Davis Hart auction held the same week Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc collapsed. (Everyone drank up as if they’d never have another chance.) I’ve always found Lafite the most subtle, elegant and beguiling first growth, the one that reveals its nuances and finesse only with age.

Before sitting down for dinner, we took a cellar tour with the baron leading the way in his trademark wine-coloured, velvet Christian Louboutin slippers. In front of a large, historic map of the estate, he pointed out the 59 Lafite vineyard plots coloured in pink, while Saskia described how an eight-person group decides the final blend of Lafite by rating the wine from every plot on a one-to-five scale, with one best.

They assess the results for two months, and the wines that score a “1” from most of the tasters are eligible for the grand vin.

We trekked through the vat room with its upright wooden tanks, making our way through a dimly lit, narrow passageway containing old vintages and into the grand, circular cellar built in 1987. Cellar workers, Eric de Rothschild revealed, were initially upset by the design, convinced that the wines would be unhappy unless the barrels were arranged in lines, not circles.

My past dining experiences in the circular barrel cellar and also in the vat room have sometimes been boisterous affairs, with the baron initiating singing contests with guests. A group of Chinese business students once memorably belted out Queen’s We Will Rock You.

My place at the table

Last week’s dinner was far more intimate and sedate. In an antiques-laden drawing room with red silk brocade on the walls and tufted chairs, we sipped two aperitifs as portraits of Rothschild ancestors looked on. The was a layered, honey and jasmine-scented 2014 Carmes de Rieussec (the second wine of Lafite’s estate in Sauternes) and a creamy textured 2008 Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Champagne — the best cuvée I’ve tasted.

Guests, all well-versed in the estate’s wines, traded opinions on favourite vintages, with some good-natured one-upmanship spicing the conversation. Juergen Schwarz, senior partner emeritus at Boston Consulting Group, who is currently working on starting his own wine company, told me he is particularly interested in magnums because the wines age better. “An auction of old wines from the château cellar is the ultimate for serious collectors,” he said. “You know they are the real thing.”

The intimacy of the evening was reflected in the cuisine familiale menu. We took our seats and soupe VGE arrived — individual tureens filled with delicate broth, winter vegetable, and truffles covered in puff pastry — the first of six courses. To accompany it, Eric picked an intense, truffle-scented 2005 Château L’Evangile from the Rothschilds’ Pomerol estate. Also poured was a smooth, seductive, and rich 1989 Château Duhart-Milon, the neighbouring fourth growth that the family purchased in 1962; it was astonishing how well it aged. If anything at the upcoming auction could be considered a bargain, this is it, with an estimate of US$1,000 to US$1,500 for a case of 12 bottles.

The biggest surprise of the evening: The 1905 Lafite, a marvel of ageing

The main course was a simple boeuf a la ficelle — beef fillet with a tangy, minty green sauce, surrounded by tender leeks, scallions, carrots and turnips — and with it, Lafites from both 1989 (estimate: US$4,000 to US$6,000 for six bottles) and 1959 (estimate: US$3,000 to US$4,600 for one bottle). The former was gulpable and voluptuous, with layers of spice, cassis and cedar. And the latter? Deep-coloured and concentrated, with notes of mint, cedar, truffle and tobacco, the 1959 is the greatest Lafite I have ever drunk; the epitome of harmony and velvety elegance. This is its moment, but it seems like it could live on this plateau for decades. Wais Jalali, the CEO and chairman of private-equity firm Cerebrus LLC and whose cellar includes 48,000 bottles, declared it “the wine of the night”.

Cheese appeared, and with it came the biggest surprise of the evening: The delicate 1905 Lafite (estimate: US$3,000 to US$4,800 for one bottle).

At 114 years, it showed the kind of longevity Lafite is known for, demonstrating why perfect storage conditions are so important when buying old wines. With its silky texture, ethereal scents of plums and currants, and a long finish, it suggested to me a long-ago world.

The meal ended with a creamy lemon mousse, paired with an apricot-scented, opulent 1989 Château Rieussec, which unfortunately will not be available at the upcoming auction.

Afterward, we settled into the small, cozy, adjoining salon, where several guests puffed on Cuban cigars and we sipped an old Mirabelle and Lafite’s private label of Tres Vieille Reserve Cognac. I reflected on the pleasure of decadesold wines.

“Every wine has its moment, but you have to choose the right moment,” the baron had explained on the cellar tour. Each of the wines poured demonstrated that perfectly. Most of these vintages are available in the upcoming auction, but only the single bottle of 1868 (estimate: US$13,000 to US$20,000) includes dinner at the château. I’d happily pay that much for dinner alone. — Bloomberg