A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also The Lafite Rothschilds celebrate 150 years.
From spending a month reporting from an Ivory Coast jail to running Château Lafite is quite a leap but 31-year-old Saskia de Rothshchild (seen here at Lafite with her beloved smooth fox terrier Nola) has made it.
'I never thought I'd work at Lafite. Although I came for holidays and would work in the vineyards, I wanted to write and travel and get as far away as possible', Saskia tells me, just back from her morning run through the 100 hectares of vineyards surrounding the family's Bordeaux first growth château outside the famous wine town of Pauillac.
But two years ago, when she was working for the New York Times in their West Africa bureau, her father Eric de Rothschild called her, inviting her to take part in the annual tasting of young potential ingredients in the grand vin as she had done for the last eight years. This time he warned her that she had better prepare herself to do a bit more than this for Lafite.
Change was in the air. For over 30 years Eric had been running the show, with Christophe Salin in charge of selling and Charles Chevallier in charge of winemaking at all the family's Bordeaux properties. The time had come for a new team to take over.
As Saskia puts it, 'my character is that if I'm going to do something, I want to really do it'. When, for instance, she was writing a story for Revue XXI, France's answer to the New Yorker, about the detainee said to be in charge of Abidjan's prison, she spent a month with him. So, faced with the new challenge, she began to spend two or three days a week at Lafite (she is a particular beneficiary of the new Paris–Bordeaux high-speed rail service). It was just as Eric Kohler took over from Charles Chevallier. 'I asked him to teach me everything', she says.
The result was that Saskia learnt to prune, has done WSET courses to Level 3, and spent much of a year working at l'Evangile, Lafite's sister property in Pomerol, under an assumed name. 'So all of a sudden I was very hands on.' For a year she concentrated on getting to know all their Bordeaux properties, and then over the last year has been visiting their many ventures outside France, including the new winery in Shandong, eastern China, whose first, so far unnamed, release is keenly awaited.
Naturally loquacious, she weighed her words carefully when asked when it would be released and finally volunteered 'we're hoping to launch within 12 months', adding, 'It's difficult. We can't afford to fail because there is so much anticipation, but it should help us show the Chinese people how much they mean to us. It's an incredible place, with very precise viticulture, a bit like Burgundy.' Wine-trade observers were surprised when Lafite plumped for a site in eastern China where summers can be dangerously humid and springs inconveniently dry, but apparently there have been good rains this year.
China has played an important part in the recent history of Ch Lafite. It was the first wine to establish a cult reputation there, which ramped up its price to unparalleled levels –until President Xi's 2012 clampdown on luxurious gifts.
But this is just a footnote to the history of Lafite, an estate that was probably first planted with vines in the early seventeenth century. It was bought by Saskia's French great great great grandfather in 1868, 15 years after his English son-in-law had bought the neighbouring property that he renamed Ch Mouton-Rothschild. Lafite had recently been anointed 'first of the first growths' in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux wine estates in which Mouton was deemed a second growth on the basis of the prices it fetched. (Mouton was promoted to first growth status in 1973, after heavy lobbying by the then-owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild.)
Saskia is determined to make the most of the 150th anniversary of her family's ownership of a wine estate celebrated the world over and is currently trawling the property's extensive archives to assemble a book, due out next year, that will document the history of Lafite with a page representing each year.
Underneath the château, in near darkness, is an exceptionally complete collection of the vintages made by the Rothschilds – only three are missing according to Saskia. In order to help with the book and its celebration of historical achievement, it was decided to organise three sets of tastings and dinners, inviting a different group of guests each time – a typically Rothschild mix of nationalities and distinctions, not just wine professionals. (See an account of my group and the wonderful wines we tasted in The Lafite Rothschilds celebrate 150 years. Below, Saskia and parents assemble at the front door to bid farewell to the participants, and get ready to welcome another, weekend house party.)
It was clear that Saskia's aim for these three events was intellectual curiosity rather than as a social launch pad for the new chatelaine. She has striking looks but shares her father's love of shabby chic. We dressed up; she didn't.
In her new role she will have to promote Lafite (she will go to Japan and the US next year). 'That's part of the job, but it's the bit I feel least comfortable with', she admits. 'I love to talk about wine, but the best place to promote our wine is here', she said, perching on a crimson satin, tightly buttoned corner settee in one of Baron James's drawing rooms at Lafite, her headphones and Mac on a red-felted mahogany card table. Surely none of the ladies who played bézique at this very table could have imagined a Rothschild woman in charge of one of the family's many wine estates.
Admittedly Philippe's daughter Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was in charge of Mouton and its many brands for 26 years until her decease in 2014 (when her son Philippe took over), but it is difficult to imagine this glamorous actress pruning a vine.
For Saskia, on the other hand, it is the practical, viticultural side of things that is of most interest. She is clearly delighted that the experienced Bordelais Jean-Guillaume Prats, who has run both Ch Cos d'Estournel just across the road from Lafite and LVMH's global wine interests, has been taken on to succeed Christophe Salin on the commercial side. For both of them, she tells me delightedly, the wine is the thing. She is shocked when I wonder aloud whether Jean-Guillaume could prune a vine. Of course he could. 'The key thing is the product – we both believe this', she told me. Was Prats behind Lafite's relatively sensible 2017 release price announced on Thursday? Prats' intimate knowledge of the commercial side of things leaves her free to concentrate on making the Lafite properties as sustainable as she thinks possible ('it's what consumers are asking for').
Organic certification is already being sought for L'Evangile, but Lafite's honey, she tells me, is getting in the way of following suit in Pauillac because the approved treatment for the common vine disease flavescence dorée kills bees. A quandary for someone so heavily involved in the vegetable and flower gardens in front of the château and the biodynamic trials therein.
She is starting to think about new strategies. 'Every winery does big wine dinners but I'd love to twist the concept of a wine dinner. And I think Duhart and Evangile are easily understandable. They just need a twist to differentiate themselves. It's funny because for my generation Bordeaux has this stuffy, overpriced image and I really want to change that. When you're able to taste old wine, you can see what it's all about. I think learning to buy a wine for a child's birthday and being able to open it for their wedding is the most magical thing, for instance. Perhaps friends could buy wine together… I don't have a cellar at home because I don't have the space, but maybe people could share cellars...' she suggests. I mention a few such storing options I know of in Paris and Britain but she's a bit worried when I admit you usually have to give 24 hours' notice before withdrawing it.
Her colleagues seem thrilled with her. 'She's just so real', one of them told me delightedly.
She does confess that she hopes that after a couple of years or so with her and Prats in charge, things will be running so smoothly that she will be able to take up journalism again. She has already published a novel, Érable, and would like to do a piece on slavery in Mauritania that she's been researching. Talk about fresh air…