Whilst it is likely that vineyards existed on the property much earlier, the beginnings of the estate we now know as Château Lafite-Rothschild are generally considered to be in the late seventeenth century when the Ségur family reorganised the vines with the aim of producing high quality wines for the international market. After considerable success, high acclaim and various changes in ownership, it was purchased in 1868 by Baron James Rothschild who was shortly succeeded by his three sons. Now in its sixth generation with Saskia de Rothschild at its head, Lafite has found a remarkable consistency over the last two decades.
The estate has one-hundred-and-twelve hectares under vine across three distinct areas. Each is well-exposed to the sun, free-draining and carefully tended by hand throughout the year, and the average age of the vines is about forty years. The hillside around the Château, the adjacent parcels of the Carruades plateau to the west, and a few hectares in the bounds of neighbouring Saint-Estèphe, provide an exceptional terroir for the cultivation of the estate’s much admired grapes. Dominated by soils of fine, sandy gravel on limestone, the prevailing variety of the Lafite vineyards is non-surprisingly Cabernet Sauvignon. Accounting for fractionally more than 70% of the total vineyard area, the principal fruit is supported by Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (around 3%) and Petit Verdot (2%).
The proportions that comprise the estate’s Grand Vin however, are quite different - it is usual (particularly over the last quarter of a century) for the blend to contain between 80% and 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% to 20% Merlot and 0% to 5% of one of the remaining two grapes (Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot rarely appear in the same Grand Vin). Of course, as with every rule, there are always exceptions. And as each year throws up a singular set of conditions and challenges, each vintage evolves to express its unique interpretation of the terroir. Notable deviations from the expected composition include the 1996 and 1999 blends - which each contained all four grape varieties, and the vintage of 1961 which comprised 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
As one has come to expect from an elite estate, Château Lafite-Rothschild’s grapes are hand-harvested at optimal ripeness and subjected to a rigorous sorting process before vinification begins. Alcoholic fermentation takes place in stainless steel / traditional oak vats at controlled temperatures, with grapes from each plot being vinified separately to preserve the unique character of the terroir from which they are drawn. The second phase of fermentation - the malolactic - follows, before the wine is transferred into new oak barrels to age for between eighteen and twenty months. Classified as a Premier Cru Classé estate in 1855, around 16,000 cases of Lafite’s Grand Vin are produced each year. The wines are often described as perfectly balanced and regal, perhaps the most aromatic of the first growths.
The second wine of Lafite - Carruades de Lafite - is characterised by a higher content of Merlot than the Grand Vin. Typically comprising, 50% to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% to 50% Merlot and 0% to 5% of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, Carruades is an elegant, well-balanced wine with its own distinct personality; produced in quantities of around 20,000 cases each year.