Can Château Lafite Withstand Climate Change?

March 26, 2019 – At the Château Lafite seminar at Gourmet Fest 2019, we thought we were tasting some off the hook, ridiculously amazing wines from this first growth property that has been in the Rothschild family since Baron James de Rothschild purchased it in 1868. Yes, we were, in fact, but more than that, we were actually tasting the very real effects of climate change. I’ll explain.

Technical Director of the famed Bordeaux château, Eric Kohler, who has been making wines at Lafite Rothschild for 23 years, walked us through wines beginning with the 2008 vintage, all the way back to 1985, before he even started working there. He was assisted on the panel by sommeliers Larry Stone and Mark Bright.

The estate in the heart of the Médoc is among the largest in Bordeaux at 112 hectares. Largely planted to Cabernet Sauvignon at 70%, they also have Merlot (25%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Petit Verdot (2%). To taste backwards in time, with Kohler narrating the drama of each vintage—the most dire being 2000, when he lost the entire production of Château Rieussec, completely annihilating their Sauterne production—was literally a taste of climatology and the storied estate’s response to it.

Growing grapes in France is not all lavender and rosés named for movie stars. The French don’t irrigate and the weather is entirely unpredictable during the summer, prone to periods of rain, extreme cool, extreme heat (more and more so) and bouts of hail. 

This is exposed winemaking. Which is why terroir, or your piece of dirt, is so very very important. Here, you live and die by the exposure, the soil types and the drainage. Kohler says that what makes Lafite exceptional is that the vineyard has the capacity to make good wine in all conditions. Whereas other vineyards in the Médoc might not have much clay in the soils, Lafite does, which gives it the capacity to hold water, which can help it compensate during extended dry periods, up to a point.  

The 2008 vintage, we learned, was marked by a warm Indian summer. The wine has bright blueberry, juniper, cedar, iron filings, roasted chestnut and a delightful bit of green that Kohler terms “good green.” He equates this with freshness. The wine composition was 84% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot with 1% of Petit Verdot. You could taste just the hint of sweetness from the juicy Merlot. Most of the Merlot on the property goes into their second selection. Pauillac, after all, is prized for its Cabernet, which loves heat far more than Merlot.

Then the 2005, which I appreciated for its leathery nose, comes across as a bit closed, tight-fisted, reticent. This was a hot and dry vintage, that was fair and dry right from the start, which means the vines went crazy and put on a huge leaf load.  “When it gets really hot, it’s bad for the vines!” says Kohler. “Grape growing is like a marathon. If it’s hot from the start, the vines can’t cope with the heat towards the end.” 

Stone noted, from his memory, that the 2005s from Bordeaux were very tannic and have a tight mid-palate that appears shut down and lack fruit. The composition of this vintage was 89% Cabernet, 9% Merlot and 1% each of Petit Verdot and Cab Franc. 

We then went back in time to the 2003, another hot vintage, similar to 1945, 1961 and 1989. Again, it was hot from the very start, with bud break on the Merlot in April, the earliest since 1893. They also picked the earliest since 1893, as the grapes matured quite early. This results in wines that are “not as fresh,” according to Kohler, but they are pretty accessible, with sweet, almost cooked fruit. Although it was hot, it wasn’t extremely dry, which helped the Cabernet Franc to maturity. “This was only one of four recent vintages in which we used Cabernet Franc,” said Kohler. Composition was 85% Cab Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. 

The 2000 vintage was exciting and held supreme promise. It also happened to be the rather auspicious turn of the century that freaked everybody out. Observed Kohler, “It was our one great opportunity to make the vintage of the century! And it was a big, big harvest.” It turned out quite nicely, with a good tannin profile, pretty, accessible tannins with the consistency of fine sandpaper. The composition was very high in Cabernet, with 93%, and 7% Merlot. 

Then came the 1998, with its massive nose of iron, earth, mushroom and smoke, a truly mesmerizing and stunning wine, built for the ages, with incredible litheness and abundant acid. Flavors of red cherry and other racy red fruits are gorgeous and concentrated, leading to one of the best wines we tasted. For sure, the challenging vintage, pretty dry and hot, but not like 2003, was a factor. It was hot from August until September 15, when it rained. Kohler says the conditions were much better on the right bank, where Merlot was harvested before the rains came. The composition was 81% Cab and 19% Merlot, the highest percentage of Merlot in 20 years. 

Vintage 1995 comes across very intense, with extreme Bordeaux character: austere, with lots of iron, red currant, dill, herbs and Kalamata olives. Kohler recalls that this was the best vintage since 1990 and 1991. There was a bad frost, with small fruit set, and it was his 2ndvintage with Château Lafite. From June 3 through Sept 5, there was no rain at all. “I had never seen such dryness. The vineyard was yellow. The plant never forgets.” He feels this wine is on a long plateau and can go 12 years, undergoing a slow evolution. The wine is the same as it was the last time he opened it. 

The 1990 vintage is utterly appealing, with raspberry tea and tobacco, blessed with seamlessly flowing acid, cherry fruit, basil and very open and lush. Perhaps my second favorite of the lot. Kohler says this is 64% Cabernet and 36% Merlot. 

As we tasted the 1990, Kohler noted that when he first started making wine and was shown the 1983 as a reference point, he thought the wine was strange. “I was a young enologist, and I am tasting this wine that is 16 years old, and I’m thinking, this is so open for being so old. It is going to be dead in 5 years!” Little did he know how very wrong he was. “I have changed a lot more than that wine has! The wine is always very open and is it still the same. Me, I have lost all my hair!”

The last wine we tasted was the 1985, an amazing reflection of classic Bordeaux on all levels, with olive, capers, tea leaves and leather, floating on a fine texture. Kohler says this vintage was relatively even, without a lot of extremes. The composition was 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. By far my favorite of the lot. Bright had said the same to me, before we began the tasting.

Kohler exclaimed with joy, as the room murmured in universal approval: “This is just fantastic! We all agree. Baron was in love with the 1985. It was always so fresh. Green begets freshness, then elegance and harmony.” 

What suddenly became apparent was that, as the years have gone on, and the climate has skewed to more frequent and more intense heat spells, the proportion of Merlot and even Cab Franc have dramatically dropped. 

“We used to have lots more Merlot in our past wines, but with global warming, the Cabernet Sauvignon is getting riper and we don’t need the Merlot to soften it,” said Kohler.

In fact, many experts in France are seriously worried about the fate of Merlot, which is far more sensitive to heat than Cabernet. It might be time to buy up all those older vintages while they still exist.

Although Kohler did state unequivocally in his introduction, “There is no secret to the greatness of Château Lafite: it is the terroir,” one has to wonder how well it really can adapt to the impact of climate change. 

Year by year, we’ll surely find out. Meanwhile, buy 1985, 1990 and 2008, if you can.

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