Mis en bouteilles au Chateau: The museum of wine at Chateau Lafite

October 30, 2014 Leave a comment

I became rather curious about the origins of chateau bottled wines in Bordeaux after reading Mabel Hubbard Bell’s letter describing the early “sample bottles” at Chateau Lafite.  It is quite clear that 1869 is considered the first wine where an entire vintage was bottled at Chateau Lafite.  This was the first vintage under the ownership of Baron James de Rothschild who purchased the estate the previous year in 1868.  There were earlier vintages that were chateau bottled in part.  Exactly how far back this practiced extended has been studied over the years.  Cyril Ray wrote that both Warner Allen and André Simon originally believed that 1846 was the first vintage chateau bottled at Chateau Lafite but with the publication of A History of Wine (1961), Warner Allen switched to 1797 as being the earliest chateau bottled vintage without explanation.[1]

Chateau Lafite. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

Chateau Lafite. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

The vintage of 1797 corresponds with the purchase of Chateau Lafite by Jean de Witt.[2]  During the same year of the purchase, Joseph Goudal took over the management of the affairs at Chateau Lafite.  De Witt could only hold on to the estate for just a few years before he had to sell it at the end of 1800. This time the estate was purchased by three Dutch negocients.  Across this and future sales the Goudal family maintained management of the estate and kept records from which it is known that a small amount of wine was chateau bottled for the owners and staff.  It was Joseph Goudal who built the vinotheque in the early 1800s which now houses the oldest bottle reaching back to 1797.  Cyril Ray describes this small caveau as “primarily –almost entirely – a museum.”  There were some 1,500 bottles as of 1985.

Over a century earlier, in 1864, this cellar was also described as “un muse de ses vins en bouteilles”.[3]  The collection for this museum of wine was begun in 1798 by Joseph Goudal.  The wines were not for sale but buyers were occasionally allowed to taste from them to see how the wines changed over time.[4] At the time the vinotheque or caveau was reported to contain the vintages 1797 through 1834.  The later date is of interest because, as we shall see, just several years later the bottled vintages range from 1797 through 1864. The date of 1834 is either a typographic error or stocks from the grande cave were subsequently transferred to the vinotheque.  Whatever the range of vintages contained this vinotheque was considered unique in all of France.

During the 1868 sale of Chateau Lafite to Baron James de Rothschild the previous owners reserved the right to sell the wine in the cellars.[5]  The sale of the wine represented some 5,700 bottles of Chateau Lafite from the vintages of 1797 to 1864.[6]  There were also barriques of the 1865 vintage.  The prices ranged from a minimum of 7 Francs per bottle for 1826 and 1863 to as much as 121 Francs per bottle for some of the 21 bottles of the 1811 Comet year wine.  The lots ranged from as few as 6 bottles of 1802 to as many as 817 bottles of the 1864.[7]  The few descriptions I have found of this sale do not specifically assert whether these wines were chateau bottled or not.  Half of the wine was purchased by Baron James de Rothschild and stored in the cellars at Chateau Lafite.

Chateau Lafite.  Image from  . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux.  [4]

Chateau Lafite. Image from . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. [4]

It is Joseph Goudal’s vinotheque then that Francis Beatty Thurber named the “private cellar” with “specimen” vintages back to 1810.  Mabel Hubbard Bell described this space as the “sample cellar” with vintages back to 1798. Thus we have descriptions of old bottles of Chateau Lafite from 1868 and the 1880s.  I find it is curious then that in the 20th century, 1846 was considered the earliest chateau bottled vintage until Warner Allen’s change to 1797 in 1961.  Perhaps some history was lost or there was not yet proof that the 19th century descriptions applied to chateau bottled wines.  Even the definition of chateau bottled could have changed as well.

Clarets and Sauternes (1920) jumps into the subject of “Chateau bottling” immediately in the preface and certainly helps bridge the gap in some missing knowledge.[8]  This subject is described as “of perennial interest” amongst “Claret connoisseurs”.   Clarets and Sauternes credits Chateau Lafite with inaugurating La mise en bouteilles au Chateau in 1846 or 1847 because the claims of Chateau d’Yquem were more tenuous.  These bottlings at Chateau Lafite occurred “for quite small lots.” Between 1847 and 1862 chateau bottlings also took place at Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.  The bottling of the entire vintage of 1869 Chateau Lafite by Jules Clavelle is given substantial weight not only because “it authenticated the wine definitely and finally” but it also “contributed in no small degree to popularize this feature of the Grand French Wines.”  The practice of chateau bottling continued to gain in practice until “it reached its zenith just before the outbreak of the lamentable World War.”

