The Château Lafite estate run by the Rothschilds is, with its 100 hectares of cultivated land, the largest of the main Pauillac vineyards.
It is located in the highest part of the area and the view from its château, with its conical towers that appear on the label, takes in the banks of the River Gironde, which flows nearby. The wines are a blend of four different varieties of grape – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Lafite matures slightly earlier than other Premier Cru wines in the region on account of the generous amounts of Merlot used, and it is this that also makes the wine more delicate and subtle than those wines which are completely dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Lafite has a soul, a beautiful, generous, kindly soul. Lafite turns bare earth into heaven. Lafite is harmony, a harmony between man and nature, because without our magnificent winegrowers, nothing would be accomplished.”
Baron Eric de Rothschild
Of the five Premier Cru wines in the region, Château Lafite to my mind has managed to produce the year’s best wine in many of the top years in 1900th centrury. The times I have spent in the company of a 1934, 1953, 1959, 1982 and 1986 have been unforgettable. And it was then that I always remembered how many wine critics fondly describe Lafite as ‘the perfection of elegance’.
Vineyard soil: fine gravel mixed with aeolien sands on a bedrock of tertiary limestone
Production area: 103 ha
Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon (71%), Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Petit Verdot (1%)
Average age of vines: 30 years
Harvest method: hand picked
Winemaking: the vinification is nowadays done with all the sophisticated instruments which modern oenology has created. Fermentation takes place in large oak vats in which the musts remain for 18 to 25 days.
Ageing: the wines are aged entirely in new barrels for 18 to 24 months. During this time,the wine is racked 7 times and is fined with the whites of 6 eggs per barrel. Only certain vats are selected to make the Grand Vin, Lafite. The others are used to make the second wine of Lafite, the “Carruades de Lafite”.
2016 Bordeaux in Review / “A Once in a Lifetime Vintage”
By Andrew Caillard MW
The 2016 Bordeaux vintage will be remembered as one of the great years of the 21st Century. I have not been so excited about the prospects of such young wines since the remarkable back-to-back 2009 and 2010 vintages. At that time China was at the zenith of its extraordinary fine wine ascendency where the very top estates, particularly Chateau Lafite, had become a baksheesh currency. Every man and his dog, with a connection with government, curried favour or accepted gifts with Grand Cru Bordeaux, particularly First Growths. During this extraordinary time, the prices of Bordeaux started to move up at a more rapid speed than Sydney Real Estate. When we were filming Red Obsession in 2011 the Bordeaux wine market had become a classic bubble, even though the main actors still believed otherwise. Self-entitlement and denial always go hand in hand. Nonetheless, it has taken five years for the market to reset itself. Bordeaux is more confident again. Even interest from China has grown again. The market is now around 280 million Euros annually, which illustrates the resilience, power and track record of Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux wines.
The 2016 Primeurs is also very different from previous years. There is a changing of the guard with new generations beginning to make their mark at all levels of wine business and production. Philippe Bascaules has returned to Ch Margaux from California. Eduard Moueix of JP Moueix is clearly on the ascendancy, and the owners of Ch Angelus have handed over duties to the next generation. This energy, renewal and enthusiasm is great for Bordeaux. Chateau owners, winemakers and business leaders seem to be more enlightened and interested in the world about them, even Australia.
This very contemporary all-gleaming 2016 vintage seems to reflect the freshness and vibrancy of a new age of wine. Even Chateau Pavie, once the poster-child of the Robert Parker era, has raised the white flag. It’s long dalliance with soupy overly plush wine is over, it seems. The 2016 against the 2015 is like comparing a racehorse with a sloth, even though vintage conditions would normally stump up something similar in style. The affable consultant oenologist Michel Rolland, the grand master of taste aesthetics, has clearly moved on with the times. There is no longer a clear individual to impress.
Nonetheless with Robert Parker now pretty well off the scene there seems to be a jockeying of position among ambitious American wine critics particularly. The hard working James Suckling and Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth, like the horses of the apocalypse, have already crashed through the starting gates and made their prophesies known to the world. All indications suggest an early campaign, but it will probably go on for ever, such is the tactical outlook and the hierarchical nature of this beast.
It is worth pulling everything into context. The primeur tasting takes place generally after the wines have finished their malolactic fermentations. Tasting any earlier could in theory compromise or skew opinion. This is arguably a growing issue with key wine writers trying to out smart each other. Nonetheless it doesn’t take a genius to understand the quality of a very good vintage. Colour, aromatic complexity, concentration, tannin quality, oak and acidities are key elements and we are all looking for a patterned balance, an individual voice or something to believe in. With so many wines the nuances can be infinitesimal, certainly from a language point of view, and therefore difficult to truly differentiate. An understanding of track record, winemaking house style and sub-regional characteristics also helps bring an overall impression. Cultural references, experience, language, personal loyalties etc. will also throw up varying opinions. Fear of not getting it right, might be a factor as well. And of course there is the 1855 Classification, which can have a moderating effect. For instance would a wine critic dare to give a fifth growth a greater score than a First Growth?
Bear in mind all of the tastings are of unfinished wines, with still a good 8 months to 20 months or longer of barrel aging. Ch Roteboeuf for instance sees around two-year oak maturation and many top chateaux elect to have their wines in barrel for 18 months. Some wine are tasted at negociants on a Monday – which may mean that samples can be slightly stale when reviewed. Many old world wine critics don’t pick this up. Atmospheric conditions also play a remarkable part in how a wine looks on the day. The weather conditions during the 2016 primeurs tastings was classic with perfect warm Spring weather and beautiful conditions to taste.
