AN EXTRAORDINARY LOVE OF NATURE. Saskia de Rothschild became the youngest person to lead a first growth Bordeaux wine estate in 2018 at the age of 31. The first female chairwoman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in six generations of the family’s global wine business, she succeeded her father Baron Éric de Rothschild, who was in charge of Château Lafite from 1974 to 2018.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Saskia de Rothschild, why did you change your life as a successful investigative journalist?
I was living in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast as a correspondent on West Africa for The New York Times. It was a great time, covering elections, bombing attacks and other interesting events in the area. My father called me up to ask if I was coming to Lafite in January when we do the “assemblage”, meaning we blend the vintage of Lafite deciding the components of the grand vin. I went every year, and when I told him I would stay a week and then go back to Abidjan he said: “You know, at some point you’re going to have to come back for a little bit more than just one week.”
Did you feel family pressure to return to your roots?
Never. I grew up with a very liberal education. My Italian mother is an artist and my father is very open-minded. I had always wanted to tell stories, and that had been my career. But when my father said that, I thought about the incredible story which has been happening at Château Lafite in Pauillac for 150 years. I knew the place. I loved the place. And I felt I could protect it for years to come. So I went back to school to study viticulture and oenology and then committed myself to Lafite and our other estates completely. It is a different kind of life, but an interesting one.
Your father bet on you for his succession out of all the extended Rothschild family. Do you have a very special relationship?
Yes, and he knew that I had a special relationship with Lafite since I was little. I had enormous curiosity towards wine and what was happening in the vineyard. I always wanted to taste the wines and learn the differences between vintages. You need someone who is interested. Six branches of our family are shareholders in Lafite, so there were plenty of potential candidates, but I had shown my love for the place and that was the most important part.
“My father taught me the most important lesson of our job, which is that things take time.”
Saskia de Rothschild, your ancestor James de Rothschild bought the Lafite Estate in 1868, but we don’t know if he was actually able to visit the Lafite Estate because he died not very long after.
In fact we found and shared in The Almanac, the book that we just published with Flammarion about the story of Lafite, a newspaper cutting from 8 September 1868. It says that Baron James took the train and visited Château Lafite. It was very moving to have confirmation that he had been there, and when we looked at the archives we saw that at the time he visited the vineyard was in harvest.
To celebrate 150 years of Lafite you published this illustrated book called Château Lafite: The Almanac. Has Château Lafite changed a lot since 1868?
80 percent of our job as winemakers comes from nature; from the area where the vineyard is – the terroir – and the climate of a given vintage. These two criteria are the majority of the cards in your hand, and we have amazing cards. The terroir of Lafite was built from alluviums of rocks from the quaternary period that the Pyrenees and the Massif Central brought in via the River Garonne and the Dordogne. These stones created such good soil that if it’s too hot it will get water from very deep, and if it’s too wet it drains very well. The soil is the main part of why Lafite is magical.
Why is Château Lafite wine so special?
The soil makes it one of the most delicate of all the wines of the area. In the 1980s and the ‘90s the fashion for wine became to be more opulent, and Lafite was sometimes seen as a little bit too austere. But we trusted the terroir, and today still have this very delicate wine that always looks for balance over power. That identity is what distinguishes us. Our wine tells the same story that it told in 1868, which was a very good vintage. We drank a bottle of it in 2018. We only had five bottles left, so it was a big emotion to open one. It’s absolutely incredible that a wine can be kept for 150 years, be drinkable and tell its story.
What is the taste of a wine aged for 150 years?
It’s a different emotion. It is ethereal in the sense that it still has fruit, this nose with incredible patina that has the aroma of very old cherries and very old flowers, and at the same time is very fragrant. With acidity and kick, it’s very drinkable.
Is it an amazing feeling to open something so valuable and see it disappearing into yourself?
I tell my friends who are having children to buy a case of Château Lafite for their birth year. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but all through their life they will be able to open bottles to remember those moments. The fact that at the end of the bottle there’s nothing left is part of the completely ephemeral quality.
