The famous vineyard is located in the north of the municipality of Pauillac in the Médoc (Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux). Directly adjacent to it is the Château Mouton-Rothschild. It was first mentioned in writing in 1234, where a Gombaud de Lafite is mentioned, an abbot of the monastery of Vertheuil, north of Pauillac. Since the 14th century, Lafite has been recorded as a fiefdom. The name "Lafite" is probably derived from the Gascognic "la hite", which means "small mountain" or "hill". This is a clear indication of the gentle rise on which the buildings of the estate stand. In the middle of the 16th century it was owned by the nobleman Joseph Saubat de Pommiers. In 1670, after his death, his widow Jeanne de Gasq married the notary Jacques de Ségur (+1691) from the famous noble family and brought in Lafite as a dowry. At that time, there were already few vines, but it was only between 1670 and 1680 that vineyards were planted on a larger scale. A piece of land called "Clos de Mouton" later became Château Mouton-Rothschild. Son Alexandre de Ségur married Marie-Thérèse de Clauzel, heiress of Château Latour, in 1695. At that time, three of the four Premiers Crus classified in 1855 were thus part of the estate.
A productive vineyard can be proven at least since 1707, when a bottle with this vintage designation was found. Due to greatly improved winegrowing techniques, the first successes were achieved from the 1720s onwards. The Lafite wine was marketed abroad (especially in England). It was also appreciated by the English Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), who ordered a barrel of Lafite (with 225 litres) every three months between 1732 and 1733. It was only later that it also became known at the royal court in Versailles. There is a nice story about how it came about. A doctor from Bordeaux prescribed Marshal Richelieu (1696-1788) wine as "the best and most pleasant tonic of all". After a long journey by the marshal, King Louis XV (1710-1774) remarked after his return that Richelieu "looked 25 years younger than before his departure". He remarked: "I have found the famous Fountain of Youth. The wine of Château Lafite is a noble tonic, delicious and comparable to the ambrosium of the gods of Olympus". The royal mistress Madame Pompadour (1721-1764) served the Lafite wine during her intimate dinners. And her successor Madame du Barry (1743-1793) also preferred this wine.
After his death in 1755, the property of the Marquis Ségur was divided between his four daughters. Lafite and Latour were again separated, but managed together until 1785. Lafite fell to the Comte Nicolas Marie Alexandre de Ségur, son of the eldest daughter of the Marquis. He sold it in 1784 to his relative Nicolas Pierre de Pichard (+1794), the first president of the parliament of Bordeaux. Shortly afterwards, the estate was described in an essay as "the most beautiful vineyard in the universe". At this time, the later US president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was ambassador of his country in France and collected information about Château Lafite, among other things. Finally, the reign of the Ségur family over the estate came to an end with the execution of Nicolas Pierre de Pichard by guillotine by the verdict of the revolutionary regime on 30 June 1794.
The property was auctioned and bought by the Dutch citizen Jean de Witt, who kept it for a short time. In the consequence there was a permanent change of ownership, the owners from 1800 were baron Jean Arend de Vos Van Steenvwyck, Othon Guillaume Jean Berg, Jean Goll de Franckenstein, Madame Barbe-Rosalie Lemaire (from 1818) and the banker Aimé-Eugène Vanlerberghe (from 1821). The latter, however, did not appear officially for tax reasons, but outwardly this is the banker Samuel Scott. The famous Bordeaux classification in 1855, during which the estate was one of only four at the time, falls into this period and was ennobled as a "Premier Cru". In the absolute (unofficial) ranking it was even at the top and was considered "the best site in the Médoc, producing the best wine of the Bordeaux region". The "eternal rival" Château Mouton-Rothschild only received the second place "Deuxième Cru" at that time.
In 1868, as part of the succession of Ignace-Joseph Vanlerberghe, the auction of Château Lafite was announced. But at the first date on July 20, no offer was made. The second auction then took place on August 8th, the opening bid was 3.25 million francs including the Carruades vineyard. The contract was awarded to the bidder commissioned by the Parisian banker Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868) for the sum of 4.8 million francs including taxes. James was one of the five sons of the dynasty founder Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) and founded the French main line. Incidentally, his son-in-law and nephew Nathaniel de Rothschild (1812-1870), who had already worked in his father-in-law's bank in Paris since 1850, had already acquired Château Mouton-Rothschild 15 years earlier in 1853 (allegedly he also bid at the auction for Château Lafite through an intermediary). The Rothschild Bank in Paris resided in the "Rue Laffitte" - and according to legend, this was one of the reasons for the purchase.
James de Rothschild had a longstanding interest in this winery. The first attempt to buy it was in 1830, but it was rejected by the then (supposed) owner Samuel Scott. Now 38 years later it had finally worked out. The new owner added his own name and called the estate "Château Lafite-Rothschild". He died only three months later and supposedly never saw the estate. He was succeeded by his three sons Alphonse, Gustave and Edmond Rothschild (1845-1934). The latter revived viticulture in Israel with 60 million gold francs in 1882. From the last third of the 19th century, a series of medium to large disasters occurred. It started with phylloxera, continued almost seamlessly with downy mildew, then organized fraud with fake Lafite wines, the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the great Great Depression of the 1930s.
