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Why collectors love Lafite

One of the world’s most prestigious wines, Château Lafite Rothschild has produced record sales at auction. Our specialists explain why it’s so highly sought-after

The first of the ‘first growths’

In terms of Bordeaux, or claret as it is also referred to, there are no greater wines than the five châteaux referred to as the ‘first growths’: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild.

First growth, or premier cru classé, is the top tier of the Bordeaux classification, a list drawn up under the instruction of Napoleon III in 1855. The wine producers were classified according to a château’s reputation and trading price, which, at that time, was directly related to quality. The wines were ranked in importance from first to fifth growths (crus), with four first growths listed initially (Mouton Rothschild was added in 1973).

Within the five rarefied first growths, Lafite has always held a particular allure. It is perhaps the wine with the best reputation for quality and longevity, commanding correspondingly high prices. It is considered by some to be the best wine to come out of Bordeaux.

Château Lafite-Rothschild 1996. 12 bottles per lot. This lot was offered in Fine Wines and Spirits Featuring the Exceptional Collection of Jay Stein on 21 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $11,638

Château Lafite-Rothschild 1996. 12 bottles per lot. This lot was offered in Fine Wines and Spirits: Featuring the Exceptional Collection of Jay Stein on 21 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $11,638

For power there are other châteaux, but for elegance Lafite is always the wine

According to the renowned fine-wine authority Michael Broadbent, who founded Christie’s Wine Department 50 years ago, if you want ‘voluptuousness, toastiness, exoticism and weight’ from a first growth, then you’d probably go for Mouton. The exuberant interior is actually mirrored by the artist-commissioned labels.

You’d pick Latour for power. ‘No other Médoc wine can match Latour for depth of flavour and grandeur,’ says Broadbent. But ‘for elegance, choose Lafite’. The discrimination reflects a more traditional taste in wine whereby elegance is preferred to power and exoticism. When speaking of ‘elegance’ in a wine, experts are typically referring to restraint, nuance and those almost impossible-to-define qualities that elevate great wines. As these wines age, the delicate fruit character that is present in youth develops subtle secondary aromas of leather and tobacco that continue to evolve and change through the wine’s long life.

‘Overall, the wines are more delicate, an attribute that is rare in Bordeaux these days,’ says specialist Layla Khabiri. ‘Most wines will get high praise from critics just for being BIG.’

Château Lafite-Rothschild 2000. 12 bottles per lot. This lot is offered in Fine Wines and Spirits Featuring the Exceptional Collection of Jay Stein on 21 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $15,925

Château Lafite-Rothschild 2000. 12 bottles per lot. This lot is offered in Fine Wines and Spirits: Featuring the Exceptional Collection of Jay Stein on 21 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $15,925

This is a wine to enjoy as it matures

While some might argue that Latour is the largest and most structured of the first growths, which helps it achieve its longevity, Lafite is also widely known for having wines that can age for a century or more. And only once you try an older vintage can you truly experience the full degree of nuance and finesse that distinguishes this wine.

‘We were lucky enough to taste a 1953 Lafite in the office, a bottle that was purchased from Christie’s in the 1980s, and it perfectly epitomises the allure of Lafite,’ says Khabiri. She refers to a well-known quote from Michael Broadbent:

‘A lovely wine, Lafite at its beguiling best. Not a thruster, not a show-off, a wine of exquisite charm and finesse… This is not a wine to describe. Words simply cannot do it justice. If you are ever fortunate enough to share a bottle, just let it speak for itself.’ — Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine 

‘This is a great metaphor for old-school Bordeaux winemaking in general,’ Khabiri continues. ‘It doesn’t have to wow you with brute force or concentration in order to impress you. It’s just about quality — unassuming production that leads to a wine of ethereal beauty and longevity. That's what quintessential Bordeaux is all about.’

Mixed formats support both near- and long-term drinking

From half-bottles to double magnums, Lafite delights in all different formats. As it is one of the most age-worthy first growths, but also the most approachable in youth, it makes sense to own it in a variety of formats for near- and long-term drinking.

A collector can pick a Lafite for any occasion. Is it a special event with a lot of people in attendance? Impress with a larger format. Is it just for you and a friend curious about how it’s aging? Try a half-bottle.

Wines in different formats age at different rates, which might help you choose when to open a bottle. Half-bottles age faster because there is a higher ratio of surface area to oxygen exposure than with larger formats. The opposite is true of larger formats. They actually age slower — some say better — than standard bottles. Lafite’s approachability as both a young and an aging wine make it desirable as a wine to cellar, and also a wine to sip tonight.