How much is a case of 6 bottles of Lafite?
I advise the younger generation to buy en primeur, before it’s ready, and it’s also very interesting to bet on the coming vintage. If you bought the 2020 wine now you would receive it in two years. A case of 6 bottles of a very good vintage would cost you about 3500 euros.
Is it difficult for you to make a budget for the estate since everything is so dependent on the weather?
Before anything else we are farmers and we depend on the weather. We’re very wary on the price and the quantity of wine. There are so many criteria that can come into play, such as frost, hail, drought. All can have an effect on production.
Which grape varieties make up Lafite wine?
Cabernet Sauvignon is the queen grape of the area. The Lafite 2020 vintage is 92 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It is good with heat and stays very balanced, whereas Merlot – which we also love and have quite a high proportion of on the estates – is more sensitive to heat, and this could be a challenge in years to come.
Are you working sustainably and going organic?
We’ve been experimenting with farming organically at Lafite and our other estates for many years. Château L’Évangile in Pomerol was our laboratory and the first estate we converted to organic farming. It is organically certified, and this year all our French vineyards will be officially certified.
Which are your other French vineyards?
In Bordeaux, Château Duhart-Milon, Château L’Évangile and Château Rieussec in Sauternes. In this last estate, we have great plans for this year as we are relaunching our Rieussec, a liquorous wine with a new strategy to get this extraordinary product in the glasses of wine lovers. In the Languedoc region, in Corbières, we grow Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan at Château d’Aussières.
Are the other labels as prestigious as Lafite?
No, they’re more affordable. A bottle of Château d’Aussières is about 30 Euros and it is a delicious wine.
“The Rothschild name says that we have this experience and this knowhow that is a real strength and has been passed on through the years.”
Saskia de Rothschild, what projects do you have elsewhere in the world?
In 1989 our family bought a 700 hectare vineyard in Chile called Los Vascos, it is our largest vineyard anywhere. We have a joint venture in Argentina with the Catena family, CARO for Catena Rothschild. Our newest project is at Domaine de Long Dai in the Shandong region of China. It’s a small vineyard of about 30 hectares that we started from scratch.
What is your Chinese wine like?
Very different. The objective was to define and understand what kind of wine the terroir wanted us to make, not to make Bordeaux in China. It’s quite potent, with a high percentage of Marselan, a grape that the Chinese love. Opulent and spicey, we vinify it with the same discipline and objective of balance as we do with Lafite and now have three vintages under our belt.
Do you travel to Argentina, Chile and China, to check your vineyards?
Normally I go every year, but since the pandemic I haven’t been able to. It’s been quite frustrating.
How is the 2020 vintage, the vintage of the year of the pandemic?
For us it is a special wine because part of the teams who usually work in the vineyards were at home with their children, so we had to reorganise. People who usually work in the office went out to help in the vines, which didn’t stop growing when everyone was in lockdown. It’s a vintage of collaboration, of finding solutions and everyone working together.
Do you yet know what kind of wine it will be?
At this stage, when you taste the 2020, you do kind of know. I have a special love for the 2020, for its classicism and beautiful balance. We have a chance of 2018, 2019 and 2020 being a wonderful trilogy.
What is the mood for 2021?
In June the vine is flowering, which is very critical stage of the process and we had a little bit of rain, so were a bit worried, but it stopped right when the first flowers burst so we’ve been lucky for now. We’ve been having very precocious years because they were very warm, so the vines were really advanced and grew too fast. This year is tamer, less precocious, and we’re back to normal timings.
Is prestigious Château Lafite part of the luxury market?
Wine remains a product that comes from nature that you drink. Once you’ve drunk it, it’s finished. It has this incredible irrational quality, but we never call ourselves luxury because we can only make a finite number of bottles, depending on nature. We’re making a natural agricultural product and we call ourselves artisanal. We feel closer to those values than to the values of luxury.