Dessus de Cheminee a Chateau Lafite.  Image from  . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux.  [4]

Dessus de Cheminee a Chateau Lafite. Image from . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. [4]

Only the best vintages of Chateau Lafite in cask were allowed to be bought and sold as “Lafite” with inferior vintages known only as Vin Rouge.  This maintenance of quality was extended to the Chateau bottlings which only took place during approved vintages.  Thus there were no chateau bottlings between 1885 and 1906 due to strict quality standards.  After the first bottled vintage of 1846 it was “possible to arrange for Chateau bottling at Lafite, but it is understood the privilege was not generally availed of, except for quite small lots.”

Shortly after Clarets and Sauternes was published an interesting article exploring chateau bottling titled “Mise en bouteilles au Chateau” appeared in Le Sommelier during 1924.[9]  The article begins by stating, contrary to popular opinion, that Chateau d’Yquem is considered the first to chateau bottle the entire vintage, that being 1865, ahead of Chateau Lafite in 1869. There is prompt acknowledgement that small lots were bottled at the Chateau Lafite both for individuals and the trade prior to those vintages.  One early example was found detailed in a letter describing the 1811 or “Comet vintage” as being “mis en bouteilles au chateau” and bearing a stamp on the bottle “Chateau Lafite. – M. Goudal, regisseur”.  Other vintages bottled at the chateau, with similar guarantee of origin on the bottle or capsule, included 1836 and 1838.  The 1837 vintage was purchased “en nouveau” but turned out to be mediocre and was apparently abandoned before eventually being chateau bottled in 1839.  Several barrels of 1846 were chateau bottled, a substantial amount of 1847, and at least 50 barrels of 1848 were additionally labeled “grand vin”.

Chateau Lafite marks. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

Chateau Lafite marks. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

While we may never know the sources that Warner Allen and André Simon relied upon it is clear that based on the Goudal documentation the early accounts of the bottled wines in the vinotheque refer to chateau bottled examples.  I find this cycle of lost and found history interesting.  Whereas the article in Le Sommelier sheds light on Chateau Lafite it also informs us that the use of the terms Mis en bouteilles au Chateau and Grand Vin on wine bottles was hotly debated.  At key was the inevitable paradox that a chateau bottled poor vintage represented an authentically bad wine.  This would be at direct odds with the great French wines acting as ambassador products in foreign countries.  That is a subject for another post.  If you are at all like me, you must now be wondering exactly which vintages of old Chateau Lafite were sold in 1868, who purchased the other half of the bottles, and what did they taste like?

[1] Ray, Cyril. Lafite. Christie’s Wine Publications. 1985.
[2] Coates, Clive. Grand Vin. University of California Press.  1995.
[3] “Bordeaux”, 22 October 1864, Le monde illustre: journal hebdomadaire, Volume 2-8. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=isJLAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] De Lorbac, Charles. Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. 1868. URL: https://archive.org/details/richessesgastron00unse
[5] Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume 16. 1868. http://books.google.com/books?id=z24KAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred. The Wines of France. 1908. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=2iw7AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Bertall. La Vigne: voyage autour des vins de France. 1878. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=8To3AQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] The Wine and Spirit Trade Record. Clarets and Sauternes. 1920. URL: https://archive.org/details/claretssauternes00kgagiala
[9] Le Sommelier. Revue mensuelle officielle ["puis" et propriété exclusive] de l’Union des sommeliers de Paris. May 15, 1924. Bibliothèque nationale de France. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb328709557

Categories: History of Wine

An image from Bertall’s La Vigne (1878)

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Do not fear my lack of posting today, I am perfectly fine!  Last week I began accumulating some material for a simple post meant to reflect research as it happens.  But with each passing day I began to understand my subject better and I continue to find more information that only draws me in further.

From Bertall’s La Vigne. 1878. [1]

[1] Bertall. La vigne: voyage autour des vins de France. 1878. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=8To3AQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

A simple map showing effectiveness of the death treatment or use of carbon bisulphide against the phylloxera

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

“[W]herever bisulphide reaches the habitation of the insect, sure death will follow…the application, however, should be judiciously made…applied otherwise, it is my opinion that the vine will receive a blow from which it will scarcely recover.”