Increasingly there is less opportunity to taste blind. It is incredibly challenging to make the appointments necessary to do the full coverage. More and more chateaux are insisting that their wines are tasted in their cellars, and finding time slots is not easy. It should be pointed out, therefore, that most or all of the tasting notes given by Bordeaux opinion leaders are open-tasted. Not even the Union des Grands Crus offers the option of blind tasting these days. On balance this is not a bad thing. What is the point of looking at wines without emotion or connection? How many wine reviews are written with completely the wrong conclusion? And how often is wine quality over-exaggerated?
Although a strong cabernet sauvignon year, the 2016 Bordeaux vintage is generally exceptional for red wine. All red grape varieties, including merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot have achieved good flavour and phenolic ripeness (The same for white varieties semillon, sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris). The left bank has performed brilliantly across all sub-regions including St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien, Margaux and Pessac Leognan. The lesser known Moulis and Listrac appellations, usually representing pretty good value, have also stumped up generous wines. The right bank is just a little patchy, perhaps reflecting the fragmented state of investment and resources. Nonetheless the very top estates have made wines of exquisite quality. St Emilion and Pomerol, both reliant on merlot and cabernet franc have stumped up some real gems. Wines with cabernet franc/ cabernet sauvignon in the right bank blends have an extra zip and freshness. So this is a year where price will largely determine buying patterns. The overall quality is so impressive, it is unlikely you will make a mistake, not with our recommendations anyway.
After nearly six months of wet weather, Bordeaux enjoyed perfect warm to hot dry (some say drought) conditions from early summer onwards. Cool temperatures over night allowed grapes to retain natural acidities and freshness. Flowering was very good resulting in great potential yields. Some mildew pressure and vigorous canopy development during early Spring resulted in some green harvesting and leaf plucking. Few chateaux experienced any significant heat loads during harvest. By all accounts the fruit arrived in most cellars in very good, if not perfect condition. Viticultural practices played an important part in the end result. There is a significant correlation between vineyard investment and wine quality. Hence it is often the wealthiest producers who have been able to achieve that extra 1% difference. The growing season has been compared to 2012, but the results are vastly different, illustrating the mystery of life and the magical quality of wine. And every chateau has a slightly different take on what happened.
The resources available to winemakers is astonishing. Over the last twenty years, particularly, there has been a revolution to winemaking approach. Many of Bordeaux’s most prominent Chateaux have invested millions of Euros into the reconstruction of their wineries. Ch Calon Segur, Ch Beychevelle and Ch Pontet Canet are just a few that have been recently completed or in progress. These have followed more high profile examples including Ch Margaux with its Sir Norman Foster designed winery, Ch Petrus, Ch Cheval Blanc, Ch Latour and Ch Montrose. Vineyard mapping drones, Grape hydro-coolers, sorting machines, gravity fed contraptions and stainless steel vats looking like large nespresso capsules are some of the expensive playthings of contemporary winemaking. Yet this equipment, rather than industrialising the process of vinification, is all about personalizing individual plots of land and taking a gentle approach to handling the fruit.
This attempt for individuality is followed down various pathways. One of the more extreme proponents of modern viticulture and winemaking is Alfred Tesseron at Ch Pontet Canet. His investment in biodynamic viticulture, horse-drawn vineyard work and amphora (made from earth from the vineyard) maturation, shows an ideal that is steeped in protecting and emphasizing the personality of the landscape. The 2016 vintage possesses a natural energy, vibrancy and richness while showing classic Pauillac lines of pure cassis fruit and fine grained tannins. The underlying theme of goodness and sustainable farming has a charming appeal. More and more Chateaux are adopting organic, biodynamic or low input philosophies. This approach can be seen across the whole Bordeaux region and especially with Grand Cru Classé producers.
At Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, also in Pauillac, the vineyard workers have been snapping pheromone-infused plastic capsules on supporting wires in preparation for the arrival of the butterfly season and to combat grape worms. Rather than using sprays these capsules are employed to emit pheromones that attract male butterflies and confuse them from mating with females. One winery director at an estate on the right bank, told me (in all seriousness) that “the problem with sexual confusion is that if your neighbours are not doing it, it doesn’t work.”
The 2017 growing season is on its way with a glorious early Northern European Spring. The butterflies are already flying in peculiar zig-zags, mirroring the driving habits of over 2500 visitors as each person hurriedly moves from one appointment to another. Through the benefit of hindsight of tasting reviews, the 2016 Bordeaux vintage is in every way a paradox. The red wines possess superb freshness, definition and structure and they will simply not disappoint.
Pauillac / A fabulous vintage for all the three First Growths and most of the Grand Cu producers. Deep colours, intense inky black currant aromas, fine grained tannins, attractive mid-palate richness and indelible long acidities are marks of great quality. Ch Mouton Rothschild is a stand out, but Ch d’Armailhac punches well above its weight. Ch Batailley, Ch Grand Puy Lacoste, Ch Lynch Bages, Ch Pontet Canet, Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Ch Pichon Longueville Baron are standouts. The lesser known Ch Pibran, next door to Pontet Canet is an outlier worth looking at as well as Lynch Moussas