The Rothschild name is very well-known all over the world since many generations. How does this benefit you?
The name tells the story of longevity. We are lucky that for 150 years we’ve had people making these vintages who have transmitted their know-how year after year to the people who took their jobs afterwards. In wine, knowledge of the past and having a few vintages under your belt is key. It means you can anticipate things way better. The Rothschild name says that we have this experience and this knowhow that is a real strength and has been passed on through the years.
Your father did your job for a long time. What did he teach you?
He taught me the most important lesson of our job, which is that things take time. We’re in the opposite business to people that work for start-ups with very short cycles. If I think this plot is not producing well and that we should uproot it I will know if I made the right decision 10 years afterwards. My father taught me to look at these long cycles and take time to do things.
Do you receive visitors from all over the world?
Yes, and anyone who writes to us gets a chance to visit and get a free tasting. We only do one visit a day and don’t mix groups, so if you write to us it may take six months, but our doors are open.
When life is not disrupted by the pandemic, who visits you?
The Japanese have been big wine lovers since the ‘70s and ‘80s, but in recent years the Chinese market has developed strongly. Then there is the American market, and of course Europeans, Brazilians…. People come from all around the world.
Château Lafite Rothshchild. Photo by Thibaut Cuisset
Château Lafite Rothschild. © François Poincet
Geste du vin
Vignoble Château Lafite Rothschild. Photo by Thibaut Cuisset.
Baron Eric and Saskia de Rothschild.
“We’re working with nature and it’s the best part of what we do.”
Saskia de Rothschild, how many people work with you?
About three hundred in France, and about three hundred in the rest of the world, mainly in Chile.
What kind of people are they?
We are very lucky to have an extraordinarily talented team. A lot are from families who have been very attached to us for four or five generations. Then we have new individuals from different regions, who bring new eyes, who have travelled and seen other things. Diversity of talent is key to what we try to do.
What developments have come with digital trading?
The step to buying wine online has been quite difficult in Europe because of a mental barrier, while in Asia or China about half of our wines are now sold online. In European countries like France it’s under 10 percent. The pandemic has helped digital and we believe numbers will soar. But the experience of a link with a human and a personalized recommendation when you buy wine is absolutely magical so that will remain. Personally I just started buying wine online, and for other goods, I buy as much as possible second hand.
Which wines do you buy?
Every birthday my dad gives me six bottles of Burgundy wine, so I have a little cellar of them. I love Loire wines. I love Italian wines. I’m quite diverse in the wines that I buy.
What food do you enjoy with a bottle of Château Lafite?
I love Château Lafite with fish, and I also love it with Spaghetti Pomodoro. Wine with any kind of pasta is a very good pairing, but with tomato sauce pasta it is a must.
Then it’s not true that one has to drink white wine with fish?
No, it’s not.
Do you drink chilled red wine?
It’s good when it has a little bit of freshness. Wine evolves throughout the meal, so if you have it quite fresh at the beginning you see how it warms up and reveals itself.
What would you serve at an exceptional dinner party?
I would start with a Château Rieussec Sauternes, a liquorous wine that we produce that people think is a dessert wine, but it’s a very good aperitif. Our objective is for it to become the new champagne because it’s so absolutely gorgeous and delicious. So Sauternes to start, with oysters and zucchini flower tempura from the garden. Then I would go on to a Côte de boeuf, a piece of braised beef on vine wood with fries, with a glass of L’Évangile 2005 from our vineyard in Pomerol. Then I’d have mimolette cheese with Lafite ’86; and for dessert a black chocolate sorbet with an older bottle of Lafite. 1953 is my favourite. It’s very out of the norm, a beautiful vintage.
Are there still many bottles of 1953?
Not that many. In fact we don’t sell them anymore.
At the end of the day, are you happy and excited about your job?
We have beautiful challenges ahead and need a lot of humility, because we’re working with nature and it’s the best part of what we do.
Is nature in trouble?
We have to consider that it is, but if we take care of it there is something that we can do.
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