The application of carbon bisulphide against phylloxera. [1]

[1] Reports of the Chief Viticultural Officer, Volume 1. 1882. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=CfFNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Two very different wines from Italy

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

It is possible that you might not like both of these wines but if you are adventurous then you should taste both.  The 2011 Grosjean Freres, Cornalin, Vigne Rovettaz, Vallee d’Aoste is made from the local grape Cornalin which is grown in the Alpine area of northern Italy. The cool environment comes through on the nose as well as the ethereal flavors in the mouth.  Despite the lightness it is a puckering blend of old-school flavors, old wood, and earth before the final kiss of strawberry.    You must see a bottle of 2011 Tenuta Alfredosa, Montefalco Rosso from start to finish.  My first thought was that of drinking dark fruited grape juice.  It was fantastic in its purity.  Then the wine shook off its innocence to become a robust and powerful, yet balanced wine.  You are in for a new experience regardless of which wine you purchase.  These wines were purchased at MacArthur Beverages.


2011 Grosjean Freres, Cornalin, Vigne Rovettaz, Vallee d’Aoste – $26
Imported by Neal Rosenthal.  This wine is 100% Cornalin sourced from vines planted one decade ago on steel, sandy soils.  The fruit was destemmed, fermented with indigenous yeasts then aged in stainless steel.  Alcohol 13%.  There was cooler smelling fruit with pepper hints and some herbaceousness.  In the mouth was a lively start of tart red fruit and almost puckering flavors.  There was an old-school flavor to this wine.  It had drier, tart fruit but still showed some roundness.  The was light and ethereal with old wood, earthy, and a strawberry finish.  *** Now-2017.


2011 Tenuta Alfredosa, Montefalco Rosso – $20
Imported by Vinifera Imports.  Alcohol 14.5%.  The flavors were quite grapey at first then became robust with air.  There was blue and black fruit, hints of smoke, and a little density and minerality.  The structure was firm with some lean, dry, and very fine tannins.  The citric acidity was very much balanced in this powerful wine.  *** Now-2019.


William Heyser’s efforts at planting vines and making wine during the Civil War.

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

William Heyser (October 6, 1796 – November 6, 1863) operated several successful business including coppersmithing and paper manufacturing.  His profits allowed him to purchased several farms outside of Chambersburg in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  He kept a diary which chronicles just over the last year of his life while he was at home during the Civil War. William Heyser wrote but three entries related to vineyards and wine. Taken out of context they are simply interesting for the sheer frankness at the difficulties he faced.  To provide context, I have included additional diary entries because they highlight the weather, the destruction from the army, and the destruction from the insects.  You should certainly read the entire diary for an unbiased view.

William Heyser was clearly aware that his body was old and that he would die sooner rather than later yet he continued to work on his farm and in his garden.  He did so amongst the repeated damage from large camps of soldiers and cavalry maneuvers.  William Heyser noted the importance of birds in controlling the insect population but with the arrival of the Rebels a stench fell, the birds left, and the insects prospered.  His final entries are frank about his losing battle against weeds and caterpillars.

Chambersburg, PA during the Civil War. [2]

Chambersburg, PA during the Civil War. [2]

OCTOBER 4 [1862]
To my farm, find it too dry to plant anything. It will be a loss this year, for a good crop if there is no immediate rain.

OCTOBER 10 [1862]
Rain today. A great saving for the farmers who were facing a great drought.

OCTOBER 14 [1862]
Pleasant. Out to my farm to ascertain the damage done by the soldiers. Much fencing gone for fuel, and what corn they didn’t use, tried to burn. Many farmers without horses and at a loss to do any work. We find no buildings burned or occupants harmed.

NOVEMBER 5 [1862]
Cold and rough. At the farm to plant some grapes.

MARCH 9 [1863]
Damp and unpleasant. Spent time at bank and then to gas works. Attempted to make some wine, but fear it is all ruined, at this business I am not adept.

APRIL 27 [1863]
Beautiful day. Out to my farm with my colored man, Proctor, to set out some fruit trees. I am tired, doubt if I will see their fruit, but others will.

APRIL 28 [1863]
Clear and bright. Went again to the farm, this morning, put in some corn and potatoes. Also put up some bird boxes. I am fond of their presence and music, and useful to keeping off insects. They add charm to a country place.

JUNE 2 [1863]
Clear but windy. To my farm to work in my garden, the weeds are making rapid progress. Weeds are like sin, always giving trouble, and hard to exterminate.

JUNE 24 [1863]
Clear. The Rebels are active. They have closely kept plans, something is afoot. I was notified that a meeting with the principal citizens was requested to hear their demands.