During the Second World War, the Médoc region was occupied by German troops in 1940. Among other things, the two Rothschild estates were placed under public administration. After the end of the war, the Edmond family entrusted Elie Robert de Rothschild (1917-2007), Edmond's grandson, with the management of the estate. He engaged the famous oenologist Professor Émile Peynaud (1912-2004) as an advisor. The reconstruction of the dilapidated estate progressed rapidly. For the first time in 80 years since the Rothschilds took possession of the estate, a dividend was paid to the shareholders in 1948. Baron Elie was one of the key figures in the difficult reconstruction of the market. He took part in the tastings in London as a member and was a founding member of the "Commanderie du Bontemps du Médoc" (Wine Brotherhood) in 1950. In 1953, he stirred up the "eternal conflict" between Mouton and Lafite by proposing that Mouton be excluded from the "Union of Five" (the then four Premiers Crus and Mouton) because it was not a Premier Cru.
The 1955 vintage became a very great wine, but the next year 1956, as with many other wineries in Bordeaux, brought an enormous setback due to extreme frost down to minus 35 °Celsius icy cold. But the upswing could no longer be stopped. In 1975 Elie handed over the management to his nephew Eric de Rothschild (*1940). He set new impulses and gradually renewed the entire technical team. New plantations were planted in the vineyards, improved fertilizers and sophisticated plant protection methods were also introduced. A new circular wine cellar was built by the star architect Ricardo Bofill. In 1994 Charles Chevallier was established as cellar master. Through the acquisition of several vineyards at home and abroad, the family business "Domaines Barons de Rothschild" (DBR) expanded considerably. Among others, the Chilean winery Los Vascos in the Colchagua area is one of them. See the entire history of the two family empires under Rothschild.
The vineyards cover around 100 hectares of vines, which are divided locally into three larger areas. These are the vineyards around the Château itself, those at Carruades and a smaller part in St. Estèphe. By special authorisation, the St. Estèphe wines are also considered to be those of Pauillac. The vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon (71%), Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Petit Verdot (1%). The average age of the vines is 40 years. All younger vines under ten years are not used for the Grand Vin. The first secret of outstanding quality is the soil, these are deep gravel banks on limestone. Other important components are the age of the vines, yield limits of 40 to 45 hectolitres per hectare, the right timing of the grape harvest, different for each variety, strict selection of the grapes, careful destemming, fermentation temperature not exceeding 30°C and overpumping to extract the colouring agents. After fermentation, each barrel is checked and tasted and only the very best are used for the first wine. The second quality goes into the second wine and the third goes into the inexpensive DBR-Collection-Line
The usual cuvée for the first wine is Cabernet Sauvignon (80-95%), Merlot (5-20%), and Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (0-3%). The 1961 vintage was made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine matures for 18 to 20 months in 100% new oak barrels. The barrels are produced in the estate's own cooperage. The barrels are constantly refilled to compensate for shrinkage, and the wine is decanted two or three times into clean barrels and a fining with beaten egg white. After the ageing process, six barrels are placed in each container in order to achieve larger quantities of uniform quality through this equalisation. The red wine has a bouquet of almonds and violets. 15,000 to 20,000 cases are produced annually. The second wine is called "Carruades de Lafite" (formerly "Moulin des Carruades") and is named after a vineyard that was hotly contested between the Lafite and Mouton vineyards around 1845 (see Rothschild). It has a higher proportion of Merlot and matures for 18 months in up to 15% new barriques. 20,000 to 30,000 cases are produced annually. Since 1995, the low-priced line "DBR Collection" has been marketed alongside the top wines. This group, labelled as "Réserves des Barons", comprises the four wines Bordeaux rouge, Bordeaux blanc, Médoc and Pauillac. These are wines that are immediately drinkable.
To this day, Château Lafite-Rothschild is one of the best and most expensive red wines in the world, and has done so for centuries with almost unbelievable consistency. In a tasting once 36 different vintages back to 1799 were tasted and compared. The astonishing result was a consistent quality of the wines and this for a period of over 150 years. Among the absolutely most expensive wines in the world are two vintages of the house. For a long time the record holder was a vintage 1787, which was sold for $ 160,000 (£ 105,000) at Christie's auction in 1985. The bottle, which came from the estate of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), went to the US publisher Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990). The record was broken in November 2010. In November 2010, the auction house Sotheby's Hong Kong sold three bottles of the vintage 1869 for 1.8 million Hong Kong dollars each. This corresponds to an incredible 232,692 US dollars.
Outstanding vintages of Château Lafite-Rothschild from older times were for example 1847, 1848, 1858, 1864, 1869, 1870 (!), 1876, 1899, 1900, 1906, 1926 and 1929. From more recent times, these are the years 1945, 1947, 1949, 1955, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1982 (100 points by Robert Parker), 1985, 1986 (100 PP), 1988, 1989, 1990 (100 PP), 1994, 1995, 1996 (100 PP), 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 (100 PP), 2002, 2003 and 2005. Especially the crescents from the 1980s onward have in part not yet reached their peak. These are - as was once aptly noted - "wines for the heirs".