Home > History of Wine > “[E]ach grape was [c]ut off with scissors!” The early bottled vintages of Chateau Lafite

“[E]ach grape was [c]ut off with scissors!” The early bottled vintages of Chateau Lafite


Mabel Hubbard Bell, the wife of Alexander Graham Bell, visited Bordeaux during the summer of 1888.[1]  She wrote how “We have been buying a lot of wine here…some of it is really delicious.”  She was not just buying wine, she was visiting estates.  Her father’s wine merchant was also the agent of Baron Rothschild.  As a result her tour of Bordeaux included the Rothschild properties.  She wrote down rather specific details such that each vine bore 25 to 30 bunches of grapes and that the leaves are treated four or five times against mildew with sulphate of copper.  She was impressed how the horses and oxen never tread on the grapes “and none ever make a mistake even in the difficult operation of turning out of one row into another”.  From the Rothschild’s stock she even “bought some wine of such a fine quality that each grape was [c]ut off with scissors!”

Page 5. Letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Eliza Symonds Bell, June 23, 1888. [1]

Page 5. Letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Eliza Symonds Bell, June 23, 1888. [1]

At “Chateau Lafitte” the “Baron’s private cellars” were divided into four longer corridors with “bottled wine of different brands” that were valued at $200,000.  These bottles were given away by family to friends.  Another cellar contained three corridors with 162 casks per corridor or 486 casks of wine.  However, the most interesting description falls to the “sample cellar”.  This contained “sample bottles” from every vintage beginning with 1798.  Sample cellar seems to imply samples of Chateau Lafite wine.  Whether this means chateau-bottle wine instead of merchant bottle wine is not clear.  Unfortunately, the number of bottles of each vintage is not stated.

In Cyril Ray’s Lafite (1985) appears the section “The Earliest chateau-bottled Lafite?” where the vintages of 1846 and 1797 were variously stated as the first chateau-bottled Lafite according to the unsubstantiated accounts of Warner Allen and Andre Simon.  The vintage of 1846 had been stated as the first Chateau-bottle Lafite as early as 1920 and I wonder if Clarets and Sauternes was Andre Simon’s authority.[2]  Warner Allen moved from 1846 back to 1797 as the first bottled vintage for unstated reasons in A History of Wine (1961).  At the Heublein auction of 1971 it was stated 1846 was the first bottled vintage.[3]  The use of the later vintage could be simply due to the two bottles of 1846 Lafite that were included in the auction!  It is perhaps due to unearthed documentation that the vintage was shifted back to 1797.  This vintage also survived in bottle for Clive Coates MW writes in Grand Vin (1995) that 1797 “is the earliest vintage remaining in the Lafite vinotheque.”

Page 6. Letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Eliza Symonds Bell, June 23, 1888. [1]

Page 6. Letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Eliza Symonds Bell, June 23, 1888. [1]

Cyril Ray writes that according to records there were no chateau-bottlings between 1885-1906 and that 1876-1885 were the phylloxera years.  That the 1797 bottling may have been “an isolated experiment, and that for the next half-century bottling was by Bordeaux and by English merchants.”  Mabel Hubbard Bell wrote that there were sample bottles “from each years vintage beginning with the year 1798.”  Could Mabel Hubbard Bell’s samples represent chateau-bottled Lafite albeit in small amounts?  Could the 1797 vintage lying in the vinotheque be the same at Mabel Hubbard Bell’s sample bottle of 1798?  What happened to all of the other sample bottled vintages?


[1] Letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Eliza Symonds Bell, June 23. MSS51268: Folder: Eliza Symonds Bell, Family Correspondence, Mabel Hubbard Bell, 1888-1890. Library of Congress Manuscript Division. URL: http://www.loc.gov/item/magbell.02800701/
[2] The Wine and Spirit Trade Record. Clarets and Sauternes. 1920. URL: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7143159M/Clarets_and_sauternes
[3] “1846 Lafite to captivate bidders.” Press release of Heublein, Inc. ca. 1971. URL: http://iwrdb.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=23007

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