I hear my tenant farmer, Thos. Miller, was shot at while plowing his corn. I have felt much concern for him, but cannot get thru the line.

JULY 2, 1863
The Rebels leaving their sick behind for us to nurse and care for. A few stragglers are to be seen, but the worst is over. We congratulate ourselves that we still have a roof over our heads. About 12, in the company of two other men, I walked out to my farm to assess the damage. Everywhere were holes cut in fences and grain trampled down by the exercises of the cavalry. I sustained a great amount of damage, nearly 4,000 men have encamped here. All of my fence gone, about 40 acres of oats and much damage to all other crops. My houses were all robbed of clothing and any kind of gear with which to work.

In passing over the fields and woods where they encamped, there is already a great stench.

JULY 5 [1863]
I notice that most of our birds have gone since the appearance of the Rebels, and that flies and insects are more numerous.

THURSDAY, JULY 23rd [1863]
To my farm, fences nearly all gone, will take perhaps $2,000 to repair damage to farm.

My wife and I to the farm. The weeds are unmanageable, the insects have taken all over.

Plague of caterpillars destroying my grapevines.

[November 5th, 1863]
[William Heyser died.]

[1] Franklin County: Diary of William Heyser (1862-1863). URL: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/FD1004
[2] Chambersburg. Civil War Image Database, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/govdoc/search_images.html).

Categories: History of Wine

A few drinks from our International Gold Cup weekend.

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment


Our weekend was dedicated to the International Gold Cup steeplechase held in Virginia.  Between hanging out at home with an old friend and drinking wine at the Gold Cup we went through a variety of wines.  It was a gorgeous, warm and sunny day at the races so I spent my time chatting and tasting.  Which meant I did not take any pictures.  So I have no clue, for example, of what the tasty Barbera d’Alba was we had during the day.  There was an elegant and crisp 2012 Failla, Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast.  Between the 2013 Justin, Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast and the 2012 Justin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, I preferred the later for being an unapologetically forward Californian wine.  The 2011 Chateau Lilian Ladouys, Saint-Estephe was an herbaceous, Merlot dominant wine that, like the Justin, disappeared before I could taste it again.   The most interesting bottles that I did save include the  2010 Castell d’Encus, Quest, Costers del Segre which is a Bordeaux blend sourced from high-altitude fruit in Spain.  The particular cool factor is that the fruit is fermented in 12th century stone vats located in a mountainside.  The resultant wine had herbaceous, brighter fruit with outstanding crunchy acidity.  The 2007 Mas de Boislauzon, Chateauneuf du Pape and 2007 Mas de Boislauzon, Tintot Special Cuvee, Chateauneuf du Pape were a fun pair.  The former is a Grenache dominated blend that showed secondary flavor complexity, good wood notes, herbs, all at a presently drinkable 13.5% alcohol.  The Special Cuvee is purely Mourvedre.  It possessed even less alcohol but packed more of a flavor punch of earthy fruit.  I think this cuvee might be aged a bit more.  The 2011 Crasto, Superior, Douro showed more polish from oak aging but came across as muted compared to the regular Douoro bottling that is both floral and flavorful.  Finally, the 2008 Alice Bonaccorsi, Val Cerasa, Etna Rosso did not appear to have too many fans.  This is primarily Nerello Mascalese with some Nerello Cappuccio in it.  I rather liked its earthy take and reasonable price so I will follow up on this wine by drinking another bottle at a later date.


Plan and pictures of the caves of Moet et Chandon circa 1896.

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Fig 1. Plan des caves basses. [1]

Fig 1. Plan des caves basses. [1]

Historic images related to Moet & Chandon have appeared in this blog before under the subject of the 1899 harvest description.  In this post I simply present a fantastic plan of the centuries old caves of Moet & Chandon.  I have spared description but from the plan I believe you may determine which sections are older and which are newer.  I have also included two images from the same period.  If you look close you may see how they were electrified.  I must admit, I wish the bottles in my basement continued along the wall as far as I could see.

Fig. 2. Vue d'une cave haute. [1]

Fig. 2. Vue d’une cave haute. [1]

Fig 4. Bouteilles entrayees et ouvrier en travail devant un pupitre. [1]

Fig 4. Bouteilles entrayees et ouvrier en travail devant un pupitre. [1]

[1] Ferrouillat and Charvet. Les Celliers Construction et Materiel Vinicole. 1896. Gallica, Bibliotheque Numerique.


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