I suspect many readers will be able to reel off the 1855 classification from memory; if you drink and taste enough of these wines over the years, eventually it sticks. But if you’re not one of these individuals then I am sure you would still be able to produce a list of the four first growths (or rather five, taking into account the promotion of Mouton-Rothschild in 1973). We have Château Margaux, the somewhat out-of-place Château Haut-Brion, and then the big three, all based in Pauillac. These are the aforementioned Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Lafite-Rothschild.
The order in which we list these first growths might not seem important today, and perhaps the scores given to their wines by influential critics are of more interest to savvy consumers than an outdated, antiquated classification. Fair enough. Nevertheless, before we go on to explore Château Lafite-Rothschild in all its glory, its origins, history, owners, controversies, vineyards and wines, there is one little fact about this estate’s ranking in 1855 that we should perhaps dwell on for a moment. The merchants ranked within each classification, and among the first growths Lafite was placed top. Perhaps this reflected the estate’s royal connections, having been a favourite of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour just one hundred years before? More likely, especially when we remind ourselves that the classification was based on price, perhaps it just reflected the fact that thirsty drinkers were willing to pay top dollar for the very best. Whatever the reason, it seems clear that, to many, there is something special about Château Lafite-Rothschild. In the course of this nine-page profile, I explore what that might be.
The Origins of Lafite
The Lafite estate is one of the oldest on the Médoc, its exact origins uncertain. Early mentions of it come to us from an era long before the marshes of the Médoc had been drained, and long before viticulture began to dominate this little isthmus, lying between the Gironde and the Atlantic Ocean. For this reason, the identity of the first individual to settle here is lost to time. Not even the name of the estate can give us a clue, as Lafite is not the name of some ancient proprietor, lord or other historical figure, but is actually a derivative of la fite, fite being one of dozens of terms used locally to describe a small hill or other rise in the landscape.